A version of this article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton
When Zehre Avci, a daughter of Turkish immigrants in Belgium, was 9 years old, she was sent to buy a coffin for her grandmother, who had just passed away. "I was crying," she recalls. But she had to go, because "there was no one else to translate." As a young teen, she led Turkish immigrant women with abusive husbands to get help for the same reason: There was no one else taking on the challenge.
Avci, now in her early 30s, says those experiences -- doing what others cannot or will not do -- inspire her current work in Brussels, where she has joined a social services agency dedicated to bridging the religious, social and economic gaps between immigrant women, many of them Muslim, and the wider Belgian population.
Like the more than 20 other Muslim women from around the world who gathered in Washington, D.C., for a law and leadership program, Avci's vision involves both leading her own Muslim community in more egalitarian directions and pushing for a deeper understanding of Muslims by Western society.
"Almost by definition, a person who is leading change or transformation sits physically and metaphorically in the old world they are a part of and the new world they are trying to achieve," says management professor Michael Useem, director of Wharton's Center for Leadership. "So many of the women (in this program) live in two worlds."
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and the women it trains are pushing for interpretations of Islamic law that give Muslim women full rights in all areas of life -- an effort that is not always warmly received by fellow Muslims.
Azizah al-Hibri, who founded Karamah in 1993 and serves as its president, says that Muslim women immigrants in the West also face difficulties when they return home to their native land. "When I go back to Lebanon, I am 'the American.' Depending on how people there view American policy, that's quite a complication," said al-Hibri, who teaches law at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Managing all of these forces -- hostility against Islam in the Western world, resistance to change among Muslims and hostility to the West among Muslim populations -- is no easy task, she says.
Confidence remains a central issue for Muslim women, says al-Hibri. "If you look at a woman and she retreats under your gaze, how will she lead?"
In an exercise designed to help women talk with each other about concrete problems they face, the conversations often captured the diversity of the Muslim world. Some of the women from Belgium, for example, were mystified to learn that women in Saudi Arabia are excluded from certain professions, such as engineering, on the basis that the work would force them to mix too much with the opposite sex. "Where in the Quran does it say that women and men must work separately?" asks Samira Chatar, an Antwerp-based lawyer who is working to become Belgium's first female Muslim judge.
In fact, said one of the participants from Saudi Arabia, the Quran, the Muslim holy book, is silent on the topic. The government policy on the issue refers instead to stories, or hadiths, about the Prophet Mohammed, in which he taught men and women on separate days. "Could you point out that the Quran doesn't separate men and women, and that they pray side-by-side in Mecca?" suggests Rajae Bouzegta, a language therapist from Antwerp who is active in women's organizations.
"We give these women a sense of community, so they know they are not standing alone," says al-Hibri.
Aziza Chiutar, a senior executive in a multinational bank in Brussels, says she was troubled that Muslim women who wear headscarves in Belgium often give up before trying to realize their potential because they assume they will penalized for their religious appearance. "I want to be a role model for them, to show you can be successful and be religious at the same time," she says.
The law and leadership program included several days of intensive training in Islamic law, so that the women have a strong religious grounding as they attempt to enact change among fellow Muslims. The course also included several sessions on American constitutionalism, in particular so Muslims from other countries, including European ones, can learn about First Amendment religious freedoms in the U.S. Explains al-Hibri, "If you are morally and religiously empowered, that gives you a different kind of confidence."
"Leadership is and should be viewed as a calling," says Useem. "You have to know with confidence that you can make a difference, and, more strongly, that you should make a difference. People in this program had a very high sense of calling and purpose."
For younger participants in particular, the program offered a chance to reflect in a structured way on their sense of mission. Monique Thomas, a New York native and law school graduate who converted to Islam five years ago, says her contact with fellow Muslim women and her volunteer work with immigrant women in New York City helped her realize a calling to help struggling single mothers, particularly immigrant Muslim women from Africa and elsewhere.
"I know women who have been left destitute after a divorce. I want to educate Muslim women about what rights they have in marriage and divorce," she says, adding that she has met Muslim women who are not even aware that polygamy, which is legal in some African and Muslim-majority countries, is not legal in the United States and would therefore provide no legal protection to second or third wives. But Thomas does not seek to simply leverage resources for these women; she also wants mosques to take a special responsibility for them. She says that some imams, or mosque leaders, who are male by definition, "simply don't know what's going on with women in their communities."
The law and leadership program includes several days of training in conflict resolution, so that these women become skilled at getting their point across effectively without being alienating.
"We don't want them to run over to their imams and say, 'Everything you have ever taught me is wrong,"' Al-Hibri says. "It is a gradualist approach."