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First Muslim US Congressman Meets with Muslim Women Leaders


A group of 25 Muslim women leaders from around the world recently met in Washington, D.C. with the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S House of Representatives. Congressman Keith Ellison spoke to the women as part of a summer leadership program sponsored by Congress and George Washington University. VOA'S Mohamed Elshinnawi has more

Keith Ellison comes from most diverse district in Minnesota, and he advised the Muslim women to be inclusive in their pursuit of public office. "Do not go to the Muslim community and tell them I am Muslim, vote for me. Do not do that. Figure out what the people need and speak to that and make sure to be universal enough to also appeal to the Christian community, to the Jewish community, to the Arab, non-Arab, Asian, non-Asian, to the African, and non-African. Make sure it is universal."

Ellison won his seat in Congress last year. And as a former community activist, he sought to inspire the women with a message. "That civic engagement is very important, that the voices from the communities are indispensable to democracy, that their voices are important, that they should help inspire and make a way for other people to get out there and say what they think should be the policy of the state. And that there is a lot to be offered in peace, justice, environmental policy, health care and certainly women's issues are very important for all of us to be concerned about."

The Muslim women taking part in the summer program come from the U.S, Canada, Belgium, Holland, the Philippines, Senegal, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Ellison urged them to draw from the lessons and teachings of Islam about working out differences and bridging gaps of race, gender and class.

"Those lessons speak to religious tolerance. Those lessons speak to gender equality -- are the things we should rely on -- and we should never feel that the world of Islam should ever operate on the basis of fear because from fear we get exclusion, from fear we get harsh actions, desperate actions and regretful actions. We should always have faith and go forward in a way that promotes generosity, inclusion and tolerance,” he said.

Ellison told the women that they are going to shape their communities by promoting equality and defending human rights for all.

Irfana Anwar is the co-director of the family law division at the Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. She helped organize the leadership program and she described Ellison's message as inspiring.

“They can be strong Muslim women, know what their rights are from within their own cultural, religious contexts and still be able to function very fluidly in western communities, societies and countries and be leaders with their own right and be absolutely authentic with their own tradition and religion as well."

The Muslim women leadership program is designed to educate Muslim women leaders about legal issues and conflict resolution techniques. The program aims to empower Muslim women to be able to articulate and defend Muslim women’s rights within their own cultural and institutional contexts and lead the peaceful social change in their respective communities.

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