North American Muslims elect first female president

More on the election of Dr. Mattson as president of ISNA:

Source: Houston Chronicle

Aug. 28, 2006, 5:22PM

Muslim group picks first woman leader
By Rachel Zoll AP Religion Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press

The first woman president of the largest Muslim group in North America says that she’s proud of her community for electing her.

Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam and an Islamic law scholar at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, was chosen to lead the Islamic Society of North America just ahead of its annual convention, which starts Friday in Rosemont, Ill.

“This is a community that can choose to be whatever it wishes to be, unlike many other Muslims throughout the world who don’t live in democratic societies,” Mattson said Monday in a phone interview from Chicago. “I think it shows what Muslims can do and would like to do.”

Formed in 1963, the Islamic Society is an umbrella group that represents Muslim associations for youth, college students, engineers and others, and also provides support to Muslim chaplains and North American mosques. Its annual meeting regularly draws more than 30,000 people.

The president serves a two-year term, leading the society’s committees and executive boards that set policy through consultation with its members. Mattson’s election was announced late Friday. The organization, based in Plainfield, Ind., has received a few e-mails objecting to her election since then, “but it’s a very small minority,” Mattson said.

“It was our membership who elected me,” she said. “I wasn’t foisted upon their community. Really, this is their choice.”

American Muslims hold varied cultural views on the proper role for women in the faith and disagree on how to interpret Quranic verses about the subject.

Most recently, the community has been debating how far mosques should go in separating men and women during worship and whether women should lead mixed-gender prayer. There is no tradition of women imams, or clerics, at mosques. Still, women have had prominent roles outside of ritual services, founding and leading some Islamic groups throughout North America.

The Islamic Society president is only rarely called upon to lead mixed-gender congregational prayer, and Mattson will not do so, Sayyid Syeed, who directs national interfaith and community relations for the group.

“That does not in any way limit her role as president,” Syeed said.

Mattson, who wears a hijab in public that hides her hair and neck, said she does not object to the limitation and will only lead public ritual worship for women.

“My position is that women can do virtually everything else that Muslim men can do, but leading the prayer is always relational,” she said. “It should be about who’s in the room.”

Asra Nomani, author of “Standing Alone in Mecca,” who is lobbying to end strict gender separation during worship, called the society’s leaders “courageous” for choosing Mattson and said her election was “a real victory for women in the Muslim world.”

“She may not deliver the Friday sermon,” said Nomani, referring to the Muslim day of worship, “but she will be key in defining the message of the largest Muslim organization in North America.”

Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Mattson’s election was significant for another reason. He noted that North American Muslim organizations are generally led by members of the ethnic immigrant groups that founded them. Choosing a North American convert and Islamic scholar shows a new openness, Safi said.

“Let’s hope that it marks an important shift,” Safi said.

Mattson, a married mother of two, earned a bachelor’s degree in Canada from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago.

She has previously served as the Islamic Society vice president and succeeds Sheik Muhammad Nur Abdullah, director for the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, as president.

ISNA Heading in the Right Direction

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

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