Seeing the Film in Morgantown

by Parween Mascari

I am an Afghan-American woman born in Parkersburg, WV, and now living in Morgantown, WV.  Jokingly, I call myself a “halfghan.”

I went to the Morgantown screening of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN with the hope of learning more about Islam, the religion of my father, and also gaining more of an understanding of Asra Nomani’s struggle here in Morgantown.  Aside from the religious issues, I was also interested in how our small town would be depicted in a film involving such national-scale conflict.

What I got was a better understanding of Islam and of Asra Nomani’s struggle — and I left with a dedication to do whatever I can to improve the condition of women in Afghanistan, the land of my paternal ancestry.

I left the screening with tremendous respect for Islam and its practices, its focus on family, its eloquence and its traditions.  For the first time I thought about its strength and the struggle to hold onto its identity and its traditions in the face of the tremendous pressure of American pop culture.  I also left with a better understanding of how our particular mosque in Morgantown faces even greater challenges because of the great diversity of cultures, backgrounds, ideologies, and even languages of its membership.  I also realized that I have something in common with many members of the mosque solely by virtue of my Afghan appearance.  I can relate to the fears expressed by the panel members as a result of perceptions and fear in our post-9/11 society.

I also left the screening with tremendous respect for Asra Nomani.  Personally I felt a great empathy for what she went through not only in Pakistan with the death of her friend Daniel Pearl, but also in returning “home” and finding herself a young mother unwelcome in her own house of worship.  Being from West Virginia, and loving to call West Virginia home, the one thing I can always count on is that welcoming feeling I get when I arrive home safe in the mountains of WV.  That is such a special feeling and I’m not sure others from outside of West Virginia can quite understand the magnitude of it.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to come back after her tremendous personal ordeal and be denied much-needed refuge and sanctuary in her beloved “Almost Heaven West Virginia.”  It was clear from the film that she expected to be welcome in the mosque her father had helped to found but was instead told to enter through the back door and pray in a separate room.  I cannot imagine the disappointment I would have felt coming back to Morgantown and feeling unwelcome and segregated in my own church.

Learning about Asra Nomani and her work and recently meeting several brave Afghan women has inspired me to work to improve the condition of women and children in Afghanistan.  In January, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. to help host a visiting delegation of Afghan Judges and lawyers.  We met with great American women leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The Afghan women were so brave and inspiring.  Like Asra Nomani, they followed their beliefs and their conscience and sought to make change in their country, often at great personal risk.

The Afghan women judges and lawyers I met talked about the need for chairs in their schools because the children, too tired from standing, couldn’t learn.  I vowed to do what I could to help when I returned to West Virginia.  In March, I formed a company called Sultan’s Daughters, and I have been selling pashmina shawls to benefit construction and furnishing of schools in Afghanistan.  My company has already raised enough money to fund 10% of the construction and furnishing of one school in a village called Pagisam.

The Morgantown community, as it always does, has come out in support of this worthy cause and of helping others in need.  On June 26, 2009, a young professionals group here in the Morgantown community, Generation Morgantown, will host a fundraiser at a local restaurant, Cafe Bacchus, to benefit the school project in Pagisam village, by a nonprofit agency, the Nooristan Foundation.  That project will construct and maintain the village school in the Nooristan region of Afghanistan.  It will also raise awareness and hopefully make people want to be more involved in making a difference in Afghanistan’s future.

THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN inspired me in several ways.  First and foremost, the film is really about having the courage, drive, and strength of character to follow your conscience.  People can debate on Asra Nomani’s tactics — and I think rightfully so — and whether she went about things the right way.  They can debate about the merits of the respective positions about the logistics of the mosque services, and I heard valid points on both sides of that debate.

But the larger point is that she took a stand for what she believed in.  For that, Asra Nomani is a role model for myself and for my daughters.  I will teach my daughters to listen to their conscience and if they do that, like Asra’s parents in the movie, I will be behind them 100%.  I will teach them, as I have always taught them and as my parents taught me, that with hard work and perseverance they can achieve anything.  I will teach them not to let gender-based stereotypes or limitations get in the way of achieving their goals and that they deserve to be treated equally to men.

The movie also inspires me to learn more about Islam.  Growing up Catholic, the religion of my mother, and attending Catholic school I didn’t learn anything about Islam other than it existed, that it was one of the three monotheistic religions because of the belief in one God, Allah, and that we share the same old testament.  Although I am not Muslim, I am inspired by the film to educate myself about Islam.  I am also inspired to visit the mosque in Morgantown and actively try to meet Muslims living in this community.

One final point I will make is that this film is inspiring for what it says about the country we live in and the freedoms it affords all of us.  When people didn’t agree, Asra took a stand, the media was called, the media was granted access, there was controversy, there were demonstrations, elections, and even a trial.  Then a film was made and it has provoked open discussion in Morgantown and now a national debate on this website about sensitive issues where people can speak freely without fear of retribution.

When the film started the mosque was in its infancy.  Now the mosque has regular elections, a new constitution, and women in leadership position.  The controversy at the mosque wasn’t handled by physical violence or by guns or tanks in the streets but by dialogue with both sides zealously advocating their respective positions and the occasional shouting match.  This really is a beautiful country we live in where we are permitted to speak our minds and practice whatever religion we choose.


Parween Mascari is an attorney living in Morgantown, WV.

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