By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Being a woman isnt easy.
Just ask Trib reporter Angela Montefinise.
Angela, our freshman reporter, received the assignment to cover the
commencement of Ramadan at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center. They had invited the press
for a special inter-faith prayer service for the victims of the terrorist attacks and for
Wearing a heavy scarf and relegated to the back of the
Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Richmond Hill during prayer services, Trib reporter
Angela Montefinise felt "out of place." Overcoming differences is one of the
greatest challenges that faces us as eastern cultures and religions move into our modern
photo: Angela Montefinise
The invitation read, "The Center
extends a very cordial invitation to your press representative to the service."
Queens being the culturally diverse home to many Muslims, Ramadan, being their most devout
holiday and the Tribune, being Queens largest newspaper, we thought it
more than appropriate that we cover it.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic
year. The Quran ordains it as the holy month of fasting for all adult Muslims.
Ramadan was designated for the fast to cultivate piety because it was the month during
which Muhammad received the first of the Qurans revelations.
I interviewed Angela to find out how a
20-something American woman reacted to experiencing Islam.
Angela arrived at her first visit ever
inside the Mosque, on the service road of the Van Wyck Expressway at the designated time.
She explained, "Everyone seemed extremely friendly and nice." Ali Mirza, the man
who extended the invitation, greeted her and thanked her for coming. Ang was introduced to
a number of men there, each shook her hand and treated her "like an equal,"
according to our trusty scribe.
She explains, "The Imam especially was
friendly towards me, happy that I was taking an interest in his religion."
After exchanging greetings, Mirza led her
to the "hall," or the ceremonial room where the event was going to take place.
He politely asked Angela to take off her shoes, as is the way of a mosque. As she
complied, he asked her to wear a scarf over her head. Angela described the scarf as
"heavy, hot, and uncomfortable." She complained it also obscured her peripheral
vision, making it difficult to observe the entire ceremony.
Perhaps Angela had been watching a bit too
much of the tales of Afghani oppressed Muslim women on CNN, but she, in her description of
her encounter, reacted not as the skilled observer I know, but with offense.
The first US stamp celebrating
a Muslim holiday, was released before Sept. 11. Some are now demanding
"More importantly," Angela
said, "I believe it [wearing the scarf] symbolizes the Muslim religions clear
belief in the inferiority of women, who are so unpure that they cant
show their hair or faces to men. That was the worst part of all. Still, I wore the scarf,
because it was the only way theyd let me sit in the hall with the men."
Angela was the only woman in the room. She
explained that the Muslim women who wanted to participate in the ceremony were
"shuffled into a large cubicle within the hall, so they couldnt see the men and
vice versa." From what she saw the women were covered from head to toe in cloth.
"They tip-toed in and out of the hall,
frightened that they would disturb the men," Angela said.
She felt that she received unwelcome and
strange looks from the men worshiping. She was extremely uncomfortable. However, her
biggest complaint was that she was asked to stay in the back of the hall. She could take
pictures . . . but from the back. The other reporter there a male was
allowed to take photos anywhere he wanted. Angela griped, "He went to the front, to
the side, and to the back. Meanwhile, when I got up to walk to a different spot in the
back of the room, people looked at me strangely."
Finally, one of the PR guys asked if she
wanted a photo shot at the front, and he went and took it. Angela complained, "I had
to sit in the back and wait like a helpless nobody. It was truly a terrible feeling. I
tried to get up and go to the front to take some shots, sure that no one would stop me,
but they did. They were extremely polite and nice, but they did stop me." At the end
of the ceremony, a member of the congregation thanked the Queens Tribune for
sending a representative. They tried to be gracious, but Ang complained, "I truly
felt out of place and singled out."
The most disturbing thing for her, however,
was that there were children from the mosque school there "little boys who are
learning with every ceremony that a womans place is behind a cubicle or under a
scarf." They looked at Angela just as strangely as any of the men did. She felt that
she was on display and an object of resentment.
