Washington, 18 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of an American-Muslin organization says Muslim women are both powerful and capable, but are often not aware of the many rights granted to them by Islam.
Talibah Jilani is the executive director of Kamilat -- a U.S.-based international women's relief organization focusing on the social, economic, academic and spiritual empowerment of Muslim women. Jilani told RFE/RL in an interview that the organization chose the name Kamilat because it is an Arabic term meaning "those feminine who are perfect."
Jilani explains: "At Kamilat, we believe that anyone can find a positive role model in the preeminence of the Four Perfect Women -- Asiya, the wife of Pharoah; Maryam Um 'Isa, the mother of Jesus; Khadija tul Kubra, wife of the prophet Muhammad, and Fatimah Zahra, daughter of the prophet Muhammad."
Jilani says Kamilat was founded eight months ago partly in order to dispel myths in America and around the world that Muslim women are submissive, passive and dependent. She says nothing could be further from the truth. She adds that as far back as the sixth century, Islam afforded certain inalienable rights to women -- all of which stand today.
Jilani says that among the most important divine rights given to women by Islam are: life, respect, inheritance, self-select a husband, draft a pre-nuptial agreement and accept or reject any point therein, retain their surname after marriage, not marry, practice birth control, divorce, manage her own personal, social and financial affairs, pursue a career, own and operate a business, employ and work alongside men, preside as a judge and issue legal judgments, testify in a court of law, vote and run for political office, lead women in prayer, travel, and address public gatherings.
Says Jilani: "Muslim women don't know how powerful they are. They are not fully aware of the power that God has given them. They are not aware of the power that Islam has given them. So, we are working hard to dispel a lot of myths that non-Muslims have about Muslim women, and to actually enhance the awareness of Muslim women by helping them to stand a little bit taller and be ambassadors of their faith and be comfortable in their identity as Muslim women."
Jilani says that while Kamilat is a women's organization and works toward empowering women, its members are not feminists. Instead, she says that Kamilat's issues are largely community-based matters such as youth mentoring, literacy, health, parenting, domestic violence and public service.
Jilani explains: "While women have a right to resolve all of these issues -- and these issues certainly impact women and their families -- they are not exclusively women's issues."
Jilani says her organization was lucky to receive wide exposure at the recent world Islamic unity conference held in Washington at the beginning of August. Muslims from all over the world attended the conference, including more than 25 religious leaders from Albania, Kosova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
Jilani says Kamilat sponsored several conference panels including one on meeting the challenges of parenting in the 1990's, educating Muslim children, and an issue not often talked about in Muslim homes -- domestic violence. Jilani says Kamilat members handed out about 6,000 pieces of literature on the dangers of domestic violence, as well as how to get help and counseling.
Jilani also says a Kamilat-sponsored panel called "Myths and Realities of Marriage in Islam" was especially well-attended. Explains Jilani: "There was standing room only and we had provided seating for 800 people. I'd say there were about 950 people in the room."
According to Jilani, panel members talked about the right of women to reject or accept marital arrangements, draft prenuptial agreements, and negotiate each and every point of the marital relationship.
The advisory board of Kamilat is impressive and includes Nadine Sultana D'Osman Han, the granddaughter of Sultan Hamid II -- the last acting Ottoman Caliph; Princess Raja Eleena of Malaysia; Umra and Tahirah Mohammed, founders of the Intercultural Alliance of Islamic Arts and Education; and Ebrahim Moosa, the director of the Centre for Contemporary Islam in South Africa.
Jilani says eventually her organization intends to reach out to all Muslim communities around the world.
In regards to American's perceptions of Muslims, Jilani says it varies broadly across the U.S. Bigger cities like New York and Washington seem to be more Muslim-friendly, she says, because there are already large Muslim communities there.
But Jilani says it is Muslim women who usually face the most curiosity, hostility or interest in the U.S. because in their head scarves, veils and clothing of their respective cultures, they are far more visible than Muslim men. As a result, Jilani says the Muslim community in the U.S. needs to rally behind its women and help Americans better understand Muslim customs, traditions and religion.
Says Jilani: "Our main agenda is to change the perception of Muslim women both within the American-Muslim community and the broader American mindset. How Muslim women are perceived in terms of their independence and ability to be free-thinkers and control their affairs -- which are all rights that have been given to Muslim women in Islam. We hope to enhance the awareness of Muslim women regarding a number of issues facing them in this country, facing the women and their families, and provide options for them on how to resolve these issues. We don't want to tell anyone how to think or how to reach their obvious conclusions, but just to guide them along the way, point them in the right direction."