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.”

Spiritually Speaking

God’s October Surprise

(Source: White Plains Watch)

In a series of events, Westchester faith communities are noting the rare confluence of religious events during October and November. It has been named “God’s October Surprise,” which refers to the proximity on the 2005 calendar of significant holy days in different traditions. The Muslim sacred month of Ramadan, the Jewish sacred month of Tishrei (which includes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and the Christian World Communion and feast of St. Francis all occur at the beginning of October. The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, a leader in interfaith dialog has identified this confluence, or coming together as an invitation for members of different religious organizations to pray with or alongside each other and to work together for peace, justice, human rights, and the healing of our wounded Earth.

As part of ongoing activities, on Oct. 2, Memorial United Methodist Church, on Bryant Avenue, hosted a special service for World Communion Sunday. The service was capped off with the planting of a Peace Pole during an interfaith ceremony. Prayers around the Peace Pole came from several religious backgrounds. A traditional Jewish prayer was spoken by Julie CafTan, Interfaithful of ‘Congregation Kol Ami. There was an Iraqi prayer for peace, a Buddhist meditation by Bernadette Pye from the Memorial Meditation Sangha, and a Quor’an reading by Zena Mikdadi of the American Muslim Women’s Association.

The message on the Peace Pole, which says “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” was read by children in each of the different languages presented on the Pole- Arabic, Hebrew, Kru, Spanish, English, Korean, Dutch and Wampanoag. Over 200,000 Peace Poles, which act as silent prayer and messages for world peace, have been planted in 180 countries around the world.

The Feast of St. Francis, a Christian monk who opposed the Crusades, learned from Muslim teacher and was deeply dedicated to kinship with the earth and living creatures; was celebrated Oct. 2 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Harrison.

Continuing “God’s October Surprise,” on Oct. 13, from sunrise to sunset on a day that for Muslims is one of the fast days of Ramadan, and for Jews is the fast day of Yom Kippur, Americans of all religious; ethical and spiritual communities are called to observe a Fast for Reflection, Repentance and Renewal. People of all faiths are called to join creatively in this Multi-religious Day of Fasting in their of way, and take visible steps to seek peace, feed the poor, or heal the earth.

Other celebrations open to the public during “God’s October Surprise” include Breaking of the Fast Dinner (Iftar), Oct. 16, sponsored by the American Muslim Women’s Association. This event is held annually and will take place at sunset in Yonkers. Reservations were requested by Oct. 1. For more information, call Zena Mikdadi, (914) 693-0920, or write, and leave your name and address.

Sukkot, Oct. 18 to19, marks the Jewish feast of ingathering. Sukkot celebrates the yield of the harvest and the abundance of blessings, while acknowledging the fragility of life. During this time the homeless and many others on this planet whose “permanent” dwelling is less secure than the sukkah (fragile and temporary booth) we dwell in for this week are remembered. On Oct. 17 Sukkot will be celebrated at Congregation Kol Ami, 252 Soundview Ave., White Plains. Call 949-4717, ext.111 for more information.

In the first two weeks of November, a cultural series, “The Spirit of Andalusia,” will celebrate a harmony that existed among Jews, Muslims and Christians in medieval Spain. Contact: for scheduled cultural events around Westchester County to which the public is invited. On Nov. 5, a Hungry Ghost Ceremony will be held at the Empty Hand Zen Center, at Community Unitarian Church, 468 Rosedale Ave. ( In this traditional fall ceremony in the Zen Buddhist tradition, offerings are set out to feed the “hungry ghosts”-the representation of insatiable greed and neediness. Participants have the opportunity to acknowledge their own clinging and greed, and thus begin the release of suffering. Bring small offerings of seasonal fruit for the “hungry ghosts” as well as some canned or packaged food for the hungry humans (to be distributed at a local food pantry). School-age children are welcome.

Making their voices heard


October 6, 2005

Daisy Khan isn’t surprised to find that Islamic women began organizing in the days after 9/11, even in such far-flung states as South Dakota and Minnesota.

But she is surprised that, given the ever-more-public concerns they share as Muslim women, “we haven’t all come together before now. Because I’m finding that much of what I am thinking, others are thinking the same thing.”

