Making friends at the mosque
The first time 19-year-old Butte College student Kathleen Williams showed up at the Chico Islamic Center for prayer service, she wore a T-shirt and no head covering. No one corrected her. She stayed through the service and showed up the next week in a long-sleeved shirt and a scarf that she struggled to get over her red hair. That is when Rabina Khan, who offered her help with the scarf, befriended her.
Williams was welcomed into the culture and has been attending mosque for almost six months.
Last Thursday (Oct. 26), Williams assisted Khan and other members of the Muslim Women’s Society as they served food and passed out gifts to guests at an Eid celebration at the Chico Women’s Club, which co-hosted the event.
The word eid literally means “come back and celebrate.” It marks the end of Ramadan, a 30-day period of fasting from sunup to sundown. The Muslim Women’s Society used the occasion to reach out to the community and dispel stereotypes, Khan explained.
Jeanne Christopherson, program director for the women’s club, said it is important for people to understand that not all Muslims are extremists. The event helped to show that.
“We are at war with Islam, we perceive it worldwide as a threat to our culture, and they [Muslims] feel it even here in Chico,” she explained. “This event was a time for them to come out and say, ‘You’re wrong.’ “
The event also showed that Muslim women are not that different from women of other faiths. As Christopherson put it, “I didn’t know these women knew how to party.”
After a guest speaker and dinner, belly dancers took to the stage gyrating, as a group of women in the back of the room, clad in headscarves and hijabs, cheered and bounced along to the fast drum beats and chiming of castanets.
Khan wanted women outside of the faith to experience the festivities and enjoy themselves as Muslim women do.
“People stereotype Muslim women as depressed,” she said. The news media show images of the Taliban, and people develop the idea that Muslim women are victims, that men beat them and they have no life, but that’s just not true, she explained.
As the night wore on, the stage of the women’s club became crowded with women of all ethnicities dancing to Indian and Middle-Eastern beats until the end of the night, when the men showed up to clean.
The welcoming culture is what attracted Williams after her first trip to the mosque.
“Since I was 16, I’ve been questioning my Methodist upbringing. I got tired of it,” she said. “I started looking at other denominations, even Catholicism.”
Williams said that at a mosque in the Bay Area, a woman asked if her husband was Muslim. When she explained that she was just a student learning about the religion, the woman hugged her and said, “May Allah bless you on your journeys.”
Although her father doesn’t know that Williams has been attending mosque, she said he was concerned at first that she was spending time with so many Middle Eastern people. But when he met her friends, he realized they were very respectful, good people, she said.
“I don’t know what he would do if he found out I was going to the mosque—he’s from the Bible Belt,” she said, shaking her head.
Aside from family members concerned that she may be pressured into becoming Muslim, she’s also had to deal with an ex-boyfriend who told her he couldn’t believe she was friends with Muslims in the middle of a “religious war,” she said.
The comment made her furious: “I screamed at him and told him, ‘You can’t stereotype people.’ “
His reaction wasn’t unusual, however. “You get a lot of the ‘Islam is bad’ kind of thing,” Williams said. “For me, it’s just someone’s religion.”
She’s become completely comfortable wearing a headscarf in the mosque, and the partitioning wall that separates men from women doesn’t bother her, either. “I don’t see it as oppressive,” she said. “I see it as liberating in some ways.”
When women are covered up, they’re taken more seriously, she believes—"you’re not having to worry about what people are looking at, and people listen to what you’re saying.”
As for being separated from the men, that is just something to guarantee privacy, she explained: “With that wall up we can be more relaxed and not have to worry about what we say.”
The idea that women are second-class citizens in Islam is a misconception, Williams said. Women are well respected in Islam.
“There’s a verse in the Quran where someone asks Muhammad who the most important person in their life should be, and Muhammad answers, ‘Your mother,’ and the person then asked, ‘How about after my mother?’ and Mohamed answered, ‘Your mother,’ “ she said.
In other words, mothers come first twice in the religion, then fathers.
While she has become somewhat familiar with the Quran, Williams said she still has a lot to learn. “I’m not about to jump into Islam,” she said. “I’m comfortable being agnostic.”
Her friends at the mosque respect her choice. Khan said she welcomes Williams’ curiosity. “We never asked her to convert,” she explained. “We just treat her like a normal human being and respect her.”
Williams believes that whether she someday will become Muslim is not in her control. “Whatever God wants me to be, I will be,” she said.