Making their voices heard

BY MARY VOBORIL
STAFF WRITER

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.