The elephant in the room at the WISE Conference

The elephant in the room at the WISE Conference

By Pamela K. Taylor

Attending the WISE conference organized by the ASMA society in late November was a tremendous experience. It was humbling to be sitting next to women from around the globe who had done so much, spoken out so fearlessly, and risked so much in order to demand their rights as women. Women like Mukhtar Mai, Massouda Jalal, and Marina Mahatir. It was inspiring and uplifting, and motivating as well. There is so much that needs to be done for women’s rights all around the world, in other countries, yes, but also at home.

While the conference was unique in many aspects, one thing that struck me as particularly historic was the diversity of women invited. There were conservatives – even people some might call hyper-conservative – moderates, liberals, progressives, sufis, sunnis, shiis, immigrant Muslims, convert Muslims (from the african american, white american and latino communities), Arabs and Pakistanis and Indians and Africans and Malaysians. A truly diverse attendance, unlike most Muslim gatherings I have attended which have been dominated by one ethnic group or another, one political bent or another, one sect or another.

One thing became evident, at least to me, over the weekend—there was a lot of tension between these groups. Duh. Right? Everyone knows there is tension between progressives and conservatives, with the former being labeled as lesser Muslims or even apostates by conservatives, and the latter feeling that progressive attitudes feed all too easily into Islamophobic stereotypes of them. Everyone knows there is tension between immigrant Muslims and the indigenous Muslim community, between converts and born Muslims. Everyone knows that the Sufis are often slighted as not being real Muslims at all, or at least as being a bit flaky and heterodox. And the Sunni-Shi’i conflict was playing out horrifically in the Middle East as we met.

But I’ve never felt those tensions quite so palpably as I did in that room. It was clear that the various women were not totally comfortable with each other. In fact, some of them were clearly very uncomfortable with each other. The most notable sign of this was the fact the conservative women were obviously feeling pressure, censure even. When someone made a comment against the niqab, they shouted out their disapproval, and when someone would state a position reflecting more conservative interpretations, their applause was fervent. On the other side, the progressives were also selective in the volume and enthusiasm of their clapping. Other discussions made it clear that some groups worried about being marginalized – again the progressives, but also Sufis and African American Muslims.

It struck me that the Muslim community has put a lot of effort into interfaith dialogue in the past twenty years, maybe we need to start putting a similar effort into intra-faith dialogue. There have been some tentative sunni-shi’i attempts at rapprochement by scholars overseas, and the high level leadership of the immigrant and African American communities have been talking for years, but what we need is regular people sitting down and talking with other regular people.

When the Christians started interfaith dialogue, it meant Baptists sitting down with Methodists. Or Protestants sitting down with Catholics. I came out of the WISE conference convinced that the Muslim community really needs similar dialogue – sunnis and shiis and Sufis, conservatives and progressives, Muslims of every ethnicity and race. It’s such a simple and obvious idea, I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t thought of it before. Sad thing is, very few others people seem to have thought of it either. Certainly no one has put it into action.


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