From January 23-25, I was at a Muslim Women Leaders Program at the Union Theological Seminary with 20 other empowering Muslim women. The program was hosted by the Islam, Social Justice and Interreligious Engagement (ISJIE) program, directed by Dr. Jerusha Lamtey, Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at the Union Theological Seminary.
The program was, for me, an unforgettable experience, and the friendships that were formed, I hope to maintain for lifetimes to come. Needless to say, in everything that follows, I speak only for myself and on my own behalf, not on anyone else’s.
On Monday (our first day), when our theme was Tradition, we began with a breakfast, an introduction to ISIE, an introductory activity, and establishing community norms. For the activity, we were to describe ourselves in three words, use the threads we were provided (see image on left) to paste them onto the clipboard, and then eventually connect our own descriptions to others that described as, too. When we were observing how we got to this final product, one of us pointed out that the initial image–just 21 lines of threads neatly going from one position to another–described Muslim women in western media, but this final product describes us for who we are: The media paints one narrow, specific image of Muslim women, but in reality, we’re all so diverse, so complex, so … human. I thought that was such a powerful observation.
Coming up with norms that we were all going to respect and adhere to over the course of the program was a beautiful thing to happen. No assumptions were made about what we were all going to expect of each other. We got together in small groups, came up with a few norms that we were to recommend to and get feedback from the larger group for. These included things like: know and use the correct gender pronouns for each other, speak only in I-statements (don’t speak for each other, even/esp. when you’re talking about Islam, don’t speak in absolutes like “Islam says” or “The Qur’an says,” but instead use “My understanding of Islam is that …” or “The way I view this Qur’anic idea is …”), no interrupting each other, step forward/step backward (if you’re speaking too much, step back and make sure that others have an equal opportunity to share their wisdom as well; if you’re speaking too little, try to contribute more), assume the best of each other, “oops/ouch” when you’ve been made uncomfortable, no tone-policing, and more.
We were all to agree to all of the rules before we declared them community norms. Things we didn’t agree on were left for further discussion, or we decided they would make for great discussion points throughout the next some days.
(I’m now inspired to do this for my classes, too!)
Another of my favorite thing: When it was time for prayer, we were not all expected to pray together. Time and space were designated for prayer, and you were given the option to pray either together or individually. (We did this at FITNA-Boston, too. I love this.)
After lunch and prayer, we had a guest speaker—Aisha al-Adawiya of Sisters in Islam. She was such an inspiration to listen to. I’ve heard and read a lot about her, but it was my first time meeting her in person. God grant her a long and healthy life, aameen.
Then we formed smaller groups and discussed Tradition—meanings, assumptions, challenges, etc. (e.g., in what ways does “(the Islamic) Tradition” pose obstacles for us as Muslim women leaders, in what ways does it inspire us and/or provide opportunities). And then Dr. Lamptey gave a lecture on Tradition. Listen, when Dr. Lamptey speaks, the world stops. She’s that powerful, mashaAllah. I really couldn’t take notes when she was speaking because I needed to be in the moment for it and didn’t want any distractions. There’s so much power in her voice, in her knowledge. What an honor to have heard her.
After this discussion, it was maghrib time, followed by our group dinner at a fabulous Turkish restaurant! (Their mint tea wasn’t great, though. But the food was delish, and the service was great.) But, hey, like they say, food is only half good when the company isn’t so great. So the girls? I can’t. I can’t describe what a wonderful time I had, how much I learned, how much I talked (well, ya, there’s that, too), how much we shared. I’ve done a lot of programs that involve group work/group settings and being in large groups, and I’ve never bonded and loved an entire group this much. This kind of space is just such a blessing to be a part of. Alhamdulillah for the sisterhood, for the love, for the beauty of it all.
On Tuesday, the theme was Public Engagement.
We started off at the Auburn Seminary, where we received media training, being taught how to craft an effective/concise public message, how to be on camera, etc. We practiced being on camera. We were to write our names—phonetically, the way we wanted it pronounced—our interest/expertise, and our title/affiliation. Our trainer, a Muslim, acted as a journalist who would ask us questions about the topic we wanted him to ask us about, and we were given a minute and a half for the “interview.” Once our part was done, we were asked to give two Glows and two Grows—two things we loved and two things the sister could work on for improvement.
