The many voices and stories of Muslim women

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Panelists, from left to right: Safiya Balioglu, Latifah Kiribedda, Imani Jaafar-Mohammad, and Hend Al-Mansour. Photo credit: Catherine Tsen

Last night I had the honor and pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on “The Many Voices of Islam: Drawing a Distinction Between Culture and Religion” at St. Catherine’s University. The panel was organized in conjunction with a touring exhibition of art by women from Muslim cultures, which you can read about here.

The goal of the evening was really quite simple – to share stories, and help people who aren’t familiar with Islam to understand the size and diversity of the Muslim diaspora, especially in regards to women.

One of the frustrations shared by many of the panelists was how they feel lumped together into a stereotype of a silent, oppressed woman dressed all in black. Imani Jaafar-Mohammad is a lawyer and a partner with her husband in their firm. She says she knows many people assume she wears a head scarf because he forces her to, but in fact it was entirely her own decision. Her modest dress did not stop her from swimming competitively or playing on a basketball team.

For Hend Al-Mansour, the experience is quite different. She left her native Saudi Arabia because of the oppression she experienced there. In Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, and they make up only 5% of the work force. Al-Mansour still finds great beauty and richness in her religion, but wrestles with how it’s used politically in her home country to keep women submissive. Meanwhile she works as an artist and is pursuing a masters in art history, specializing in Arab art, at the University of St. Thomas.

Safiya Balioglu, born in Germany, converted to Islam when she was 23. She says she was attracted to the devotion of the religion, and how spiritual practice is incorporated into daily life (five daily prayers). But raising her children with her Turkish husband in Germany was not easy, and she felt ostracized by her own culture. When he got a job offer in the U.S., they decided to make the move. Balioglu says she was impressed by how warm and friendly people were with her, and seemed not to care about the fact she was wearing a headscarf. Her children are now enrolled in a Muslim magnet school, and she couldn’t be happier.

Latifah Kiribedda is the voice of a new generation of Muslim women. Born and raised in Uganda, Kiribedda is an outspoken feminist and devout Muslim who applied to St. Catherine’s University because she felt a kinship with the values of the institution. She sees it as her own responsibility to share the stories of her faith in order to help people understand what it does and does not stand for. She asked all the women in the audience wearing hijabs to stand up and show off their colorful scarves, saying that here was proof not all Muslim women wear black from head to foot.

All these women share a common faith, but their stories varied drastically. And while they were able to answer many questions from the audience about customs and religion, they sometimes had to agree to disagree on what those answers were, based on their own experiences. But if these four women are any indication, they point to a bright and strong future for their faith and for all women.