A Message from
Rev. Ellen Debenport,
Hearts Melt Quickly
Someone had to ask the question. I was in a roomful of women in a Muslim mosque. We had been invited to learn more about Islam, and beautiful women in veils were explaining the practice of Ramadan as the sun set on another day of fasting. We had only a few minutes left before prayer time. I had to ask:
What is the deal with women in Islam? I have fought so hard in my lifetime for equality. This is America! How can Muslim women submit to men?
I didn’t use those exact words, of course, but they knew exactly what I was thinking. The hostess answered, then various Muslim women took me aside during the rest of the evening to add their two cents. “You’re the one who asked the question about equality…” they began. They seemed grateful for a chance to explain.
Women and men are equal in the eyes of God, they said, but human beings have different roles on the earth. Several of the women claimed they have the better deal. A man is expected to support a family entirely, while for a woman, a paying job is optional, and she may or may not contribute her wages to the household. Women are educated equally and may be doctors, lawyers, whatever they choose. Women also have the special blessing of giving birth, and responsibility for the children is theirs. Family is key. They are tending the future by caring for the children.
Wearing head scarves is optional, they said; women are not being kept under wraps. They value their modesty and don’t want to be judged by their appearance “like some Hollywood celebrity”, one woman told me. They are patterning themselves after the Virgin Mary, who is portrayed in art as demure and modest and was certainly blessed in the eyes of God
I was fascinated. This was the iftar or fast-breaking meal that is celebrated after the sun sets each day during the month of Ramadan. Muslims do not eat or drink all day and make a special effort to avoid impatience or harsh words. Like Lent in the Christian tradition, Ramadan is not so much about physical denial but “has been prescribed for you … so that you may become Al-Muttaqun (God-conscious)”, says the Koran.
The Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano invited about 100 guests to what I gradually realized was a brilliant PR blitz. They want as many people as possible to know who Muslims truly are. The female guests were mostly schoolteachers whose classrooms include Muslim children. The association also has established a speakers bureau to send Muslim representatives to schools, law enforcement, churches and corporations.
They believe the best way to establish harmony is simply to let people know them. We were warmly welcomed and well fed, given books and DVDs about Islam, and offered answers to any question. I left feeling honored, appreciated and warm toward Muslims.
Of course, I knew Islam is not a religion of terror. But driving home, I recognized other ignorance and assumptions I’d been holding. My view of Muslim women came largely from what I’d seen of the Taliban in Afghanistan, an aberration that confused tyranny with religious principles. One short evening with a few Muslims shifted my outlook forever. Is it really as simple as getting to know each other?
I had the same experience with gays years ago. Any judgment or uneasiness disappeared as soon as I started working with a few gay people who were willing to let me know them. They answered my questions, explained life from their point of view, and quickly became just part of the gang.
It happens everywhere. Blacks and whites have gotten to know each other better in desegregated schools and workplaces. Global travel has taught us that most people are pretty much alike. They laugh, they cry, they love their children, they eat together as a sign of friendship. Pockets of intolerance still exist, of course, as do ancient and violent grudges. But the Muslims in Plano are making a concerted effort to overcome evil with good.
Peace happens when we let ourselves be known. Most human hearts melt quickly when one pair of eyes meets another. We are unlikely to bomb people we’ve met. We are less likely to judge another group once we’ve eaten their food and celebrated their holidays together. Our responsibility is not just to open our minds to people who are different from ourselves, but to open ourselves to people who are different in our minds.
One of the women hosting the Ramadan iftar confessed to me at the end of the evening that she and her brother had talked about me while they prepared some of the food together. He had seen “Rev. Ellen Debenport” on the guest list and insisted, “A woman can’t be a reverend!”
His sister answered, “I’m pretty sure Ellen is a woman’s name.”
“No, a woman can’t be a reverend!”
“Well, maybe in some churches, she can.”
Yes, she can, I told her. I guess we all learned something about each other that night.
- Hussam Ayloush
- Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html