Islam in the Eye of Three Beholders
Shams Ghoneim says the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed her life. “There is a line in my life,” she said, “before and after 9/11. It shook me to the core. It still does.”
The heightened interest in Islam and Muslims that followed the attacks focused much attention on the plight of women in the Muslim world. The completely veiled women oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan led to concern about all women suffering under Islam.
This simplistic and stereotypical view of Muslims did not sit well with many who had their own personal experiences with Islam and Muslim women.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Ghoneim, who was born in Egypt but has lived in Iowa for more than 40 years, became more public about her Islamic faith. She said it concerned her to hear the media and others talk about her religion. “They know so little about our faith. To me, as a Mid-Eastern person, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all one.”
In order to increase interfaith understanding, Ghoneim joined the Johnson County Consultation of Religious Communities in 2001. She served as president of the multi-faith, non-profit group in 2006.
She blames cultural misunderstanding for the stories that make generalizations about the oppression of women in Islamic countries. “This is separate from Islam,” she said. “The worst enemy [for Muslim women] is poverty and illiteracy.”
Lisa Zaynab Killinger of Bettendorf, Iowa, is a chiropractic professor and a Muslim. She agrees with Ghoneim. Killinger says she tries to favorably represent Islam in her Quad Cities community by participating in various groups such as the Anti-Hate Coalition, Progressive Action for the Common Good, and World Affairs Council.
Killinger is also a lecturer with the national Mecca Centric Da’Wah Group, which provides speeches on Islam topics. She specializes in women’s issues.
“I think there are women all over the world of many faiths who are oppressed or mistreated,” she said. “Wherever women are not literate and knowledgeable about religious law, they are vulnerable. Few men will make the effort to advocate for women’s rights. Women have to do this for themselves.”
Amy Kukoyi is not a Muslim, but her mother is. Since many of her family and friends in Yoruba land where she grew up in Nigeria are Muslims, negative comments bother her.
“All some people think about are terrorists and men who are total control freaks, oppress their women and deny them education.” She said that this picture does not reflect her specific experience in Nigeria.
“While this is true in some parts of the Muslim world, it does not generalize to all Muslims,” she said.
Kukoyi, who has a doctorate degree in pharmacology, works as a psychiatry research assistant at the University of Iowa. She has been in Iowa for eight years.
“My parents didn’t force a particular religion on us growing up,” she said. “As long as you believed in God, that was all that mattered.”
She said all Christian and Muslim holidays were celebrated with friends and family. “On Good Friday, we’d observe the no eating of meat rule. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts. For Ileya or Ramadan and many Muslim holidays, we’d kill rams and bulls, fry the meat and share it with our friends and neighbors.”
Kukoyi became a Christian 10 years ago because she felt comfortable in that religion and she was dating a Christian man. “Ultimately, God just really spoke to my heart and I wanted to know Him,” she said.
“As a Christian now,” she said, “I call my Muslim family members and relatives during the Muslim holidays to wish them well, and they do the same to me during Christian holidays.”
Fatimah Mohammad has had personal experience defending her faith – here in Iowa, even before Sept. 11, 2001. In 1999, when she was converting to Islam, she was employed at the U. S. Post Office in Muscatine, Iowa. “I chose to wear the hijab. My postmaster there told me I could not wear the scarf,” Mohammad explained. “She also told me I could only pray in the toilet.”
Praying five times a day, in a clean place, after ritual cleansing is a key requirement of Islam.
Mohammad left the Muscatine Post Office, transferring to Iowa City where she continued her 20-year postal career until her retirement in April 2007.
The woman who was Muscatine’s postmaster in 1999 has retired. The current Postmaster, Mark Froeschle, said he really couldn’t comment on the situation since he has only been in his position since October 2006.
However, Iowa City Postmaster Doug Curtiss said Mohammad was a very good, knowledgeable employee who interacted well with customers. He said there was never a problem with her being Muslim.
“We have rules and regulations for the sanctity of the mail,” he said, “but, we’re the Postal Service. We are America. We have everybody.”
The status and rights of women in Muslim countries varies widely, depending on social customs and political structures. They range from the Turkish ban on the hijab in public institutions to the Saudi ban on women drivers.
Ultimately, Muslim women’s rights are based on cultural understandings of the Quran.
Ghoneim sees the Quran as one of the “three great books” of “sister faiths”– along with the Bible and the Torah. “There are so many beautiful verses in the Quran. It is about mercy, love, forgiveness and peace.”
She said the Quran is open to many interpretations. “For me, personally,” she said, “the Quran is a living document. Almost every verse ends with ‘and this is for those who can reflect,’ ‘for those who can think.’
“I am a student of Islam, like the rest of us,” Ghoneim said. “Islam is a way of life from the moment you wake up until you go to bed. It is how you treat each other, how you are a good father, mother, sister, brother, worker, a good human being.
Muhammad said she is saddened by people who use Islam as a reason to commit horrible crimes. “They bring religion into the spotlight to commit horrible atrocities in the world,” she said. “I have to ask myself daily, what book are these fools reading? It sure isn’t the same Quran I read and have come to love in my heart.”