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Anila Ali Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Anila Ali addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Bismillahi ‘r-Rahmaani ‘r-Raheem! In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful. Hello to all of you, sisters and brothers. What a beautiful gathering this is, and how honored I am to be here to speak to all of you. 

My sisters, religion is like fire. It can be used for good or it can be used for bad. Depends on who wields it and what they use it for. It gives warmth and sustenance, transforming raw materials into powerful forces. But it can also burn and it can also destroy, raging, uncontrolled with devastating results. 

For women, the fiery duality of religion is even more intense. It can be an unparalleled source of empowerment and growth, or it can be a deadly force of subjugation and repression. For Muslim women, like me, the fire of faith is particularly intense, as I have repeatedly observed firsthand. I wish to speak today about how Muslim women can harness and are harnessing religion for good, despite the many risks that surround us. 

I was born in Pakistan. My grandmother, who was born in India more than a century ago, led the movement for Pakistan. She fought against the British, became the first elected parliamentarian in India. My father was a leader and he joined her. After Pakistan was made, they together fought for women, girls and the rights of minorities in Pakistan. My grandmother led scores of women and inspired generations to lead.

My father told me when I was getting married, he said marriage isn’t blind subservience to a man. Well, my father had written a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and seven million copies had been distributed around the world. He emphasized the commitment in his book he emphasized the commitment of the Prophet of Islam to women, women’s empowerment, and therefore he raised me to be an independent woman, to succeed on my own, to be equal to men, and never to let gender rules hold me back. Now, whether his interpretations were correct or not, the evidence, my brothers and sisters, is right in front of you. 

America is a great country to be a Muslim in, but we can’t take these freedoms for granted. And therefore, we founded AMWEC, American Muslim Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council. Why? Because we wanted to give Muslim women a platform to protect their rights and build interfaith bridges. So let me tell you what AMWEC stands for. Our manifesto reads, “As maternal pillars of the community, American Muslim women have a uniquely powerful leadership responsibility.” Yes, we respect ourselves and we uphold high standards of ethical conduct. Yes, we face reality very honestly. We have so much to be proud of in our faith tradition and yet much to be concerned about in our global community.

Our founding prophet, peace be upon him, brought a dynamic message of overcoming stagnation and ignorance, but today many invoke his name to repress, regress, and radicalize. We as Muslim women stand for truth. We cannot sit by silently and passively. We enjoy the freedom to stand for justice, even in the face of intimidation. We must confront bigotry, both when it comes from our neighbors and when it comes from within our own community. And we cannot let shame prevent us from being brave and speaking the truth. We bring Americans together. Muslim women can lead a new movement for empowerment and tolerance, one that is going to inspire the support of America, of faiths, of races and all genders and none. Together we can uphold the legacy of our beautiful faith and build the future for all Americans and indeed our world.

It’s one thing to say these strong words, I tell you, but it’s often a challenge to put them into action. Let me share a few stories. Once, I was giving a presentation on women’s rights in Islam to a room full of US law enforcement officials and prosecutors and top leaders. After my presentation, an Iraqi gentleman stood up and he questioned me in front of the entire room, “How can you be a Muslim leader when you don’t wear a hijab?” He shamed me. “How would you respond to that question?” For me, it was a defining moment. Having my identity, my faith and my womanhood dismissed right in front of a room full of national leaders. Here’s how I answered him, “Sir, I come from a Muslim-majority country that has twice elected a woman, female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. And she did not wear a hijab. She was a leader.”

Another time, after the San Bernardino mass shooting, Islamist terrorist, a woman from Pakistan, who was a part of my community was very, very shocked. A group of leaders from my organization began working with law enforcement and building bridges to ensure that we are not targeted. So, these women wanted to be responsible citizens during a time of crisis, indeed. The New York Times sent a journalist to cover our efforts, but when we all entered the mosque, the local mosque, with this journalist who was a female, the male mosque leaders turned around and said, “Sisters, over there.” They ordered us to go into the kitchen. What would you do? That was patronizing us. They wanted to cut us out of an adult conversation, but we refused to be banished to the kitchen.

