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.

Continued from page 1

1:30 p.m. Practical Spirituality?

So much of what the women here are grappling with here is exhausting and draining. And so a session on spirituality with six noted Sufi Muslims seems just the ticket to helping the conference participants replenish their spiritual well.

The Sufi scholars on stage almost seem like they live in a different, ethereal world. They look like they’re high on God, and they want to help us achieve that feeling. Do they know some spiritual secret that we don’t?

As women line up to ask questions of the panelists, Fareena Alam, managing editor of England’s Q-News magazine, poses a question that ignites the women while mystifying the Sufi scholars: “[Muslim] youth in England are angrier and angrier. And the word on the street is ‘Don’t join a gang, become a terrorist.’ " How do we reach out to these kids? Alam asks.

After Alam, another woman ups the ante by asking the Sufi scholars, "How do we develop practical spirituality to help us in our daily lives?" Here’s a real problem: Can we reach disenfranchised Muslim youth with practical spirituality? How do we teach youth that Islam is a tolerant, loving, spiritual religion?

The Sufi panelists recite beautiful passages in melodious voices and list names of influential Sufi scholars and masters for us to study and emulate. But it’s not the answer that Alam, and the rest of the women, are looking for. Alam later says to me that Sufi meditation, though nice, is not going to make a difference with angry Muslim youth. “We’ve got to figure out how to show them a different way,” she says.

3:40 p.m. The Hijab Controversy

I look at the schedule, and all it says is "ijtihad," which means exercising personal judgment on issues based on the Qur’an and sunnah. But it’s a loaded word, because every Muslim does ijtihad with varying results.

Take the matter of the hijab. Daisy Khan, the conference organizer, is the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. She doesn’t wear hijab, and has said in interviews that she made that decision after doing ijtihad and coming to the conclusion that she dresses and acts modestly without having to cover her hair.

For others, doing ijtihad of those verses in the Qur’an and the hadith passages that pertain to modest dress has resulted in the choice to wear a headscarf (or a burkha, or even a niqab, or face veil). And this brings up an interesting dilemma: One woman asks the panel of Islamic law and Qur’an scholars for their opinion on the by-now well-known comment of Jack Straw, a member of British parliament who last month said the face veil is a “visible statement of separation and of difference” and asked women visiting him to consider removing it.

Panelist Ziba Mir Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist and expert on family law, reveals to the conference participants that “I agree with Jack Straw.” Even more surprising, half of the audience breaks out in applause. Wearing the niqab impedes communication, Hosseini says, adding that if someone in her classroom is wearing one, she asks the student to remove it. When a woman goes to Mecca to perform the Hajj, her face must be uncovered, Hosseini points out.

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