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.