America Has Changed Islam: A Woman Runs for the Board of Houston's Largest Muslim Organization

Houston Chronicle

Sarah Alikhan

By Lisa Gray, Houston Chronicle

In a front room of the Masjid at Taqwa, a Sugar Land mosque, Sarah Alikhan watched M.J. Khan film a Facebook video endorsing her.

Khan, 68, isn’t super-fluent with Facebook, but as a former member of Houston City Council and the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, he’s arguably the most powerful political figure in Houston’s Muslim community. It was Khan who recruited Alikhan, who’s in her early 40s, to become the first woman ever to run for the shura, or governing board, of ISGH, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the U.S.

If elected director of Southwest Zone on Sunday,Dec. 9 she’d be the first woman to have a vote on the 50-year-old organization’s board — and thus, a direct say in the big-picture strategic decisions that can involve millions of dollars. Amid the fierce campaign, Alikhan’s headscarfed presence is a very visible sign of change.

“Here,” she said, after Khan joined her at a table. She took his cell phone and, smiling — she always seems to be smiling — handled a Facebook friend request for him.

Across the U.S., women have been moving into spots with actual power in Muslim organizations such as ISGH, not just working behind the scenes. In 2006, Ingrid Mattson became the first woman to serve as president — the very top leader — of the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group that includes ISGH.

Three years ago, the Islamic Society of North America issued an official statement urging that women be welcomed in mosques and their decision-making: “Allah gave the general command to the Prophet and the Muslims to conduct their affairs by shura, and necessarily shura includes women,” the group wrote.

According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Muslim American women are among the most educated faith groups in the U.S., significantly outpacing Muslim men in higher education. Nationally, women also attend mosque services at rates very similar to male Muslims — even though most mosques’ sacred spaces are sex-segregated, and it’s rare for women to claim an equal share of either physical space or the mosque’s financial resources.

In that context, it seems strange to Khan, and to many of the Southwest District’s affluent, well-educated Muslims, that Houston’s Islamic society doesn’t have even one woman on its shura.

Alikhan’s opponent, incumbent Faizin Atiq, has a record of advancing women’s causes. Even so, he said, “I’m afraid I’ll fall prey. I’m afraid that people will vote for her just because she’s a woman.”

‘America has changed Islam’

Women were part of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston from its very beginning, in the late ‘60s. A group of University of Houston students, their families and a handful of young professionals began meeting for worship at each other’s houses. Over time, they scraped together enough money to build a mosque.

Since then, the Houston area’s Muslim population has risen sharply. Texas now has the largest Muslim population in the country, said Zahra Jamal of Rice’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance. And Houston has the largest Muslim population in Texas. In 2012, it numbered around 63,000 people, roughly 1 percent of the city’s population.

That’s not counting the Houston suburbs, where the growth has seemed even more astounding. Fort Bend County in 2010 was home to around 18,000 Muslims, or roughly 3 percent of the county’s population.

Those Muslims’ heritages are wildly mixed: Southeast Asian, African, Middle Eastern, European, African-American and even Latino. They practice more than 70 types of Islam. They range from wealthy bankers, doctors and lawyers to recently arrived refugees struggling to learn English.

ISGH grew along with the area’s population, and these days, it’s one of the United States’ largest Muslim organizations, with 22 Islamic centers and mosques. The group considers all of the area’s Muslims “natural” members, eligible for the group’s marriage and funeral and burial services. But only those who actively join the organization are eligible to vote.

Not until the 1990s was a woman elected to any ISGH office. Farha Ahmed, a lawyer, served as a council representative to the Southwest Zone.

Once, when she missed a zonal meeting shortly after giving birth to her first child, the men on the committee passed a resolution that she not attend meetings without a male chaperone. “The older gentlemen — we called them ‘uncles’ — didn’t know how to handle a woman at their meeting,” she laughed. “You should have seen their faces trying to decide who would tell me.”

She chose to ignore the resolution.

The ISGH, she said, has come a long way since then. But still, she finds it unbelievable that only now is a woman running for a zonal director’s seat on the Shura.

