Panel: Houston’s Shia Ismaili Women: Education and Ethics
Elizabeth Gregory: Alright everybody, hi! Welcome. Our camera is now rolling. Um, and I’m Elizabeth Gregory, the director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston, and I am happy to welcome you today, to the second program in this year’s Living Archives Series sponsored by the Friend’s of Women’s Studies and organized by a committee led by Christine Attar, and including Barbara Karkabi, Ann Brown, and Yolanda Alvarado, some of whom are here. Uh, this series aims to present a sense of the complex history of women’s lives in Houston, and the struggles and changes that have characterized that history. Our interview format was developed as an extension of the program’s women’s archive at the U of H to serve students, scholars and the Houston community as a whole. The focus of the archive is both on oral histories of Texas women and papers of Houston area women’s organizations, and we currently have about forty collections in the archive right now, and you can get a list at the website which is friends of women dot o-r-g. The Living Archives series provides a means of publishing, of focusing public awareness on the need to document women’s history as well as on the Women’s Archive and Research Center. And the Friends of women’s studies support that archive. If you’re not a Friend please consider joining. There should’ve been membership forms on the desk, there weren’t by accident, but there are online at the same website. Um, and among the member benefits is free admission to the Living Archives Series. Uh, and looking ahead I invite you to the third panel in the series in April on mental health and women, effect on the family, and I also invite you to attend our upcoming fundraising luncheon called Table Talk. If you haven’t attended you definitely are missing something worth doing. Uh, if you’ve been there I hope you’ll attest that it was okay. Uh, it’s coming up on March third, and that’s just a month from today. So we’re honoring fifty Houston women of note from diverse fields, and we have information out on the desk, and if you’re up for purchasing a table tell us before the eighteenth of February, and you’re invited to a special kick-off party hosted by our UH chancellor Renu Khator at her home. Um, and I’ve just handed around pieces of paper for you to write questions on, so that, that just facilitates the mic-ing of the questions, so if you have questions write them on those papers. If you came in and still need a piece of paper just let us know, and then after the panel we’ll have cookies and refreshments, so you can have further conversation after the questions. Um, this is another in our ongoing series of panels on Houston women and religion, and today our panelists will speak about their experiences as Shia Ismaili women in Houston with a special emphasis on issues of education and ethics. Uh, and I’m going to give a brief introduction of our panelists, uh, and then they’ll take it away. Shaida Adaita has a background in real-estate
Shaida Adaita: A little.
EG: and is currently a program officer in His Highness Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Council USA with duties including development of programs for different constituencies within the community, training parents nationwide and teachers on the local level, and she also conducts outreach programs with schools and inter-faith communities. And Dr. Fatima Mawji is a co-chair of Table Talk. She’s also an anesthesiologist and works at Southwest Memorial Hospital. Her primary area of interest is addressing the health and social needs of women and people with mental and physical challenges within the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Shia Ismaili Council for the USA, in which she was the driving force in the establishment of the social safety net in the U.S., which I believe we will hear more about tonight. Uh, she currently serves as secretary on the board of Interfaith Ministries and is also the vice-chair for Focus Humanitarian Assistance USA. And Rishma Mohammed uh worked as a consultant in the healthcare industry for the past eight years. Currently she provides project management support to various clients. She previously was a manager at Price Waterhouse Coopers in the advisory healthcare and consulting practice, and she in currently also the secretary for Aga Khan Healthboard USA.
Uh, our moderator is Dr. B. Jill Carroll who is the excutive director of the B Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University and is also adjunct professor in religious studies at Rice, and her research interests are comparative religion, religion and world politics and natural theology. She co-hosts with Kim King a regular radio program called “Peaceful Co-existence” on KPFT, and she’s the author of a recent book A Dialogue of Civilizations: Gulen’s Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse. So, please join me in welcoming them.
Jill Carroll: Thank you all for coming tonight. I think I can join, I’ll presume to speak for Dr. Gregory in saying whenever we hold an event like this, um, in the evening, on a weeknight, we never take it for granted that anyone shows up.
[some laughter from audience]
JC: So the fact that you all are here, and that the room is full, is a good thing, and I’m so very glad that you’re here. My role tonight is to basically provide prompting questions for these fabulous people who have a great deal to say about their community, um, about the work of the Ismaili Islamic community, both in the world, in this country, and in Houston. And particularly looking at that work from within the context of being women. And so I am very excited to have them here and to be a part of this and so I will just be prompting them because you’re here to hear them speak. We here in Houston are very privileged, I think, to have a very, uh, I would say a large and thriving community of Ismaili Muslims here in the greater-Houston area which would include some of the suburbs like Sugarland and Pearland and some of the other areas, so the greater-metropolitan area, and this a community group that is, I would say, increasing, in terms of their influence, their positive, positive contributions to our civic life here in the greater-metropolitan area and I think will only become more and more prominent as that good work continues and as they achieve more visibility, so I think it’s right that we are here tonight to learn more about this community. So, let me throw out the first question, and this is, as we’ll do for all three of you, but you all jump in as you see fit. First of all, for those who may not know, can you explain a little bit about what is Ismaili Islam, who is His Highness, and maybe a little bit about your roles, your official roles, that you have played, and maybe continue to play in the community.
SA: So if I may.
SA: Ah, the Ismailis, um, are a Shi’a community. So let me take you back a little bit to the time of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. After the prophet died, there was a question about who will continue, who will be the authority, and so the Sunnis believed that the Qu’ran was a enough for them. The Qu’ran was the final revelation, and so that was enough for them. However, the Shi’as believed that the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed, Asra (?) Ali, should be the person who should guide the community, and so this is where the difference of interpretations came in, and so the people who followed Ali, the Shiat Ali, were the followers of the imams, and so they believed that there should be a continuation of the imamate after every subsequent imam. We come to, when we came the fifth imam, so Ali was the imam of the Shi’as, Ali was also a caliph for the Sunnis, they believed in him as a caliph, the Ismailis are the followers of a living imam, when we come to the fifth imam, Jaf’ar al-Sadiq, he had two sons. The first one’s, the one that the Ismailis believe is the rightful heir to continue the imamate, was Isma’il, and therefore the name Ismailis, and the others who followed his other son, Mūsá al-Kadhim, are also known as the Twelver Shi’as and they are also known as the Ithna Asharis, who are very prominent in Iran today and in Iraq as well. So this is where the division came in. We are all followers of imams, but the Ismailis followed Imam Isma’il. And then we believe also that that lineage has continued to our present imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. And so he is our spiritual leader. We believe that he has the wisdom and the authority that was bestowed in Ali is continued in his progeny today. So, this is how the division of interpretation came about. Now maybe one of you would like to say a little bit more about His Highness.
