Ismailis empower women — | Section: Local & State
April 19, 2004, 12:23AM
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

The World in Houston

Ismailis empower women

There’s the stereotype of the Muslim woman — silent and withdrawn behind her veil, obsequious when called upon, unable to think for herself, much less drive a car.

And then there’s Shabnam Lutafali. Besides being a devout Muslim, the Pakistan native is a doctor of economics and a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. She also serves as the president of the Southwest regional board for the Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan.

Like most Ismailis, Lutafali believes that being Muslim and being a competent, active woman are not mutually exclusive.

“Women have always been promoted by the ethos of Islam,” she said, noting that the prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, was a successful businesswoman who supported him.

I sat down to talk with Lutafali and Fatima Mawji, a medical doctor born in Kenya, to find out a little about the role of women in the Ismaili faith. Followers of a branch of Shia Islam founded in Central Asia, 15 million Ismailis live throughout the world. A number of them live in greater Houston, and the national headquarters for their social-service network is housed in Sugar Land.

The Ismailis are somewhat unique because their leaders, since the mid-1800s, have lived off and on in Europe. The most recent leader, Aga Khan III, had many views that Westerners approvingly describe as progressive (his grandson is the current leader, Aga Khan IV).

He urged Muslims to allow women to participate in the “free intermingling of mankind,” warning that sequestering them would be a “terrible cancer.” He told his followers that if they had just enough money to educate one child, it should be a daughter.

“The rationale is that if you educate the girl, she will educate the family,” Mawji said. Whereas if a man is educated, he tends to keep the learning to himself, she said.

This belief has become a fundamental principle used by the Aga Khan Development Network, which works around the world, partly by empowering women. Lutafali, who has studied globalization and the marginalization of women in developing countries, claims the per capita income in parts of northern Pakistan has doubled in the last 20 years, thanks partly to the Aga Khan’s work with women.

Mawji said she also has seen how the subjugation of women keeps families down. Growing up in Kenya, she saw how women did much of the work for their families but were forbidden from selling their products directly in the market. The businessmen took the profits.

Mawji, who was educated in Kenya, England and the United States, moved here with her husband in the early 1980s, at a time when East Africa was not entirely friendly toward people of Indian descent. She is trained as an anesthesiologist.

I asked Lutafali and Mawji whether they thought the empowerment of women in Islam could serve as an antidote to terrorism. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that some of the most notorious breeding grounds for Muslim terrorism — places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan — also happen to be among the most oppressive for women.

Western women sometimes have argued that their own society would be less violent with women in power. In the late 1960s, a time of the Vietnam War and rising feminism, American women liked to assert that if they ran the world, there would be no war.

Could Muslims make a similar argument? The two said they did see some link between educating women and ending terrorism.

“Women are nurturers,” Mawji said, and giving them a role in society makes that society more nurturing. Quoting the Aga Khan, she argued that “terrorism comes from a clash of ignorance instead of a clash of civilizations.”

It’s a point worth considering. In the months after 9/11, much was made about the nature of Islam and the teachings of the Quran. Only rarely was it pointed out that much of what Islam has become reflects on the societies in which it was cultivated and not just the book on which it was based.

Perhaps the Ismailis, whose leaders have lived in the West for nearly two centuries, can show the way to a bridge a world where Muslims can be both devoted and progressive, and women can participate fully in the free intermingling of mankind.

Hegstrom can be contacted at — | Section: Local & State

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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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