Friday, July 12, 2013

In the Company of (mostly white) Men: Interfaith Iftar

Although the American Islamic College is only a few blocks from our temple, I finally went there for the first time for their interfaith Iftar dinner last night. They had invited me to events a couple times last year but I had to decline because I was too busy dealing with family matters. When they invited me for this event, I felt I would make the effort to go despite my long list of things to get done for the temple.

I was relieved of much of my nervousness about venturing into a new place when I was greeted by Akiko. She is a young Muslim woman that I met two years ago at an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the earthquake-tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan (the area where Akiko is from). Most of the early arrivals for the Iftar dinner were men – clergy and faculty from the Catholic Theological Union and Lutheran School of Theology, both institutions being honored at the dinner for their long history of dialogue and cooperation with the American Islamic College. Eventually a few more women arrived, such as the protestant chaplains I chatted with.

The women of AIC were quite busy with putting on the program – one as the announcer, others as audio-visual technicians, photographers, food service managers etc. Almost all like Akiko wore headscarfs (hijab) and colorful flowing outfits that completely covered arms and legs. Yet they moved as efficiently in their tasks as athletes in tank tops and shorts. The speakers who came to the podium, however, were all men.

At one point the program had to be put on hold because it was officially sundown and the Ramadan daily fast was to be broken with everyone taking a drink of water and eating a date. Then we went upstairs from the dining hall to the mosque for prayers. I can’t help thinking how wonderful it must be to live in a Muslim country when you hear the beautiful chanting of the calls to prayer from morning to night. It’s almost like being onstage in an opera with gorgeous arias filling the air around you.

In the mosque, the men went to the front of the room while I followed the women going off to one side behind a standing rattan screen. The screen wasn’t meant to be a wall – we could easily see the men through and around it. Some people might say otherwise, but to me it felt like we women had a special corner reserved for us. The Muslim women lined up in a row to do their bowing and we of other faiths stood behind them. Yet it felt like we were all one group, united in sisterhood. In most gender-integrated settings, even if women are in the majority their presence is easily diluted by the men asserting their will to be acknowledged.

After the service, we were served a tasty dinner and the program resumed with more men speaking at the podium. Except for the Mediterranean complexion of the Eastern Orthodox bishop, all the other men called to the podium to accept awards for their interfaith work had Anglo faces. While hearing the long resumes of each one and listening to their eloquent speeches, it dawned on me that I was invited as an affirmative action token – someone with lightweight qualifications but as a woman and racial minority my appearance would provide visual proof of diversity.


(Turkish painting I received as gift from the American Islamic College)

I hadn’t prepared a fancy speech because I assumed at an interfaith event I would just have to offer some prayerful words. As preface to reading the Dhammapada selection about non-violence, I condemned the Buddhists in Burma who were terrorizing the Muslim minority.

            Seeing myself in others, then whom can I hurt?

            The person who seeks happiness in hurting those who also seek happiness

            Will never find happiness …

            The one who lives in quietness and virtue, who has ceased to harm all other beings,

            He, even if he wears fine clothes, is a true seeker

After the event ended, I talked with Akiko and the other AIC women and it seemed to them I wasn’t a token but their representative as serious women in religion. Even though the male awardees acknowledged the women in their organizations who helped in the cause of interfaith understanding, somehow there was no big effort to get awards for them. Anyone in the religious world knows women are very involved – even an all-male monastery couldn’t operate without the donations and volunteer services of women supporters. Maybe it’s time for the spotlight to shine more on the behind-the-scenes females and people of color and less on the light-skinned front men.