Like others who have grown up exclusively in the West, my assumption was that Muslim women are oppressed with little power. But I recently discovered that the ladies of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mosque, Bait-Ul-Baseer, in Milpitas, believe that women have the power to change the world.
The women from the mosque, known as the Ladies Auxiliary of the Silicon Valley chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, translate that belief into action, donating hundreds of hours of volunteer time to local charities. They have also reached out to women of other faiths through an informal group known as Women’s Interfaith Dialogue Encounter, hoping to spread a better understanding of the Muslim faith.
I caught up with the women at a meeting of the dialogue group on a recent Sunday afternoon where about 30 women from various Silicon Valley churches and mosques gathered at Bait-Ul-Baseer. The participants were a mixture of races, ages and faiths. Some came out of curiosity about Islam. Others had been participating in the dialogue group for years.
The main focus of the meeting was to discuss the bloody attacks on May 28 by Islamist gunmen on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan. The attacks left 96 worshippers dead on a Friday, the holiest day of the week for Muslims. Some of the members of the Milpitas temple lost family members, or had family and friends that narrowly escaped the rampage.
Ahmadis are a minority sect of the Muslim religion who have been persecuted in Pakistan, where they are considered heretics. While other Muslim sects believe they are still waiting for the Messiah, Ahmadis believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the savior foretold by the Quran. Ahmad founded the sect in 1889, teaching that “jihad by the sword” had passed, and a new “jihad of the pen” was to be championed.
“The real meaning of jihad nowadays is not to kill people, it’s to win the hearts of people…through reason,” Sabuhi Siddique, Public Services Secretary of the Ladies Auxiliary explained to me. Jihad, she said, is about the struggle within one’s self to become a better person, including a better citizen. The Ahmadi code is, “Love for all. Hatred for none.”
Through the dialogue group, the members of the Ladies Auxiliary have worked hard to win the hearts of other local women from churches, temples and mosques. It was started as a direct response to 9/11, Siddique said. Since then the group has rotated meetings at various houses of worship in Silicon Valley. Siddique said topics range from Islam, to other religions, to “women as ambassadors of peace.”
“Women are the ones who can make or break the world,” Siddique said.
“God has created women to create peace in the home and the community.”
Outreach Secretary Saadi Ahmad told me one of the main purposes of the dialogue group is to “build the bridges of peace and understanding.” She added, “we’ve made a lot of friends in the process.”
While at the mosque, I met the new Imam, Mubasher Ahmad, only on his second day on the job. He was recently transferred from leading a mosque in Chicago. He said one of his main jobs at the Milpitas mosque – home to about 200 Ahmadi families - is to make friends with as many people from other churches and temples in the area as possible. “I’m trying my best to see that the misconceptions (about Islam) are removed.”
Besides meeting with other women to promote understanding of the Muslim religion, the Ladies Auxiliary has adopted two local charities, Second Harvest Food Bank and Sacred Heart Community Services. As the group’s public services leader, Siddique is in charge of organizing the volunteer work.
The group has collected and organized food for Second Harvest for about 10 years. In addition they have raised money for the food bank, winning a Platinum Award last year for their efforts.
The ladies have also been long-time volunteers at the Sacred Heart Community Center near downtown San Jose. In February the group’s members sewed 150 pillowcases. They also collected packages of socks and underwear from families at the mosque. They could have purchased the pillowcases, but Siddique explained that buying new is expensive; the group decided it would be cheaper to buy fabric and stitch the cases themselves.
“They took the time out of their busy days to sew these beautiful linens,” Sacred Heart Volunteer Coordinator Terri West said in amazement. She said the center distributed the much-needed pillowcases to local families in about a day. “We’ve had a great relationship with (the ladies).”
Siddique herself is involved in a dizzying array of activities in the valley, including speeches to groups and serving on boards and committees. As she ticked off the activities she’s involved in both at the mosque and in the community at large, I asked the wife and mother of four children, ages 17 to 25, how she does it all. She said she has full support of her husband, Naseer, her children and other family members, as well as the support of her community at the mosque.
Serving others and being good citizens in whatever country they live in is given high priority status in their religion, she told me. That translates to action within whatever area they live in.
“We are very proud to be a part of Santa Clara County society,” she said.