Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shadia: In Islam, men and women are equal

It is safe to say that those who know me would describe me as a tough, assertive girl with a conviction that women are equal to men.

They would also say that I embrace my femininity and feel privileged to be a woman.

Although I grew up in Egypt, where women don't hold the same social status as men, I never felt less equal or less important as a girl.

This attitude and conviction I hold didn't develop when I moved to America. It was ingrained in me, and there are many reasons for it. The biggest, and I know this might be surprising, is Islam itself.

I grew up in a moderate-to-conservative Muslim family. I was naturally influenced by my mom, Shadia, and her six brothers, who all raised me and my sister. On the one hand, my mom has always been an elegant, sensitive and modest person, and on the other, she's always been tough, assertive and fair. Her brothers wouldn't dare mistreat her because she's a woman.

She has always been excellent at maintaining that balance, and I studied it carefully.

Growing up, I clashed a lot with my Uncle Beautiful, who was the most conservative and closest male figure to me. We mainly clashed over how he wanted me to dress.

But it was never about gender. In fact, he too instilled this sense of equality in me.

I wasn't even a teenager when Uncle Beautiful once saw me walking on the street, and I must have looked uncomfortable or afraid for some reason, because when I got home he said to me: When you walk, walk with confidence. When someone speaks to you, man or woman, look directly at them, make eye contact, be respectful and be modest, but speak clearly and assertively.

He never told me why. I have never forgotten his words. And I have to say that I was a little bit surprised with them.

You might wonder why a conservative Muslim man would instill in me these values.

I wondered too.

It all became clearer this past weekend. I spent it attending an AlMaghrib Institute seminar about women in Islam. I always knew that when it came to women, Islam was ahead of its time. Khadija, the prophet Muhammad's first wife, was 15 years older than him. She sought him out, and she was the one who asked him to marry her.

When Imam Waleed Basyouni, the seminar's instructor, addressed the status of women during the prophet and his companions' time, it blew my mind, especially when I compared it with the present day.

Not only were women back then allowed to vote, own property, operate businesses, seek knowledge and education, speak publicly, work, and support their husbands and families, but they also served in the army.

All that happened more than 1,400 years ago.

The kind of injustice done today to women in so-called Muslim countries is unfathomable and foreign to me and to Islam itself.

The prophet Muhammad never laid a hand on a woman. He warned men of mistreating women and told them that the worst among them are those who are not good and kind to the women in their lives.

The fact is, if these so-called Muslim rulers and followers would educate themselves about their own religion, they'd be ashamed of how they're treating women.

But there's also another important point that can't be dismissed. For much of history, women, even in the West, didn't always have the same rights as men.

And I also think it's not about religion. Men who oppress and mistreat women come from all sorts of backgrounds and hold various religious beliefs. The kind of man who would oppress or beat a woman doesn't need a religion or a culture to justify it. He is simply not a man.

Now when I reminisce about what Uncle Beautiful taught me, I understand.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shadia: The dream I share with Martin Luther King

I had the honor of being part of a round table discussion on Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine on Saturday.

And it got me thinking about my early impressions of the man whose passion and humanity brought this country closer to fulfilling its creed that all men are created equal.

I got to America only four months before the 1999 Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it was around that time when I first heard of him.

I was surprised when I learned he had to march to demand God-given rights for people of color. It must have been the fact that I was a naive 15-year-old, but before then, I never knew that America didn't get to where it is overnight.

It was because of MLK that I began to understand the complexities and greatness of this country. He is responsible for why I feel so intertwined and so in love with America.

Though I knew little English, King's quotes, the point of views he expressed through his words, the kindness and patience I saw when I looked at his eyes in photographs struck a chord in my heart.

His words seemed as familiar to me as the color of my skin.

King's Christian viewpoints, which he used to inform the Civil Rights Movement, align with Islam's principles.

We're equal, regardless of our race or color except in action and deeds, the Prophet Muhammad said.

So this concept of God-given rights like the freedom to seek and speak up for justice, to freely choose your own destiny, to be judged based on your actions and deeds and not your race, color or family were principles my religion taught me.

But they were not all applied in Egypt, where I grew up.

I found them here.

Like Egyptian Islamic scholar Muhammad Abduh, who many years ago said, "I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam," I too understood what it is like to live in a country that celebrates and works hard at practicing the principles of my religion.

But I also understood King's struggle of attempting to get the country to match up its principles with its actions.

