Islam teaches that men and women are equally capable of attaining the highest level of spirituality, and that both will be judged on equal terms by God. The teachings of Islam protect and defend the rights of a woman; she has the right to demand dignified treatment by all people — men included. She has the right to voice her opinion, and the value of that opinion is judged upon the same merits and criteria afforded to men.
When men or women pray in jammat (group prayer service), they stand in a straight line, and squeeze together tightly enough to touch shoulder to shoulder. This unity in worship — following the person leading the prayer — allows the individual to maintain his or her focus on the Divine. One would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim woman who would prefer to prostrate in prayer beside, behind, or in front of a man she does not know. With this in mind, Ms. Nomani’s book tour and campaign to integrate the prayer areas in America’s mosques is self-serving at best, and divisive at worst.
It would be disingenuous to state that women are not marginalized in some American Muslim communities. This is most often due to cultural attitudes and behaviors brought over from patriarchal societies abroad, not from the teachings of Islam. However, with that said, I believe there are just as many American Muslim mosques that have grown out of their ethnic roots to establish a more just and dynamic community that embraces the role of women in the leadership of the mosque and the greater society.
The American Muslim faith community has many female leaders. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the current President of the Islamic Society of North America is a good example of a practicing Muslim woman who has been elected by her peers to lead the largest Muslim organization in America. She did not get to her position of leadership and scholarship through media hype or press conferences. Rather, she gained the respect of Muslim men and women through her intellect, wisdom and quiet perseverance to change what she and most American Muslim women see as problems within the incredibly diverse and relatively young faith community in the United States. Hadia Mubarak, (briefly shown speaking in the film) routinely defends the rights of women in Muslim society, often to the chagrin of the established Muslim leadership. Hadia is far more effective in bringing about change of attitudes through her erudition and experience than she would be by sensationalizing and scandalizing the people she seeks to enlighten. The film also depicts another dynamic Muslim leader, Edina Lekovic. Ms. Lekovic works tirelessly for the American Muslim community through her work with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and she does so without labeling or humiliating the Muslim community she serves.
The above-mentioned women are examples of leadership displayed all across the country by Muslim women of every ethnicity, age, and socio-economic background; we just don’t see them on television, or the New York Times Bestseller List. They are women who are changing the status quo at American mosques; they are working behind the scenes to establish domestic violence support services for immigrant women, they are running food pantries in the inner cities, they are teachers in Islamic schools–teaching tolerance and love for their neighbor. These Muslim women are homemakers and engineers, they are doctors and lawyers, and they are bankers and nurses. These women do not seek notoriety or fame; instead they are integrating into a society that often misunderstands them, and even sometimes pities them unnecessarily. Still, Muslim American women persevere, having faith in God and faith in the future of the American Muslim society as it matures and grows.
Kari Ansari is Editor-in-Chief of America’s Muslim Family Magazine, based in Chicago. Mrs. Ansari was born and educated in the United States, and is a convert to Islam. She has been an active member of the Muslim community for a dozen years, working toward the positive inclusion of Muslims into the mainstream American society. Her four children range in age from 20 to 7. She and her husband, Ahmed, a native of India, live in the suburbs of Chicago, IL, with their children.