A woman’s place in Islam

In the sixth century, a prosperous businesswoman known as Khadija of Mecca hired a penniless young man to manage one of her caravans. She was single and 15 years his senior, but Khadija fell in love with her employee, and the two were married. He turned out to be the Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam. She was his first convert. So began the Muslim faith, with a woman playing a central role right from the start.

Educating non-Muslims about women in Islam was the focus of a women’s open house at the Chico Islamic Center Saturday, organized by longtime member Rabina Khan. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about our religion in the West,” said Khan, who, since Sept. 11, 2001, has been waging a one-woman campaign to educate the community about her faith. “I think it is very important for us right now to build bridges with other communities. Unless people hear from us, they’re not going to know what we believe.”

Some 100 visitors, many from local churches, learned that Islam’s holy book, the Qu’ran, accords respect and guarantees a number of rights to women. They can own and inherit property. They can vote. They can choose a marriage partner, keep their own name after marriage and petition for divorce. Though they must guard their modesty, women are encouraged to be scholars, doctors and business professionals.

The listeners also learned that inside the mosque men and women inhabit separate space. As guests settled into their seats or sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, they were welcomed by the mosque’s imam, or spiritual leader, Dawud Afsharzadeh, who delivered an hour-long speech on women’s status in Islam via a television screen as he sat in an adjoining room, separated only by a vinyl curtain. “We avoid the intermingling of the sexes,” Afsharzadeh explained when an audience member asked why he did not address the group in person.

Could Khadija have served as an imam? Afsharzadeh said women are barred from serving in this capacity. One of the reasons boiled down to biology: “The imam has to be someone who can lead the prayers all the time,” he said. “When a woman is on her period, there is nothing wrong with her spiritually, but her body is going through a cleansing process.” This ritual impurity prohibits her from leading others in prayer, he said.

The event also featured a presentation by Nahid Chopan, a Muslim woman who was born and raised in Afghanistan but left in 1980, when she was 18 years old, as the result of the Soviet occupation. Now married with two sons and living in Oroville, Chopan urged the audience not to blame Islam for the attacks on Sept. 11.

"As a Muslim I have never been taught to hate other religions or other people," she said. "Islam has taught me to be kind, tolerant, respectful, and to love humankind. Now that Islam is under attack from many sides … it’s really time to open our eyes."