Their faith offers better feminism, Muslim women say -- rights with protection


If patriarchal Islam and modern American feminism seem hopelessly incompatible, listen to a group of veiled, soft-spoken Muslim women meeting apart from their husbands, fathers and brothers in a Baltimore mosque.

"I think we have the greatest feminist movement of all," said Zainab Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam. "Feminists want their rights, but don't they want protection? Isn't that what all these sexual harassment cases are about? They want to go into the work place, and yet they don't want to be abused.

"I welcome them into Islam because that's exactly what they will find. People at work, people in college -- these are not women behind four walls. And yet they feel protected."

She and the others at the meeting were preparing for the month of prayer, spiritual reading, reflection and fasting called Ramadan, which began Saturday and is expected to end March 13. The exact time in Baltimore will depend on sightings of the new moon.

"Times are changing and social structures are changing, but none of this is really contrary to Islam," said Fauzia Asad, Zainab Asad's daughter-in-law who is a physical therapist at Good Samaritan Hospital and a recent University of Maryland graduate.

"The Holy Prophet endowed all women with rights from the very beginning," Fauzia Asad said. "Whereas in other religions, the women were pretty much the property of the men -- they were not given inheritances, were not allowed to speak, were not allowed to hold positions -- in Islam it was different.

"From the very beginning, women were allowed to inherit from their parents, allowed to speak up, allowed to hold offices in their own organizations. They were given rights, and they were given protection."

Protection was key to women's rights in the minds of all the participants who had gathered Thursday at the Ahmadiyya Islamic Center at 4406 Garrison Blvd. Their purpose was to bring a female perspective not only to the Ramadan observance but to Muslim beliefs generally.

Most of the women said they were encountering growing curiosity about their faith in the non-Muslim community around them.

"I have had a lot of questions," said Aliya Fouzi, a senior studying biochemistry at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "I think people wonder about the sort of clothes we wear because we have to be covered all the time.

"They wonder about the fact that I wear a coat usually when I go to school," she said. "Especially during the summer, they ask, 'Don't you feel hot?' or something. But the way I look at it, I feel very much protected."

Miss Fouzi was born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where her mother, now president of the Ahmadiyya women's organization in Baltimore, was a teacher for 20 years.

"And there have been other questions," the daughter said. "People talk about dating and stuff. And I say, 'No,' I come from a system of arranged marriages."

This comment led to a discussion of how the ancient custom of marriages arranged by the parents of the bride and groom -- still a universal practice among Ahmadiyya Muslims -- could be compatible with modern notions of women's rights.

"It's not a forced marriage. The consent of the bride is very, very important," said Bushra Fouzi, Aliya's mother.

Zainab Asad, describing the arranged marriages of her sons as happy results of involvement by "the whole family, by the extended family," said that "the boy and girl should not be left just totally on their own, the way they are today, with the physical intimacy that goes along with dating today, with no support system to surround them."

Aliya Fouzi had more to say about arranged marriages: "I think it is a wonderful system. We are saved from the evils of teen-age pregnancy that you see nowadays. We are saved from AIDS. We are saved from all sorts of different diseases, all sorts of evil vices being practiced, especially by the teen-agers of America.

"When I walk around, I feel as though I'm not for sale. When you see people walking around in short miniskirts, to me it's like they've put themselves on sale.

"Islam gives you more honor, more respect for yourself, more confidence. I am not restrained by the way I am. I am not restrained by the clothes I wear. I can say whatever I want to. . . .

"We have been given all the rights that you can possibly imagine. Islam has given me everything I have ever desired."

Zainab Asad explained that a search for role models for her own daughter and five sons was what led her, as a single parent, from Judaism to Islam. Having studied the Old Testament, she said, "I did not feel I could use all of those prophets as models for my children because they had made many errors in their own lives."

She was influenced by people close to her.

"My brother-in-law had accepted Islam when he was about 17, and my sister a number of years after their marriage," she said.

After studying the history and tenets of the Muslim faith for a year, she said, "I felt that the rationale, the teachings, the discipline, the community of Islam would provide the framework that I needed for my children. It wasn't until much later, actually, that I really sought God myself."

Latiifa Ilyas, another participant in the discussion, said that she, too, had converted to Islam, influenced by an aunt when she was 15.

"We really are cousins of the Jewish people," Zainab Asad said, "because we all go back to Abraham. I look at myself as a Jewish Muslim. Islam is an extension of my Judaism. I see no conflict at all."

The recent controversy over anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic remarks by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and his aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, also united the women at the Ahmadiyya meeting.

"I feel it is such a dishonor to Malcolm X," Zainab Asad said. "The Islam they're teaching is not Islam, period."

Said Bushra Fouzi, "Islam is a religion of moderate people. We practice peace. We are not people who can judge who is good, who is bad. That is in the hands of God."

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