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The other has a face

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

She slides in the chair next to me, at the round table where I am munching on chicken and salad. I notice the Valentino shoes, the beautiful peach purse that matches her blouse and hijab, the pretty smile and flawless make-up. Glancing at the badges stuck on our chest, we perform polite introductions. There is a silence I feel compelled to fill.

Always a mistake. I ask her if she is part of the panel of women we will be hearing speak tonight. She tells me of her 17-year-old marriage, recently dissolved, of her new line of work, her three kids. It’s all very polite but sort of awkward – it’s as if her head covering creates a gulf between my normal acceptance of strangers and this woman who, by all accounts, is probably closer to who I am than most other people in the room. My feminist principles feel, all of a sudden, feminist prejudices.

They do dissipate by the end of the evening. The five women I have come to hear have two things in common: they are Muslim and they are American.

S. is a mother who has been traveling the country – and beyond – going wherever she can get invited, to speak to those corners where there are no Muslims, to give them a face, to dispel preconceptions. She is from Sri Lanka, she is eloquent, passionate and warm.

Y. is a blogger and writer from Pakistan who calls truth to power and is not afraid to start petitions or expose Muslim leaders whose statements are misleading, inflammatory or just plain false. She is also a conservative and a Republican.

M. is Canadian, by way of Pakistan: she is funny, effervescent and has all sorts of facts and figures at her fingertips. Her mission is to reach out to interfaith communities and explain Islam.

M. is a professor of African-American studies who grew up in South Central, as a proud member of the Nation of Islam, and now operates within the Black Lives Matter movement.

And then there is N., the woman who sat next to me, the only one who chooses to wear a hijab as a sign of belonging to a religion she stands by firmly.

What these diverse women have in common, and are working towards, is twofold:

dispel myths and misconceptions about Islam;
work from the inside to give Muslim women a voice, to change what has been distorted in order to keep women in a position of subservience.

It seems like a tall order. In fact, it sounds like a hopeless cause that make my feminist struggle look like a picnic in the park. They concede the fruit of their labor will not be apparent for generations. When I ask S. if any men in leadership positions within their communities are supporting their cause, the answer is a flat no. Still, they soldier on.

Of course the majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Of course scriptures have been twisted and bent to fit a patriarchy – at the time of the Prophet Mohammed women were entitled to own property, to work and had more standing than most Muslim women in most of the world do now. Every American knows that – or do they?

At a very different talk, a few days later, I hear a Holocaust survivor speak: a tale of horror and survival and of a dogged mother who did the impossible to make sure she and her child lived. Her child, speaking to us now, at 82, went on to thrive in America. Answering a question about the plight of refugees today, this woman, whose people took to boats to escape Nazi Germany and were turned away by every country, answers that the refugees who want to come to America want to destroy us, so why should we let them in without a proper vetting process to establish if they are fit for this country?

My jaw drops. I look around the room but nobody says anything. Out of respect for her story, I don’t get up and walk out but I think of the women I heard speak a few days before and I despair they will achieve measurable results within their lifetimes.

Jane Goodall, a stubborn and dogged lady, said that “it’s knowing what can be done that gives people strength”. I wish my new Muslim friends all the strength they are going to need.

At the end of the evening, we – a bunch of white, Jewish women – ask what we can do to help their cause.
S. answers simply: “Give us a voice when we are not at the table. Speak up when you hear untruths, tell people you know Muslims and they are not how they think. Better still, help us find a place at the table.”

 

 

 

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14 Comments

  1. Deve essere stato molto interessante. Qui non c’è pericolo

    October 31, 2017
    |Reply
    • Non c’e’ pericolo che organizzino incontri?

      November 1, 2017
      |Reply
      • Non di questo tipo, con donne musulmane, con sole donne musulmane. Non ne ho mai sentito, eppure abito a Milano che, con i suoi difetti, è assai vitale

        November 2, 2017
        |Reply
  2. No words for the Jewish lady’s comment. I wish it were the first time I heard such a thing – the mother of an acquaintance, born in India and immigrated to the UK many years ago, voted for Brexit. “Because we can’t let them in.” What is this?

    As for the last words of the Muslim ladies, loved them. Speaking for them when they aren’t present is indeed a great step forward, and getting them a place at the table even better!
    (I am reminded of an episode of the Gilmore Girls where they’re at the local church, where a Christian ceremony is late to finish, and you see the Rabi standing by the door waiting patiently so he can take over the place after the priest and perform his ceremony. There’s no hate, no weirdness. It’s at times like these I notice how TV this all is.)

    October 24, 2017
    |Reply
    • I never watched the Gilmore Girls but maybe it’s time I remedy that.

      October 25, 2017
      |Reply
      • It started out great, but the last season (not counting on the one they made recently) got a bit meh. But do give it a try! And by the way, I started watching Grace and Frankie because you said you loved it, and I fell in love with those characters! Hoping a new season comes out soon…

        October 25, 2017
        |Reply
        • There are two seasons of Grace and Frankie and I believe a third is coming as it was wildly successful (and the two stars apparently had a ball filming it).

          October 25, 2017
          |Reply
          • That’s excellent news! Can’t wait. The whole cast is amazing. I had my doubts about Martin Sheen but I find his Conservative demeanour amusing 😁

            October 25, 2017
  3. sofagirl
    sofagirl

    Will you stand next time a white Jewish Woman tries to exclude others?

    October 24, 2017
    |Reply
    • sofagirl
      sofagirl

      That is the litmus test. Regardless of the other person’s back story (This woman survived holocaust through the actions of a brave and determined individual) what is their language telling you now (I’m alright Jack…. fuck ‘the other’)? We have to question the people in our tribe. Hold up the mirror to them. Debate their actions. That will either make them stronger or shut them the hell up. And (hopefully) stops the horror from happening again.

      October 24, 2017
      |Reply
      • Once I got home, I kicked myself for not saying anything. I let her advanced age and her suffering intimidate me. I looked around the room to see if anyone else was as dismayed as I was (it was mainly young people, most of them not Jewish) but no one seemed inclined to comment. I am planning to take it up with the professor who brought the speaker. This woman works for Spielberg’s Shoah foundation, that also documents all kinds of atrocities around the world. How quickly we forget.

        October 25, 2017
        |Reply
  4. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    The strength of the USA is grounded in immigration. It was called the ‘melting pot’ of the world. Terrorism is an excuse to foster xenophobia

    October 23, 2017
    |Reply
    • I couldn’t agree more. On a different note, do we like your new (very young) Prime Minister?

      October 24, 2017
      |Reply
      • Winston Moreton
        Winston Moreton

        We do. And it’s a girl!

        October 24, 2017
        |Reply

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