Fatima Mawji: Alright. So, um, His Highness Aga Khan, Karīm Aga Khan, currently lives in Paris, in Aiglemont, France, has gone to school at Harvard, and he basically guides us both in the worldly and the spiritual matters. And he is, according to our faith and tradition the forty-ninth hereditary imam. I will, uh.
Rishma Mohammed: Yeah, so, and I’ll focus a little bit on the worldly guidance, he has developed what is called the AKDN, the Aga Khan Development Network. Iit’s AKDN dot org for those of you who want to go home and search him on the internet. But, the AKDN, the principal focus of AKDN is to help serve those that are underserved, in south Asia, central Asia, in the Middle East and Africa. Within AKDN there are many different agencies. There’s Focus, which I’ll let Dr. Mawji talk to you a little bit about because she’s involved with that. There are the Aga Khan Academies and the education focus, which I know Shaida will talk to you about. I would like to focus on Aga Khan Health Services. I have my master’s, I think it was mentioned earlier, I have my master’s in public health, and I’ve worked as a healthcare consultant for the past ten years. Within the community, for the past seven years I have served on the Aga Khan Health Board for the USA, and in that we really have two roles. We have a domestic role where, as you know health care is a huge issue, during our presidential debate, um, this past November, the presidential election, it was just a huge focus. There’s so many members of the American community who don’t have health care, and so we try to provide basic preventative care through our physicians, through volunteers. In an international focus we have a relationship with the Aga Khan Health Services, and we really try to build capacity. So this last November, I was actually, I went to Africa with a group of five physicians and really for the main purpose of helping them develop their strategic vision and helping, guiding them. We send physicians on a quarterly basis to Africa to help develop the skill set. So all of this is (coughing at same time) really within the broader AKDN, and I know that there is, that we have some magazines for you guys to take later, but it really explains what AKDN is and how we fall within the institute.
FM: I think though let’s go back. Let’s step back a little bit. I think we’ve given you all a lot of information, so. But the Aga Khan Development Network basically is there as our social conscience of Islam. That’s what it’s for. So that as the Qu’ran states, we take care of the orphans, the sick, the poor, and we take care of everybody. So really that is a manifestation from that. It’s what is evolved now as the Aga Khan Development Network. Um, so I think, you know, to give you the broad picture, okay. And within that, if you back to our ethos or our ethics of volunteerism, and I’m going to go back a little bit to my own story now. I am born in Mombasa, in Kenya, a long time ago. (laughs) Um, and lived there, grew up there, and we have two sons who were born there. Uh, I went to medical school there, and did my anesthesia residency there before I came to the States. I’ve currently been in Houston for the last thirty years, and I live and work and behave as an American Ismaili Muslim. That’s how I work every day in my life. Okay. And so, as we grew up, when I grew up in Mombasa, we went to an Aga Khan school because, you know, there were not that many government schools. So our spiritual leader, one of the, again one of the ethics of education is very, very, you know, very strong, and not only do we educate just the men but also the women because obviously, we all know that as women, if we are educated we can take care of our kids, we can take care of the whole community per se. You know, women are nurturers, and so, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to school, and so we went to an Aga Khan school (loud noise), ‘til high school, and that’s where the foundation of how I live, you know, was kind of built. So, um, I will stop there, and I think that this whole idea of volunteerism, I’m saying I’m stopping and then I’m not (laughter), because I’m so excited (laughs).
JC: We’ll come back there.
FM: I do want to give my other two friends some opportunity, but this volunteerism that Rishma is talking about, that she went to Kenya, you know, with the physicians as a volunteer team is because that is a very strong ethical foundation for Muslims. Okay—
RM: And the volunteerism starts at such a young age. I mean, you know I, and I’ll give you a little bit of background because we didn’t do that at the beginning, I was actually born in Tanzania, but I was two when we immigrated to Canada, so I am an African-Canadian-American Ismaili woman (laughter). I went to an Episcopalian middle school. I went to a Catholic high school and a Methodist university (laughter), so I have a very broad background. Um, I finished college; I went to SMU in Dallas, and finished in 1995, and then I went on to Yale and did my master’s in public health. Um, but just to go back to the aspect of volunteerism, you know, I remember, being six or seven and volunteering within the mosque. You know, pouring water. In high school I worked in what we call the shoe company because we don’t wear our shoes when we conduct prayers. So when you walk into our mosque you actually give your shoes, and you get a token, you get them hopefully back at the end (laughter), but I, as a high school student, I worked in the shoe company. You know, it was just a part of us. My mother would cook on Fridays for the community. Growing up here we were actually a very small community. We’ve grown in the last ten or fifteen years. So I think that that part of being a volunteer starts so, so young, and once I finished school and I started work, it drew me back. It drew me back to say how can I volunteer? How can I now volunteer at a different level? Now that I am educated how can I give back? And I’ve had so many amazing opportunities to do that through the institutions.
