By Ruth Broyde Sharone
“If I consider myself a peace activist, then all my words and actions must be devoted to peace.
For me this is Jihad, and if I die doing this I will be considered a martyr.”
- Ibtisam Mahameed
Ten years ago Ibtisam Mahameed decided to run for public office. It was a perilous decision for the 41-year-old, modestly dressed, Arab Muslim woman, married with three children. Traditionally, women did not play any role in politics in her village or any other Israeli Arab village. Knowing her decision invited controversy did not dissuade her.
Ibtisam lives with her family in Faradis (think Paradise, but with an ‘f’), an Arab village of 11,000 inhabitants in northern Israel, near Haifa. An Arab-Israeli citizen with an Israeli passport, she considers herself a Palestinian and can trace her family’s history in the region back 300 years.
Her decision to run for public office in 2002 cannot be appreciated without knowing the back story. A year earlier Ibtisam had approached the local sheikh of her village, requesting that he deliver a lecture for the women of the community on the rights of Muslim women, according to the Kor’an. “We don’t know what Islam allows us. Our husbands don’t teach us, and we would like to learn,” she explained.
The sheikh agreed amicably. A few days later he found himself facing several hundred women from Faradis, all eager to learn what Prophet Mohammed had allowed and proscribed for them. To their astonishment, they learned that, according to the Kor’an, they had extensive rights: marriage rights, divorce rights, inheritance rights, even rights to run for public office. The sheikh cited historical examples of outstanding and illustrious Muslim women who had been leaders in education, business, and jurisprudence, stories they had never heard before.
Indeed, as Ibtisam later learned, a Muslim woman founded the first university in the Middle East, Al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco. Established in 859 and flourishing today, it pre-dates the earliest European universities by more than 150 years. At Al-Qarawiyyin, professors of the three Abrahamic religions taught side by side – early intimations of modern-day interfaith seminaries.
As Ibtisam remembers, the Sheikh’s talk left a profound impact on the women in the audience. They were learning that their Holy Book had no injunctions against women’s empowerment and that what they experienced on a day-to-day basis was cultural rather than religious bias. The women attending that evening had shared an epiphany.
A few months later, Ibtisam approached her sheikh and told him she wanted to run for office in their village. He frowned and told her that it was not proper for a woman to be a public official. She reminded him respectfully of his recent talk and withdrew from her purse a cassette recording of his lecture. “If you don’t approve of my running for office, she said in earnest, “I will distribute a copy of this cassette to every house in our village.”
“Don’t misunderstand,” he said solicitously, trying to soothe her. “I was simply trying to protect you. Politics is dirty – not a good place for a woman.”
“I know,” Ibtisam replied confidently. “That’s why I’m here – to clean it up!”
Although she received permission to run for office from her devoted husband, Sobhi, to whom she was married when fifteen, other family members were not as supportive or sanguine. Her brother-in-law stopped speaking to her for three years and forbad his wife from communicating with her as well. Ibtisam was shunned in the streets, and many, including many women, criticized her openly for her brazenness.
She won only 200 votes in the election, but the die was cast. She had set a new precedent for women in her village and beyond. Personally, with old taboos abandoned, Ibtisam started a journey that led to becoming an international women’s champion and interfaith peace activist. She took a degree in psychology and social science. At 51, she remains a student, pursuing a doctorate in anthropology and happily noting how many educated Muslim women are becoming lawyers, teachers and doctors.
Ibtisam’s journey towards women’s empowerment drew her into interfaith engagement. Na’amat, an Israeli Jewish women’s organization, was offering assertiveness training for women. She enrolled, meeting Christian, Jewish, and Druze women in the process. In the coming month, recognizing them as “sisters” in the cause for women’s empowerment, she bonded with them.
A passion for interfaith engagement developed. The same year she ran for office, she found herself traveling to Berlin to join a group of interfaith delegates at a global summit on peacemaking, organized by the United Religions Initiative (URI). The roommate chosen for her was Elana Rozenman, a Jewish woman from Jerusalem who became involved in peacemaking after her son was severely injured in a 1997 suicide bombing at a Jerusalem mall.
Ibtisam and Elana, strangers until that moment, spent four days together in Berlin. Elana explained to Ibtisam at the very beginning that, as an Orthodox Jew, she would not be able to turn on the lights in their room, from the time Sabbath began on Friday evening until Saturday at dusk. Also, she would not be able to spend any money during that period of time, but she told Ibtisam to be free to continue her life normally.
Ibtisam made an important decision at that moment which would impact her life from that moment on.
“I didn’t understand all of those rules about Elana’s Sabbath, and I thought them strange,” she admits, “but I decided that whatever Elana would do, I would do as well. So if she remained in the room in the dark, without light, I would also stay in that darkness with her. When she refrained from spending money, I also refrained. That was how I came to understand and respect the religious traditions of another person.”
When they returned to Israel, in April 2002, the two women were fast friends. They immediately launched an interfaith gathering for 200 women to study texts together from their holy books. After that they never looked back.
Both continue to champion interfaith engagement and women’s empowerment as a strategy for peacemaking. They are the “go-to” women in Israel, typically sought out by foreign interfaith organizations looking for women to represent the peace movement of the Middle East. Both attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona in 2004, and Ibtisam was invited by the Parliament to attend the 2009 Melbourne gathering.
Ibtisam’s contributions to peacebuilding have been recognized internationally by the Tony Blair Foundation. H.H. the Dalai Lama personally gave her an “Award for Unsung Heroes of Compassion” in San Francisco in 2009.
Interfaith engagement and women’s empowerment are “serious business,” Ibtisam emphasizes. She is motivated by her belief in Allah, her great love for Him, her desire to serve, and a profound commitment to peace. “One of the reasons I became a peace activist is that I came to realize that there is no point to what's going on here,” in the Middle East. “Violence creates more violence. Killing after killing, until when will this circle of violence go on? I got to know about the people that are working on bringing the different sides together.”
Her serious business, though, does nothing to suppress Ibtisam’s dimples, her contagious laugh and quick wit. On her way back to Israel recently, after spending an intensive week in Arizona at a women’s empowerment program sponsored by Braveheart Women, Ibtisam brought her bags to the El Al counter at Los Angeles Airport. The Israeli woman security official questioned her closely, as El Al Airlines is famous for doing when you travel to Israel.
“Are you taking anything home that someone gave you?”
“No,” Ibtisam replied.
“Have you let your bags out of sight since you packed them?” the young woman asked.
“Do you have any weapons on you?”
“Only my tongue,” Ibtisam replied. The two women looked at one another for a long moment, then they both laughed.
Ibtisam Mahameed has learned that the best way to advance women and the interfaith movement is through communication and not being afraid to speak out. By the way, the local council leader of Faradis recently asked Ibtisam if she would like to serve as his assistant at the council for the next term. “I told him I’d let him know,” she says, with a wink.
Read an interview of Ibtisam Mahameed at Justvision.