For nine years Ameena Jandali, 41, of El Cerrito has been going out into the community, mostly to high schools, to educate Americans on the basics of Islam.
After Sept. 11 her task has become easier in some ways and harder in others.
“We’ve been trying to teach people about Ramadan for years and Mr. Bush did it for us in one month,” said Jandali, who spoke to a group of mostly retired citizens at a Berkeley City Club luncheon last Friday.
The challenge for anyone like Jandali is that many Americans view Muslim women as oppressed and living like second-class citizens. And the images that people see in the media do little to inform people otherwise.
“Second only to terrorists is the question of women in Islam as one of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam,” said Jandali.
In Jandali’s world, women are not oppressed by men. They are equals excelling as doctors, engineers and scientists. They have a separate identity and control any money they might earn.
“Most of my friends are in the sciences. Women often put their careers on hold when children are young, although some continue to work because of economics,” said Jandali.
Jandali sees herself as a moderate and acknowledges that there would be some who would condemn her for standing up in front of a group and talking. From her perspective, it is not the Koran that has created the current climate for women, but cultural and political developments.
“In the last 20th century with the fall of Muslim rulers…the older generations wholeheartedly rejected traditions but the youth are doing the opposite,” said Jandali.
It is the reaction to the economic and social problems, and the export of western culture that breeds radicalism and a reaction to the west said Jandali.
She says she experienced the schism when she married her husband, a practicing Muslim from Syria. Initially her mother-in-law was very upset when her son chose a woman who covered herself.
“She had spent her whole life uncovering,” said Jandali.
But since their marriage, her mother-in-law has returned to wearing the veil.
Ironically, it is this same issue that is so controversial among other Americans, even some in her audience at the Berkeley City Club.
“Why would a woman conceal her body regardless,” commented Dennis Kuby, 68, a Berkeley resident who was in attendance. “Women are worse than second-class citizens.”
Kuby, a Unitarian Minister by profession, has traveled to Turkey and Bahrain and called himself a long-time feminist.
Doris Balfour, 73, of Berkeley said she continues to believe some of what she’s read and heard in the media. “I haven’t met too many Muslim people,” said Balfour, “and I think it’s not as rosy as she presents it in the Middle East.”
Even if questions remained in the audience members minds, many agreed that the talk had been educational given their limited knowledge and access to information about Muslim women.
“I think she was attempting to describe Islam as she believes it is identified as a religion,” said Linda Gustafson, of Berkeley, “She viewed the practices as cultural in nature and the press doesn’t differentiate what is culturally inappropriate as identified by the religion.”