SA: Even uh, you know Rishma gave an example of the volunteer duties that she did, there’s a lot of other children who do other volunteer work. So for instance, we have a religious education class every Saturday, and so, you know, these kids will come from kindergarten up to grade twelve to these classes. Once they graduate the high schoolers come back as teachers aids, and so they start again with kindergarten, and so this time they’re in the role as a teachers, so they have to learn the syllabus, and when they learn the syllabus they learn a little bit more about the faith. They learn how to teach smaller kids, and so, you know, this ethic of volunteerism continues within the community, and then when these young kids go off to college and come back with specializations in their field then, you know, of course we try to grab them and have them work within the community, and they do a lot of outreach as well. So, you know, and we do a lot of work with other Muslim women. So first we are Muslim women, and then we’re Ismaili women. Uh, we do a lot of work with other communities. We do a lot of outreach. Fatima does a lot of outreach. I go to a lot of churches and schools. And, by the way, I grew up in Uganda, and (laughs), so we’re all three from east Africa. Um, and I first came to North America as a refuge in 1972 when Idi Amin expelled all the Uganda Asians. So, you know, I came to Canada (coughing in audience), and after I got married I moved to Texas, and I’ve lived in Texas for the last thirty years, more or less, I’ve had intermittent trips outside, but more or less I’ve been here for thirty years. So, we consider this as our home. We consider ourselves Americans first and then Muslim women. So--
FM: Also, I think, it would be unfair for us to give you a lopsided picture where, obviously, we are really involved within the community, but we are also involved in the external, in the community that we live in, and, you know, I am a board member of Interfaith Ministries. I work closely with Jill on our Amazing Faiths dinner dialogue initiative, which I really think is what Houston is about. You know, when you look out there, and you see this multitude, this diversity of different people, different languages, you know, speaking, from different cultures. At the end of the day, when we go to bed at night, we are all worried about the same thing. About the recession, and about whether our kids will be alright. Will they make, you know, and get to goo schools? I think, you know, that’s what-- And Houston has, and I think, really been very good to a lot of us, um, especially immigrants because it’s a very friendly city where we were, you know, within six months after we moved here my little one was two years old, and he’s now twenty-nine, um, suddenly Houston was our home, and that’s what we have to be proud of, and hopefully, we’d be able to nurture this and bring this whole pluralism where we can, and in fact that’s what we are hoping to do through the Amazing Faiths dinner dialog, is to create, you know, to start we have to have tolerance, respect and then friendship hopefully, and Pat actually, is one of my friends now, we met at the last Amazing Faiths dinner dialog. Okay. So, I think that that’s what, you know, we are here for, to share, and to thank, to a certain extent, the Houston community, and it’s our time, or turn, to give back. Okay—
JC: I want to say— I want to ask one more question about this ethos of volunteerism and service. Um, you’ve spoken about being Ismaili women but at a more foundational level, Muslim women. Say a little bit about tradition in Islam, um, like maybe in the Qu’ran or in the Life of the Prophet Mohammed that emphasizes this service or this ethos that you were saying is so central to Islam.
AS: So, in the Qu’ran, the Prophet, when the revelation came down to the Muslim people, he was very vibrant in the way he treated women. His whole ethos of equality to women-- He was one of the first, you know, the woman that he married, Bibi Khadijah, was older than him. She was a businesswoman, and she proposed to him, so even in those days, you know, I mean, she was a very liberated woman. Um, the Prophet, you know, had this ethic of equality between both the sexes, and so he endorsed this a lot, and even later on, you know, this whole idea of, you know, the Qu’ran says marry one woman, or two women, or three women, or four women, only came about because during the wars a lot of men were killed, and instead of selling (?) (coughing in audience) these women as orphans, or their children as orphans, and these women being alone and not able to sustain themselves, the whole ideas was, you know, that if you take on that if you take on this person then you have to take care of this woman, and the stipulations was that you would (background noise) treat all of them equally, and that was the only way that you should take on another wife. And so this whole idea of taking care of the poor, taking care of the wayfarer, taking care of-- that was more central than anything else. So—
JC: Since you brought it up, let’s transition a little bit to the role of women and education. Uh, I think that in this part of the world there are, perhaps, some misconceptions about Islam with regard to women, and some stereotypes which are just sort of operative out in the culture, and so I would like for each of you, if you will, but particularly you Rishma, to start, to speak about the role of women in Islam—
JC: and in Ismaili Islam from a broad perspective, but particularly from your own experience.
[audience member coughing]
RM: Um, you know unlike, Shaida’s family my family chose to leave east Africa, they chose to leave Tanzania, really for me. You know, I was two years old, and they realized that— you know my parents have what is probably the equivalent of a high school education, and I think that we all have this hope and desire and expectation for our children to do much better than what we have done, and so they left Africa because they wanted to come to the western world where I would be afforded those opportunities. Um, I think that the community has also played a really supportive role. You know, as a community it’s the foundation, it’s where we belong, and, you know, there’s an exchange of ideas, there’s support, there’s oh my child is doing this, my child is doing that, and there was really no differentiation in my experience between the boys and the girls, and so my sister and I have really been encouraged and pushed to go out there. I mean when I finished college my mom said, “Okay, now what?” You know, “what’s next?” I mean it was just understood that there was something else out there that I had to do. When I—and by the way I have a four year old son—and when I decided to leave Price Waterhouse Cooper’s two years ago I think it was harder to convince my parents that it was time to leave than it was to convince, you know, myself because there’s just such a strong foundation in terms of that belief that education is a life-long process. It’s not a—you don’t turn a certain age and the education door closes. It really is a life-long thing. And the guidance, you know on the spiritual side, the guidance that we’ve always received from the imam of the time has been educate your women. Educate your women and your entire family will be educated, and that’s really the principle that my parents grew up with.
FM: And our previous spiritual leader, the forty-eighth spiritual leader, actually, in the early fifties, which is a long time ago, he basically went out on a limb and said to his followers that if you don’t have enough money to educate both your children, if you have a girl and a boy, then you need to educate your daughter. That’s how strong he felt, that it was so important for a woman to be educated, and I think that the Qu’ran actually, if you’re familiar with the Qu’ran, it talks about the intellect, and the intellect, which gives you a tool to reason with things, that is very sacred almost. And so anything you do to help and develop that intellect is what is recommended, and that is one of the reasons that in Islam we are not allowed to drink alcohol or the use of anything that will change your ability or interfere with your ability with the power of reason and your intellect. So that’s how important the Qu’ran stresses on the intellect and the education part. Okay?
SA: Just piggy-backing on this idea of education for women. So, the Aga Khan Education Services is a division of the AKDN, and in the northern areas of Pakistan there was no education for women, and so the previous imam, (?) Sultan Muhammad Shah, had this vision that he wanted to educate these young girls, however there were no schools available for them. A little later on, I think in the early eighties, what happened was, he had passed away but the present imam, His Highness the Aga Khan developed these boarding schools. There was a nominal fee for the girls to enter. It was very nominal so most families could afford it, and the girls, for the first time, were allowed to go to these boarding schools. After they graduated from these boarding schools they became social workers, nurses, all different careers. The only problem was—I mean, there were various advantages for this education. Now they could sustain their own family with earnings that they brought in. The only problem was that they were having issues of compatibility with finding a male partner that was as educated as they were, you know. So these were, you know, um, very ingenious ideas of starting education. You know, at the moment there are issues of educating women in Pakistan, and we hear this in the news. And so, this has always been something that His Highness and our imam before endorsed, that women should be educated, and this is an ethic, you know, every Ismaili-- Muslim woman, I think, you will see will be pushing for her daughter to be educated.
