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Quake Relief Brings U.S. Muslim Women Together

Thursday, October 20, 2005

During Ramadan, Muslim women in the U.S. have been mustering aid for people hurt by the earthquake in Pakistan. Some say the experience will bring a diverse community closer together.

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During Ramadan, Muslim women in the U.S. have been mustering aid for people hurt by the earthquake in Pakistan. Some say the experience will bring a diverse community closer together.
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Sumbal Mahmud

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)--The massive earthquake that hit South Asia two weeks ago moved Shazia Nawaz, a Pakistani American woman in Tempe, Ariz., into action.

Nawaz learned of the 7.6-magnitude temblor while hosting a weekly informal discussion club for a handful of women in her living room.

As usual, they were talking about cultural matters such as Islamic etiquette, breaking down negative U.S. stereotypes of Muslims and how Muslims adapt to life in a predominantly Christian society.

News of the quake, however, quickly shifted attention to what the women could do to help the victims of the earthquake, which rocked northeastern Pakistan on Oct. 8 and sent tremors through parts of India and Afghanistan. An estimated 40,000 people were killed by the disaster, 65,000 are injured and some 3.3 million are homeless.

The quake hit near the start of Ramadan, which began on Oct. 4 and ends Nov. 2. During this time, faithful Muslims fast during the day to practice self-restraint and spend more time focusing on the five pillars of Islam, one of which is zakat, or the giving of alms to those in need.

With that in mind, Nawaz and her friends began thinking about collecting supplies and raising disaster relief funds. They started recruiting new members to their group--which has no name as of yet--at local mosques, in their neighborhoods and during iftar, the communal meal at nightfall in which Muslims break their sacred fast.

In the past two weeks, the group--whose core was made up of friends in the neighborhood--has since swelled to 36 women and now includes homemakers, students, teachers, doctors and other professionals.

The women have raised about $14,000 in all.

Of this, $9,000 will pay to transport sleeping bags, blankets, clothes, shoes and medicine collected by the women. Some of this money will also pay for a few dozen winterized tents as the mountain cold sweeps over Pakistan. Some will also pay for local purchases of food and hygiene products. Another $5,000 will go for medicine, which the women have labeled and shipped to the region along with a medicinal guide book.


Desperate Need of Assistance

The United Nations warned Tuesday that as many as 10,000 children could die of hunger, hypothermia and disease if adequate aid does not reach them before the severity of Pakistan's winter arrives. The agency estimated that half a million quake victims are still in desperate need of assistance.

"Being Muslims, we want to serve humanity," Nawaz said. "That's our cause."

Nawaz is one of many Muslim American women on the coasts of this country and in points in between who have taken it upon themselves to mobilize relief efforts for relatives, friends and thousands of other nameless victims half a world away.

These women say they find working independently easier than slogging through bureaucracies at larger organizations.

Individual activists and small informal groups have also benefited from a general reluctance among Muslims to give financial aid to larger Islamic charities for fear they will be linked to terrorist organizations, a concern that has not dissipated four years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We have informal systems," said Sumbal Mahmud, a 27-year-old attorney from Minneapolis who plans to fly to Pakistan later this month with her mother. "There's this, like, trust. It's difficult to articulate. People are saying, 'I trust you, a fellow Pakistani American, to do what you can with this.' I think that that's unique."


A Bigger Spirit This Month

"Certainly there's a bigger spirit in this month," said Mino Akhtar, an independent management consultant who lives in Bergen County, N.J. "Now, with this tragedy and being that this is in a Muslim country and a people who have been suffering a war, it's like so many factors are coming to create really not just a sadness but a compelling need to act . . . There's a feeling of true repentance as if the universe and God is talking to us and saying we're not doing right by God and the earth."

Because they often act individually and in small groups, there is no official tally of how many U.S. Muslim women have been raising relief funds. Nor is there a count of how much money they have raised over the past two weeks or how many goods they have gathered and sent to the region.

But the signs of their humanitarian efforts are widespread. In addition to collecting supplies, boxing, labeling and delivering goods to collection points and soliciting and collecting money from friends, neighbors and relatives, women are posting relief Web sites and organizing fundraising dinners. And they are praying.

"We're seeing women at the forefront of this," said Ayesha Mattu, a board member at the Women's Funding Network, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco aimed at helping women and girls.

That's natural, Mattu said, because faith-based communities tend to restrict women's leadership to socially-oriented arenas such as humanitarian assistance.

"It's a sphere issue," Mahmud said. "Often in the mosques women aren't in a position of leadership." But when it comes to social outreach efforts, such as clothing and holiday toy drives, she said there is a very active women's society.


Strengthening Ties

Local activism surrounding the disaster is strengthening ties among Muslim American women, a diverse group that has not effectively organized on a national level, Akhtar said.

Sobia Ahmad, a 25-year-old teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., expects the work that women have done on earthquake relief will enhance the support network among them, who she says are teased and put down from looking and dressing differently from their peers in mainstream U.S. society.

Akhtar, the management consultant, also thinks the experience of working together on relief with embolden the women's rights movement within Muslim communities, which some say has gained ground in recent years as women have moved into higher-ranking positions of authority in their communities and mosques.

"Have we stepped up to our own leadership capacity?" Akhtar said. "The answer is no, we have not stepped out and organized ourselves as women . . . I certainly think that we are going to be more in touch and more organized, just because this has forced it. Therefore it will help us organize in a sustainable fashion, not just when there's a crisis."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

For more information:

Women Wed Their Faiths to Activism:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2283/

Nation of Islam Women Look Up and Out:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2325/

Islam Women Break Custom, Lead Prayers:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2232/