AMWA Marks Anniversary with Dinner

By Brian J. Howard

The Journal News • November 3, 2008

CORTLANDT – That some Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim dismays Zakia Mahasa, but not so much as the implication behind the misperception.

“And if he were, so what?” asked Mahasa, the first Muslim woman appointed judge in an American court, prior to last night’s anniversary dinner of the American Muslim Women’s Association.

“That’s one of the things that I like about this organization,” she said. “It’s standing out there saying: ‘Yes, we’re Muslim. Yes, we have something to give the community. Our existence is a positive.’ ”

Mahasa has been a Baltimore master in chancery – the equivalent of a magistrate judge in New York – since 1997. She was invited to address AMWA’s annual awards dinner.

The Briarcliff Manor-based group was founded to increase public understanding of Islam and fight misconceptions in the media.

“It was just a few women,” said Ola Nosseir of Briarcliff Manor, who chaired the event’s planning committee. “We got together after 9/11 and said: ‘All Muslim women are not in burqas. We’re not all stupid, not uneducated.’ And that’s the image we need to show people.”

The dinner honored individuals who have supported the organization’s community outreach and education programs, including interfaith outreach efforts, which include visiting churches and synagogues across the tri-state area, said its president, Fozia Kahn of Armonk.

Honorees included Katharine Charleston, director of social studies for the Ossining school district; Camille Murphy, director of the Westchester County Office for Women; and the Rev. Steve Phillips, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Pleasantville.

Mahasa said she was impressed with the organization, calling it a prototype for others like it. While Muslim women are treated as subordinates to men in some countries, she said, such treatment is a societal problem and not in keeping with Islamic teaching on women’s roles, which are very much in tandem with core American values of equality.

Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, AMWA chairwoman, said that much work remains as misperceptions persist and that the media play a role in that.

When Hassan speaks at various forums, she’ll often ask how many people are of German origin and how they’d feel if they were categorized as Nazis. It typically elicits a sudden awareness of the parallel for Muslim women, she said.

“The perception is still there that we are not professional women,” Hassan added. “And for that reason this platform was important, to show that we are engineers, we are doctors, lawyers, nurses. We have all different women who are represented. We have to work very hard. We have been, but a lot of work needs to be done.”