As you heard from my sister from ADL, we endure offensive comments, but in the end, they’re only words. As we gather here, I want you to think of all the Muslim women on the front lines around the world who have risked their lives to stand up for basic equality and have often paid the price. Let’s recall Mahsa Amini, the young girl from Iran. And may God grant her a place in the heavens. She was murdered for showing too much hair. She is one of thousands of women taking a stand for what they believe is right, for their daughters and their granddaughters. 

Here in the US and in the West, there are occasional brutal honor killings. But the larger challenge Muslim women leaders face is sexual harassment, harassment, belittlement and tokenization. I think of a young Muslim civil rights leader who should be watching me. Here in the U.S., a hijab-wearing activist who devoted herself to a major Muslim civil rights organization here in the U.S., only to find herself asked to perform sexual favors by the organization’s leader. When she refused, the blowback brothers and sisters was terrible, it was intense. She found herself threatened, bullied, and sued into silence. Even though she fought back and achieved justice, the price was intense and she struggles even now to rebuild her life. Her life was destroyed by vindictive men.

In the face of these challenges, we need action. So, let me briefly outline an agenda for all of us to empower Muslims and other women. An agenda that we can all adapt. Never ever question a woman’s ability to serve as a leader. And never subject her to superficial litmus tests on how she dresses, instead make sure that women of merit have equal ability to serve in leadership roles in all communities. Be wary of partnering with organizations whose top leaders have harassed and belittled women. If an organization has been dominated by a handful of men, be suspicious and don’t fall for a few token women leaders in that organization.

Look for genuine diversity and a proven track record of empowerment through programs, not just empty rhetoric. Embrace genuine diversity. We don’t all have to agree on everything. We have different interpretations of verses, Suras, holy books. We have different opinions. We have different histories and diverse cultures. Let’s appreciate the power of difference and the need to respect a range of views informed by beautiful faith traditions.

Despite all the challenges we leaders, women leaders face, we must never give in to the allure of victimhood. We are survivors, as you see me in front of you. We are not victims. We hold the keys to improving our own situation and we can lament abuse without wallowing in it. We are upstanders, not bystanders. If you see an emerging woman leader, struggling to achieve recognition in the face of demeaning and disempowering behavior, speak up for them, stand with them, sisterhood and brotherhood in the course of Muslim women’s empowerment is needed now more than ever before. Be bold, my sisters and brothers, unafraid to work outside the box.

Last year we, and some of my sisters are here, we led two delegations of Muslim Americans to Israel. We even met with the president of Israel, President Herzog, to whom I gave a copy of my father’s book on the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, and on the building of Pakistan. But it was not easy to do this. It was outside-the-box thinking. And it wasn’t easy for all the participants to do this. However, it transformed our lives and our views, indeed, despite some extremists complaining about our trip and even issuing fatwas, death threats against me. I realized that life is not a zero-sum game. There are creative solutions to conflicts and sometimes grassroots actors like you and me can break where political leaders fail. Muslim women have the ability to envision and lead solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Let us resolve to harness the fire of faith for empowering ends.

I stand before you as thousands of Muslim women who are committed to achieving a new era of empowerment. We are inspired by our past. We are not prisoners of it. We love our faith, which we believe is fundamentally about unleashing human potential, not constraining it. We are not blind to the darkness that impacts so many of our sisters as in Afghanistan, but we remain focused on moving towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Our faith gives us hope. Our maternal ancestors give us inspiration and our daughters and granddaughters remind us that we have a responsibility to be bold, to forge a better future for them. 

So join me, my brothers and sisters, in harnessing the warm fire of faith to light the way forward. Thank you for your solidarity and thank you to these amazing women leaders of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Shukriya.

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