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.”