A group of American Muslim women discuss their cultural challenges living in America at the Oakland City Hall.

In Oakland, panelists discuss challenges for Muslim women in America

on March 15, 2013

At an event organized by the League of Women Voters Oakland (LWVO) on Wednesday, three women talked about their experiences of being Muslims in America, and discussed what can be done to overcome the challenges their community faces today, including the fear of Islam in American society.

With International Women’s Day being celebrated on March 8, the league wanted to discuss more about women’s position in America, especially the position of Muslim women. ‘’As a minority, it’s important to speak up. To share and discuss the problems we face will hopefully lead to a better understanding,’’ said Syeda Reshma Inamdar, one of the league’s board members.

According to a poll done last August by the Arab American Institute in Washington, 22 percent of Americans don’t want Muslims as their neighbors, and 35 percent of Americans admit they get afraid when they see a Muslim man on the plane. ‘’I feel like people don’t give us a chance anymore—all the bad things that happen are because of Muslims. I am here to break the stereotype and to be heard by the people that are here today. All of them are our ambassadors,’’ said Samina Sundas, one of the speakers.

About 30 people attended the event, mostly members of the league and some students. The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in society by organizing events like Wednesday’s panel.

Sundas is the founder and executive director of American Muslim Voice, a group that hopes to bridge cultural and religious gaps between Muslims and people of other faiths. Sundas is originally from Pakistan and said her goal is to fight fears of Muslims and Islam. “We, as Muslims, are being put in boxes and we should fight to get out and help each other to get out,” she said. “I don’t want Americans to be ‘tolerant’ towards Muslims, because tolerance is the bare minimum. You won’t get very far from there. Human beings should be cherished, and thus Muslims should be cherished.”

Several speakers discussed the significance of the September 11 attacks on the way Muslims are perceived in America. “Before 9/11 we were an invisible minority, quite a silent group,” said Sundas. “9/11 created much fear for Muslims.”

Aisha Wahab, of the Alameda County Human Relations Commission and Health Commission, said her parents fled from Afghanistan and came to the United States before she was born. When her parents died, she was adopted by another Afghan-American family.

‘The event of 9/11 definitely plays a role in the challenges I face today,” she said. “Since then, people look at me differently. I was not only Afghan, but also Muslim: Enemy number one. I was being judged for something I didn’t even understand myself. It confused me and what I didn’t like is how Islam and Muslims were constantly referred to as ‘terrorists’ in the media. We should create an open dialogue and interact with each other to overcome this challenge. Reaching out and being part of society is very important.”

Another topic they discussed was how they dealt with differing cultural expectations. Inamdar, of the league’s board, said her parents decided to leave India and come to the United States when she was a child.

‘’I was brought up by well educated, but conservative parents. They struggled to maintain the values of the country they came from and on the other hand adopt new, more liberal values,” she said. “I had to fight for everything I wanted. I studied anthropology and my parents always wondered why I didn’t choose law. I was in an arranged marriage at 21 and it took me 28 years to find out it wasn’t the right thing to do for me. I was never allowed to date guys when I was young, but I’m finally learning what it’s like to date. I feel free to do what I want, because I engage with community, I am part of it. Engagement is a solution for Muslim women to feel more free.’’

Sundas started by opening her home to Americans around her. Since then her work with public speaking and her writing have focused on developing community between people of diverse faiths.

“I’m proud of being American and I’m proud of being Afghan,” said Wahab. “There are many cultural differences, but I too prefer to focus on similarities. Fighting for freedom and equality is one of them.”

The League of Women Voters’ next event will be on March 26, when the league has planned a discussion on the Gateway Park and the Bay Trail along the Oakland waterfront. It will take place at the California Federation of Teachers office at 1330 Broadway, Suite 1601, Oakland.

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