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Conference aims to empower U.S. Muslim women

Speakers from community groups, the LAPD and State Department said that by knowing and exercising their rights, American Muslim women could become a force against religious and political extremism.

May 08, 2011|By Mike Anton, Los Angeles Times

The sounds of Helen Reddy's 1972 anthem to the women's liberation movement, "I Am Woman," filled the Irvine hotel ballroom where several hundred participants gathered Saturday for the American Muslim Women's Empowerment Conference.

The song selection was fitting because the message speakers gave was basically the same as it was four decades ago: Know your rights, and exercise them.

But there was an added twist: By standing up for their rights inside and outside the home, American Muslim women can be a force against religious and political extremism.

While Muslim women in some other parts of the world face forced marriages, honor killings and a lack of political power, those in the United States sometimes struggle against more subtle forms of discrimination — often from within their own male-dominated communities.

"The American Muslim woman is empowered because she is an American," said author, educator and Irvine community activist Anila Ali.

From job discrimination and domestic violence to divorce and child-custody laws, "American Muslim women need to be knowledgeable about their rights and who to turn to" for assistance, Ali said.

The police are one resource, said Michael Downing, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and head of its counter-terrorism bureau.

"Our approach in understanding the struggles of society is through our outreach and engagement with communities," Downing said. "This is to create platforms to dialogue, to listen, question assumptions and appreciate beliefs.

"We are powerless without your approval and participation," he said. "Our goals are [mutual] — to have justice, truth and peace."

Radicalism springs from disenfranchisement, said Farah Pandith, a U.S. State Department representative whose job is to reach out to emerging leaders who have grown up in the digital information age in Muslim communities around the world.

"Students, entrepreneurs, hip-hop artists, poets … people who may not have the strongest voice, but interesting ideas," she said.

With a free society on their side, young American Muslim women have the opportunity to carve out their own identities and act as role models for young Muslims around the world.

"There is a way to balance your heritage and your dreams," Pandith said. "Speak up about the diversity of Muslims, not just how they dress but what they think."

And to understand a Muslim woman's role according to the teachings of the Koran, don't feel compelled to ask a man, Pandith said.

"We're all educated," she told the crowd. "Open a book and learn."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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