Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Keep Women Out of Your Da'wah Project

I feel connected to American Muslim Da'wah Projects, having found Islam and grown as a Muslim with the help of volunteers working for Islam here in the US. Through networks of da'ees spanning the country, and even the globe, I've seen countless people find and embrace Islam. And the diversity of people seeking information about Islam requires a diverse pool of volunteers who can connect with them.

Unfortunately, now and again a da'wah project, or a voice within one, might seek to promote homogeneity among volunteers. But a da'ee in the USA is likely to face both men and women from different races, countries, and cultural backgrounds, and I think that an organization that doesn't include diversity in its volunteers is going to have trouble reaching an American audience. Specifically, a volunteer base that doesn't include women won't be effective in reaching women.

A majority of converts to Islam are women, so it seems strange to me that anyone giving da'wah would try to impede the participation of women in the da'wah effort. And it seems outright hypocritical to suggest that it's not appropriate for a Muslim woman to engage in dialogue about Islam--if it's wrong for a Muslim woman to talk to men to give da'wah, then how is it okay for a Muslim man to talk to women for the same purpose? Clearly the best approach is for women to be available to speak to women, and for men to be available to speak to men. And given that Islam is frequently under attack regarding its treatment of women, isn't it much more powerful for women themselves to dispel the common myths fueling those attacks, rather than men whose attitudes may inadvertently confirm them?

With women embracing Islam at three times the rate of men or more, we need more women giving da'wah, not less, who can answer the questions and provide follow-up to women learning about Islam. But I've still seen women prevented from being effective in da'wah by policies and more frequently by other volunteers who oppose their participation.  Here's some signs it might be happening in an organization you're working with.

1. Women are not invited to participate. 
This could happen a number of ways--is the organization really only open to a select "boys' club" of friends and colleagues, without inviting the community to participate generally? Is advertising restricted among a male-only circle via email, or in a masjid? If only men are being contacted to participate as volunteers, or serve on the board, then the crucial input of the community's sisters is being neglected.

2. If women come to your meetings, they must sit in another room. With the door closed. 
Segregation can go too far. Picture a board meeting taking place in one of two adjoining rooms, where all the male board members sit except for one sister who is expected to sit in the other room with the door closed--she can neither see the other board members nor hear them well, and cannot be seen or heard herself. I'm sure that in a professional setting, these men wouldn't dare suggest that their female coworkers sit in another room, so why ask it of female board members? Separation prevents a few flow of ideas and places a barrier not just to seeing the opposite sex but from their contributions. Literally locking women out does not encourage them to participate or to voice their ideas; it devalues their opinions. And even if they try to participate, physical barriers prevent them from being heard and taken seriously by other members. This is not professional, and it's not the way an organization should conduct itself. Meetings should be open for fluid communication where everyone's voice can be heard equally.

3. The email list is used to express disapproval with women's participation in the organization.
Politics do not belong on mailing lists--it's unprofessional and immature--and the mailing list of an organization or a da'wah project should be treated with utmost professionalism. Are the members not representing Islam, after all? Using the mailing list as a means to voice one's opinion cheapens the discourse and turns people off. Using it to protest the contributions of women is not only offensive but can sabotage the productivity of the organization. Sending articles to promote segregation and marginalization of women in other countries, for example, only serves to isolate and attack women volunteers. The way men and women are separated in Saudi Arabia, for instance, might work fine for the Saudis but as a model won't translate well in the USA. Arguing about how the Saudis do it is neither relevant to the work of da'wah nor beneficial to an American da'wah project.

There are many da'wah projects tailored to American audiences, taking into account the different culture and attitude volunteers might face here in the USA rather than in Muslim countries they might have come from. Participation of women is one factor that American da'wah workers need to consider--if they want to keep women out, I'm sure they can. A bad attitude and behavior like I mentioned will keep many away--myself included. But what kind of da'wah is that, really?


Umm Aaminah said...

Subhanallah. In my previous masjid, the dawah head was a sister and men were actually in the minority.

Everyone had an equal voice, we were all respectful, and we all sat at the same long table, men on one end and women at the other.

Just another reason I love my old masjid in Knoxville. Go Annoor! :-)

Amy said...

That sounds great--a lot like my masjid back in Raleigh as well, a sister heading the committee, meetings at a table with men and women just at different ends. It was so welcoming, easy to participate, and so much was accomplished.

Spending too much effort trying to join an organization leaves little energy to spend on the real cause, in my opinion.

Glad to hear you had a good experience, thanks for the comment!

Islam said...

What kind of Hijab?