A major coming together of Muslim women in the United States, however, may take place sometime in 2006 at an ambitious, first-of-its-kind conference that Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, a non-profit foundation, has just begun to organize.

In large part, she said, “It’s an effort for women to get together to realize they have a joint mission: We have not had a voice. This is an effort by women to have a voice in the interpretation of Quranic law instead of leaving it up to a bunch of scholars who are not looking at the Muslim woman’s viewpoint.

“Most of the laws have been interpreted by, you know … not women. The goal is to really undo a paradigm that has existed for centuries. Muslim women have been the missing component in this debate,” although they often find themselves as Exhibit One in that very same debate.

Although the conference still is in its early planning stages, Khan’s aim is to muster a “fairly substantive” international forum, “bringing together thoughtful Muslim voices from different spheres – academic, activist, practitioner, women leaders.”

Hungry for unity

Among those helping organize the event is Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group, which has offices in Los Angeles and Washington.

“I have longed for this type of conference to take place because Muslim women leaders are working in isolation. We are few and we are scattered,” Lekovic said – so few and so scattered “there is no directory of Muslim women’s groups, even though we know there are dozens.”

A successful conference, she said, could morph into momentum for a national or even international Islamic women’s coalition. Already, she said, “Many Muslim women are standing up and saying, ‘We are going to take back our own identity and define ourselves.'”

No hard numbers of Islamic women’s groups may exist, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, but, “They are multiplying all over the place. After 9/11, several started, most of it for solidarity, because of the demonization of Islam and the fact that Muslim men were under the camera, basically, under FBI scrutiny.

“They began to have meetings for prayer, for Quranic studies. In some places, they began to strategize on how to address the American people, because there was great demand to learn more about Islam.

“In a sense, it forced them to start looking at themselves as Muslims rather than Arabs or Pakistanis or something else, because the American public began to look at them as Muslims.”

Women also became the “spokespeople of Islam,” she said, elucidating their faith in churches and elsewhere.

A history of sisterhood

Some Islamic women’s groups were founded long before 9/11. The California-based Muslim Women’s League, for example, has been around since 1992; and Karamah, or Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, was founded in 1993. Asma Ejaz, head of the Islamic Center of Long Island’s Committee for Domestic Harmony, said it was formally organized 12 years ago, although its work with battered women began even before that.

Aisha al-Adawiya, executive director of Women in Islam, said her group was founded in 1992 and has a “heavy interfaith component,” including a breaking of the Ramadan fast that was to take place last night in Brooklyn.

In contrast, Queens-based Turning Point, which assists battered women, was founded just this year. And Sunera Rahman, secretary of the American Muslim Women’s Association, Briarcliff Manor, says it was founded shortly after 9/11 to “reach out to our immediate neighbors in an interfaith way to break down some myths and stereotypes about women in Islam in the media,” among other things.

“We get a very bad image out there, that we are oppressed and suppressed,” she said – an image countered by Saudi women during a recent and widely reported visit to Jedda, Saudi Arabia, by Karen Hughes, U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy.

Khan’s group will host a women-only potluck dinner, or iftar, to break the Ramadan fast. Ramadan, a time of worship and contemplation that began this week, lasts a month. During this time, Muslims may not eat or drink during the daylight hours.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

Westchester Muslims to pay tribute to leaders


(Original publication: June 15, 2005)

For the first time, Westchester’s Muslim community will honor its top leaders and student volunteers. A ceremony will be held at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Scarsdale Public Library.

“We want to pull the community together and motivate others to get involved,” said Asad Jilani, a board member of the Interreligious Council of New Rochelle, who helped organize the awards ceremony. “The Muslim community really wants to give something back to the community. It’s important that we show people what others have done.”

Groups participating are: two mosques, the Westchester Muslim Center of Mount Vernon and the Thornwood-based Upper Westchester Muslim Society; a planned Muslim center in Yorktown, the Hudson Valley Community Center; two schools, the Islamic School of Upper Westchester in Mount Kisco and the Andalusia School of Mount Vernon; and two advocacy groups, the Westchester American Muslim Association and the American Muslim Women’s Association.

The community leaders who will be honored are:

• Dr. Saleem Mir of Cortland Manor, medical director of Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow. He is a past president of the Westchester Muslim Center and a founder of the Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding, based in Irvington.