“America has changed Islam almost on a cellular level,” Ahmed said. “In the majority of Muslim countries, women don’t take part in running the mosque at all. But after coming to America, women become involved in the administration” — usually by taking charge of programs for children, or of the spaces in the mosque allotted to women. She’d like to see the organization’s rule changed, so that each zone has both a male and female director, similar to the way that mosques have separate worship spaces for men and women.

But even under the current system, women’s roles have been expanding. Shazia Ashraf, the very vocal head of the ISGH’s Sisters Committee, said that in the last few years, women have been appointed to ISGH’s Khutbah Committee, which approves speakers and picks sermon topics for all the mosques: “So we can pick, say, domestic violence or #MeToo.”

“Muslim women face the same subjugation other women face,” Ashraf said. “We’re all objectified.”

The Sisters Committee, she said, is fighting for more equal spaces in the mosques — to make sure that women review the plans for women’s spaces in new mosques, and that the same care is taken with those spaces’ maintenance. If the sound system in the women’s space doesn’t work and the floors aren’t vacuumed, women are less likely to attend. And if only a few women attend, custodians are likely to neglect the space.

Involving women more deeply, she said, means getting back to Islam’s roots. “In Islamic tradition, women were at the forefront of every aspect of society. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, women were in charge of the marketplace. They fought in battle. They taught men. Women were encouraged to be strong and vocal, and involved in politics.”

“Things are changing now because we’re learning our true tradition. We’re not living Pakistani Islam or Arab Islam. We’re living the true spirit of Islam. And the true spirit of Islam is that women and men are equal, and that women belong in everything.”

‘A lot of mudslinging’

Alikhan’s roots in ISGH run deep. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hyderabad, India, settling in Houston in ‘73. They helped establish the Southwest Zone in the little house that served as the first mosque there. On weekends, her mother often taught up to 40 students in the house’s garage. That mosque evolved into the Masjid at Taqwa, which Alikhan still attends, and which her 6-year-old son treats as a second home. (Her older son is 22.)

Until a couple of years ago, she managed construction projects for Exxon, which required her travel to “Korea, Russia, wherever Exxon had a project.” She quit to care for her elderly father. Now, she said, she wants to use her skills to manage ISGH’s big projects, which include two cemeteries and a senior housing development.

Why haven’t more women run for the shura? “There’s a lot of mudslinging,” she said. “Nobody wants to be part of that, least of all a Muslim woman. In Islam, a woman’s character is very important.”

ISGH’s elections mix Islamic reticence — Muslims aren’t supposed to promote themselves for office — with fierce campaigning by the candidates’ supporters, and the sort of election issues more often associated with partisan political campaigns than with religious organizations.

Alikhan is part of a slate of candidates called “United for Change.” Her opponent, Atiq, belongs to a different coalition of candidates. Both groups stress transparency and accountability.

“I really don’t see much difference in what they want to do,” Ahmed said.

Atiq, the incumbent, resembles Alikhan in many ways. They’re both young by shura standards (he’s 39), both parents, both progressive. He, too, is a professional: He’s the senior manager of IT for Direct Energy’s trading and risk department. His home mosque, Maryam Islamic Center, is one of the most progressive in ISGH, and prides itself on outreach to non-Muslims.

Even by the standards of ISGH’s recent elections, this year’s is particularly heated.

On Facebook pages frequented by Houston’s Muslims, each groups’ supporters make the case for their candidates and attack opponents, throwing around words like “unethical.” There’ve been charges that some posts were created by fake accounts, and other charges that groups’ names were stolen.

Outside Facebook, United for Change has contacted potential voters via a barrage of text messages and campaign mailings. Many people have asked how the group could have the required contact information, unless they obtained it improperly from the ISGH membership rolls?

Ashraf, the head of the Sisters Committee and champion of women’s increased participation, said she’s not endorsing either Alikhan or her opponent Atiq: “I don’t think it’s necessary to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman.”

Similarly Ahmed, who’s worked with both Alikhan and Atiq, said she has “total faith” in each of them. “Sometimes,” she said, “you don’t have bad choices.”