Money & Careers

Sarah Sayeed, a Woman Who’s Making a Difference

 10463974_10204700563052921_7789280976091171967_n Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya. (Photo: Women in Islam)

I ask Dr. Sayeed about her activism as a board member of Women in Islam,  a nonprofit human rights organization that seeks to make women more welcome in mosques. “Women in Islam was founded at the time of the Bosnian crisis, when a lot of women were subjected to rape,” she tells me. “The founder, Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya, wanted to have a space and a forum where women could speak out on issues impacting Muslim women, human rights, and the Muslim community in general. There was no central Muslim women’s human rights organization at that time in America. It’s about educating the broader public as well as the Muslim community about our rights as Muslim women. There’s not only a lot of misinformation out in the world about Muslim women and the faith, but there’s also a lot of misinformation within our own community.

“For a long time we’ve been working to engage women in mosque spaces. That’s really important to us, because Muslim women have so few places where we can congregate: Mosque is one of those spaces. When women don’t feel welcome in the mosque, it impacts the whole community. It impacts children, families, community cohesiveness. So we’ve been trying to promote the ideal of Islam as the Prophet practiced it. In his time, women were included in the mosque.

“The problem is that in the last 10 years there has been an increase in the use of dividers between men and women. These barriers lead women to feel excluded, and they also block their view of the imam. We’re trying to make clear that the Prophet’s practice was to have women in the mosque without a barrier. We’re reminding people how he prayed, with women and children in the back but no dividers. Women as a group pray in rows behind the men in the mosque for a very practical reason: Praying in the back rows helps protects women’s sense of modesty and dignity, for when we pray, we prostrate ourselves, and our backsides are in the air.

“We’re also seeking to see more women serving on mosque boards—a lot of mosques don’t have that—and to have programming in the mosque that is more woman-inclusive. That means letting women talk about what women want to talk about—and having women speakers. We want to see mosques become more vibrant, but that can’t happen without having women’s spirit included.”

She sighs. “We’ve been trying to educate on this, but it’s been very, very slow. But I think more and more people are listening to us. We need the support of male leaders; we can’t change anything without their support and the support of communities.”

Before the interview ends I ask Dr. Sayeed to explain something about Islam that I’ve always wondered about: What ethical and moral precepts do Muslims adhere to in their daily lives? Does the faith offer basic guidelines that a believer aspires to live by—like, say, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon of the Mount?

“The Ten Commandments are certainly part of Islam,” she tells me. “As you know, Muslims believe in all of the prophets who came before Muhammad, including Moses and the Torah and the revelation given by Jesus. So there’s a lot of commonality there in the three religions’ moral and ethical codes. Indeed, I think that that basic code is common to all religions. One way to understand Muslims’ moral and ethical code is through the prayer we recite on a daily basis. Our prayers invoke the capacity and mercy of God in everything we do; that is an important moral foundation for Muslim life. Surah al-Fatiha, the seven-verse prayer in the opening chapter of the Quran, is the essence of Islam. These words are part of every single prayer that we do. It goes like this:

In the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

All praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,

The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment.

You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight way;

The way of those whom You have favored, Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, Nor of those who have gone astray.

“Note that it starts out with the verse ‘In the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful’ . . . that is what we’re supposed to say whenever we initiate any activity during the day . . . if we’re getting up in the morning or we’re starting to eat or when we leave our homes to come to work. This helps to connect us to God’s mercy, but also helps to set our intent for whatever we’re doing—to make it an act of service to God. God created human beings for the sole purpose of worshiping and serving him. That’s not just about rituals and prayers and fasting, but to make every moment a sacred moment in God’s service. So if I am studying or writing or reading, I am making myself a better person and am trying to be excellent in whatever I’m doing. I’m gaining professional skills, but additionally, my profession could be an act of service to improve humanity, to help people.

“These values are important to me and to Muslims.”

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  • Beverly May 30, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Dr.Sarah is doing a great work in bringing diverse communities together to enable them to get a better understanding of their various cultures & to enable them to see that their needs are very similar. Her method of working together will bring about the desired results

  • toni myers May 27, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Actually, I didn’t know the list of things Dr.Sayeed gives as basic precepts for everyday living. She makes valuable connections between people with different beliefs. An amazing woman doing worthy work. Yes to more folks hearing of her work. Thanks Debbie!

  • Margery Stein May 26, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Someone should send this article to an editor at the NYTimes. Like Malala, she is worthy of a “Times Talks” lecture. Debbie always seems to unearth these marvelous & meaningful women.

  • Susanna Gaertner May 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    As always, Deb, a worthwhile article on a worthy woman. Happy to learn about her.