This is a guest post by Dilshad A. Ali.

Returning home from any conference, there is a time of decompression and processing, as I am doing at my home in Virginia. I just wrapped up three intense days at the WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity) 2009 conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, couched between four days of exhaustive travel. Jet lag? Don’t get me started.

The reach of this conference was certainly ambitious, and if I can sum it up in one sentence (which is probably doing injustice to the goals of WISE), it was to bring together powerful Muslim women from all over the world to share best practices, network, develop partnerships and learn effective ways to further the causes and improve the situation of Muslim women (through a new scholarly interpretation of sacred text, philanthropic work, leadership, communication and through action).

WISE is the brainchild of ASMA (American Society for Muslim Advancement), run by Daisy Khan, a force of nature and global-thinking leader. I’ve been tracking her career at ASMA for a number of years and watched the WISE initiative grow from an idea to its current formation as an agent of change. But with that wide-reaching, ambitious goals comes inherent challenges and difficulties-especially when you have nearly 200 powerful Muslim women from about 50 countries butting heads (and sharing ideas and thoughts) in the same room.

Some highlights:

  • The introduction of the WISE portal, a fabulous website (in beta version, but will be live in the next two months I’m told) that will feature WISE projects, information about the developing Muslim Women’s Fund and the WISE Shura council, projects Muslim women are engaging in, training models, and how to reach the “WISE women.”
  • Case studies from the “Change through Interpretation” session that reflected some of the amazing work Muslim women are doing to better the live of women through proper scriptural interpretation (about marriage, family life, gender equality).
  • Some truly useful skill-building sessions (how to run for political office, how to get your story/organization heard by the media, how to balance work with the rest of life).

And then were the areas needing improvement, which is indicative of these sorts of conference where you are trying to create a global initiative for change. When you’re trying to rally women from around the world around grand ideas and grand goals, it’s a difficult process that begets lots of expectations and ideas on how things should be done. Post-conference feedback was expected by the WISE organizers. But what they additionally got was a signed statement by a number of WISE participants on the last day citing a many concerns and suggestions for change, such as:

  • Greater transparency in all WISE projects, including what the new Shura council would be doing, how they would be doing it, and who would be involved, and how the Muslim Women’s Fund would function (and how money would be generated and disseminated).
  • A more diverse representation amongst the makeup of the Shura council and the case studies and panelists at the conference.
  • A more thorough vetting of who would be funding the WISE initiative (with some objecting to partial funding provided by the Rockefeller Brothers).
  • A more sophisticated, well-planned and organized strategy for agents of change that better incorporated the ideas and criticism of all invited participants.

I also came away from the conference with thoughts of what was great, what was useful, what needed further explanation, what should change, and what could be different. And perhaps if the WISE organizers had built in more time just to explore feedback and criticisms (as well as what worked), some of the participants wouldn’t have felt compelled to put forth a signed statement of concerns.

Looking at the hard work of Daisy Khan and her staff (as well as an incredible group of volunteers), I knew it was hard to hear this list of concerns. The women behind the statement were very respectful and appreciative of all the hard work the WISE organizers had put into the conference, but nevertheless there were some strong concerns.

It’s a delicate balance when you go forth with something of this magnitude involving such powerful women who are dealing with tough issues and are sometimes wary to put their name on something without knowing everything they are getting themselves into. Do you just, at some point, go ahead and do it, or do you seek more and more information and advice and work on perfecting the initiative before launching forth?

I came away learning lots, seeing how Muslim women are improving the situation for themselves in various countries and finding models that may be replicated in other areas. I also came away with a lot of questions and the need for clarification on what I could exactly do to help, and how everything would work. But that’s how it is when you launch an initiative of this magnitude with such huge (but necessary) goals.

WISE wants to help Muslim women help themselves. May Allah (SWT) help this initiative to work in the best way and reach women around the world. As Daisy said to me on the last day, “God does not compete against Himself. If we all want the same goal but have different ideas on how to achieve that goal, we are not competing against each other.”

Dilshad D. Ali is a writer and former editor for Beliefnet, where she wrote a previous article on last year’s WISE conference in New York City. See the official WISE 2009 website for more details.

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