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Breaking down stereotypes

Islamic society president has become the face of American Muslim women




Ingrid Mattson is the first woman and first convert elected president of the Islamic Society of North America. "The thing to understand is that Islam treats women as spiritual equals to men," she says.





July 11, 2008, 2:40PM
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Ingrid Mattson lost her faith as a teenager. Years later she found it again in the pages of the Quran and the teachings of Islam.

Since then, Mattson has been somewhat of a poster girl for Muslim women. Two years ago she made headlines when she became the first woman and first convert elected to head the Islamic Society of North America.

Mattson wears a head scarf, or hijab, and dresses modestly in long sleeves and ankle-length skirts or dresses. She also has strong views on the role of women in Islam, which she backs up with examples from the life of the prophet Muhammad and the Quran.

"The thing to understand is that Islam treats women as spiritual equals to men," Mattson said. "Muslim women have the same obligation to pay charity, to perform community service, all of those things. What looks different is that women wear more modest dress, not to oppress or demean them but to allow them to be in the public space without being harassed or distracted."

She acknowledged, however, that problems exist. And she is not shy about discussing them.

"It doesn't mean there aren't people who use Islam to justify oppression against women or other actions," she said. "I think one of the reasons that is more of an issue is that Muslim society still tends to be more religious. So they have religious justifications for everything, both good and bad."

ISNA was started by Muslim students and now represents an estimated 100,000 individuals and groups. It is the largest Muslim organization in North America.

Though her first term as president ends this summer, Mattson agreed to be nominated for a second term. The position is a volunteer one, which she juggles with her paying job as professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She is also director of an Islamic chaplaincy program, part of her goal to raise the quality of community and youth leaders.

Raised as one of seven children in a Catholic family in southern Ontario, Canada, Mattson met her husband in Pakistan and is the mother of two children, 16 and 19. When asked if they are proud of her work and activism, Mattson replied: "I hope so. I'm certainly very proud of them."

Mattson was in Houston last weekend for an ISNA regional conference, "Muslims in the Public Square," which was attended by several thousand Muslim-Americans. She spoke at a number of workshops and at a Saturday night banquet.

Zuhaira Razzack, principal of ILM Academy, an Islamic preschool in west Houston, was impressed with Mattson's presentations.

"She is very knowledgeable about Islam and its history, and I think she understands and respects the challenges we face here as American Muslims," Razzack said. "She doesn't try to sugarcoat things. These are the realities we face, and this is the way we need to deal with it in the society we live in."

More conservative Muslims from patriarchal societies may struggle with the notion of female leaders, Razzack added. "But the people she represents are very happy she is there."

"She helps break that cultural stereotype about women's leadership," Razzack added, "and shows the difference between culture and Islam."

Mattson's first talk, on Islamic etiquette, was packed with men and women who listened attentively and laughed at several of her remarks. She discussed manners both in and out of the Muslim community.

An example of what she calls cultural miscommunication occurred in one of her seminary classes.

"A young woman came up to me and complained that whenever she tried to speak to a male student in the class, he refused to look her in the eye," Mattson told the group. "She was very angry and said his actions were demeaning to women. When we included the young Muslim student in the conversation, he said: 'But I was trying to be respectful.' "

Lesson: It is possible to converse with women and make eye contact in a collegial, respectful fashion.

"Islam is not supposed to be about hurting people's feelings," she told the group in Houston. "Respect on both sides is part of Islamic guidelines. But we have to step back and think: Does lowering your eyes refer to just looking and listening to a woman in conversation? Or is it about looking lustfully?"

That led to another issue women in the mosque a subject of discussion among many Muslim women. Mattson would like to see women included in the prayer hall instead of being isolated in another room behind a screen or curtained off. It often makes it hard to hear, she said, especially during lectures on Friday, the main day of prayer.

"It's a new challenge in certain areas because there are many people who go to the mosque and are very conservative about their religious practice," Mattson said. "Even if it's pointed out to them that what they do (in the mosque) is not necessarily religious" but part of their cultural or personal background.

Nothing in the Quran says women must be segregated in the mosque, she said. "When people are immigrants, they have given up so much that they tend to hang on to these cultural markers."

Some women prefer their own space for prayer, she said. A good compromise might be a common space, with a place for women who want to pray alone. Different mosques will reach their own conclusions, she said.

"The question is: Can we develop a way of interacting with each other that is more flexible?" Mattson poses it as a question and a challenge to American Muslims.

Her election as vice president of ISNA occurred Sept. 4, 2001, so Mattson says she "hit the ground running."

Since then she has spoken all over the country. At first, her audiences acknowledged they knew little about Islam or Muslims and wanted to know more. Lately she has noticed a change to a more negative attitude.

"Now there is more of a sense of hardening in their views," she said. "They are quite convinced that Islam is a problem. I give people the benefit of the doubt; there's a lot of things I don't know going on in the world today. But I try to give them facts because a lot of the things they assume are not based in fact."

She is pleased with the increase in interfaith activity and partnerships like the one ISNA has developed with the Union for Reform Judaism. She spoke to a group of rabbis at their conference in December and was well received.

"I hope people are feeling they have the ability to change things," she said. "And that they understand American Muslims also have a role to play."

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