FM: I think that, you know, that Ismailis are just one sect. There are other Muslim sects that are definitely in the education business, I would say. Um, in Turkey, through the (?) movement, and I think Shaida and myself and Jill are very familiar. We’ve been to Turkey on the Interfaith trips where we have actually seen how they have actually got a lot of schools, not only in Turkey, they have some schools here, in Houston, a couple of them. Sultana? I’ve forgotten the names of the school.
Audience Member (Sultana?): Harmony Schools of Excellence.
FM: Harmony Schools of Excellence. And they’re actually, not only educating the Turkish children, but they’re actually educating the Houston children. Okay? And so, and they were telling us when we visited the school, that they’re results in Turkey, the school results, were so much better than the government schools. And so I think it is, you know, this is—we’ve come to a point where, because it is such a small world now, we are now learning what happens in Turkey and Afghanistan we are now exposed to, and I think that the more we learn about people, I think, and the more information we have, our whole, you know, idea, stereotypes—
FM: hopefully will change. Because I think most of it is because you don’t know about it, and you’re not exposed to Islamic people. Okay.
JC: You mentioned other groups within Islam in addition to the Ismaili community that focus on education in general, but particularly education for women. What do you say about those areas in the world and those groups within Islam that, not only don’t educate women, but who seem steadfastly opposed to it? And where we do see images of certain communities within Islam that do not educate women, women do not have the equality that is so abundantly clear in your community and in some others, what do you say about those groups? How do you understand that as Muslims?
FM: You want me to? I think obviously, you know, there’s multiple interpretations of the faith. I think and depending also on where people live, which country, a lot of the culture is derived from the country that they live in, and what we have to do as the rest of the world is to get creative solutions. And I’ll share a creative solution that we’ve actually have used to get the parents to send their daughters to school. In Afghanistan, where the girls and the boys didn’t have any food, so what we did was to focus humanitarian assistance through Aga Khan Foundation, we collaborated because they have their expertise, we have our expertise (coughing from audience member), and we worked actually with a donor from Pittsburg, I think.
Audience Member: From the USDA.
FM: From the USDA. And what we did was, we started providing milk twice a day at the schools. And so the parents, you know, also realized that if they send the girls also to school they’re going to get food, and very soon we were able to increase the number of girls coming to school. So I think that, yes, it is an issue, um, you know, we have to solve it, you know, by getting creative, by innovation, and you know, our spiritual leader talks about that when you have (coughing from audience member) fear, okay, it’s very hard to function, but if you have hope that is a trampoline— I’m paraphrasing him— trampoline for progress. Okay? And a lot of those countries, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of poverty, and because of that (coughing from audience member) they can’t seem to be able to get past that. And we hope that through different services, through different agencies, and we are constantly working with SEEDA, the Canadian agency, the USA agencies, to try and hopefully share resources with them, share our (coughing from audience member) examples, and so that’s what I would be able to answer.
JC: Okay. And—
FM: Anything you want to add?
[coughing from audience member]
RM: Do you want to talk about the academies?
SA: So, um, you know, we see this problem in other countries, and (clears throat) I think eventually our hope is, you know, that this will phase out. This cannot last. You know, you cannot hold women down like that, and you have seen, in a lot of countries, there have been women who have come forward and have fought for this cause, and we’re hoping that, slowly, maybe the other women of the world will fight this cause for them as well, but our community’s ethos is not like that, but it is our job as women, and all of us should, look at some other creative solutions to this problem and how is it that we can help solve this problem because these are women, these are our sisters that are in these kinds of problems. So I think that the onus is on us—
SA: to come up with good ways of solving these problems.
JC: Rishma, you want to add something?
RM: Yeah, there are a couple things. One is, um, you know, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Qatar, but actually, it’s the queen there who is helping develop the university, and she’s created (coughing from audience member) all of these linkages with American universities. I think they have some with Harvard—
JC: Sheikha (?) Al-Missned
RM: I don’t know her name.
Audience Member: [inaudible]
RM: Is it? So, you know, and that’s a— it’s a great role model, I think, for that part of the world. The other thing that we have we have done, or that—or, I mean we as the collective we—we’ve really promoted the nursing profession for women. It’s a great profession—
FM: Especially in Pakistan.
RM: Especially in Pakistan where we have a school of nursing. So, another agency within the AKDN framework is the Aga Khan University, and there’s a school of nursing there. And so, we kind of call it our nursing mafia, but—
RM: There’s a group of them, and it’s amazing because they have created their own social network all across the world. And they finish their education there. They move to Africa, they move to Canada, they move to the U.S. because those skills are transferrable anywhere, and it gives them knowledge. It gives them power within their own lives because they’re going out and making a living, and it’s a great role model for their children as well.
JC: Very good.
FM: And you want to talk about the academies?
SA: Yes. The Aga Khan Education Services has many schools within the Services. There’s about three hundred Aga Khan schools, which is just regular schools that are available not just to the community. They’re open to everyone. And so these schools, you know, cater to the community that’s living around the school. It caters to, also—it gives teacher development resources and aids to other schools that are around this community. So, for instance, if there is a community not too far away from the school that wants to develop a school improvement program then we will give them some resources, some teachers, some trainers that go there and help them develop those resources, their won resources. And then once they’re up and running, then we will move on to another area. So, in east Africa there’s not too many Ismailis left there; however, the Aga Khan Education Services is touching about a hundred thousand people, even though their own schools are very few, however, these teaching development centers are helping everybody else bring their schools up as well. So, we had some early childhood education centers that were just religious in nature. They came forward and said, you know, we want to start a secular program, and we don’t know how, can you give us some money? So what His Highness said was that instead of giving you money let me give you resources to develop these secular schools, and then—you know, within your religious schools—and then this way now these kids have gone through, and the first class graduated, I think, a couple of years ago, and have gone to university, you know. So, so there’s a lot of things that our schools do as well, you know, for the entire community.
JC: I see.