The most fun part of this was that our journalist friend took on the role of a very special kind of journalist—the kind that says things like, “Tell us a little about how Islam oppresses women.” Turns out, y’all, that I can’t “stay calm” when I’m being interrupted by a xenophobic, bigoted man on camera ❤
But, yeah, we got to see how we are on camera, how to prepare for interviews, how to write more concisely (well, this doesn’t really apply to me – I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m *never* going to be concise, so help me God), and so on.
In almost no case did he ask a question that we had hoped to get. The point was that you should expect to get questions you’d hate to address for whatever reasons, so prepare.
After lunch/prayer, we had a guest speaker, Dr. Sarah Sayeed, who spoke on civic engagement.
And then we had a small group discussion on public engagement – things that work, things that don’t; (re-)negotiating power/privilege, saying no, setting boundaries for ourselves. A sad experience was shared by a few of the sisters: When non-Muslim organizations ask them to speak, they are compensated for their time/resources/expertise; when Muslim organizations reach out to them, they’re expected to do it in the name of God and be okay with no compensation, especially if they’re single with no kids! (All relevant disclaimers apply: no one’s saying all Muslim or non-Muslim organizations are like this. This was based on the experiences of some of the sisters there.)
After maghrib prayer and a break, we had a Know Your Rights workshop with Iman Boukadoum, a social justice attorney. This was depressing as fuck. I took a lotta notes on this, and I just can’t even look at this stuff. Bad times being too many of us today in America. (Even worse being a black person in America. Strength, love, and power to all for whom just living is resistance in itself ❤ )
And on our last day, Wednesday, the theme was Community and Solidarity. We started off, after breakfast, with an activity on privilege. (This was very eye-opening. I mentioned this to my students this semester, and two of them want to do it as an event/activity for the entire university.) We had a beautiful discussion together, in the larger group. Experiences were shared of being unacknowledged, invisible in mosques and other sacred and other Muslim spaces; tears were shed, love was shared. We talked about the idea of equity “vs” equality (like how equity assumes the inherent values of someone based on certain markers, and stuff), and on this note, I learned that certain differences are not to be evaluated in Islam (LOVE this!) – but more on this another time. We talked about how our own personal comfort is often influenced by broader factors (e.g., expectations of us in mosques), we talked about the extent of accepting and embracing diversity—and an excellent idea posed was: diversity that infringes on another human’s dignity is not acceptable.
We had an excellent, open conversation on LGBTQ+ Muslims—and one of the sisters pointed out that in too many of our spaces, we speak of LGBTQ+ people as if they’re not around us, as if they don’t live in our homes, as if they’re not in our mosques, as if they’re not in the same circle we’re mocking their realities and struggles and existence in. As if we’re all on the same page when it comes to LGBTQ+ Muslims. Because we’re not. In other words, the utter lack of adab/etiquette in too many Muslim spaces where LGBTQ+ “ness” comes up.
After lunch/prayer, we got into small groups to work on building networks of solidarity. What to do with the knowledge we gained beyond the workshop. What kinds of ideas did we gain that would help us move further. On having the hard conversations, on documenting stories (otherwise they never took place, as things currently work), on providing and sustaining resources and making them more widely available, and so on.
The last thing we did before the program ended and we were to part ways physically was to share with each other what specific thing we’d learned that we hope to take far, far with us and to share with each other an individual commitment that we will strive to honor forever. Some appreciated the practical aspect of the program—with every question, every activity came a question about solution and moving forward; some highlighted the lesson of active listening, others on their renewed appreciation for faith. Most, if not all, pointed out how much confidence they’d gained through the workshop (this goes for me, too). On ways to uplift, promote each other. The lessons were endless.
So. That’s it. This would be all.
If you’re a Muslim woman, be on the lookout for next year’s call because I cannot stress what an important opportunity this is. Please apply. Be on the lookout for it here: Muslim Women Leaders Program (the deadline for 2017 was Nov. 1st, 2016). May your cohort be as beautiful and unforgettable (in a beautiful way) as mine was, aameen.