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.”

AMWA Hosts White Plains talk by Faith Club


(Original publication: June 7, 2007)
WHITE PLAINS – The Faith Club started small, uncertain, frightened.
Its three members – one Jew, one Christian, one Muslim – had shaky holds on their own faiths (and mostly apprehension about the other two).

But they were living in the post-9/11 world and pushed on, writing a book about their awkward and rewarding relationships – a flesh-and-blood example of what interfaith understanding means. They called the book “The Faith Club.”

And now the club grows, town by town, city by city, as its three original members travel the country to talk about their lives and sign their books. Yesterday, they came to the YWCA in White Plains to address the Westchester-based American Muslim Women’s Association, a group that also formed in the months after 9/11.

They described a journey that many could relate to, starting from pretty much nowhere.

“It was news to me that Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham, as Jews and Christians do,” said Suzanne Oliver of New York City, the Christian member.

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.”