This year's commemoration of King has special meaning to me. It comes just a few days before Jan. 25, which marks the first anniversary of something extraordinary.

It was the day my people in Egypt decided they'd had enough and rose up with courage against three decades of dictatorship, inequality and humiliation and demanded one basic, yet seemingly so difficult to obtain, right: freedom.

The protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square last year mirrored the 1963 March on Washington where human souls cried out for equality and justice.

This is now the dream of millions, not only in Egypt, but Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, a country whose tyrant has proven to be the most ruthless yet to its people and children.

I know for a fact that had I stayed in Egypt, I would have never had the opportunity to tap into my potential. It is sad when I think of my country's great civilization and what it gave to the world.

But like Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream that one day a little curious Egyptian girl, whose big imagination took her mind on many journeys, could with hard work and perseverance reach her potential and watch as her dreams unfold before her eyes in her country.

Editor's note: Do you have a question about Islam, Middle Eastern culture or what it's like to be a Muslim in America for Mona? She'd be glad to answer your inquiry or, if she cannot, track down an expert who can. Contact her at

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shadia: My contract with America

A religion should be judged by the understanding and practices of the majority of its followers.

And I'm not just talking about Islam. I'm talking about every religion.

Let me tell you a little bit about the ways in which my faith requires its followers to conduct their daily lives, regardless of where in the world they live.

Although I spent almost the first half of my life in another country with a completely different culture, language and a Muslim majority. When I first moved to the United States 13 years ago, I felt I had only one major obstacle to overcome: learning English.

I knew that once I learned the language, nothing was going to be an issue for me, and that has a lot to do with the principles of my faith.

Being a minority in a completely different culture has never been an issue for me, and that's because I was taught that you can be a Muslim anywhere you like.

One of the best virtues of Islam is respecting the laws of the nation in which you live. This is an important Islamic principle.

In my research for this week's column, I read several entries and articles on and, sites dedicated to enhancing the understanding of Islam.

Islamic scholars consider citizenship or a visa a "covenant of security," or a contract between that individual and the state in exchange for safety, security and obeying the laws of that land.

This applies to both born and naturalized citizens of any country, Muslim or not. A covenant in Islam doesn't only mean a written or even a verbal contract, but a moral understanding, meaning that when I enter one's house or one's country, I ought to respect its people and rules.

Not doing so is considered treasonous and a major sin, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).

"You cannot engage in warlike behavior or criminal activities against people who have trusted you," Ayloush said. "Prophet Muhammad taught us that one is not a true believer until he loves for others what he loves for himself. I am sure we all love to be treated with goodness and integrity."

This principle is not only about respect, but about loyalty, commitment and love for the country that has given you a home.

The Prophet Muhammad once said, "Whoever kills someone who is protected under a covenant, then he shall not even smell the scent of Paradise."

The Prophet also said, "The (true) Muslim is he whose people are safe from (being harmed by) his tongue and hand."

I know there have been plenty of headlines for at least the past 10 years about so-called Muslims who have committed outrageous and horrific atrocities toward innocents, those of their own countries and those of countries that have given them security, opportunities and a chance at a good life.

To me, these are worthless criminals, not Muslims. They do not represent or respect Islam, and they do not speak for me or my religion.

Religion — any religion, not just Islam — should not be jerked around or falsely claimed by criminals, though history has shown us otherwise.

When you read or hear about criminals, even if they claim to commit their crimes in the name of your religion, whether Christianity or Judaism or any other, how do you feel? I imagine you feel as repulsed as I do when I hear about Muslims committing crimes.

Most Muslims in America are highly educated and good citizens; they contribute greatly to their country. And it's not just because this country is great and deserves the best, but because our religion commands us to be good citizens.

I understand that to some, Islam might seem complicated and foreign. But I'm here to tell you, I share with you many values, principles and virtues. If we choose to point out our differences, we will never see the overwhelming common ground on which we already stand.


Meet the writer

Mona Shadia will participate in a "Roundtable on Dr. King's Legacy & the Occupy Movement" at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church's third annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Conference from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, 46 Maxwell St. in Irvine. Mona will be available to meet readers and answer their questions.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadi

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Shadia: My kind of Islam

Unlike Muslims who were born and raised in America, I thankfully didn't have to go to Sunday school to learn about my religion.

Born in the '80s, I grew up in a place where my religion was part of the society and the community in which I lived in. I didn't have to go to Sunday school to learn about my religion; my Uncle Beautiful, whom regular readers may recall as the man who helped raise me, taught me.

