CHICAGO - The first female president of the largest Muslim organization in North America believes nothing in Islam prohibits her from issuing religious opinions on issues from dietary restrictions to the proper place for women in mosques.
Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian convert to Islam who was elected in August to lead the Islamic Society of North America, says women should participate fully in Muslim life — whether that means sitting next to men during mosque lectures, but not at prayers, or contributing to the rules that govern religious observance.
"I want to make sure women are fully engaged," Mattson said. "They should sit on boards and in mosques in space equal to men so they can participate in discussions."
Not everyone was pleased with her election. Mattson said she has received a few angry e-mails from people opposed to a woman holding such an office.
But most of her colleagues lauded her victory as a sign that the Muslim community in North America was open to change. They overwhelmingly voted Mattson, who ran unopposed, to the top spot in mail-in balloting.
"Given the situation in the Muslim world, it's progressive," said Dr. Assad Busool, a professor at the American Islamic College in Chicago. "But there's nothing in Islam to ban women from leadership positions."
The organization is an umbrella group founded in 1963 that represents about 300 Muslim student, social and professional groups. Mattson has spent two terms as the society's vice president, where she earned a reputation as an Islamic authority and an adept administrator.
Mattson was born into a Catholic family in Ontario but stopped practicing Catholicism as a teenager, she said. She enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Waterloo and studied existentialism.
Mattson said she converted to Islam in 1987 after meeting Muslims from West Africa during a university study-abroad program in France. Their friendship changed her life, she said, and she began to read the Quran.
That same year she moved to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees and met her husband, Amer Aatek, an Egyptian engineer. She has a daughter, Soumayya, 17, and a son, Ubayda, 15.
After Pakistan, she moved to Chicago, where she received a doctorate in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago, focusing on Islamic law and legal theory. She is now a professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She also heads the Islamic Chaplaincy program there.
She wears a hijab, or headscarf, and long skirt — attire that seems to have attracted unwanted attention from immigration authorities in recent years. Mattson says she has spent "countless hours" stuck in immigration offices in Toronto on her way back to the U.S. after visiting family in Canada.
Mattson said she understands the extra security measures but appears frustrated, in her mild-mannered way, that her hijab is often misinterpreted. Western women, she says, often mistake her mode of dress as a sign of oppression.
"They see the headscarf, and to them, that means subservience," she said. "They have a hard time believing any woman would choose to dress this way — it must be because (she is) forced or brainwashed."
A dress code is not on Mattson's agenda as president of the Islamic society.
She plans to turn her attention to other women's issues, but not in a radical way. She has no intention, for instance, to lead men in prayer. Islamic law is clear on that prohibition, she said.
But she wants to see women sit beside men in mosques during discussions and lectures, rather than segregated from men, or relegated to the back of the room. Otherwise, she said, "many women feel inferior, and it prevents them from fully engaging in discussions."
Such segregation also may affect how women are treated in other areas of life, she added.
While Mattson realizes that some Muslim men and even some women believe a woman should stay at home with the children, she wants to make sure that women who want a role in public life have that chance, she said.
Many of them do: Women have been elected president of the Muslim Students Association, the Muslim Medical Association and the Muslim Youth of North America, among other organizations.
The difference is that those bodies do not include a religious component, whereas the Islamic society is both an umbrella organization and a source for religious interpretations.
But women currently serve on the society's Shura Council, a collaborative decision-making body, and Mattson's colleagues don't appear to have a problem with her lending her voice to statements on religious law.
"If she wants to contribute she is welcome," said Ahmed El-Hattab, the society's acting general secretary. Religious rulings are taken by consensus, in any case, he said. "Islamically, sisters are equal to brothers."
"There is a false perception and a stereotype that women in Islam don't have an equal role to play," El-Hattab said. "(Her election) is sending a very strong message to defeat this image."
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