Local women to discuss image of Islam
DARIEN — Azra Assaduddin, Sharbari Ahmed, Basmeh Jassem and Zeeshaan Aratsu sat around Ahmed’s Darien house one Monday night, talking over tea and cookies. The women are like any other group of friends you might find in Darien, except for one thing: they are Muslim in a predominantly Christian community.
The women find their faith sometimes distinguishes them in the political climate of this country. That’s why they will be taking part in a panel which will give residents a chance to learn more about fellow community members of a different faith.
The panel, “A Conversation with Your Muslim Neighbors,” will be held at Saint Luke’s Parish, whose members reached out to Ahmed about putting together a group of women.
“There’s so much reductive and false information that feeds an agenda,” Ahmed said. “There are things happening that are problematic. We live in a powerful community. There’s a lot of educated people here. But people have no idea what’s happening. But they want to learn.”
When putting together the panel, Ahmed, a writer whose credits include the ABC show “Quantico,” said she felt it was important to focus on finding strong women to represent the Muslim community.
“I want strong, active, intelligent women to come and speak to the community,” she said. “We’re going to attempt to subvert stereotypes and opening a conversation.”
“It’s part of the beauty of the panel,” added Aratsu, a history teacher at New Canaan High School. “You have so many experiences. It’s so important.”
Each of the women in the panel brings a different perspective of Islam. Some of the women are “unmosqued,” meaning they don’t have a mosque they currently attend. Some were raised in Islam, but others, like Dolores Paoli of Westport, converted to the religion. Paoli is involved in the Interfaith Council of Westport and is also the co-founder of Saffron Road Foods, a halal food brand. She was also born in the Dominican Republic and raised Catholic, but connected to Islam around 25 years ago.
A Conversation with Your Muslim Neighbors
The community is invited to meet some of our Muslim neighbors at a panel discussion on Tuesday, March 28 at 7 p.m., in the Youth and Community Center at Saint Luke’s Parish, 1864 Post Road, in Darien.
The panelists include Dolores Durrani, co-founder Saffron Road Foods, Westport; Azra Assaduddin, community activist, member, Interfaith Council of Norwalk; Zeeshaan Fatema Aratsu, history teacher, New Canaan High School; and Ameena Meer, author, brand manager, Sufi, Brooklyn, NY.
The panel will be moderated by Darien author and professor Sharbari Zohra Ahmed. All are welcome to this free community event hosted by Saint Luke’s Parish, www.saintlukesdarien.org.
“I’m Spanish,” she said. “Throughout my life, people say all kinds of stuff about Spanish and Muslims. People can’t pigeonhole me, so they say whatever’s in their head.”
“I’m open for accepting people for what they are,” she added.
The women are also planning to tackle stereotypes about Islam, such as the idea that it’s oppressive to women or violent, as well as some Muslim-American identity and what it means to be Muslim-American in today’s age.
“The problem is the image Americans have of Islam is from the Middle East,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed also added many misconceptions about Islam come from Hollywood where white men often dominate the writer’s room, leading to the villainizing of Islam in shows like “Homeland.” The women hope they can encourage more Muslim immigrants and children of immigrants to stray from “practical” career choices and into Hollywood and other fields to increase diversity in these areas.
“We have one to two voices in the industry,” Ahmed said. “We need variety.”
The pressure to represent an entire community is something the women also hope to address, particularly Jassem, who wears a hijab and is one of the only people in Greenwich to do so.
“For me, personally, it empowers me,” she said. “Oppression is taking away one’s power and the hijab protects me. If the hijab is oppressive, then it’s saying my sexuality is my power. With it, people can see my personality. They see you. I feel more comfortable when I wear it.”
The women also said this panel is not their own doing, but a response to an interest from the community around them. In fact, Saint Luke’s first contacted Ahmed about doing it. The women feel curiosity from the community is a good sign of a change people want to see made.
“All of us are close enough to our spirit that we don’t want America to look like that,” Aratsu said. “It’s not us with the energy. It’s really the community.”