Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Roundtable with Muslim Businesswomen

The three-hour public radio show Forum devoted one of its hours two weeks ago to discussing Muslim women in Northern California. Host Michael Krasny talked to four women — Amra Tareen, Dian Alyan, Farhana Khera, and Shaherose Charania — and emphasized their positions as successful career women, “practicing Muslims,” and of Asian heritage. All of the women made it far in their careers as businesswomen, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. Their heritage includes Pakistani, Indian, and Indonesian, with some growing up in Canada and Australia before moving to the United States. The group included Shi’a and Sunni women, briefly mentioning the differences, and women with and without hijab. The focus of the segment was a bit unclear, ranging from the women’s professional lives to their interpretations of Islam to defending Islam against critical callers. It seemed that the show viewed the topic “professional successful Muslim woman” as not a specific enough to fill an entire hour.

Although host Krasny could have done a better job interviewing and moderating the discussion, the selection of guests was excellent. All four of the women were articulate, confident, and carriers of impressive and inspiring résumés. Farhana Khera, a second-generation Pakistani, is a civil-rights lawyer who advised the Senate judiciary committee before and after September 11. She is executive director of Muslim Advocates, a charitable organization that seeks to be a legal resource to promote Muslim participation in American public life. Amra Tareen, also Pakistani, is a venture capitalist who has recently founded Allvoices, an online media site for Muslims, and serves as CEO. Dian Alyan, from Indonesia, is founder and president of the GiveLight Foundation, a crisis relief organization focusing on orphans after natural disasters. Alyan, who used to work for Procter & Gamble, was moved to action after she lost great numbers of family members in the 2004 tsunami and saw the lack of improvement in daily life after the tsunami. Shaherose Charania is director of product strategy for the telecommunications startup JAJAH and founder of Women 2.0 to promote female entrepreneurship.

The women discussed the not so much the struggles of being Muslim as being female in their competitive, male-dominated fields. Being female may be a higher glass ceiling in some ways, they said. None of the women has faced any overt discrimination for being Muslim. They stressed the importance of education, the role of faith in their lives, and repeatedly thanked the United States for its opportunities and legal system. They referred to practicing their faith, but in ways Krasny, pushing them to discuss prayer at work — which they said is not a big deal — did not expect.

CHARANIA: When I’m sitting at my startup and coming up with a new product spec at 4 o’clock in the morning in time for my developers in Tel Aviv to get the specs, I feel that that is a sense of externalizing or practicing my faith, because I’m building a product that’s going to lower the cost of global communications. I’m sitting dedicating my life to giving back, through business that actually creates a difference in the world.

Alyan pointed to her faith as a source of inspiration and encouragement for her education and career. At one point, Krasny described synthesizing Islam with an American identity and said, “That’s a challenge for you, isn’t it?” The women responded together, “No, no… It’s not.”

Krasny did a rather atrocious job pronouncing the women’s names and fell into some stereotypes common to journalists discussing Muslim women.

Although clothing did not seem like a big issue for any of the women, Krasny kept the discussion on hijab for a while. Alyan, who began wearing the hijab after making the hajj, explained that the Qur’an requires modesty but leaves the details to the individual to interpret. She noted that there is and always will be diversity in dress among Muslim women, accounting for the four-woman group, in which one wore hijab. “That’s one of the beauties of Islam, that it leaves some room for diversity of thought,” Alyan said. Tareen, who grew up in Pakistan, explained that in Pakistan she did not see Muslim women wearing the hijab. When she moved to Australia as a teenager, she saw for the first time Muslim women in hijab. “I thought, “OK, maybe they’re Muslim nuns or something,” she said. It was in the United States she saw the most Muslim women wearing hijab. Most of the women interviewed do not wear hijab, and all of the guests pointed out that modesty extends beyond head-covering.

Krasny would have made a better interviewer had he listened to what his guests had to say instead of projecting his own biases. At one point, he joked that Charania was “bowing down to man and the market,” not God, and then switched to listener calls before she could respond to his criticism. Earlier he had brought up Muslim Girl magazine — seeming only to mock what he saw as materialism and the ridiculous of an all-female prom.

The second half of the segment discussed “misconceptions about Islam.” This put the burden on the women to respond live to specific arguments against Islam from callers. The first caller, a woman from a Muslim country but no longer a Muslim herself, argued against the treatment of women around the Islamic world. Another caller praised the women for their achievements but asked how they dealt with the Qur’an telling them to bow beneath their husbands and fathers. Within the first few minutes of her interview, Khera was asked about marriage inequality.

KRASNY: Particularly, I was thinking, in the last hour we were talking about gay marriage as a civil right and so forth. Muslim men, as I understand it, can marry a Christian or Jewish woman, but Muslim women can only marry Muslim men?

This is the most pressing, relevant question? Khera explained that while a lawyer, she is not a specialist in Islamic law — perhaps to deflect more such questions — and that although this is the traditional interpretation, it is not the only one; other offer women the equivalent right. While Forum’s preceding hour explored the diversity of attitudes towards marriage among the gay community, this segment lacked a focus as clear, becoming instead a “Muslim women”-themed free-for-all, with Muslim businesswomen asked to explain shari’ah. It would have been more effective to save the “Is Islam a fair religion?”, “What is modesty in Islam?”, and “Where do culture and religion differ?” discussions to distinct episodes with specific guests and limited this one to “What is it like to be a professional Muslim women?”, which these specific guests could have answered more effectively. Nevertheless, they did an excellent job with all the questions thrown at them.

The piece as a whole was a good listen, but more thanks to the guests than the host and design.
You can listen to the entire segment streaming or download the .mp3 file at the official site.