Miriam Amer confronts stereotypes to be Muslim leader

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CEDAR RAPIDS — On a recent cold morning, Miriam Amer sat in the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids gushing about a protege.

Her friend is the president of the Al-Noor Islamic Community Center in Waterloo and is involved in other organizations throughout Eastern Iowa. Amer said she’s proud of her friend’s leadership abilities, but her friend’s husband has remarked on the change in his wife.

“Get used to it, pal,” Amer said. “She runs everywhere and is doing everything. He’s seen that she’s become far more outspoken and she’s become political. She always shied away from it.”

It’s a transition Amer herself has undergone.

As the executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Iowa, she spends her days advocating for civil rights, especially those of Muslims.

But she said because she faces cultural differences and stereotypes both inside and outside the Muslim community, she often is discounted.

Though Amer’s confidence is evident and she has a voice that carries, she said when she speaks publicly about Muslim rights, the audience — of both Muslims and non-Muslims — often does not believe her. From her experience, an audience takes her more seriously when a man is there.

“Because I’m not an imam and I’m a woman, people doubt that I know very much,” she said. “It’s not just Muslims, it’s non-Muslims. They think somehow because I wear a scarf that my brain is being held in or something. It gets to me sometimes. Whenever there’s a man that comes up to me and says ‘You shouldn’t do this’ — or worse, a woman — why not? What’s wrong with me doing this?”

Often Muslim women question Amer’s ability to be a leader as a Muslim woman, telling her she shouldn’t be drawing attention to herself.

That’s a cultural difference Amer said she can’t abide. The Quran cites different roles for men and women but reinforces that women are equal in strength and intelligence to men, Amer said.

“Different cultures — not Quranic law, but cultures — say women are weaker,” Amer said. “Islam teaches that women have the exact same rights as men.”

Unfortunately, Amer said, a Muslim woman’s hijab often is mistaken for a symbol of oppression, leading to second glances in public and even Islamophobia.

“I wear a scarf because I honor God,” she said. “It has nothing to do with my husband. It has nothing to do with you. They see us coming because of the scarf. Men can get away with being Muslim.”

Are there countries — including Muslim-majority countries — with cultural differences that oppress women? Absolutely, Amer said.

“A lot of these cultures, like the Saudis, they treat their women as second-class citizens, sometimes not even as good as their dogs. Well, now (the Saudi government has) given women the right to drive. Whoopee,” she said, twirling her finger in the air.

Amer said she isn’t going to slow down her advocacy work and she hopes to continue influencing strong women — starting with her granddaughter.

“I want her to think of herself and not just what she can do for others,” Amer said. “I want her to think of that, too. But I want her to grow up knowing who she is and what she’s capable of.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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