Muslim conferences across America have been successfully engaging the Muslim communities for decades now, but last weekend’s Dallas event was groundbreaking. F.e.m.m.e conference was launched as the first annual educational conference for women, by women. “Femme” is a French word meaning “Woman,” but as an acronym in English as Alia Salem, Femme Chair, said: “the word carries a deeper meaning that describes the goals and objectives of this conference.” Hence, F.e.m.m.e stands for female engagement & modern Muslimah empowerment: The Muslimah awakening, a new dawn of female engagement and contribution.
The one day conference at the gorgeous Omni Mandalay Hotel in Las Colinas on Saturday November 24th included presentations, lectures, and panel discussions on a variety of topics that included family relationships, domestic violence, Islamic scholarship, Western media representations of Muslim women, the role of Muslim women in the media, activism for the modern Muslim woman, the independence of the Muslim woman, and the importance of positive networking as part of a professional Muslim woman’s life.
Speakers included Azizah magazine founding editor-in-chief, ms. Tayyibah Taylor, who was named as one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Middle Eastern think tank The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies. Azizah magazine is the winner of a 2010 Folio Eddie Award and a 2009 New America Media Award. Ms. Taylor shared with the f.e.m.m.e audience her expertise in media, and explained how power of cultural domination dictates the national discourse, hence resulting in negative representations of Muslim women in Western media. “We have been defined by the worst of us,” Taylor said, meaning that Muslims have been stereotyped as a result of the actions of the few bad members of their faith.
Another speaker representing the media at f.e.m.m.e was ms. Sana Syed, Communication Coordinator for the City of Arlington and former CBS 11 reporter. F.e.m.m.e also included an uplifting presentation by ms. Yasmin Hussein, Young Leaders program Coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C. “Civic engagement is not your right, it’s your duty,” said Hussein addressing the diverse women in the audience.
Discussing the role of women in Islamic scholarship, ms. Zaynab Ansari who teaches at the online educational initiative, Seekers Guidance, freelances for several magazines, and volunteers for the Islamic Speakers Bureau in Atlanta, raised this question: “Where are the female scholars in the thousands of books offered in bookstores?” Historically, Muslim women have contributed a wealth of religious knowledge and scholarship as well as taught many men who later became famous revered scholars. “We’re not utilizing women’s talents effectively,” Ansari added. She questioned the oppression of the Muslim woman and said that the modern lack in female scholarship is not only caused by men who oppress women, but it is because some women choose not to go out in public and contribute out of modesty preferences. Joining the conference via the web, ms. Shamira Chothia Ahmed gave examples of the many women scholars throughout Muslim history. There are more than 8,000 Hadith (Prophet Muhammad’s Sayings) transmitters among Muslim women. On the issue of Hijab, the Muslim head covering for women, ms. Ahmed commented: “it is the female power of turning off” her body’s attraction.
A panel session discussing domestic violence issues in the American Muslim community hosted a number of speakers and specialists, among them Dallas’ own Dr. Hind Jarrah, Co-Founder of the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation; Dr. Masuma Rasheed, a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas; ms. Zaynab Ansari; and Dr. Naseem Sharieff, a pediatrician and counselor. They concluded that Islam condemns domestic violence and that a Muslim woman has an essential right to her dignity. The Qur’anic verse in chapter 4: 34 which is misinterpreted by many misogynists as permission to use physical force against wives is misread and taken out of historical and cultural context.
Via a web session, f.e.m.m.e. hosted ms. Yasmin Mogahed, an independent media consultant, a writer for the Huffing Post, and a spiritual activist. Her message to the audience addressed how Islam regards marriage as part of faith and worship. Marriage is a character builder, Mogahed said. The tranquility and peace that the Qur’an mentions in marriage as a sign from God, are the indicators that point Muslims to the direction of the right path, just as traffic signs direct us to the lawful path. On the difference between love and lust, Mogahed said that when the relationship brings us closer to God, it is love; when it takes us away from God, (i.e. unlawful relationship) then it is lust.
During the event’s evening Gala, participants were treated to an inspirational talk by Dr. Naseem Sharieff who talked about reaching balance in a woman’s life. The first priority for a Muslim woman is her spiritual connection with God. Then comes her health, then her family. A short fundraiser benefiting sustainable projects for women and an auction concluded the event which closed the day but left the dozens of women in attendance in awe and inspiration, looking forward to another successful event next year.
F.e.m.m.e was sponsored this year by Baitulmaal, an Irving based non-profit organization that supports sustainable projects for women. “Since 2004, Baitulmaal has seen first-hand the desperate need to uplift and empower women, both here in the U.S. and abroad. They often face extreme injustice, yet are more than likely the sole caregivers and providers for their families. With a strong desire to help address the lack of support and understanding for women in a way that upholds the teachings and values of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, the F.E.M.M.E conference was born,” Alia Salem said.
Beyond delivering uplifting, empowering, and inspirational messages for women and by women, the conference succeeded in spreading awareness of social and economic problems that Muslim women face globally. Through such educational initiatives, the Dallas Muslim community is not the only side to benefit, but also the American culture, society, and nation at large will benefit from the engagement and contributions of such citizens. Most significantly, the conference is the brainchild of a group of young American Muslim women. This says a lot about the future of this community. And now what? Now Dallas should watch and look forward to the awakening trend among its Muslim women;it’s time for engagement and contribution. It’s f.e.m.m.e time…