Women in leadership: Faith, careers, justice

Moderated by Rick Badie

Americans generally assume Muslim women aren’t treated equally with men and perceive them as oppressed, weak, dormant and submissive. Today, an executive for a local magazine considers public ignorance and false images of Muslim women a major social challenge. A companion essay deals with the lack of women in the science, technology, engineering and math industries. The third column champions Gov. Nathan Deal’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

Dispel false images of Muslim women

By Azizah Kahera

The role of women in Islam is very different from the role portrayed in mainstream media.

The Qur’an, the sacred text of Muslims, is referred to as Al-Furqan, the Criterion that differentiates between right and wrong. Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, through the Angel Gabriel directly from God. Faithful Muslims consider the Qur’an divinely authored.

The Qur’anic view of women is that she is a “khalifah,” God’s vicegerent on earth. The Qur’an defines her role in the same manner as it defines a man’s: to worship the Creator and pursue the highest level of God-consciousness. Males and females are created from the same essence.

The message of equality is clear. The first creation is neither male nor female, but a person. The Qur’an is silent on who was created first. The person’s mate is equal in nature, and the primary role of woman and man is servant of the Creator.

The Qur’an never specifies a woman’s role in relation to men but emphasizes her elevated status and rights. Women are equally qualified to manage property and maintain wealth. Additionally, women are equally encouraged to “seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

This is how women’s role is defined in Islam’s sacred text. How a Muslim woman defines her role in the material world is connected to her primary spiritual role as devotee of God, yet women are free to show their devotion to the Creator through various expressions and social roles.

Muslim women’s main social challenge is facing public ignorance about Islam and Muslims and counterfeit images of Muslim women. Most Americans get information about Islam and Muslim women from the media, where Muslim women are negatively portrayed through the lens of Middle Eastern politics. Although only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs — the majority of the world’s Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia — the popular image of Muslim women is almost always Arab.

Tayyibah Taylor, founding editor-in-chief of Azizah Magazine, a voice for Muslim women in North America, addressed the impact of these false images: “When a people who are not of a society’s dominant culture do not see themselves reflected positively in the media, they experience a very subtle, yet very real and powerful process of internalization of inferiority. This has happened with African-Americans and other groups, and it has happened to the Muslim woman.”

Western society’s stereotypes of Muslim women have oscillated from the sensual seductress of the harem, to the veiled mindless non-entity, to the evil terrorist, to the malcontent anti-Islam woman who wants to tell you everything that is wrong with Islam.

Fortunately, Muslim women in America are in a unique position to fight these images. We have a judicial, political and social system that provides tools to address discrimination. Educating businesses and law enforcement officials has made a huge difference in changing attitudes. Additionally, participating in interfaith programs help present Islam in an accurate light. The Atlanta-based Islamic Speakers Bureau, founded by Soumaya Khalifa, has made an outstanding impact in this regard.

The creation of Muslim media has also contributed greatly to this cause. Here’s what Malika Bilal, the co-host and digital producer of Al Jazeera English’s “The Stream,” an Emmy-nominated news talk show, said about her role in the media.

“The very act of being in these newsrooms makes a difference. It means someone else is no longer solely in charge of directing a narrative about a group of people they may not know. It means we are the ones actively helping to shape how these stories are told instead of having those stories simply told about us.”

Muslim women are defining their roles and fulfilling their purpose on earth: to attain the highest level of God-consciousness through worship and work in the community and the world.

Azizah Kahera is chief operations officer for Atlanta-based Azizah Magazine.

Mentor women for STEM roles

By Kim Eaton

Through high school and college, I was a science junkie. I loved chemistry and biology, and because my father was my math teacher, I loved math. I enjoyed science because of the dynamic teachers I had and because they reinforced that I could master these subjects with ease. My goal was to become a dentist. I ended up earning my degree in chemistry and biology from Iowa State University, but before I took the plunge into four years of dental school, I decided to explore other opportunities.

It just so happened a global management and technology consulting firm was hiring people like me. I decided to give it a try and so began my professional journey in technology. I really enjoyed the challenge, the people I met, and the customers I worked for. I never looked back.

In the first few years of my career, I learned a lot about myself. I worked for some great managers and some not so great managers. I continue to shape that view and believe that great leadership is an evolution.

