Discussion will analyze role of women in Muslim society

BY KATIE SIMS | JULY 10, 2009 7:10 AM

UI junior Sean Schwabenlander attended a lecture on Islam when he was a sophomore in high school. A year later, he converted to the religion.

He will hear a similar presentation on July 12, but this time he will help organize it.

“We’re trying to reach out and educate non-Muslims about our religion,” said Schwabenlander, an active member of the UI Muslim Student Association. “Whether they want to pursue their interest is up to them.”

The Iowa City Mosque and the UI Muslim Student Association are inviting the community to participate in a lecture at the Iowa City Mosque, 1812 W. Benton St. at 6 p.m.

Aside from the student group’s major début in the community, the discussion will also feature a panel of local Muslim women who will answer questions and dispel common myths about their culture. They hope to generate public discussion surrounding the role of Muslim women and their status in the Islamic faith.

Miriam Amer — the second-term head of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission — will be the guest speaker.

Amer, a fifth-generation American, often finds herself being shouted at by grocery clerks enunciating their words because they assume she can’t speak English. Strangers on the street have told her to “go back where she came from.”

And the panel expects to confront other stereotypes perpetuated in popular culture, such as the assumption all Muslim women are uneducated and subservient to men.

“When you get most of your information from television, you don’t know what people are really like,” Amer said, “You have to learn firsthand from someone who is actually part of it.”

Another salient topic is the history and reasoning behind wearing the hijab, the traditional headscarf donned by some Muslim women. The issue has generated international headlines for years, since former French President Jacques Chirac signed a controversial ban on wearing religious dress — including the hijab — in French public schools.

The treatment and rights of women according to the Koran and the role of Muslim women in modern society will also galvanize conversation.

“People see my headscarf and assume I’m from somewhere else,” Amer said. “Which I am; I’m from Connecticut.”

The lecture is a good opportunity for UI students to learn about another culture, she said.

The latest government figures show Muslims made up 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2007, but Schwabenlander thinks the Iowa City Muslim population is slowly growing.

He worked on promotion for the upcoming event, and used a Facebook group to reach students. He and a few others are in the midst of expanding the UI Muslim Student Association, which has five active members.

The public is encouraged to ask questions and participate in the discussion Sunday night.

“I hope people come with open minds and open hearts,” Amer said.

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