18TH MAY, 2013
The second part of the exhibition was titled ‘Muslim Women: Countering Stereotypes’ and was held on Saturday the 18th of May. Here, four successful Muslim women spoke about their experiences and careers and how Islam has remained a part of them throughout their lives. The purpose of this was to alleviate the stereotype of Muslim women being ‘oppressed’ and ‘conventional’.
Sister Azidah got the ball rolling with her enlightening presentation. Azidah invited the audience to think about society’s expectations and stereotypes of women. That is – how do you characterise “successful women” or “good wives”? The audience responded with characteristics such as being ‘loyal’ and ‘supportive’.
She noted that everyone will have their own opinions and a range is to be expected. Muslims are instructed to live by the standards set by Allah in His revelation, the Holy Quran. So she spoke about the two women highly commended in the Quran – one a young lady and the other a wife. Azidah shared that the women were Mariam or the Virgin Mary as the West know her, and the other is the Pharaoh’s wife, or better known as the adopted mother of Prophet Moses/Musa. The wife of the Pharaoh refused to worship her husband and chose the one God instead. Mary was a young single mother who had to flee from her people because of her pregnancy. Azidah then asked the audience to reflect in what ways these two women fit the conventional ideas of successful or good women. Neither was what society would generally consider typical role models. In contrast these women stood out for their independence, courage and grace under difficult circumstances. Most important to them was being true to their Lord and Creator, rather than fulfilling society’s expectations of them.
There are many other women who meet the conventional ideas of good women and could easily have been picked as examples instead. Azidah concluded that in holding up these two women as examples, the Quran invites us to rethink what stereotypes we impose on ourselves and others. There will always be misconceptions and false standards. Like the two women we can choose to free ourselves by acting in the light of revealed guidance.
After this brilliant presentation Sister Laila El Assaad, a teacher at the Islamic College of SA, a SACE moderator, a wife and mother of three told her story. The first thing that Laila said was that she never felt any different to her non-Muslim friends. Her struggles were the same as other women. She told the guests about her family history and life growing up. Working at the Islamic college Laila is around young Muslims all day and she said she felt that the girls in her school were strong and resilient contrary to what the stereotype placed on them may be.
Melati Lum was the second speaker. Melati is currently working as a trial lawyer for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Melati is also a committee member of the Women’s Advisory Committee of SA Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission, and a board member of Islamic Foundation Australia. Melati’s main point is that Islam never stopped her from doing the things she wanted to do. She has had the opportunity to travel overseas and work with the UN. She has participated in sports such as taekwondo even with a hijab. While Melati no longer wears the hijab – this seemed surprising to some of the audience members – she explained that she wore it without trouble for 17 years. Her decision to remove it was a personal one.
Finally, Miriam Silva addressed the guests. Miriam participates in a number of boards, Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Muslim Women’s Association and Rotary as well as carrying a full-time job in the financial field. Miriam mentioned that she had grown up with Laila and Melati and had gone on a similar spiritual journey. Miriam’s presentation was more career focused but the three suggestions she gave for overcoming issues can be applied to life in general. These were to be yourself, hold yourself accountable for your actions and be of service to others; to have courage to move away from your comfort zone; to have mentors and seek advice from those who are more experienced than yourself.
After the presentations the guests were introduced to Elham who was demonstrating and displaying some of her calligraphy art work. Elham has a BA in theology, and completed a course in Traditional wood art and Traditional music in Iran.
When we returned to the meeting room, the ladies happily answered questions about their careers and the Islamic faith. Many of the questions were regarding stereotypes about Muslim women and how they can be overcome. The main messages that came from this discussion were that there are over a billion Muslims in the world, we cannot generalize among one billion people. The event ended on a happy note at around 4:30pm with more conversations amongst guests and speakers.