irshad manji 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the American Jewish Congress convened a conference on women's empowerment in Tel Aviv recently, it brought together some unlikely participants. Instead of the usual suspects of prominent females in the Jewish philanthropy or organizational world, the AJC gathered an array of women - not all of them even Jewish - who have made their mark across the Atlantic.
Ann Lewis, the event's "dialogue chair," has spent much of her professional career as the "woman behind the woman."
She now serves as the communications director for Hillary Clinton's re-election campaign. Clinton looks set to sail to second term in the Capitol, and is widely regarded as a contender in the 2008 race for the White House.
She worked to get her elected as New York's senator in 2000 and helped her husband, Bill, with his 1996 presidential win. She was the Clinton administration's director of communications and then adviser between 1997 and 2000.
While her leadership credentials lie in her work in the public sector, her private life - in this case, her Jewish heritage - played a big role in shaping her social consciousness. And for Lewis, the sister of Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, that shaping started early on, in their childhood home.
"I was raised with the name Ann Frank. If you're a little Jewish girl named Ann Frank, it is not hard to figure out that who governs is of immense importance to you - it can be a matter of life and death," relates Lewis, now grey-haired and spectacled. Lewis, who spent most of her life moving along the Boston-to-DC axis, has the air of a Southern lady: polite, well-presented, well-spoken and sharp. They don't call them steel magnolias for nothing.
"While so many people seem to be so casual about the decisions their government makes, I understood, and was fortunate to have parents who reinforced this teaching, that we have this great good fortune to live in a country where we could help decide, where we could choose the people who made the rules," she explains. "I never found anybody who could do that better than I could, so I figured if I had the chance to do it, I was darn right going to do all I could."
IRSHAD MANJI didn't have a Jewish upbringing, but Judaism also affected the development of her outlook from a young age. Born into a Pakistani family forced to flee Uganda when she was four, Manji encountered dogmatic anti-Semitism as a pre-teen attending after-school classes at her local madrassa in Canada. The questions she asked herself and her teacher on this topic formed an essential part of what pushed her to leave its confines and think critically about her religious tradition.
She went on to become a media personality, at one point hosting Toronto's QueerTelevision. The lesbian, feminist, critical-yet-devout Muslim became an international celebrity, however, when she published The Trouble With Islam: A wake-up call for honesty and change in 2003. She takes a tough view of Islam's treatment of women, its resistance to change, its "Arab imperialism" and its propensity to blame Israel.
The slim, spunky, spiky-haired 37-year-old has yet to stop challenging what she sees around her. Her discourse is essentially Socratic, as even during an interview she asks her own questions and answers them with more questions. She is faced with the query, "So what are you doing at a conference for Jewish women leaders?"
She replies that she was already in Egypt at a conference with young Muslim leaders, then continues: "The fact is, I'm very well aware that there are some people, in fact many people, who would argue I ought not to be engaging in conferences with Jewish women because somehow that reduces my 'credibility' or 'legitimacy.' But my response to that is many-fold: First of all, what is reform to mean if it doesn't mean that we bust out of our tribalisms? How can I call myself reform-minded and not become quite comfortable with having Jews as allies, as friends, as colleagues, as fellow activists, in both the spirit of tikkum olam and iftijihad, Islam's tradition of independent thinking and creative reasoning?"
Her Web site, on which she posts Arabic, Farsi and Urdu free translations of her book, is named muslim-refusenik.com, a reference to the Jews in the USSR who struggled for their freedom. So far, she has had 150,000 free downloads. She quips, "Al-Qaida is not the only entity in the world that knows how to use the Internet to spread its message."