FM: I’d like to actually ask Sultana. Sultana, sorry, if I can get you to indulge a little bit and talk to us about the madrasahs in East Africa that you go every year to.
JC: Actually, Sultana, will you come up here—
FM: You need to come up.
JC: so we can see you and also so the camera can see you.
FM: Also for the video thing.
JC: And for the audio. They can’t really hear you.
JC: Thank you.
FM: Sorry to put you on the spot.
Sultana: So, I am on the national committee for the Aga Khan foundation. It’s based out of Washington. It’s part of the overarching Aga Khan Development Network. Um, the Aga Khan Foundation specifically sponsors the work of the madrasahs in East Africa. In East Africa the madrasahs are, as Shaida mentioned, they were religious schools, um, early childhood education in religious schools, and the founder of that particular madrasah group, a Sunni Muslim group, approached the Aga Khan and said, look, this is what we have, but we really want to come up and be sure that our children have a strong secular foundation because, after all, it’s only with early childhood head start that these children can actually learn and progress and have the skill sets to be productive members of the community and society. So with that framework in mind the Aga Khan funded the program and said, okay, um, we will help support the schools but we will make sure that you have the resources and create a model where they took the Montessori with the, I guess, the classical model—
Audience Member: Traditional.
Sultana: Yes, child-centered learning, and it’s worked an incredible way. In fact, I was just at a UNICEF meeting two years ago, and one of the students from that madrasah group is now the country director for UNICEF in South Africa. So it’s just amazing to see where these kids have gone. Anyway, so my story is that my daughters—I have two daughters—and they wanted cars, (coughing from audience member) and they wanted to be able to drive in Houston and have the ability to be mobile, et cetera, and I said, okay, if you really want to do that (coughing from audience member) you need at least a hundred hours per year of community service from you all. And that’s what they said, they said okay fine (coughing from audience member) we’ll organize. So they fundraised for this project. Um, the madrasah group basically works out of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania (coughing from audience member), and they fundraised for -- we carted (?) five-hundred and eighty books each time we went, including school supplies. They taught at the LCPC’s, the Learning Centers for Parents and Children here, they volunteered there, and they learned fundamental skills, basically. And then they went abroad, and they taught in these madrasahs, and they said oh my God, Mom, we go in here with all this material, and guess what? They have their own material. It’s all hand-made. The parents were (coughing in audience) to all this. They just took shells for beanie counts, you know the beanie bear counters or whatever. They had matchsticks, and they had uh, as another resource for counting. They also had blocks and empty canisters for counting as well, and then they had blocks for their building center, basically, and then they created their own kitchen centers and their own home centers, et cetera, and it was just amazing. And do you know these kids coming out for the six year old program, five to six year old program, they knew their multiplication and addition and subtraction. I mean, they were working at a second grade level, addition, you know. So it was just amazing to see that these groups of kids when given opportunities could do so much. And so, you know, it was really refreshing to see that. Anyway—
FM: Thank you Sultana. Sorry to put you on the spot.
JC: Thank you. Yeah, thank you for coming up. (Inaudible sentence.)
[Background noise from the audience.]
JC: I’m struck by the use of a term that’s well known in Islam: madrasah. Uh, again, I, you know, we have stereotypes in our world. We hear the news and in the media about these madrasahs that, you know, are teaching violence, and clearly that is not the case here.
[Laughter from audience.]
FM: Yeah. I just realized it, so that’s why I said let’s pull Sultana.
JC: Yeah. So the term madrasah is not synonymous with something ugly—
SA: No, no.
JC: in this case it’s absolutely fabulous. I want to ask one more question about women, and then I want to transition to another topic, but again, getting to what’s distinctive about the Ismaili community and trying to undo some of the so-called information people think they have about Islam. I noticed that none of you are wearing the hijab, the covering, but I think, if I’m accurate in this, that some Ismaili women do around the world. It depends where they live. Can you say just a little bit about that?
SA: So the hijab is very specific to cultures, depending on what culture you live in. Um, in fact, when we were growing up in East Africa mom, who used to wear a long dress, when she was going to be married was, you know, asked by His Highness the Aga Khan that you need to wear Western dress now, and so, you know, they modernized themselves, and so my mom got married in a short dress, you know, not a long, traditional dress. But in other parts of the world, you know, women have to like, for instance in Pakistan they would have to cover their legs and wear, you know, the traditional dress, the Shalwar Qameez, and they need to do that. In India, however, you don’t need to. You can wear jeans and a t-shirt. That’s fine. And in some parts of the world, you know, the women, they’re living in a country say like Kuwait or, you know, they would have to wear the hijab, but it is very culturally specific. It’s not our faith that tells us to wear the hijab or not wear the hijab. So—
FM: It’s-- but I think, what is important for Muslim women is to dress modestly. That is the key message, and I think that most of us can, you know, understand why, we don’t have to—as women I’m sure that some us, and I don’t have a daughter, but I’m sure when our daughters are growing up here we are all concerned at the way they dress. You know, when they go to school in their shorts, short skirts, et cetera, I’m sure (laughter)— you have a daughter right?
SA: Yes. I have—
FM: I think that—
SA: By the way, my daughter is older now. She is twenty-eight.
FM: Yeah, but when she was young, I’m sure—
SA: Yeah, but when she was, yes.
FM: you had some mother-daughter dialog.
[laughter from audience]
SA: I basically had a problem with her color coordination.
[laughter from audience]
SA: So the counselor told me that if it’s not fatal, just leave it alone.
[laughter from audience]
RM: And I’m sure that I gave my mother some heartache growing up, but (laughter), you know, I get asked all the time when I say well I’m going to mosque, well what do you wear? And I would wear—I could wear what I’m wearing today. Sometimes I wear a sari which is more traditional. Sometimes I wear a Shalwar Qameez, which is the tops and the pants, so really it’s very cultural. I’ve retained, you know, I think we’ve all retained that cultural part.
JC: Let’s transition to another topic. We have maybe about ten more minutes of discussion, and then I want to open it up to you all for questions. So if you have your little sheets of paper, you know, you have those to write questions on and pass them up, and we’ll ask them. There’s a great deal of work in the AKDN and other areas of the Ismaili community around architecture, cultural preservation, park restoration, general landscape restoration, these type activities. In fact, for myself, other than just studying Islam as a part of my career, one of the first ways in which I began to learn more about the Ismaili community was when one of the first major architecture websites on the World Wide Web when it was first new was from His Highness Aga Khan, from the foundation, and it was just acclaimed as the fabulous, fabulous world-class architecture site. Can you explain a little bit about why the concern for that and if that connects in with the ethic of volunteerism or the ethos that you talked about earlier. Explain that for people because I think that’s a real dominant part of your community.
