Ala’a Wafa, a Palestinian-American who practices Islam, said while she is very comfortable in downtown Columbus, she finds other parts of the city less inviting.
“Sometimes people look at me like I am walking around dressed like a clown,” she said.
While some Americans might think a Middle Eastern woman wearing a hijab, or headscarf, is oppressed, Maha Elnour, a Columbus resident originally from Sudan, said that wearing the traditional garment is a choice.
“It’s my decision to wear it,” Elnour said. “No one forced me to do it.”
Wafa pointed out Islamic law has permitted women to vote and own property for centuries — rights American women have enjoyed for only the past century.
“Women in general are not oppressed under Islam,” she said.
Wafa made her comments during a discussion last week with panelists who practice Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. It was designed to provide a safe environment for attendees to ask questions about the myriad misconceptions about these religious minority communities.
More than 110 people gathered at the Columbus Learning Center for the discussion, presented by the Middle East Association and the Islamic Society of Columbus, with help from Ivy Tech. It was funded by a Welcoming Community II Grant on behalf of the Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.
The panel comprised six Columbus residents, including four who practice Islam, a Hindu, and a member of the Sikh community.
“People have questions, and it’s good to give them a chance to get them out,” Elnour said. “They just need to get the courage to ask.”
John Roberts, dean of the schools of academic skills advancement and liberal arts and sciences at Ivy Tech, and secretary of the Human Rights Commission, opened the discussion by asking the panelists to discuss how welcoming they find Columbus.
One common theme that emerged throughout the evening was the role the media plays in presenting and reinforcing stereotypes.
The audience laughed as one panelist said that, thanks to movies, he expected the United States to be full of cowboys and tumbleweeds, while another panelist thought that Americans placed a lower value on family than other cultures might.
Many panelists and audience members alike said
television news has contributed to the impression that Muslims are excessively violent, or that women who practice the religion are mistreated.
Elnour said one common misconception she faces regarding her faith is the definition of the term jihad. The term literally means “struggle,” she said, and refers to anything that takes effort. But many Americans interpret the word to to mean something violent.
Roberts implored the audience not to be “intellectual lemmings” and to carefully consider an idea presented to them through the media before accepting it as fact.
Jonathan Crabtree, a student at IUPUC, attended the discussion as a requirement for his ethics class. Crabtree, a Christian, said that he was glad for the opportunity to hear from those with a background different from his own.
“Not since high school have I had the chance to sit down and talk with a person of another faith,” he said.
The panelists also agreed that their participation increased their own understanding of their community.
“I have a responsibility to learn about the culture here as well,” said panelist Saleem Kandiyil, a Muslim from India. “I wanted to come here to educate, but also to learn.”
Roberts said in his closing comments that he hopes this is just the beginning of an ongoing conversation that will continue to unify the Columbus community.
“We’ve made a good first step,” Roberts said.