A dozen years ago, several Muslim women in Milwaukee decided to become more involved in their community. Today, this small group has evolved into an active organization called Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition. Group members focus on public service and public perceptions of Muslim women and their faith.
Insherah Farhoud is a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She is one of the founding members of Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition. One of the group's early goals, she recalls, was helping Muslim women find jobs so they would be "better, productive citizens in the community and better role models for their children."
The Coalition initiated a medical assistant training program to help Muslim women gain financial independence. "We've had dozens of women graduate from this program," says president Janan Najeeb.
She explains that many women who took part in the program had no opportunity for employment before. "Some of them, for example, are widowed or divorced, or they come from low income families," Najeeb says. "I would say 80 percent of the women who graduated from our program have found wonderful jobs and now have full insurance for themselves and their families."
The program was so successful, says Insherah Farhoud, the Coalition expanded it to train people from the community at large. "They were not all Muslims or all Arabs," she says. "Our program helps them get the skills and build their confidence so they can get in the health care system."
For more than 10 years, Farhoud says, the Coalition has also reached out to Milwaukee's under-served families with health care services.
"Actually most of the families that we serve are not Muslims," she says. "We're going once a month to different community-based agencies and we are doing screening. We take blood pressure, brief history of the families that don't have insurance. We hook them up with a physician. At one point, we had 42 Muslim physicians who had agreed to see patients in their offices free of charge."
Farhoud says the Coalition encourages its members to become active, involved citizens in other ways as well. "We volunteer, we do walks, fundraising walks and marathons," she says. "There are women from our community that go to soup kitchens or a food bank. People are always amazed that a Muslim woman can do this."
Through such activities, coalition President Janan Najeeb says, they are dispelling many misconceptions. "In the United States, there is just a negative impression about Muslim Women and a lot of misinformation," she says. "Many individuals believe that Muslim women are uneducated, that they are not able to leave the house. We found that there was a forum for us to show that we are a part of the community, that we are an educated part of the community, and an active part of the community."
Najeeb says the group also works with non-Muslim organizations to promote religious tolerance and understanding, including the Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee, whose members represent 13 different religious groups. "We are board members of that," she says.
"We are in the process of putting together a series of seminars where we involve particular professionals in a dialogue about Islam," Najeeb says. "We've just held one for educators. We're going to have one for the media and one for law enforcement also this year."
Janan Najeeb hopes the coalition's efforts in Milwaukee will inspire women across the Muslim world to take on more active roles in their societies. She says that's how Muslim women can change their lives and their image in the United States and worldwide.