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'FROM BEHIND THE VEIL'

Path led Assilmi from Christianity to Muslim advocate

She used to be a Southern Baptist, a bra-burning, radical feminist and a broadcast journalist. Now Aminah Assilmi is an ambassador of Islam. The director of the International Union of Muslim Women, Assilmi calls Fairfield, Ohio, home. She travels the country speaking on college campuses, increasing public awareness and understanding of the faith. She wears the traditional Islamic hijab, which includes a head scarf covering her hair and neck and modest clothing with long sleeves. Last week at the University of Tennessee, Assilmi spoke to a near-full audience in the University Center's Ballroom. Sponsored by the Muslim Student Association at UT, Assilmi spoke on the status of women in Islam in her lecture, "A Muslim woman speaks from behind the veil." And at Farragut High School, Assilmi's talk, sponsored by the Natural Inclinations Club, Farragut's Muslim student organization, was on "Liberty and Justice for all." Here, she explained why she believes "that Islam is the first women's liberation movement and the proper rights given by God to both men and women." Assilmi cautions critics who say that women are oppressed in some predominately Muslim countries. She says their practices are cultural, not Islamic.

"People who are held down, are held down by ignorance," she said. "They follow cultural practices. Do not judge Islam by these individuals who have only practiced like the people in their family." But, Assilmi told audiences, she hasn't always been a Muslim and a proponent of Islam. Meeting her first "real life Muslims" when she took a college theater class some years ago, Assilmi said she almost dropped the class when she walked into the room and saw some Arab students in traditional hijab. In the handbook she authored, "Choosing Islam," Assilmi writes,

"There was no way I was going to sit in a room with dirty heathens. ... I shut the door and went home." After her husband encouraged her to go back to the theater class, Assilmi said she felt it her duty to "convert the poor, ignorant Muslims." Hoping to convert the students to Christianity, Assilmi began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, in a quest to prove that Mohammed was a false prophet and that Islam was not a valid religion. But the more she read, the more she became interested in Islam. She was particularly interested in what the Koran had to say about men and women. Islamic women, she thought, "were freely beaten by their husbands and tossed aside." Assilmi says she had based her opinion on stereotypes; she soon found out those ideas were not in keeping with the Koran. Through intense study, she said she learned that Islamic women behave equally to men and are paid according to the job they do. Both men and women have equal rights to education. Islamic women have had the right to own property for more than 1,400 years. And when a woman marries, she does not change her last name, but keeps her father's last name. Thus, Assilmi told her UT audience, "We remain our own distinct individual."

"For two years I studied in order to convert Muslims to Christianity," she said. But during that time Assilmi said she started to change. Her husband began to notice that she no longer had an interest in going to bars or parties. She was content to stay home and study the Koran. "I was quiet and more distant," Assilmi writes in her handbook. Her husband attributed the changes in her to another man and the couple separated. After she moved out with their three children, Assilmi was visited by a Muslim holy leader who answered her questions about the faith. He asked her if she believed in only one God and Assilmi said yes. He asked her if she believed Mohammed was His messenger. Again she said yes. "He told me I was already a Muslim. I argued that I was a Christian, I was just trying to understand Islam. I couldn't be a Muslim! I was an American and white! " We continued talking. Later he explained that attaining knowledge and understanding of spirituality was a little like climbing a ladder." The first rung on the ladder was the Shahadah, a statement of belief that there is no God but the one God and Mohammed was His messenger. The Shahadah, done before witnesses, is in the Islamic faith, the Christian equivalent of a statement of belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

For Assilmi, taking Shahadah in 1977 was the first step toward a deeper understanding of Islam. But she still had a few hang-ups - like hijab. Hijab is the modest dress worn by both Muslim men and women; its most recognizable feature is the head scarf worn by women. "I agreed with modesty, but I was vain about my hair," Assilmi told her UT audience. "The Koran tells us to cover ourselves to be identified as Muslims," Assilmi said. "I am a Muslim and I know what my God-given rights are. "Hijab is not a requirement or restriction, but a right and a privilege. I would fight to the death to wear it. "I gave up being a women's liberationist - it wasn't fulfilling - I became a Muslim. ... Liberation, yeah, that's Islam," said Assilmi who adopted her name during the Iranian hostage crisis, which occurred in 1980-81. During the crisis where 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran with the support of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Assilmi spoke on radio and television broadcasts denouncing the incident and explaining that "not all Muslims are fanatics." She adopted the new name, "to protect my family from ignorance." She no longer uses her given name. Assilmi said Islamic women are not limited in professional fields by their religion. However, "The most powerful profession is being a mother. Because we form the mind of the next generation." Muslim women, she said, are often discriminated against because of the hijab. "In this country it's extremely difficult for Muslim women.

" That is why some Muslim women wear varying degrees of hijab. For example, some women might wear loose-fitting modest clothing, others may wear the head scarf, covering the hair and neck, others still may have the courage to wear the face veil where only the eyes are visible. "In some Muslim countries they feel it is better to cover the face so as not as to draw undue attention of men." According to Assilmi, the importance of the hijab is to preserve the sacredness of marriage in Islam. In other words she said, "My beauty is only for my husband, not for any man." But, she says, men also must adhere to modest dress. For example, a Muslim man may not wear silk or gold or any clothing that would "expose themselves in a sexy way."

An award-winning broadcaster in the Denver market, Assilmi lost her job when she began wearing Islamic dress. She says the persecution is intense. "I've been forced off the road before - beaten up - and I've never lifted a hand against anyone," Assilmi said. She even tried to wear the face veil, but said, "I could not handle the experience." The defining moment came when she tried to cash a check at her bank wearing the face veil. A bank security guard drew his gun preparing to shoot if she made any questionable moves. For Assilmi, her job as a broadcaster was not the only thing she lost when she first chose Islam. Her marriage over, she also lost custody of her children because the court decided that the "unorthodox religion" would be detrimental to them. But since then, Assilmi says her children have converted to Islam and so have her parents and her ex-husband. "Relatives of mine are still becoming Muslim right and left," she said.

Through her work as the director of the International Union of Muslim Women, Assilmi is working to get the Muslim holiday of `Eid on a U.S. postage stamp and improving the image of Islam through projects like "Walk and Roll America," a fund- raiser for American Red Cross Disaster Relief. She enjoys working with youth, regardless of their faith. Assilmi works to provide after-school care for teens who are locked out of their homes until their parents get home from work.

Assilmi has eaten dinner with Pope John Paul II. She even got to pray over the meal they shared with other religious leaders while the Pope was visiting Denver for a Catholic youth rally. Now at "well over half a century" and having survived bone cancer, Assilmi has made two pilgrimages to Mecca, a holy trip that Muslims are instructed to take in their lifetime. The cancer weakened her bones and now she uses a wheelchair as a "mobility enhancement."

"God decided that I would continue to live," she said. And, "I ceased to be afraid of anything. It became very important that I would speak the truth everywhere. I would have to answer to God for everything I do and say. "I love sharing Islam." Does that mean Islam is an evangelical religion? According to Assilmi, the answer is no. "It's not evangelical. We are not allowed to go out and try to convert people. In Islam, that is considered harassment. We respect the religion of all people. The way that we spread Islam is through our example."

By Rebecca Simmons
News-Sentinel staff writer
From: The Knoxville (Tennessee) News-Sentinel
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