Celebrating Extraordinary Muslim Women

March 11, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Salma Hasan Ali

Washington, DC – On 10 March, three Muslim women will be honoured alongside philanthropist Melinda French Gates and human rights activists Panmelo Castro from Brazil and Rebecca Lolosoli from Kenya, by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, DC-based organisation that works to empower women around the world.

The need to recognise the work of Muslim women is important. Type the search terms “Muslim women” or “women in Islam” online and chances are that a majority of English-language hits will consist of stories relating to what Muslim women wear on their heads or how women in Muslim-majority countries are subjected to physical abuse, or subjugated under the false pretext of religious principle.

But there is another side to Muslim women that is too infrequently recognised, reported or discussed. The Vital Voices Global Partnership awards ceremony, taking pl ace two days after International Women’s Day, provides an opportunity to celebrate this not uncommon, yet too frequently overshadowed, side to Muslim women.

Andeisha Farid grew up in a refugee camp outside Afghanistan. As a teenager, she lived in a Pakistani hostel for six years, where she studied and tutored others. In 2008, at the age of 25, she started her own non-profit organisation, the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), in Kabul. Today, AFCECO runs ten orphanages in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over 450 children of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

In a country where non-governmental organisations that work with women and girls are frequently targeted by religious extremists, Andeisha is constantly on guard. But she remains committed to providing Afghan children not only with food and shelter, but with a sense of mutual respect, regardless of ethnic differences, a feeling of khak – connection to the earth as their homeland – and a s ense of empowerment to shape their own future, and that of their country.

“The happy faces of these children give me hope,” she says. “It helps me conquer fear.”

Afnan Al Zayani is a wife, mother, social activist, television personality and CEO of a multi-million dollar business. It’s no wonder that Forbes and Arabian Business magazine call her one of the most powerful women in the Middle East. In addition, she helped ensure the first written personal status law that protects the rights of Muslim women in cases of divorce and child custody was passed in Bahrain.

She attributes her ability to juggle so many responsibilities to her strong faith. “God will judge us on whether we use our gifts of life and health towards good or evil,” she says. Immaculately dressed in her hijab, or headscarf, she shatters the Western stereotype of the downtrodden Muslim woman. Her guiding philosophy: “Live your life as if you will live forever; live yo ur day as if you will die tomorrow.”

Then there is Roshaneh Zafar. While studying development economics at Yale University in the United States, she came across the story of Khairoon, a woman in Bangladesh who owned only one sari. Khairoon borrowed $100 from the microfinance organisation Grameen Bank to invest in a business, and now owns a sweetshop, a poultry farm, a call centre – and a collection of colourful saris.

Roshaneh met Khairoon many years after her initial loan, and saw firsthand the miracle of microfinance in changing women’s lives. She decided to start a microfinance organisation in Pakistan called Kashf, which means “miracle”. It is now the third largest microfinance organisation in Pakistan, with 300,000 clients and a goal to reach more than half a million in the next four years.

Roshaneh’s message encapsulates the sentiment of many: “Women matter to the world. We need not accept the status quo. Freeing the world of poverty and disenfranchisement of women is possible. But it will only happen when 50 per cent of the world’s population is allowed to recognise its latent strength.”

It is these stories that must be reported, not only to herald the achievements of remarkable women, but to dispel falsely created perceptions of the role of Islam in defining the fate of Muslim women.

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* Salma Hasan Ali is a Washington, DC-based writer focusing on promoting understanding between the West and the Muslim world. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s On Faith and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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Muslim Society of Paraná Celebrates 50th Anniversary

August 16, 2007 by · 1 Comment 

Established to provide support to the Muslims arriving at the city of Curitiba, the organisation currently promotes various cultural, educational and religious activities, acting as a reference point to those who want to learn about Arab and Islamic culture.

Courtesy Omar Nasser, ANBA News Agency

Curitiba – A solemnity to be held on Friday evening (10th) will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Muslim Beneficent Society of the State of Paraná (SBMPR), in southern Brazil. The event will bring together, at the seat of the organisation in Curitiba (capital of Paraná), immigrants, descendents, and relatives, as well as municipal and state-level officials. The members of the Islamic society who have rendered relevant services to the SBMPR throughout these 50 years will be awarded diplomas of Highest Honour.

The minutes of the organisation’s foundation date from July 28th, 1957. “The objective, at that time, was for the Beneficent Society to provide support to the Arab immigrants who started arriving here, in greater number, after the end of World War Two,” explains Jamil Ibrahim Iskandar, the current president. Being a Lebanese immigrant himself, Iskandar recalls that the pioneers had no relatives to help them and, in many cases, did not even know the Portuguese language.

Presently, SBMPR carries out a series of activities of cultural, educational, and religious nature, such as lectures, conferences, and exhibitions. Operating in the premises is an elementary school– the Brazilian-Arab School of Curitiba – and a nursery school. In the evening, Arabic language classes are held. “One can safely say that the Society is now a reference point, not only to the Muslim community in Curitiba and Paraná, but also to the Brazilians who want to learn about Arab and Islamic culture,” says Iskandar.

Currently living in Curitiba are approximately 1,500 Muslims, including immigrants, descendents, and converted Brazilians. The majority of Arab Muslims living in the city is of Lebanese descent, followed by Palestinians and Syrians. Among the Lebanese, there is s significant presence of people originally from the cities of Hermel and Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, as well as from the cities of Khirbat Roha and Jezzini, among others. In a recent trip to Curitiba, the then-resigning Lebanese minister of Labour, Trad Hammadeh, was puzzled by the fact that he found, in the city, the preserved accent of the Hermel region, which no longer exists even in Lebanon.

Early on, SBMPR operated from a leased building, in downtown Curitiba, next to the Tiradentes Square. As immigrants would achieve economic stability, they started having financial conditions to afford a property of their own in which to base the organisation. By 1964, the seat of the SBMPR was already established in a solidly built masonry building, where it remains to date. The building has an ample auditorium, rooms for the teaching of the Quran, offices, and an apartment to accommodate travellers.

In addition to the seat of the SBMPR, the Muslim community in Curitiba counts on a Mosque, which bears the name of Imam Ali ibn Abi Tálib, an homage to the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. In 2007, it will be 35 years since the temple was inaugurated. Another important milestone of Muslim Arab immigration to Curitiba is Cemitério Jardim de Allah (“Garden of Allah Cemetery”). Located in the industrial city of Curitiba, the cemetery occupies a spacious area and has a wake room with bathrooms and a kitchen.

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