SA: So this first website that was put out by MIT and Harvard is called Archnet. Um, this website is about Islamic architecture, and if anybody wanted to build a, you know, any kind of a building, purposeful building, like for business, for instance, or a home or a park or a courtyard then, you know, there were samples here in this website, which was open to everyone. There was no fee to go in, and it was open to everyone. It gave specifications, you know, so anybody can access it. So this was one of the things High Highness the Aga Khan put in. Now let me tell you a little bit about why architecture is so important to him. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is an award that’s given out annual, every three years, and it’s a half a million dollar award, the largest award for architecture preservation in the world. The contingencies for winning this award are that this award—the space should be functional, that the space serves the community that it is in, that this is a space that when revitalized will be like an economic boost to the community and the surrounding people. It’ll be helpful to whoever is living there. So the first thing should be that it should be functional, and this award has gained a lot of prestige out in the world. The other thing is that His Highness the Aga Khan what he does is, he goes to communities where there is a building or something that needs restoration. So, for instance, when Afghanistan was war-torn, and he decided to build, you know—revitalize the charbagh in Afghanistan, which is the four gardens. Charbagh is a very rich concept in the Qu’ran, and so this concept about the four gardens—he went into Afghanistan, revitalized that area, but then what he did was he used local artisans. And so the local people that didn’t have jobs (audience member sneezing) now either learned a trade or they knew a little bit and then they brought in people to teach them a little bit more, and so he used the local community to revitalize it. He did the same thing for the Al-Azhar Park in Egypt, which was a garbage dump. They had been putting garbage on this dump for hundreds of years, so he went in and he said, you know, we will build a park for you. There was no green space in Cairo. If any of you have visited Cairo you will realize, you know, how populated Cairo is. And so first what they did was they hauled off all the garbage, and then they developed this beautiful park there, and while they were hauling off the garbage they realized that there was this Ayyubid wall, which was part of this garbage dump, which was from the time of Salah ad-Din. Now, you know, the Fatmid Empire was ruled by Ismaili caliphs. There were Ismaili imam caliphs, and Salah ad-Din was the person who, when he came into power, the demise of the Fatimid Empire happened. And His Highness the Aga Khan went in and restored the Ayyubid wall, which represents Salah ad-Din. So, you know, this whole notion of pluralism, that even if you are different, but if you accept the fact that, yes, this is from an era gone and yet I want to revitalize this, I want to revitalize the community (coughing in audience). So the artisans that were trained, you know, for the Al-Azhar Park are still today maintaining the park. You know, they all hold jobs; there are (coughing in audience) restaurants that have sprung up. Their homes were renovated as well because they were adjacent to the park. So a lot of good came out from this revitalization project.
FM: So, you know, as part of, again, (coughing in audience) like our ethics or ethos the Qu’ran actually talks about the environment, and it talks about that when you’re born and, you know, you find the earth, and—it behooves on you to keep the world the same (coughing from audience) or better. And, you know, even in the Prophet Mohammed’s time—
SA: Peace be—
FM: Peace be upon him. Um, there were no oases at that time. There were (coughing in audience) just areas of water, but what the practice historically was that if you went to a wetland you would have to grow a palm tree. And today we’re still doing the same thing. And so, you know, and I tell all my nurses at work, actually, when we try to dispose off and we waste, et cetera, I keep on reminding them that all of us—(coughing from audience) it really is up to us to make sure we leave behind a world which is better than we found it or at least the same, and you know, but they’re like, don’t worry Dr. Mawji, everything’s going to be fine. But like, no, I am not worried about myself, but your children and your grandchildren. And that ethos or ethics of protecting the environment is one of the AKDN—under the AKDN we have now got what is called the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. And, you know, it is very easy when you don’t have enough food to eat on the plate, and there’s a lot of poverty, that you tend to ignore culture, and you tend to think that culture—instead of using culture, um, as an asset, you use it more—you know, you think it’s draining instead of an asset. And so, with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture through the architectural award we have (coughing in audience) been able to try and renew this, uh, culture, to revive and to restore some of the buildings, so of the music in central Asia is revived. And all of us know if you have your own cultural identity that’s what makes you, you know, comfortable with yourself, and when you’re comfortable with your identity that’s when you are able to function at the best, at the optimum level. And so once you can get your identity, and all of us as mothers, we are worried about our children, I’m coming back to Houston, okay, that we want to make sure that they grow up; they have culture, they have identity, so that hopefully they will not be out on the streets bumming around. Okay.
JC: You mention these three things for the buildings—for the restoration of the buildings—the functionality, that it be functional, that it serves the community in which it finds itself, and that it be an economic boost to the area, and it seems clear to me how that applies to projects of restoration of historical value. (coughing in audience) Do those same criteria apply to new buildings, new construction? When your community launches a new project whether it’s a mosque or a community center, do those same type things apply.
FM: Absolutely, absolutely. Um, you know, we have, we are in the process—in fact, His Highness has just opened a delegation building in Ottowa, okay? It’s part of the pluralism culture in Canada, and some of you may know that we’ve got plans in building a community center and a Jamat Khana, you know, right here, close by. And you will see that we will, you know, the whole place will be—it will not be something which is very different looking. It will blend with the environment, but at the same time it will have, you know, some of our, um, cultural identity in it. And hopefully it will be a place where all of us as Houstonians will be proud to have amongst us.
SA: Also, I think the other thing is that the Jamat Khanas are available to the communities around it. So, for instance, you know, if you want to have at the center, at our Jamat Khana, in the southwest part of town, if you want to use that facility, you know, it’s available to you to use. Um, you know, if you want to hold a meeting or anything like that. The only thing we ask is that, you know, during the hours of prayer that it’s not available. So that’s the only thing, and I think even when this center is developed here, you know, we will look at what is the need in the community. You know, how can we address some of those needs, and what are some things that we can incorporate in this center which will benefit the whole community around it. So it’s not (coughing from audience member) just looking at what the Ismaili need is—
SA: We will be looking around for, you know, everything.
