Conference - Unveiling the Myths: Muslim Women in the United States
Ingrid Mattson, Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian Muslim Relations and Director, Muslim Chaplaincy Program, Hartford Seminary; Amaney A. Jamal, Princeton University; Samia Serageldin, Duke University; Kathleen Moore, University of California at Santa Barbara; Elzbieta Gozdziak, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University; Susan Douglass, Council on Islamic Education; Sharifa Alkhateeb, Muslim Education Council; Jane I. Smith, Professor of Islamic Studies and Co-Director of the Macdonald Center for Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary.
The daylong conference convened at Georgetown University by the Division of U.S. Studies, Georgetown University's National Resource Center on the Middle East, the Institute for the Study of International Migration, and the Georgetown Office of Campus Ministry concentrated on the challenges facing Muslim women in the United States, particularly in the post-September 11 era.
One area of discussion was the way Muslim women have attempted to use the legal system to safeguard their rights since September 11. Kathleen Moore summarized recent court cases stemming from attempts to force women to remove the hijab (veil or head covering) to keep a job, pass through airport security, or qualify for a driver's license. While racialization is not new to the U.S., Moore argued, the USA PATRIOT Act both gave it new credibility and increased the powers of the state exponentially. Anti-immigrant nativism and the perception of "them" and "us" took on a new gendered form, as the hijab became a symbol of alienness. As Susan Douglass commented, this development exacerbates the misleading view of Muslim women to be found in most U.S. schoolbooks. Fifth and tenth grade texts depict Muslim women as either heavily veiled and secluded (in foreign, possibly hostile countries) or totally Westernized: the woman in Western dress and a hijab who is harassed at airport checkpoints, for example, is invisible in these texts.
Sharifa Alkhateeb described the fear of public places and reticence to leave home that many Muslim women have felt in the post-September 11 era. She detailed a series of particularly invasive searches carried out by the United States government against Muslim-Americans in the greater Washington, DC area. Alkhateeb emphasized the need for greater public awareness of what Islam stands for and, particularly, the ways in which its precepts are non-violent and fully in concert with American democracy.
Ingrid Mattson examined the attempts by some Muslim women to make mosque leadership more democratic and more responsive to the needs of a community eager to participate in the pluralistic United States. As Jane Smith noted, this is in keeping with the struggle of Muslim women to find ways in which they can express themselves in their new American culture while remaining true to their Islamic religion and culture. Since September 11, the effort has taken the form of women interpreting Islam to non-Muslims, initiating dialogue with non-Muslims, participating in voter registration drives, providing social services, and taking leadership positions in Islamic organizations (Ingrid Mattson has become Vice President and was asked to run for the presidency of the Islamic Society of North America, the nation's largest such organization). Samia Serageldin, discussing the portrayal of Muslim women in the novels and memoirs written by "diaspora intellectual" women who immigrated to the United States later in their lives, suggested that their work depicts their isolation and their struggles to navigate a society that is not avowedly Muslim. On the whole, the participants agreed that the issues remaining to be addressed are how Muslim women can be American and Muslim, how they can participate in the public square Islamically, and how they ought to relate to men both in public and in the private sphere of the home, all the while simultaneously affirming and challenging Islamic traditions.