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.
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.