RM: And, and His Highness is actually involved—or, personally involved in the building and the architecture of every permanent center, of every site like this.
SA: High profile.
RM: High profile. You know, from every small detail to the biggest details. He really—this is really—he makes a statement through these about how important it is for these centers to really enhance the communities that they live in.
FM: We’ve got some brochures for you (laughter) that you can pick up. We’ve got some magazines about—(inaudible chatter) different articles. We’ve got some—
FM: Bookmarks. So—
JC: For those who don’t know, will you explain the term Jamat Khana?
SA: So the Jamat is the congregation, and the Khana is the place of worship, so the Jamat Khana means a place of worship where the congregation meets, you know, so-- And Jamat Khanas is not just a term that’s used among the Ismailis. There are also other Muslim communities that use that phrase as well, so some Sufi Tarikas have some Jamat Khanas as well.
JC: For you is it synonymous with mosque?
SA: Well, more or less, yes.
JC: I’m just asking the educational (laughter and coughing in audience). So that we have it on tape (more laughter).
FM: What is interesting is that we do use the Jamat Khana as a place where there’s social interaction. We learn from each other. So it’s more than just going for prayers.
RM: And when he designs—when it’s designed there is a prayer hall and there’s a social hall. Because, you know, that is where we have our interactions.
SA: And also the religious centers too.
RM: Oh yes. And the offices.
FM: We’ve got lots of questions.
[some inaudible chatter]
JC: We’ve got a lot of questions, so—some of these are—just give me ten seconds. Some of these are the same questions so I want to be sure to answer those. Um, how many—and if I botch your question, I’m just trying to read it, okay—how many Ismaili Muslims are there in the world and in how many countries, and how many in Houston?
SA: So, we have—(coughing in audience) the official number that comes out of Aiglemont whenever there is a directive is around fifteen million.
JC: Fifteen million worldwide?
SA: Worldwide, yes.
JC: And in Houston?
FM: We’ve got about twelve to fifteen thousand
RM: And then another seven or eight in Dallas.
[fade to black]
FM: And the next hereditary imam will probably be Aga Khan the fifth. Okay?
[chatter from audience]
FM: It has to be a son. It has to be a male offspring.
RM: And the current Aga Khan will appoint or inform us of who that Aga Khan the fifth would be, and just—he has three grown children, and he has also a fourth child who’s very, very young. And the three children, to my knowledge all work within his different institutions or within the different agencies.
JC: A couple of questions on this so I’ll summarize. How does the Ismaili community finance all these extensive programs?
FM: Great question. (laughs) Um, I think that the Aga Khan Development Network agencies are under not-for-profit status. All of us, as part of our ethos of generosity, sharing what we have, we all are donors, small and big, so we do do that, and His Highness also funds a lot of the projects.
SA: And also we have partners, right?
FM: And we have partners. Rights.
SA: We have partners like CEEDA, the World Bank, so the reputation of the Aga Khan Development Network is so great that if the Aga Khan Development Network is going into a country, and if the world—you know, if anybody else is going to be following them then they stand more chances of getting funded as well. So, you know, if they’re going to going into a country where nobody else has gone before, and because of their historic record, they stand more chances of getting the funding.
[coughing in audience]
FM: I’ll give you an example of focused humanitarian assistance and some of the projects that we do in central Asia where there’s a lot of seismic activity risk going on there. The European Commission for Humanitarian Assistance gives us—works with Focus very closely and gives us grants also. So, we do obviously work in partnership. (coughing in audience) The tsunami project in (?) was in partnership Focus with CEEDA, the Canadian agency, and US Aid was there too I think. So-- And we do take donations. No!
[laughter from audience]
FM: We do. It’s online.
JC: It’s on the tape now.
FM: You know, actually the partnership walk in Houston, Aga Khan—it’s called the Partnership Walk in Houston, and Sultana may not remember the date—is an interesting event that happens once a year, and, you know, everybody walks, and we have different themes: global poverty, water—bringing fresh, clean water to people in Africa. They had, one time, for a couple of years, the theme was women, and so all the activities for women were funded. So there are different, (coughing in audience) different themes that the Aga Khan Foundation comes up with, and, you know, apart from us walking and donating, lots of volunteers there actually have replicas of some of the projects that we are doing abroad. Okay? And so, you know, hopefully when you’ll now see that partnership walk advertized, or, you know (coughing from audience member), come to the event. It’s an interesting event. It’s an eye-opener. Do you remember the date?
Audience Member (Sultana?): November the fourteenth this year, and we hope to see you all there.
FM: November the fourteenth.
JC: Okay. Can we attend (coughing in audience) service at the Jamat Khana?
FM: No, the answer is, that unless you have—if you believe in the Aga Khan as your spiritual leader and are committed to the faith, that’s when you can come for the official prayers. Okay? If you are not a follower of the Aga Khan, then you can come, you can visit the prayer place, but not during our prayer time.
JC: What percentage of Ismaili Muslims are in the whole Muslim community? So in other words, what percentage of—
JC: Is this the predominant sect? What other sects are there?
SA: So the Ismaili community is a minority. It is not—it’s a minority of a minority. Um, so even amongst the Shi’as we’re a minority, and so this is not a predominant community in the—What?
FM: We are the second major Shi’a community.
FM: So remember that the Sunnis are eighty percent. The Shi’as are twenty percent.
FM: And out of the twenty percent of the Shi’as we are the second largest.
JC: Okay, we have very few questions here. In Houston many refugees from around the world have been arriving for the last twenty years. Organizations such as YMCA, Alliance, Interfaith Ministries, Catholic charities sponsor refugees to resettle here in Houston. Has your group ever been involved in a supportive way with these refugee resettlement programs here in Houston?
FM: I will take that one.
FM: Um, actually, I used to be the social welfare chairman, and so under the social welfare board we actually work with the refugees, and, in fact, some of you may have—recently we were, when Hurricane Ike was here, we—the Focus volunteers actually went and took care of some of the refugees here were here through Interfaith Ministries because they didn’t have enough supplies. They didn’t know how to use—
JC: The cards.
