At the previous two interfaith conferences at Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University, I wrote at length about my experiences, but now I’m too swamped with my temple duties to spend much time on my blog. At this year’s conference, the speaker who impressed me as very dynamic and knowledgeable was Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain and scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston. I was fortunate to hear her at two panels where she did PowerPoint and video presentations. What was refreshing for me to hear was someone speak unapologetically about feminism as a current concern, not as a bra-burning fad back in the hippie era.
One example Professor Ahmad gave of the present-day feminist fight is the attempt by Western societies such as in France to ban women from wearing traditional Muslim clothing in public. Those authorities claim they want to liberate Muslim women from the “oppression” of their culture, but as Prof. Ahmad pointed out, it is the authorities who want to oppress all women by dictating that they should dress so that men can to look at them. Prof. Ahmad said the argument that women must uncover themselves in public for identification purposes doesn’t hold water because Islamic law allows for women to show their faces to be identified in specific cases such as providing testimony as a witness at a trial.
Just because many religious institutions are patriarchic doesn’t mean the religious teachings oppress women. Throughout history and all over the world, religion has liberated women because they have a higher principle to look to which overrides the commands of their fathers, husbands and sons. In the description of Christian marriage it may seem like the wife is asked to totally obey her husband, but it actually gives her an out from her husband’s rule if the husband is not faithfully following God (e.g. if he’s abusing and cheating his fellow humans).
As in the case of my past visits to NEIU, I continue to be impressed by the young Muslim women who help organize the conferences. I envy their strength – to speak up for themselves and telling people to respect them for their minds, not to ogle them as physical objects. Although I’m so many decades older than them, I was probably thinking the same thing they were: “I want to be Tahera Ahmad when I grow up.”
Just a side note – in my presentation at the conference I talked about how a large number of Boy Scouts are Buddhists and that part of the reason is being open-minded about saying “God” in the oath. In this blog entry title, I could easily say “Bowing down to tariki-hongan.” Although many Buddhists consider themselves atheists, in interfaith relations we need to respect other people’s reverence toward a higher being they call God or Allah etc.