Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Two steps forward, one step back for Muslim Americans

By Pamela K. Taylor

The Islamic Society of North America, one of the largest Muslim American organizations, recently announced that for the first time a woman has been elected as their President.

Ingrid Mattson had served two terms as ISNA's vice president, and was a natural choice. She ran unopposed on the ballot, but at the recent ISNA convention the members' support for for her simply poured from the audience every time she came to the podium. It was amazing how much enthusiasm the crowd showed for her.

Needless to say this is a big step for American Muslims, one with implications for Muslims worldwide. Although American Muslim women enjoy a better status than women throughout the Muslim world, there are still far too many masjids where women are relegated to back rooms, or hidden away behind screens (or where they hide themselves away behind screens), where they are not allowed to vote in mosque board elections, or who (according to bylaws or in practice) can only serve as the "ladies' committee" representative to the board. There are too many families that still have double standards for their girls and boys in terms of education, or life goals, or moral compass.

The election of a woman to the leadership of a national Muslim organization cuts at all those notions which prevent women from participating fully in the mosque, and debunks the traditions that women cannot attain to positions of national leadership. The fact that Ingrid is relatively conservative, will, one hopes, allay fears of overseas Muslims that women's leadership defacto means the destruction of established tradition and long-standing moral and social order. Lessening those fears could open doors for other women leaders and ease restrictions of women's participation in daily life.

At the same time, her leadership will not challenge certain traditions that need to be challenged, as far as I'm concerned. Among these are traditions that say women cannot lead men in prayer (despite concrete and validated evidence that the Prophet commanded at least one woman to lead men in prayer) and thus perpetuate a two-tier social order. Her leadership will not challenge traditions that say women are a source of temptation for men, and cannot be allowed to sing or dance in public. Her leadership will not challenge traditions that are used to keep women from speaking in public or participating in sporting events.

Ingrid will try to distinguish between types of speech and singing, between "healthy" public motions (ie sports) and "unhealthy ones" (ie dancing). In the long run, though, accepting this differentiation rather than trying to educate men about treating women as human beings (again a prophetic tradition) leads to the slippery slope by which all limitations can be rationalized.

One can't help but wonder if it is really a step forward for women to come to leadership if women are going to participate in shoring up the patriarchy in certain areas. In this case, I have to say, yes, it is better that she was elected than another old immigrant guy, but it she is far from the ideal.

I hope her leadership will improve the situation many American Muslim women face in their daily lives. Unfortunately, her leadership will not change things far enough. It is, no doubt, a great step forward in many ways. I hope it will pave the way for the greater progress that is needed.

No comments: