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This post was written by guest contributor Yasmin N. Ali.
I was seventeen years old when I first encountered, in full force, the hierarchies that are often built into many Muslim communities. Back then, I was fighting to make my debate team coed so I’d get one more year of experience before I graduated high school. I went to an Islamic school, and mixing with the opposite gender was frowned upon. Eventually, I succeeded in making my team coed while also acquiring a distaste for things done in a “traditional way.” That memory was crystal clear in my mind one week ago when I was introduced to the Executive Board in my new position as the Director of Programs for Community Builders, Chicago (CBC). Their organization’s board members were sitting in a small room when I was introduced to them after accepting the offer, and I suddenly found myself feeling all of seventeen years old again.
I also started wondering how I could work to reconcile these “traditional” personalities with newer media outreach strategies.
By appearance, they looked similar to the school board members all those years ago. Most of them had questions in their eyes when I entered the room. So I decided the best way I could work to revamp their PR was to approach the situation with an open mind and make sure that all of their questions would be answered.
Dr. Azher Quader, who is one of the founding members, has been leading the organization for almost 20 years. Over the course of these years, the organization has organized blood drives, voter drives, co-founded the Compassionate Care Network, and has led workshops that encouraged students to network with successful artists, lawyers, activists and entrepreneurs. They also founded a mentoring program that allowed students to shadow professional in a number of different fields. Every other Friday, they hold networking sessions that are open to the community, and in which they discuss societal issues and invite organizations to come and present.
On the board of the organization, I connected with two women who had been a part of the organization for quite some time, Dr. Ayesha Sultana and Naila Usmani. I was very interested to see how these women served as leaders within CBC, an organization that was founded at the same time that many organizations were reinforcing more strict and patriarchal structures in religious institutions.
Currently, the board of CBC is comprised of an older generation, one that I had faced in my teens with apprehension, and one that I joined now to restructure an organization they had poured their hearts into. What I met with last week were open and inquisitive minds and a work ethic that transcended the nine-to-five mentality.
After work, about once a week, these members meet over Tahoora kabob rolls and chai as they discuss how to connect to the younger generation, changes in marketing techniques and new speakers that are more relevant to a wider audience. Gender is no issue, and participation is expected from all members present. Although the organization still lacks in active female members (there are three female board members, as compared to nine men), I have yet to experience the patriarchy I have often felt directed at me in other religious settings.
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve researched this organization and networked with the generation that founded many older institutions, I have found minds and perspectives that are open to change and discussion. However, there is also a significant degree of confusion as they struggle to understand the generation gap and the lack of dialogue between the founders of mosques, older Islamic organizations and the younger Muslims who have decided that existing institutions are no longer the place for them.
I recently saw many of the board members and others at a networking session. The discussion was centered on a presentation by one of the founders of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), Dr. Kaiseruddin. It was an interesting and spirited conversation, as they acknowledged one of main problems facing the Muslim community today: the lack of unity and community focus.
At the networking session, one of the main issues in focus was Dr. Kaiseruddin’s efforts to engage the youth in our community and to understand why this gap occurred. The discussion mentioned a key issue, which was that many younger Muslims do not feel adequately represented in or connected to their mosques. This also addressed a hurdle most Muslim women have come across at least once in their life: specifically speaking, the invisible wall that seems to exist between Muslim women and the leadership in Mosques and religious institutions.
Historically speaking, women have tried to break the patriarchal structures in our community. Careers, life choices and community image have been subject to a mentality that predates our generation and the current culture we find ourselves in.
However, I would argue that as time has progressed, some of these structures have begun to crumble on their own, opening up an unexpected avenue for progress. The very organizations that many of us have abandoned for lack of progress may be the ones that are now turning to different solutions to address their empty mosques and events.
In a city that has been described as “Ground Zero for a Muslim Renaissance,” Chicagoland Muslims are beginning to see evidence of a newer community and with it, a new identity. I believe in the midst of this transformation women’s roles are changing and broadening.
In professional contexts, women have advanced to all levels of achievement to the extent that a successful Muslim woman is not the exception; she is the norm. This is not the case just in Chicago, but the world over. Yet within our cultural and religious organizations, a successful Muslim woman is still an exception.
However, last week, as I sat through the meeting and listened to discussions led by women at an event that had been organized by a woman I felt a glimmer of hope. I was no longer sitting in a room full of disapproving elders, but at the table with members of my community, discussing equality and progress.