• Omar Rangenewala of Yonkers, a recent graduate of SUNY Stony Brook. He has been a Westchester coordinator for the Young Muslims organization since 1995.

• Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of Pleasantville, a senior attending plastic surgeon at St. John Riverside Hospital in Yonkers and Phelps Memorial Hospital Center. She is a founder of the Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding and the American Muslim Women’s Association.

• Syed Alirahi of Elmsford, a private businessman. He is a past president of the Westchester Muslim Center and is active in the Islamic School of Upper Westchester.

• Zeeshan Qadir of Chappaqua. A recent graduate of Pace University, he organized interfaith programs there and a program on “Islam and Democracy.”

The students being honored are:

• Fahad Gilani, 16, of New Rochelle. He has participated in a mentoring program at New Rochelle High School and volunteered at the HOPE soup kitchen in New Rochelle.

• Anas Shohal, 17, of Rye Brook. He is active in the Westchester Muslim Center youth group.

• Nasser Mikdadi, 16, of Dobbs Ferry. He has participated in several interfaith events and has helped create Web sites for the American Muslim Women’s Association, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and others.

• Sida Javed, 17, of Cortland Manor. She is on the board of the Ossining-based Interfaith Youth Corps and is Young Muslims coordinator at her high school.

• Saif Khan, 17, of Armonk. He has been involved in several interfaith programs.

• Saaniya Contractor, 15, of Chappaqua. She is a founder of the Young Muslims girls group in Westchester.

• Ayesha Khan, 15, of Armonk. She has been a member of the Walking Together interfaith program and recites the Quran in churches and synagogues.

Seeking common ground for faith


(Original publication: June 3, 2005)

The very idea of what constitutes an Islamic society has become so convoluted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf hopes to devise a quirky, almost subversive way of measuring true commitment to Sharia, or Islamic law.

He wants to develop a Sharia Compliance Index of Nations.

He’s working with Muslim scholars to create a list of criteria for an Islamic society. Does a given nation, for instance, have an independent judiciary and programs for those in need? Does it treat women well? How about minorities?

“This index will de-link the notion of Islamic society from a demographic definition to one based on principles of governance,” Rauf, 56, said yesterday in Yonkers, where he addressed an interfaith gathering convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association.

Such an index could find that a few self-defined Islamic nations do not exactly come up to code. It’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking for which Rauf has become known.

“Our religious teachings are against the notion of a class society,” he said. “The idea that we are all equal is a fundamental teaching.”

Rauf is one of the most recognized Islamic leaders in the U.S., known as much for his ability to draw links between the three Abrahamic faiths as for his explanations of the changes in the Muslim world. He is the leader of Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque located 12 blocks from Ground Zero, and is the founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the first U.S. group focused on strengthening ties between Muslims and non-Muslims in his adopted country.

He is involved in so many interfaith activities that he can’t help dropping the names of leading rabbis and priests to whom he has talked. While answering questions at the Nyauta Indian restaurant, he showed an understanding of Jewish and Catholic history and even some knowledge of the latest research on the psychology of spiritually.

In other words, he’s the kind of Muslim leader to whom America’s interfaith veterans can relate.

“He gave us some real points of departure, different ways to think about Islam,” said Rabbi Amiel Wohl, who cofounded the Interreligious Council of New Rochelle in 1975. “We see the genuflecting, but he explains that Islam has principles that can speak to our time.”

Scholars talk about what Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common, but Rauf has a way of driving it home. All three religions, he said, are grounded in the same two commandments: that people must love God and treat thy neighbor as thyself.

Islam can even condense the two into one commandment, he said: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

Rauf, a native of Kuwait, said that American Muslims are trying to craft an American identity that is true to the faith. It’s a process that takes three generations, he said.

But no one should doubt, he said, that Muslims feel at home in a country where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are God-given rights.

“Because the rights are given to us by the creator, they can only be revoked by God,” he said.

These days, Rauf is leading the Cordoba Initiative, an interfaith effort to improve relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. He’s starting to bring together young Muslim leaders, ages 25 to 42, to talk about the future of the American Muslim community. And he’s involved in a dialogue with Muslim and Jewish leaders.