Fortunately, I have worked in some high-performing technology organizations, with leaders who believe in the correlation between a great place to work and high customer satisfaction. I realize not everyone’s experience is similar to mine. A Harvard Business Review study indicated that nearly half of all women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) roles will eventually leave the industry due to poor work environments.

Women make up only 25 percent of the STEM workforce, a rate that has remained flat during the past decade, according to a recent article in Emory Business. Although Atlanta ranks third in the nation for STEM jobs growth, the fact remains of a lack of women in executive positions.

What can be done to ensure more women pursue and remain in STEM careers, especially here in Atlanta?

There are some fabulous associations and companies in Atlanta — WIT (Women in Technology) and Pathbuilders — that focus on mentoring, developing and recognizing women leaders. It would be great if more organizations could emerge with that focus. I also believe progress can be made if male and female leaders spend more time mentoring and sharing their positive experiences with young women.

There is a lot of talk about mentoring. We discuss it all the time at Aptean. Should we formalize a program, or should we allow people to more informally find people they connect with? Ironically, several of us look back on our early experiences and believe we ended up where we are because of great teachers/mentors/youth ministers we had in high school and college. It reinforces the importance of the relationships we build around us. Our executive team has agreed we need to provide the opportunity for people to mentor each other, and to enable those relationships to be built naturally.

These personal relationships will help leaders keep perspective and inspire them to help build a great environment to work in. We all want to work somewhere that allows us to make an impact and be inspired and recognized. We can make that happen as a community and as a team by sharing and networking, teaching and mentoring each other.

Attracting and retaining passionate and driven leaders, especially women, is done by reinforcing a culture of collaboration. From my experience, the best leaders we know are approachable and, by example, are champions of teamwork and collaboration. These characteristics allow everyone to bring personal strengths to the table and enable each of us to experience success as a team and as individuals.

I truly believe this is at the heart of what will help us attract and retain the best women (and men) in the STEM industries. Take the time to mentor someone, collaborate and really take advantage of your team’s strengths.

We can make a difference.

Kim Eaton is chief executive officer for Aptean, a global applications software provider.

Help inmates re-enter society

By Kate Boccia

John Legend and the Koch Brothers. What an odd pairing. As the mother of an inmate incarcerated in the state of Georgia, I couldn’t be happier they have stepped into what is now the new “it girl” in the political arena: criminal justice reform.

I often speak about my ignorance to the epidemic called mass incarceration. It is the No. 1 public health crisis in our country. By having real open and honest conversations, we can change the course of this. With the money and fame behind the new players, it will happen.

I was forced into this world on Nov. 27, 2011, when my son was arrested and charged with armed robbery. When I began this journey, I was nothing more than a desperate mother, seeking answers, trying to help my son. I have since become a voice for the families of the incarcerated and their loved ones.

This is an area that very few of us really understand. Even our politicians and community leaders are ignorant to the truth behind mass incarceration. Our punitive laws that created mandatory minimum sentences have destroyed a generation. Without reform, we will be forced to open more prisons, add assisted-living space to prisons, and burden our courts with recidivism. Not to mention the effects of a returning citizen who has no rehabilitation, training or education.

Gov. Nathan Deal has a heart for criminal justice reform, and he has slowly and deliberately built a team of leaders that is addressing issues that result from mass incarceration. Under House Bill 349, passed in the 2013 legislative session, Deal appointed 15 members to head the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Co-chairs Judge Michael Boggs and Thomas Worthy have made significant recommendations and have since passed laws that will move us into the 21st century.

The appointment of Commissioner Homer Bryson to head up the Georgia Department of Corrections is nothing short of a miracle. The launching of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry is also an opportunity to help heal our men and women who leave the system and bring them into their communities as whole, healthy and productive citizens.

I have met with many naysayers who say things that I once said: “Let them rot; criminals deserve to be put away.”

What I have learned is that we are all in this together, and the way we treat our inmates is a direct correlation to the way our communities will be shaped. I vote for bringing them home healthy and whole.

When incarcerated people come home, my personal mission is to be able to say to them, “Welcome home; we’ve missed you, and we are here to help.” Until that day, I will be their voice. To all those stepping into the arena of justice reform, please reach out to me at kateboccia@gmail.com.

Kate Boccia lives in Alpharetta.


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