CINCINNATI – For the first time in its history, the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati has a new leader. And that leader is a woman.
Shakila Ahmad became the center’s new board chair and president of the Islamic Educational Council Jan. 1.
She’s the first woman to fill the role, which belonged to Dr. Inayat Malik since the center opened 18 years ago.
Malik said in an email interview that the board asked Ahmad to lead the center because she has been such an effective board member since the center’s opening in late 1995.
“The fact that she is a woman is very significant in my mind, since it sends a message that the American Muslim community sees no bar to the role of women in leadership positions in all shares of life,” Malik wrote. “It gives lie to the misconception that women in Islam are somehow oppressed. I am sure Shakila will be up to any challenges she faces in her new role.”
Ahmad is director of business management for the Allergy and Asthma Specialty Center in West Chester and a mother of three. She spoke recently with WCPO Reporter Lucy May about her new role at the Islamic Center, her goals for her two-year term and the challenges Muslim Americans face in Greater Cincinnati. Excerpts of that interview follow.
Q: Tell me a bit more about yourself:
A: I grew up in Cincinnati. I was born in Pakistan. My father had obtained his Ph.D. here. We immigrated to the U.S. for the educational opportunities for his four young children.
I went to high school on the northwest side of town – Colerain. It was definitely a learning experience. I went to the University of Cincinnati for my education. I told my dad, “I’ll go there for a year because you want me to.” But then I got so involved. I actually loved it. I think it’s a wonderful institution.
I’m a Cincinnati gal. Any way you look at it, this is my village.
Q: Were there many Muslim Americans at your high school?
A: It was basically my brother and I, and people couldn’t figure out where I was from. Are you Turkish? Are you Greek? Are you Italian?
It was a big adjustment growing up. I went to an educational system in Pakistan, which was bilingual there. But people don’t speak English when you come here. They speak “Americanese.”
There are a lot of cultural nuances. I think all of those things have helped me to understand some of the challenges that maybe new communities face when they come to this country but also the richness that they bring to everyone else when they do come to this country.
There are many things that we can learn.
Q: Tell me about the roles you’ve held at the Islamic Center in the past?
A: Right before the Islamic Center opened in November 1995, I was approached by two senior members of the board and asked if I would be willing to be on the board of trustees. It was kind of a very bold and progressive move on their part, and it took a lot of reflection on my part. I was the first woman being asked on the board and was by far the youngest at that time.
Since then, I have been on the executive committee a couple of times. I also served as vice chair for one or two terms.
This new role is something I’m humbled by but at the same time I’m very proud to step into the role.
Q: You are the first woman to serve as the board chair and president of the Islamic Educational Council. How big a deal is that for you?
A: For me, it’s a very big deal. It really is because it carries, No. 1, immense responsibility and enormous trust, so that in itself is a very big deal. By all means, I have the fullest confidence in both myself and women as a whole in being able to take on these leadership roles.
It is unchartered territory in an environment where a lot of people don’t have the experience of a woman being in on those leadership roles. You not only have to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, but you also have to convey that in a way that people from diverse backgrounds understand it.
Q: What other local boards are you a part of?
A: Currently, I’m very active on the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati board. I’m a vice chair in charge of the racial justice work, and I sit on the executive committee.
The other major board is the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. I’m engaged in connecting the United Way with a more diverse community, including the Muslim American community.
I’m also involved in both the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber downtown and the West Chester Liberty Chamber Alliance.
Q: What are your priorities in your new role?
A: The areas of focus for me would be in the areas of strengthening relationships, maximizing educational opportunities and then really kind of reaching areas and people that we haven’t been able to reach before.
No. 1 and foremost, we are a house of worship. The community that comes here has to be comfortable with each other, and it’s very diverse. Trying to create an environment that’s inclusive for the people that come here to worship is very important to me.
At the same time, the relationships we have with the external community are equally
important. We live in a landscape with diverse cultures that surround us.
We want to be able to continue to leverage our Tours and Talks, educational outreach, interfaith work and community outreach work to strengthen those relationships.
Both of those I would consider priority No. 1.
We’ve also talked about enhancing and expanding our educational programming, trying to be more comprehensive about what we offer internally and also by partnering with universities and other educational institutions.
Honing in on partnerships on a regional and national level, I think we have an opportunity to be a model that’s really utilized whether it be in the way that we do it or the resources that we put out, such as DVDs or school outreach and bullying prevention materials.
I really want to establish and leverage national relationships not just to raise the profile of the center but to be able to offer things. Some of the new areas I look at being able to do that are areas such as social services and things along those lines.
Q: Tell me about the diversity within the local Muslim American community?
A: If you come during a Friday congregational prayer, it’s like the United Nations in here. Less than 18 percent of the world Muslim population is from the Middle East or Arab world.
About 20 percent of the U.S. Muslim population are from Middle Eastern descent. About a third are African American. About a third are South Asian descent, people like myself from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. We’re seeing a growing number of Hispanic American Muslims. We have a number of Eastern European families who come here on a regular basis. We have people from the far Orient as well. Then there are people who are of Western European heritage.
It makes it beautifully rich. We’re blessed. But it also brings challenges because each culture has its nuances and ways of socializing, and people want to fall back on speaking their native languages sometimes. We really want to try to be welcoming to all those diverse cultures.
Q: I know you’ve worked to better acquaint the community as a whole with Islam and the Muslims living in Greater Cincinnati. Has there been progress?
A: I most certainly think that we are making progress. The situation is that as we make progress, there are always external factors which kind of push back and present new challenges and so you have to be more creative, more hard-working and bring additional resources to bear.
Whether it’s geopolitical situations, people’s political agendas, other social economic factors that impact the awareness of the Muslim American community or the lack of it, I think it requires continuous effort.
Yes, I feel like we have most certainly made progress. But there’s so much that needs to be done.
Q: What are the biggest challenges faced by Muslims locally?
A: I think the greatest challenges are that there are far more people who have these preconceived notions about what a Muslim American is and what they think and how they behave and how they live their lives than there are people who actually know Muslim Americans. That’s how stereotypes are perpetuated. That’s how misinformation becomes kind of the norm.
If less than 5 percent of the population knows or has worked with a Muslim American, they’re going to base their perceptions on whatever’s in the media.
The biggest challenge is that lack of connection. Wherever we can make the connection between fellow Americans of other faiths and Muslim Americans, that’s where we can make progress.
Q: What do you think is the broader region’s biggest misunderstanding about our Muslim neighbors?
A: There are two that always surface to the top, whether people ask it or not. No. 1 is Islam’s view on violence and the idea that there’s something in the religion that promotes violence and condones violence. How can somebody actually think that a religion would condone, promote or encourage violence? People have this in the backs of their minds.
The other misinformation is the role and status of women and the fact that women have had the ability to be in leadership capacities and serve the community in so many ways throughout the history of Islam.
For me to take on this role to me is really very Islamic in nature. But yet it is a perception that it’s not really something that a normal Islamic Center would do.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.