Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Blog

By Mehrunisa Qayyum

Founder - PITAPOLICY Consulting

Males made up about 30 percent of the audience attending the White House Office for Public Diplomacy Engagement event on the history of Muslim women held on May 30th. Males that attended were mainly Muslim, with a handful of scholarly non-Muslim male types. But I am not so much worried about the Muslim men in this case. I am more concerned that non-Muslim men were not the target audience. Moreover, the opportunity to invite various groups within the more right-wing Christian churches would have been a great complement to inviting members from the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Non-Muslim organizations, like the Arab American Institute, were invited, why not run with the cross-section theme to mirror the American audience?

White House Executive Director of Public Diplomacy, Paul Monteiro, and his office coordinated with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the DC-based charitable organization, Karamah of the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation to invite a variety of American Muslims to attend.

Regarding male attendance, I was actually impressed because that seems typical of events focusing on women’s issues--regardless of country culture. I will not attribute the lower attendance to reasons such as the event appeal to housewives, thereby attracting more women who have the opportunity to take time off from work to attend. In fact, most of the women in the audience were working professionals or graduate students who took time off from their busy schedules to reflect upon the women who participated in public life before them. Also, down the hall, there was a separate security briefing, which was predominantly male. Therefore, men do leave their offices to come down to Pennsylvania Avenue to reflect upon the men who participated in public life before them--dare I say in conflict and war. So I will respectfully disengage from the gender observation at this point.

By engaging the non-Muslim group--and in particular the subset of male patriarchs in churches--Americans are also tackling the other side of the ongoing disconnect in the “building bridges” landscape. Take for example the Murfeesboro, Tennessee church that opposes mosque construction, because as educated female critics told Soledad O’Brien in the Muslims Next Door , “Muslims oppress their women” and related that the solution is that “Muslims should assimilate.” If they could have heard a Tunisian scholar, like Dr. Mouniera Charrad identify the social and political actors who have argued for reforms, then they could pose their misguided questions to her and hear other informed Muslims discuss the competing ideologies even among feminists, like Nadia Yassin, in Morocco. By receiving an official White House invitation to engage on their fears, mosque-fearing activists would realize that their views are not government-sanctioned American views.

I draw attention to the mosque fearing activists because so much of the “building bridges” programming and efforts demonstrate great enthusiasm and involved great intentions, but such energy is dedicated towards “preaching to the choir,” or American citizens who embrace the “other,” minorities, or enjoy having their kids play with kids from different backgrounds.

This is not inter-faith; rather the effort is engaging faith communities in a secular setting led by non-religious heads. This happens every day at the bureaucratic, civic, and neighborly level as we pay our taxes, register to vote, and offer to carpool to simply lead a respectful life. And maybe barbecue in our backyards--if we have time.

Also, by highlighting the initiatives that Muslim women are leading on documenting the Muslim woman’s experience, Muslim women become less of a museum specimen and more of a dialogue participant, which drives the mission of Karamah.

Ironically, the one question from a male attendee asked about women’s roles in conflict-ridden countries, like Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia surfaced somewhere in that question, but it lacked concrete examples of Saudi Arabia’s vitriolic rhetoric and practices to press pause on women’s right to vote, run for office, drive, start a business without a male’s consent, etc.

“You can only experience the world through perspectives...not objectively,” explained Dr. Afsaneh Nagmabadi. On that note, the White House is right to engage in public diplomacy programs at home among its citizens. Why not mix up the audience a little bit more so they can experience the perspective that they will not get from their regular television and radio programming? In fact, a positive development came from holding this forum: the few non-Muslim attendees asked to collaborate on a future project to document the history of Muslim women. Efforts like this will expand the National Endowment for Humanities ability to weave the varied perspectives into the human narrative--not just another museum exhibit.

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