Jews and Muslims mingle in the name of womens equality

At first glance, it looked like any other lighthearted mixer: Purple and yellow balloons lined the walkway to Jeanine and Guy Saperstein’s sprawling home in Piedmont, and inside roughly 80 people were shmoozing, sipping white wine and munching on pita and hummus.

It was only upon closer inspection of name tags, perhaps, that an unlikely pattern began to emerge — this was a shmooze session for Muslims and Jews.

Billed as an information session about the Muslim Women’s Fund and co-hosted by Susan and Moses Libitzky, along with the Sapersteins, the March 13 event challenged assumptions left and right. The featured speakers were MWF co-founder Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoy of San Francisco and Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and a MWF board member. Khan was thrust into the national spotlight last summer as the public face of Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic community center near ground zero.

The event served to explain the mission and initial accomplishments of MWF, a special project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that launched in July 2009 to help Muslim women reclaim their human rights through education and economic empowerment.

The audience at the Muslim Women’s Fund event photo/matthias bank

The audience, crowded into the foyer, was filled with prominent Jewish and Muslim community members, as well as Rep. Barbara Lee and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.

Khan reminded attendees that, though the U.S. was built on principles of equality and liberty, American women and blacks have struggled for equal rights. She said Muslim women are next in line.

“Muslim women are rising up in their communities, I’ve seen it in my travels,” she said, citing examples of female activists in the recent Egyptian and Libyan revolutions. “They are taking on more responsibility, more of them know that they deserve equality, and we need to equip them with the education and tools to continue that progress.”

Accordingly, one major component of MWF’s work focuses on educating Muslim schoolgirls with a new curriculum based on academics and nonviolence rather than rote memorization of religious texts.

Another of MWF’s projects involves combating female genital cutting, a common practice in Egypt, by educating female practitioners about its cruelty and lasting harm and helping them obtain loans to start different businesses.

“There are 800 million Muslim women and girls in the world,” Taplin-Chinoy said. “Let’s all close our eyes for a moment and imagine what could happen if they unleashed their potential.”

The first step, she said, is building a coalition of people and organizations, across all religions and cultures, who believe in that potential for good.

 The Libitzkys, of Piedmont, agreed it was a “no-brainer” to support the work of MWF. They and the Sapersteins have backed the fund’s efforts from the start and were responsible for much of the outreach within the Jewish community for the recent event.

“When I sent this invitation out, I was expecting maybe 30 responses, and I got 100,” said Susan Libitzky. “People are curious about this, and we’re just happy to be a part of it. We’ve known Shahnaz for three years now, and believe very deeply in her abilities, in her passion … and this whole idea of using religion as a tool to connect with these women — so that they’re really improving their own situation, from the inside.”

While it might seem improbable for American Jews and Muslims to be in such steadfast agreement about anything, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jews would support this kind of cause, Moses Libitzky said.

“Radical Islam is a problem that affects everyone,” he explained. “Moderate Islam is the antidote, and educating women is a key part of building up moderate Islam. That’s good for Israel, it’s good for Americans, it’s good for the world.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.