In the midst of unimaginable events taking place throughout the world in the name of religion, three women travelled to American University’s School of International Service on February 20th to speak to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed’s undergraduate class, Researching Islam.
The course is designed to give students first-hand experience of encountering Muslims apart from the information they get from the media. In addition to having students go out and conduct their own research, Ambassador Ahmed gives lectures on various topics and often invites an appropriate speaker relevant to the subject like the three Muslim women who discussed the role of women in Islam.
The women, Wardella Doschek, Fife O’Connor, and Samia Mustafa, were from different backgrounds, both Americans and Arabs. Professor Ahmed introduced them as his friends and colleagues.
Wardella Doschek converted to Islam in 2003. Since her conversion, Wardella has been active in the Muslim community of Washington, DC serving as the current secretary of the Muslim Women’s Association (MWA). Wardella, along with fellow MWA member and board advisor Fife O’Connor and close friend Samia Mustafa, shared their unique stories with us. Due to the extensive media coverage of oppression of Muslim women, the need for such a discussion is more crucial now than ever before.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, began the discussion by sharing his poem “To My Mother,” in which Ambassador Ahmed pays homage to his mother and her impact on his life. Through this heartfelt poem, the class was able to see that women in Islam are held in high esteem, a reality that is often missing from the media portrayal of Muslim practice. Historic names such as Khadija the Great were used as proof that women in Islam are not only permitted to have a voice in matters such as business, scholarship, and marriage, but are also encouraged through Islam to be innovative thinkers and leaders in the community.
Wardella Doschek began her story with the words of the Shahada, “La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah.” After a long spiritual journey, she spoke these words in 2003 in front of her computer. In order to explain to the class her journey to Islam, she took the students back to her childhood. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a German- American family. She was baptized as a Lutheran Christian at a young age, but found she was skeptical of the religion by the time she reached college. Wardella spent a great deal of time thinking about religion, and even briefly considered herself atheist before realizing she craved God’s presence in her life. She consulted a Rabbi to learn more about Judaism, but then put her religious uncertainties aside as she completed her doctorate in Physical Chemistry, married and moved to Washington, DC to work and raised her family. As her life progressed, Wardella began to follow what she thought of as her “own religion,” the tenants of which were: there is only one God, it is impossible to know God’s nature, and prayer should be a time to praise because God knows all.
Years passed before Wardella found herself at a lunch table with a Christian friend. A bible verse came up in conversation that Wardella went back to locate in scripture. Her friend encouraged her to keep reading for she may find other passages that would be useful in her life. This was the beginning of a new religious chapter in Wardella’s life. As she looked into the Bible, Wardella also thought of reading the Qur’an and thought to consult the one Muslim she had most contact with, her daughter’s friend Tamir. As the two spoke of Qur’an, Islam, and the five pillars, Wardella began to see parallels between Islam and her own personal religion. She went to the library and read Islam Today by Akbar Ahmed and was touched by the way he described a religion that was portrayed in such a violent way. The book made such a deep impression that years after she converted she brought a copy of the book to the class to show it to us. Wardella described the feeling as “being a woman among all men my whole life then suddenly meeting a group of women.” Shortly after, Wardella took her Shahada and consulted Tamir for help in learning her prayers in Arabic.
As she recounted this new chapter in her life with the class, Wardella introduced the other women who came to Ambassador Ahmed’s discussion that day, the first of whom was Samia Mustafa, Tamir’s mother. Samia’s family became a second family for Wardella in her quest for knowledge through Islam. Samia even brought a set of cassettes reciting all of Qur’an back from Cairo to aid Wardella in her studies. Fife O’Connor was also present with her dear friend Wardella.
The three women went on to take questions from the class. Many students wanted to know how Islam had changed Wardella’s life as a woman. She responded by describing how liberating it is to dress conservatively. She admitted to dressing in a non-modest fashion before converting and now feels more beautiful than ever by dressing to please God. Fife O’Connor was asked her opinion on Muslim women travelling to be a part of terrorist groups around the world. After much thought, Fife responded by explaining that she was also confused on the subject, but added that the Islam she knows would not support any of these groups. “When one part of the community is suffering, it is all suffering.” Fife explained.
Immediately following the discussion, news broke of the young Muslim girls travelling from the UK to join ISIS. Thanks to the panel Ambassador Ahmed provided for our class and the priceless insight the women presented us with, I was pleased to think of Wardella, Samia, and Fife as representatives of women in Islam rather than associate violence and oppression with the demographic. This style of dialogue between religions proved to be valuable not only for myself, but for the entire class present that day. I will never forget the life lessons the women taught me and I thank them for fighting a battle against stereotyping every day. They cannot, however, remain in this battle alone. It will take the efforts of us all to see change, and I am proud to study amongst other young people dedicated to ending this battle.
(Shanté Fencl is a sophomore studying international relations at American University’s School of International Service.)