Subject: "Sister President"
Assalamu alaikunna. I wrote this article for our Sisters Net so I hope you will enjoy it! Feel free to pass it on.
Dr. Mohja Kahf
You May Call Her "Sister President"
We met for breakfast by the bay in Panama City, Florida. The sea was glorifying Allah in frothy eddies. "How did you get to be president of the Islamic center in this small, mostly conservative community?" I asked Mrs. Iman Elkadi (nee Abu Saud). "We wanted a woman on the board," she said. "Just as a board member. It never occurred to me that I would be president." She opened a honey packet.
"Who's "we"?" I asked, tearing into my eggs and hash browns. She began to tick off the women who supported the move to make new positions for women on the Board of the Bay County Islamic Center. Then she stopped and said, "You know, I don't think there were any women who did not want a woman on the board. And a lot of the men were supportive, too."
The women realized that without a woman participating directly in Board meetings, they would continued to be uninformed and out of the loop of decision-making on issues important to the whole community, and not least to themselves as women. The women's struggle for involvement and representation began during 1988.
To get new Board positions created for women, there had to be an amendment to the Constitution of the Center, and it had to be voted in by the general membership. When it came time to vote, someone actually raised the question of whether women could even take part in the voting. After a vigorous discussion, the General Assembly decided that family membership did in fact entitle both the husband and the wife to individual votes. Then the Assembly, rather than create new positions specifically for women, agreed that women could run for existing board seats. "If they won, they won, and if they lost, they lost -- just like anyone else," Mrs. Elkadi said. She took a sip of traditional medicinal tea, which caught the waitress' eye. They began a long discussion about medicinal teas. Outside, the wind blew the sea into grey swirls.
Not one but two women, the other being Mrs. Belinda Shaaban, won enough votes to be on the five-seat committee that year, 1994. Mrs. Elkadi garnered the most votes of all the candidates, male or female. "No one expected a woman to get the most votes," she said with a smile. "It never even occurred to me that I would become president." The By-laws provide that whichever committee member gets the most votes becomes president, so Mrs. Elkadi became the first woman president of the Panama City Islamic Center, and, I believe, of any Islamic center in the U.S. and Canada. Following that, she served as Treasurer in 1995. She declined to run for a position this year. "I don't know why anybody would want to hang on to that power," she said, finishing off her plate. "It's a huge burden of responsibilities."
What did the presence of women on the Board accomplish ? "I think it had a civilizing effect," Mrs. Elkadi said drily. "People had to behave better during Board meetings." She had the additional advantage of being the oldest Board member. "Add helps," she noted.
One of the achievements of Mrs. Elkadi's tenure was the proceduralization of the decision-making process, which had been more personalized and informal. "The men used to have board meetings in each other's homes, which automatically excludes people. We stopped that. Board meetings were held in the mosque at the same time each month. Meeting notices were posted. They were open -- anyone could attend." Minutes of meetings were kept in good order and available for perusal. Membership policies were regularized and frequent users of the mosque facilities encouraged to register as members. Keys to the mosque -- touchy items in some communities -- were made available to any member upon payment of dues.
Was there any opposition to a woman taking leadership of the Islamic center? "A few men phoned my husband and said this was unIslamic and so forth. What they didn't understand was that being president of a center is simply an administrative job. It has nothing necessarily to do with being imam. Then there were a few women who were scandalized. They said, 'astaghfirullah.' But," she added, "I don't think we should disparage the traditionalists. They are merely responding based on what they know. "
The Shura Council of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) officially accepts that women can be presidents and leaders of Islamic organizations, and several young women have served as president of MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America).
Of Egyptian origin, Mrs. Elkadi has raised four daughters in the United States with her husband, Dr. Ahmed Elkadi. The four are grown and Mrs. Elkadi is now raising two grandsons as well, part of the reason why she decided not to take part in committee work this year.
We left the restaurant, our headscarves flapping in the Florida gale. "I don't think of myself as a woman," Mrs Elkadi said. Noticing the surprised expression on my face, she added "I think of myself as a human being. What's important is what we do."