FM: Those cards. What do you call them? The cards that you go for in the grocery store, or—
FM: Foodstamps! Foodstamps. Thank you. And so we were there to help them. And we do work with families who come here because what happens is most of the refugee services only take care of them for six months. After that—and sometimes it’s hard for the refugee families to really be on their own within, you know, six months. So we actually work in our social welfare board to try and help families, (coughing from audience member) and I know Interfaith Ministries, who I’m a board member with, we work with them too.
JC: Is there an official policy on women’s reproductive rights?
RM: I don’t think I’ve ever—
SA: I’m not aware of it.
FM: Somebody wants to rephrase that a little bit, and maybe we can answer it? I don’t—
JC: I guess, does His Highness give instruction about that or have a statement? Because, you know, to draw a very loose example, the Pope, the head of the Catholic world community has statements about that. Um, other religious leaders of communities will make statements about these types of things and so I think that’s—
RM: I haven’t—
SA: Not in my lifetime.
FM: And, you know, I think we have to go back to the intellect and (coughing from audience member) the power of reason, and each of us has been given the intellect and we have to—
SA: Reason it out.
FM: Reason it out. That’s the way we look at it.
JC: Why a male offspring? Why does the next one have to be the same kind of person? Why not a woman?
JC: I just read them.
SA: So the line of progeny since the imam Ali—
SA: Peace be upon him, has been—you know, and this is the forty-ninth imam—has been a male progeny because the bloodline has to stay within the male heirs. So this imam, in fact, is the grandson of the previous imam. His father did not become the imam. Instead, he became the imam because his grandfather thought that he wanted a younger imam to take over because the world was changing at such a hard, fast pace. But it has always been a male progeny or a male issue, or a remoter male issue, but it always has to be a male.
FM: So currently, that’s—at least for the last fourteen hundred years—that has been historically—
SA: The case.
FM: The case.
JC: And I would add as a historian of world religions that the Ismailis don’t have a monopoly on that.
JC: By any stretch of the imagination. Okay, both of these questions are about Turkey, but I’m going to read them both, just to capture the exact sentiment of both. The first one is, would you address the hijab or head covering as a political statement (coughing in audience) especially among young women in Turkey and other European countries and the US. So that’s addressing the hijab among those women as a political statement, and then, what can you tell us about the young college women in Turkey who threaten to kill themselves if not allowed to wear the head covering? So, related questions but very distinct.
FM: The second one is—It’s very hard to understand that for me personally. I am not speaking as myself. It would, you know, be very hard for me to understand, you know, why I would want to kill myself, for any reason not only the hijab.
FM: But, you know, God has given us such a wonderful life.
FM: Why would I want to take it away? And so if you have that deep belief in God, to me that would be—you know, I don’t know how anybody would answer it otherwise.
RM: Yeah, it’s the same. You know, in this case it is about a religious aspect, but it really could have been about anything. And, so, you know, to me, again, I can’t fathom going down that path.
JC: Right. Uh, as a scholar who works on this, I’ll attempt a brief answer. Um, for many women in Turkey, and in Europe, they feel that their religious freedom is being attacked. We don’t have an issue as much here in the United States because there is not law that says you can’t wear a hijab (coughing from audience member) at the University of Houston. There is such a law in France. There is such a law in Turkey. And they understand that as a fundamental oppression of their religious freedom., and that’s how we would understand it on the other side of the ocean given our First Amendment commitment to religious freedom. So, I am with you Fatima, I don’t—to kill yourself over something is a very serious thing. There are people willing to die for their freedom though.
FM: You know what was interesting in Turkey, when we visited Turkey and we would go to people’s homes. They were—you know, they would welcome us. They didn’t ever—had never met us, but they would, you know, feed us. They would talk to us. In fact it was interesting because I met three women with the same name as me. And what was interesting in the family environment, you know, you would have three brothers and their wives, and two of them would be wearing the hijab and one of them would not. And the same thing in the street, you know, there were people who were walking around dressed like us, and there were people who were head covered, and I really think it is so cultural. It is so personal, and yes, you know—So I think it’s a topic that’ll never go away, kind of. But I think it’s a very personal, very cultural issue.
SA: An you know, when you said that these women said that it’s a violation of their right—When we were in Turkey for the international summer school a couple of the gentlemen wanted to say their Friday prayers, so you know, the guys said you can go in my office and do it.
SA: So the proctor was walking around, and he said stop praying. You’re not allowed to pray in a secular environment.
JC: Because you were at a public university?
SA: Yeah, and, you know, at that time— I mean, you hear about these things in the newspaper. It’s at that time that you come to the realization that, yes, it’s a violation of my freedom that I take for granted. And it was then that the whole, you know, the summer school just took a pause and said, you know, how do we feel about that? And then we discussed it at length. I remember. But yes, you know, when you go to another country where it’s not something that is easily accessible to you is when you come to that realization.
JC: Yeah, that’s a good point. This’ll be, since we’re almost at the stopping point, the last question. Are there public accommodations for religious practice that you wish were made in Houston? Are there things that would be helpful, you know, like prayer rooms in places, a sort of mindful design, if you will.
FM: Personally, that thought has never occurred to me because I could be sitting here, I could be sitting on a bus, if I want to think about God or pray to God, God is everywhere. I don’t need a special place, so, maybe—at least that’s what I think.
JC: Your face is classic. You’re like—
RM: You know, when I—This is an odd thing to say, but, you know, when I was at PWC they had these—um, they had a lactation room, and so I would go in there, and I would literally close the door if I wanted, like the few—not to pray but just a few moments of meditation. And so I think all women should have that—
RM: All women should have their own little space, you know, so—
JC: That’s great.
[laughter and chatter]
FM: But I think Houston is, you know, Houston, America—remember, we have chosen to live here. We moved here—unlike Shaida, and even Shaida—
FM: She chose to move from Canada to the States. We moved from Kenya. There was no compelling reason except we felt it would be a better environment for our children and for us. It would be much more of an enabling environment to live here, and, you know, if hadn’t been that way we would have gone back.
FM: We are now Americans, and, you know, I think people respect you for what you are, and that’s the wonderful thing about us.
JC: Please join me in thanking—
EG: Thanks again for coming and please come and join us for refreshments.
FM: Thank you Elizabeth for having us.
EG: You’re welcome.
FM: Here is some stuff if you want to pick it up.
JC: Yeah, don’t forget the booklets and things that are up for you.