I think this is great. You know... being a chaplain is a great position for a woman. She has the organizing and counseling skills naturally
and you can influence young people towards doing good things through your Dawah efforts. Traditionally you would only be able to do this if you were the Imam's wife or led womens-only Halaqas back in Muslim countries. But this could be a really good thing for the future :ponders going to chaplain school:
Northwestern’s first Muslim chaplain chats about female leadership in Islam
By Shireen Mirza
After years of lobbying by the Muslim Cultural Students Association, the university appointed Tahera Ahmad as Northwestern’s first Muslim Chaplain earlier this month.
In addition to her colorful wardrobe and notable basketball skills, Ahmad, who hails from Morton Grove, Ill., carries quite the impressive resume.She’s been in several documentary films about Islam, such as The Calling, which chronicled her graduate studies at Hartford Seminary — currently the only institute for Islamic chaplaincy.
Georgetown University was the first to appoint a Muslim chaplain recognized by university clergy in 1999. Since then, more than 30 chaplains have been appointed with the aid of Muslim Chaplains Association, including Marwa Aly at Trinity and Wesleyan, the only other female serving at a co-ed institution.
North by Northwestern sat down with Tahera Ahmad to discuss her thoughts on chaplaincy and female leadership in Islam.
While there is no such position in Islam, how do you feel about the Muslim chaplain title and does it hold any meaning in your Muslim faith?
In Muslim tradition, there is a deeply rooted sense of Mushawara (seeking counsel), and Naseeha (advice). Chaplaincy aims to advice and lead a community, which indeed is the concept of seeking Naseeha (advice) and Mushawara (seeking counsel). In essence chaplaincy is an integral part of service to our faith community and while we may not have the same name for the profession, we do have a similar practice in our faith tradition.
In addition to the responsibilities of a Muslim chaplain, could you also comment on the growing demand for Muslim chaplaincies on college campuses and the implications that holds.
Chaplains provide services that help promote diversity on campus and advocacy for students. Over time, universities across the nation will recognize the significance of Muslim Chaplains and the value which they bring to the overall spirit of the community. Every university aims to provide the best support for their students, and Northwestern is amongst the leading institutions to embark on this initiative!
My job is to work with the Northwestern Muslim community in order to represent them in the best of my abilities. That means keeping a relationship with other religious clergy on campus, counseling and guiding the undergrads and connecting them with the local and national community. I help with academic concerns as well as building the community. I want to help build spirit and community on campus for Muslims and inter-religious dialogue.
Islam is often criticized for it’s lack of female leadership roles. How does a woman like yourself, coming from a conservative Southeast Asian background, break that stereotype both internally and externally of your community? Did you have any role models? Did you face any opposition?
My first role in the Muslim community was serving as the youngest board member of MCC (Muslim Community Center, Morton Grove, Ill.). It allowed me to see the necessity of strong female leadership. Instead of pharmacy school, I went to Egypt to learn Arabic. Then I studied at IIE (Institute of Islamic Education, Elgin, Ill.) and eventually went to Hartford Seminary. I served as a chaplain at Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts.
Honestly, I came back to Chicago for my marriage and was offered a job as the Department Head of Islamic Studies at a conservative Islamic private school in Villa Park. It surprised me. If this conservative community could accept me, then I knew it was time for a change.
Growing up I was very influenced by Ingrid Matteson, the female convert who is currently the President of the largest Muslim organization in America, ISNA (Islamic Society of North America). I liked that she did her work with humility.
A lot of the women I studied with only did so to gain spirituality and then use it to teach their children. There is nothing wrong with that, but these places showed me the possibilities [for women in Islam].
The “c” in McSA stands for cultural, how would you define Muslim culture, if there is such a thing? In addition, what role do minorities, those either by faith, practice, sexual orientation, or race, play in the community? Do you feel there is a need for inclusiveness and how would you increase that?
There are around 200 Muslims on campus, of which 150 are members of the McSA, each one unique. [When dealing with minorities] I don’t want to give a verdict, but counsel, like advising but not dictating. I want to encourage or help board members in their direction for programming, especially creating programming that is engaging non-Muslims.
In the past few years, many members of Northwestern, prompted by the McSA, have been attempting to establish an Islamic Studies Program, have you begun to set any short or long term goals in regards to ISP or your time at Northwestern?
I felt nervous at first, but [everyone] has been so amazing and accepting. They made me feel welcome. I don’t want to come in and change everything around, but work with them. I want to do what the student body is comfortable with, otherwise it is a disservice.
I’ve looked over ISP, [it's] a great initiative. Ideally, I would like to create a Center for Muslim life in the next five to ten years, a place where Muslims can pray and play as well as engage with non Muslims. Like Duke University or even Hillel here.