Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Talking Points: Insightful Interviews with Muslim Women

When the topic of Islam comes up, Muslim women are rarely the voice for discussion. With women pointed out as victims or relevant to only issues of dress, men’s voices dominate the conversation. The radio program Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet provides a happy exception to this trend.

Tippet’s show features discussions on a variety of aspects of numerous faiths. Delving into topics that range from “gardening and Orthodox Christianity” to “Hinduism and science,” Tippet has a record of discussing issues that may not come to mind immediately. When talk turns to Islam, the conversations are refreshingly insightful.

Of her Islam-related episodes, I’m focusing on interviews with three Muslim women: Ingrid Mattson (April 19, 2007), Fatemeh Keshavarz (March 1, 2007), and Leila Ahmed (Dec. 7, 2006). They are, I’m happy to say, excellent representatives for Muslim women. From an array of backgrounds, these three academics show the lack of conflict between a critical mind and a strong faith.

President of the Islamic Society of North America, Canadian-born Ingrid Mattson has made records as the first woman, convert, and non-immigrant to hold the position. Also a professor at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, Mattson discussed her relationship with Islam and the role of Muslim women today. With literature professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, Tippet looked at the spiritual and Islamic significance of Rumi’s poetry. Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and Stars (2007), is originally from Iran and and teaches Persian literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Tippet also spoke to Egyptian-American Leila Ahmed, who has fought against misogyny within Islam, teaches women’s studies at Harvard Divinity School, and authored Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (1992) and the 1999 memoir A Border Passage. Here Ahmed analyzed the attitudes towards the veil in the context of modern-day history and critiqued the concept of an “Islamic world” distinct from “the West.”

This is the kind of discussion of Islam I would love to see more of. I don’t have to hold my breath and wait for the ignorant Islamophobic comments, as I do in listening to the U.S. presidential candidate debates and speeches. But even better than not making me cringe, these women actually inspire. Not the dry statements of Islam 101, the conversation is a level up from usual discourse, recognizing the complexity of religion, politics, and gender in today’s world. In Keshavarz’s discussion of Rumi, listeners can see the depth and beauty of Islam rarely visible in media coverage. I’m so glad to hear this kind of voice from a mainstream news source. I only hope this show, which has less name recognition than many other shows, is heard by enough people.

The episodes mentioned are available as podcasts through iTunes and for direct download at the show’s website. The page for each episode (linked to in this article) includes a transcript, extra audio and writings from the guest, background information, reader feedback, and links to further information on the topics covered.