“He really believes it in his heart,” said the Rev. Stephen Holton of St. Paul on the Hill Episcopal Church in Ossining. “It’s not some far-out vision for the future. Interfaith understanding is a reality. You just have to make it that way.”

Zena Mikdadi of Dobbs Ferry, president of the American Muslim Women’s Association, which is primarily a Westchester group said Rauf has set out an ambitious agenda for American Muslims.

“He believes that this is our work,” she said. “We have to reach out to the general public, which was not interested about us before, and we also have a duty to reach out to the rest of the world. We’ll start at home, in Westchester.”

Teachers get lessons on Islam and Arab world


(Original publication: March 20, 2005)

PURCHASE — The teachers were gathered at round tables, answering a quiz about the Jewish scripture, the New Testament and the Quran. They were asked to match the holy book with the quotations, which included references to Adam in the garden, Moses parting the sea and the immaculate conception of Mary. To the surprise of some, the correct match for all of the above was the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
“For most people, this quiz serves as a wake-up call,” said Audrey Shabbas, who led the workshop, “Teaching about the Arab World and Islam,” at Manhattanville College in Purchase yesterday. “When talking about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we’re talking about connections, not just similarities.”

Shabbas’ organization, the Arab World and Islamic Resources, conducts workshops nationwide to help educators understand Arab culture and history, as well as Islamic faith, and to bring that knowledge into the classroom.

The workshop included discussions about geography, the different populations of Muslims, and the connections between Arabs and Muslims and the United States.

Many of the 21 teachers who participated were history teachers, but others taught elementary school or art and came to the workshop to learn more about the traditions of the Muslim and Arab students in their schools.

Theresa Kubasak, who teaches second grade at a Manhattan school, said she wanted to learn more about her students’ backgrounds.

“It validates the kids’ cultures who are sitting in my classroom,” she said. “I have all kinds of kids who have experienced war and racism. They deserve to have a teacher who understands their culture.”

Louise Kuklis, an economics and global studies teacher at Edgemont High School, wanted to tackle her own assumptions and misconceptions.

“Ever since Sept. 11,” she said, “kids have had so many questions. They’re always wondering what is this religion that terrorism comes from. I’m trying to give them awareness of Muslim society.”

The American Muslim Women’s Association, based in Briarcliff Manor, sponsored the second annual workshop because members felt Islamic and Arab studies were missing from their own children’s education in Westchester schools.

Association President Zena Mikdadi said her son was often asked to speak about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to fellow students at Dobbs Ferry High School.

Ola Nosseir, a native of Egypt, had the same feeling in her sons’ classrooms.

“We hope they (the teachers) go back and impart the knowledge to their students and feel more confident about teaching,” she said. “You can’t teach if you don’t know.”

Muslims call for tsunami aid

(Original publication: January 18, 2005)

MOUNT VERNON — Muslim leaders who gathered to pray last night for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami sounded what may become a familiar theme: Financial aid to South Asia will have to be continued for long after the disaster fades from headlines.
“It may take 20 or 30 years of relief efforts to get these communities established,” said Abdus-Salaam Musa, an official with INCA Relief, a Muslim humanitarian group that has sent workers and supplies to several of the affected countries.

The American Muslim Women’s Association, a Westchester-based group, organized last night’s hastily planned service at the Westchester Muslim Center to spur Muslims to reflect on the meaning of the tsunami — and to plant the seed that donations will be necessary for years.

“A catastrophe like this has to wake us up,” said Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of Pleasantville, chairwoman of the American Muslim Women’s Association. “Have we changed our lives in any way since the tsunami happened or have we gone back to our old ways? It has shown us that life is so precious, so short, it can be gone in a blink of an eye.”

Yasser El-Safadi, president of the Thornwood-based Upper Westchester Muslim Society, said that the tsunami should be a wake-up call to individuals and nations.

“If you are the same before and after, you have missed something important,” he said.

The tsunami is very much a Muslim tragedy, as the most devastated nation is Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other nation. About 185 million of the country’s 220 million people are Muslim.

Indonesia lost more than 115,000 people. Overall, the tsunami killed 163,000 people in 11 countries.

Many regions of Indonesia are known to be very religious. Despite the chaos caused by the tsunami, an estimated 200,000 Indonesians are this week making the hajj, the great Muslim pilgrimage through the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.

