The Power of Muslim Women

The most influential Muslim women from around the world hashed out the problems of the Muslim world. Now comes the solutions.

It's hardly news that the Muslim world is under the global microscope and is embroiled in a fierce inter-faith and intra-faith struggle. Every day Muslim issues are fodder for the daily news: The problem of extremism, the hijab controversy in Europe, the emergence of an “American Islam,” and the struggles (and triumphs) of Muslim women to exercise the rights that their religion grants them.

It is the latter issue that led the ASMA Society (American Society for Muslim Advancement) to gather more than 100 of the savviest, smartest, most motivated, and influential Muslim women from around the world for the first Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity (WISE) conference. They met on a November weekend at a hotel in New York’s Times Square to gather courage from each other, create a positive change in the Muslim world, and develop a women’s council to issue religious opinions.

Beliefnet’s Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali attended the conference and offers reflections on the weekend in this blog.


Saturday, Nov. 18
8:30 a.m. Under the Microscope

All the influential Muslim women I’ve ever wanted to meet are in this conference hall for two jam-packed days of networking, speeches, arguments, dialogue, and brainstorming. One look at the list of panelists (everyone from Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim women to be elected to the British House of Lords, to Ingrid Mattson, the Islamic Society of North America’s first women president, is here) and the things they will be discussing, and I know that something big is about to happen.

The women are excited and ready for the long day ahead. One thought permeates the room: Let’s get it on.

11:40 a.m. Agreeing to Disagree

Here’s a fact non-Muslims may be unaware of: Muslims don’t all practice their religion in the same way. I’m listening to a fascinating group of Muslim women leaders discussing ways to empower yourself. And on the stage sits Ingrid Mattson, the recently elected first women president of the Islamic Society of North America. She has described her rise to the top, but the questions she's fielding have little to do with women's self-empowerment.

Since becoming ISNA’s president, Mattson has received praise from most Muslims for her trail-blazing achievement. But she's also had her share of detractors from some Muslim women, who feel her more conservative stance on female imams and women-led prayers doesn’t make her the best example of a progressive Muslim woman.

But Mattson is a pro at answering a question without stoking controversy. When a questioner asks her to share her beliefs on female imams (Mattson doesn’t support the idea), she points the audience to her position paper online, and explains that she bases her viewpoint on the sunnah (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad.

The audience is getting nervous, knowing that this could turn into a showdown between progressive and moderate feminist ideas. The next woman asks Mattson to explain her views on women leading mixed-gender prayers (she opposes it), and Mattson again successfully deflects controversy by urging the conferees to agree to disagree: “Some women lead prayer, others choose not to. Can we be okay with it? Women should be allowed to have the same success and failures.

“I just want a level playing field,” Mattson says. I couldn’t agree more.

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