Posted: March 11, 2008
Speaking softly as she walked back and forth in front of the podium in the New York Room of Mary Woolley Hall, Asra Nomani--a distinguished author, journalist, and teacher--told her story of growing up a female Muslim in the United States. From daring to wear shorts in order to compete on the high school track team to hiding a relationship with a man who was not a Muslim during college, Nomani spoke honestly about her life choices, as well as about her encounters with the restrictions placed on Muslim women by some interpretations of Islam and the ensuing conflict she felt about being a "bad girl" by Muslim standards. Her intensely personal account of the events that propelled her to become an activist dedicated to reclaiming women's rights and principles of tolerance in the Muslim world was, by turns, humorous and poignant. Nomani's story included the loss of her close friend and fellow Wall Street Journalwriter Daniel Pearl, who was staying with her in Pakistan when he was kidnapped and murdered.
Earlier in the evening, Lucas Wilson had welcomed the audience to the Difficult Dialogues event, noting that Mount Holyoke College was one of 43 schools selected from approximately 675 applicants to receive funding for the initiative from the Ford Foundation and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Speech and Inquiry. The Difficult Dialogues Project is a national initiative to foster dialogue and understanding across religious differences on college and university campuses. Along with thanking the members of the Difficult Dialogues committee and the other campus constituencies whose efforts had brought Nomani to MHC, he expressed their hope that "the evening will contribute to 'welcome table' conversations between and within religious and spiritual communities about the value of tolerance and the educational benefits of diversities of all kinds, in all places."
In her introduction, assistant professor of religion Amina Steinfels echoed that hope and spoke with admiration of Nomani's courage to engage in "internal questioning, internal debate, internal jihad."
Nomani--who immigrated from India as a young child--said that her goal in presenting her story was to offer a window into "the larger political issues that will define your generation's future," issues that were brought to the forefront by the events of September 11, 2001. In recounting her childhood, Nomani described growing up around academics in the 1970s and experiencing the contradictions of witnessing feminism on the rise while women remained out of sight at the mosque. Throughout her talk, Nomani connected her experiences to those endured by women of other religions at different points in time and emphasized the necessity of applying critical thinking skills to questions of faith. She urged her audience to be part of "conversations about religion that need to happen," noting that her efforts to engage women in the public sphere may not have "changed the world but we've empowered ourselves." In closing, she expressed gratitude for her audience's "open hearts … I bless you and thank you for hearing me."
Nomani is the author of Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love (2000), an exploration of her identity as a Muslim, an Indian, and an American, and a memoir titled Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam2005). In 2006, she cofounded Muslims for Peace; the organization is dedicated to creating a unified voice of Muslims for peace and tolerance. She currently is a visiting scholar of the practice of journalism at Georgetown University, where she heads the Pearl Project, a faculty-student journalistic investigation into the abduction and murder of Daniel Pearl.