Dr. Shafi Bezar, chairman of the Westchester Muslim Center, which has raised $10,000 in donations so far, said that people of all faiths should find common ground in aiding survivors of the disaster.

“This is a human tragedy,” he said.

Several speakers said that a great challenge would be to keep South Asia in the news as the months pass, so that people continue to write checks.

“We cannot forget our brothers and sisters throughout the world who have been affected by this for many years to come, not just the foreseeable future,” said Ola Nosseir of Briarcliff Manor, communications director for the American Muslim Women’s Association.

The American Muslim Women’s Association, in conjunction with the Center for Jewish-Christian-Muslim Understanding, is sponsoring an interfaith forum about the tsunami on Jan. 30, at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, 701 N. Broadway, Sleepy Hollow. The program will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and will cost $10. For information, call 914-591-8194.

Restoring faith in Islam

(Original publication: September 19, 2004)

DOBBS FERRY — Until three years ago, Zena Mikdadi was a housewife who had given up a career as a civil engineer to raise three children. Life revolved around taking the children to school and baseball practice, hosting dinner parties and taking part in PTA meetings.

Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

As images of the terror attacks filled television screens, networks and newspapers identified the perpetrators as Islamic terrorists who had vowed vengeance against America. Islam was in the eye of the storm and it was being seen as a religion of violence.

“Watching the news day in and day out, the way they were representing Islam, it was hurting us,” said Mikdadi, 45, of Dobbs Ferry, whose Palestinian origins and Islamic faith had always been private matters. “I thought ‘What can I do to dispel the myth?’ ”

That was three years ago. Today, Mikdadi is part of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a committed group that was brought into the public sphere by their shared anguish at the way Islam was being perceived.

“Since 9/11, a large part of our community got energized,” said Sunera Rahman, 33, an environmental scientist. “It was a wake-up call. I joined AMWA because I wanted to make a difference.”

This month, AMWA celebrates its second anniversary with a dinner today at the Scarsdale Congregational Church. Articles by women from Jordan, Egypt, Senegal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and by Palestinian women will be auctioned and the money used to fund AMWA’s work. Discussions will also be held about women in Islam.

In their work, AMWA members — housewives, doctors, accountants, environmentalists and biologists — visit schools, churches, clubs and classrooms to tell people that Islam is a progressive religion, committed to peace and women’s rights. They also talk about the commonality between Islam and Christianity.

AMWA does not talk about terrorism, telling the audience that the issue is political, not religious, and they do not wish to discuss it.

The going isn’t always easy. Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, AMWA’s chairperson and a plastic surgeon, said she is frequently challenged during her presentations. If Islam respects women’s rights, people ask, then why aren’t women in Saudi Arabia allowed to drive, or why do they have to wear a veil?

“They confuse the religion of Islam with the culture of Saudi Arabia,” said Hassan who points out that women rode camels, the prevailing mode of transport during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and that women were successful businesswomen and preachers. In recent times, Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister of Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri is president of Indonesia and Khaleda Zia is prime minister of Bangladesh.

In her talks, Mikdadi dispels what she calls the seven myths about Islam: that women can’t drive, are forced to cover themselves, can’t divorce or choose their own husband, don’t have a right of inheritance, to education or to a career. Muslim women were given the right to divorce, own property, and to an education and career at a time when most women were chattel to their men and could not inherit or own property, she said. If some rights have been taken away, it’s because those countries are patriarchal societies in which women have traditionally been subservient, not because Islam says so.

“If you are dealing with an illiterate, submissive population, it is easy to impose your will,” especially if you invoke religion and take the teachings out of context, said Rahman, a Somers resident from Bangladesh.

Thousands of people in Westchester are hearing its message, AMWA said. Last year, the Ursuline School in New Rochelle invited Hassan to speak to their students after a teacher noticed a few girls express anger toward Muslim girls wearing head scarves.

During the past two years, invitations for AMWA to speak have grown, to up to four a week. The members have also been honored by community groups and inter-faith organizations. “If we didn’t touch some people’s heart, we wouldn’t get more invitations to speak,” said Rahman.

Reach Hema Easley at or 914-696-8229.Reach Hema Easley at or 914-696-8229.