In fact, my community as a whole indirectly taught me.

There were many Cairo summer nights where Uncle Beautiful and I would sit on the floor of our big patio and he would tell me about God and the Prophet Muhammad.

I vividly remember the first time he introduced to me this divine concept called God. I was overcome with fascination and curiosity.

My first question was what God looked like. I looked up to a sky full of stars and felt hopeful for some reason. And the questions I had from that point on didn't stop. Uncle Beautiful supported what he taught me with children's books he bought to teach me about Islam, its prophets and its history.

And while I went to the mosque to learn how to read and memorize the Koran, I had the advantage of interacting with teachers who studied Islam, spoke my language and were part of my culture.

According to Mohammed Ibn Faqih, imam and religious director of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, that wasn't the case for Muslims who grew up in America around the same time.

Not only did they dread having to go to Sunday school, but they generally interacted with imams or volunteers who didn't naturally speak English, had heavy accents, weren't teaching them in a fun way and lacked familiarity with American culture. For those students, Islam was foreign and difficult.

The result is lack of understanding and sometimes total abandonment of Islam. Take Mohammed Memon, a volunteer at the Islamic Institute of Orange County, who at one point in his life shied away from identifying himself as a Muslim.

The 23-year-old was born to Pakistani parents who sent him to school at the mosque one day a week to learn about Islam.

"We never grasped what Islam really was about," he said. "We never knew why exactly we have to fast, why we have to pray and why we have to do some of the things we do."

After the 9/11 attacks, where Islam was hijacked by a bunch of criminals who used it to commit their horrific acts, Memon felt ashamed to say he was a Muslim.

"You have people on TV misrepresenting who you are, and we know we are not part of that," he said.

That perception has changed for Memon and thousands more, thanks to AlMaghrib Institute, a unique concept that began in North America to teach Islamic sciences in a fun, energized and easy way while also remaining academic.

AlMaghrib puts on seminars that go on for a weekend and move from one city to another based on demand. Since its inception in 2002, the institute has had more than 40,000 students. Some are even non-Muslims, said Faqih, who is also one of AlMaghrib's instructors.

Islam is a religion of knowledge. One of the Koran's early verses commands Muslims to seek knowledge, and AlMaghrib provides in that respect.

"The seminars are taught by instructors who speak English and have the credentials to give you knowledge," Memon said. "You're surrounded by Muslims and Islam. It makes you feel good."

AlMaghrib's concept didn't replace Sunday school, but often trains those who teach there, Faqih said.

He added that the organization's seminars go beyond what is permissible and what is not in Islam, and more into the why and the how of Islam.
I plan on attending AlMaghrib's next seminar, which is coming up this month in Los Angeles. It's a brand-new course called "Complicated?" The seminar will be dedicated to the Muslim woman, answering questions that revolve around Muslim women living in the modern world.

Did you know that Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad's wife, held classes to teach Islamic sciences to the prophet's companions? Did you know that some of the most renowned Islamic scholars were taught by women?

I know. It's shocking.

I can't wait to attend and share with you some of the amazing rights Islam gives me because I'm a woman. I can't wait to begin to refute the stereotypes about women, dispel some of the horrific misconceptions and challenge the so-called Muslim countries who unjustly use Islam to oppress women.

AlMaghrib's Ilmfest, or Knowledge Festival, which is held a few times a year in different cities around the country, was at the Hilton in Anaheim on Christmas Day. I attended for only less than two hours and couldn't help but be inspired by what I heard and saw.

Farhan Azeez, one of the speakers at Ilmfest, told the more than 2,000 attendees that a Muslim's public relations is his or her morals. It's true. I was taught at a young age that my morals and my religion are intertwined. If I misbehave in any way, shape or form, it's a reflection on who I am, and because I'm a Muslim, it hurts the image of my religion. And I dare not hurt the image of my religion.

Imam Abdulbary Yahya spoke about the third of the five pillars of Islam: almsgiving, or "zakat." He said the Koran teaches that giving isn't about donating money from the comfort of your own couch, but about getting out and actually physically giving to those in need in order to experience for yourself what they're going through.

During the Ilmfest, more than $100,000 was raised to provide a shelter for women who are victims of domestic abuse. It wasn't the first time AlMaghrib's seminars or events resulted in volunteerism, donations, in giving knowledge according to Islam's teachings, and in inspiring its attendees to spread goodness in their communities.

This is my Islam. It is the only kind of Islam I know.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.