Angela concluded, "I know this is
their religion, and I really have no right judging it, but as a woman, I found their
practices degrading and archaic."
Angela vented but recognized that the
Muslim women living in the United States are practicing their religion by choice.
Like any other religion, there are those
that find the practices oppressive and leave the organized church or modify the way they
practice it. The women who, according to Angela, "were shuffled into a large cubicle
. . .covered from head to toe in cloth," chose to participate. Unlike the horrid
pictures of Taliban oppressed Afghani women, no brutal regime forced them to follow their
men or dress in such a manner.
Strange to Angela, a modern 20- something
American, born and raised in New York?
You bet! Strange to most of us!
For regular readers of this column, you
have already concluded that organized religion has never been high on this writers
list of positive forces. However, we all must recognize that to many, religion offers
comfort, solace, motivation and in many cases, a reason for living. Each person must
tackle his own relationship with god (or is it God or G-d?) and find his or her own peace.
I find it no easier to come to grips with
the restrictive practices of the Orthodox Jews than I do with the orthodoxy that Angela
experienced. However, if theyre happy, I need not approve or judge its
all right with me.
The more Ive read of the Quran,
the more questions I have. I have found parts of the book (or electronic version) filled
with negatives not positives hate not love.
I had challenged the words I read and the
classes of people Islam defines Muslims, People of the Book, infidels. (Gee, I
thought, how do Hindus and Buddhists react to the teachings of Mohammad? )
Then, on Bill Mahers
"Politically Incorrect," ABC-TVs irreverent late night talk show
one of my favorite TV diversions I heard Christian super-reverend Robert Schuller
explain that one must read the Bible with great care.
The television evangelists words were
creative and on target, but the hour was late and I can only recall the message, not the
eloquence with which it was delivered. Schuller explained that he taught people to read
the Bible by selecting the parts that were good for them. He likened his approach to his
Bible to Muslims approach to the Quran . . . there are the good parts that you
chose to follow.
Clearly, the debate shall continue as the
teachings of Islam come under the scrutiny of the west.
Islam has been face to face with modernity
in this country for years with no cause for concern. We have indeed peacefully coexisted
with children of all gods or no gods. Isnt that what our nation is all about?
The greater challenge, however, seems to be
when western culture and modernity come face to face with the teachings of extremists in a
land of poverty and ignorance which is still existing in a time and culture we left behind
long before our nation was born.
Do we use our might and money to promote
Do we have a right to force them to change?
Angela, maybe theyre happy. Maybe for
them, its right.
In Case Youre Keeping Score
For those of you who have indicated that this columnist was not on the
mark in viewing Helen Marshall as a strong Borough Presidental candidate, we wanted to
remind you where her candidacy and strength first appeared in print.
Long before the term limits war heated up, before Helen declared, and
shortly after millennium mania ushered in the year 2000, this column on January 27, 2000
with old logo and new insight was headlined: "McCaffrey, Marshall,
Million Mom March & Explaining The Snow."
Word for word, we said way back almost two years ago:
"MARSHALL: Remember where you read it. Helen Marshall,
who is term limited out of the Council in 2001, is about to join the packed field of
candidates in a quest for the Queens Borough Presidency."
"We remember Helen from the 60s when she was PTA President
at PS 143 in Corona (my dad was the school principal). The senior Dem District Leader,
served in the Assembly and the Council and appears to be the consensus candidate of the
African American community. Marshall expects the support of most of the Boroughs
black district leaders and Southeast Queens powerhouse, former Congressman, Reverend Floyd
"Marshall is a credible candidate whose chances will be greatly
bolstered with multiple white candidates in the race. To date the following Dems are
mentioned: Carol Gresser, Karen Koslowitz,
Sheldon Leffler, Anthony Seminerio, Audrey Pheffer, Melinda Katz.
"By any math, in a Democratic Primary with two or three whites
candidates, Helen can be considered a favorite."
A favorite on January 27, 2000 before she announced.
Wanna stock tip?