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Muslim Awareness Week at UC Irvine-Zahra Billoo

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Gary Fouse

This week, the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine is hosting their annual Muslim Awareness Week with a series of presentations. The theme of this week’s events is, “Meet the Muslim Next Door”. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the speakers were Hussam Ayloush, the director of CAIR in Southern California, UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai, Sheikh Osman Umarji, and Imam Muzammil Siddiqi. I was not able to attend the above events. On Thursday, I attended a presentation by the Executive Director of CAIR in San Francisco, Zahra Billoo, who spoke on the topic of women’s rights in Islam. Billoo is an outspoken activist most noted for the time when her office issued a poster urging Muslims not to talk to the FBI.
The speech was attended by about 50 people, almost all Muslim students, mostly female. The women and men sat on separate sides of the room. In addition, there were a few non-Muslim students in attendance who seemed to be accompanied by a female professor who was having them write reports. The event was also in conjunction with “wear a hijab” day, in which non-Muslim females would sign up to wear a hijab during the day and report their experiences that evening at another event headed by Ms. Billoo ( I did not attend this event.) The MSU was video-taping the speech, and I noted another female student intermittently taking pictures or recording video shots.
Nevertheless, a couple of minutes after Ms Billoo began her talk (I was videotaping), a male MSU student came up to me and told me politely that no video-taping was allowed. I responded politely but firmly that this issue at UCI had been decided a few years previous (when state legislator Chuck DeVore came to an MSU event and was told not to videotape), and that it was very clear that this was a public event at a public university, and that I had every legal right to videotape. At this point, the young man backed down and politely asked me to change seats (from the front to the rear, where I would not be a distraction). I agreed,  changed my seat to the rear, and kept filming (see first segment, first minute).
In her talk, Billoo spoke of the “spiritual equality” of women under Islam. She described how in pre-Islamic times in the Arabian peninsula, women had very few rights. This changed under Mohammed and Islam, according to Billoo.
Billoo spoke of how men and women, indeed, have different makeups, physically and in terms of their responsibilities. She told us that the Prophet Mohammed had said that women should be educated.
As to marital rights, Billoo conceded that men could have up to four wives (before Islam, it was much higher). She said that while a wife could not stop her husband from having other wives, she could leave the marriage if she wished. A Muslim woman also had the right to agree to a marital partner.
As to intermarriage, she said that Muslim men could marry women from the “religions of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Women did not have the same rights except under certain circumstances where no Muslim men were available.
During her talk, she made note of the fact that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had this week announced that women could now serve in combat in the US armed forces. Billoo had mixed feelings about this since on the one hand, in Mohammed’s time, women had fought in combat, but on the other hand, she had negative feelings about recent US military action conducted, “not in our name”.
In the question and answer session, I was called on first. I referred to the theme of the week’s events, “(Meet the Muslim next door”), and stated that I had a Muslim family as neighbors a couple of doors down. I said that I was sure that if the FBI came knocking on their door asking for information, they would happily provide them with any information they had since, like most American Muslims, they didn’t want any more 9-11s or any other acts of terrorism. Yet, here was CAIR in San Francisco coming up with a flyer (which I drew from my pocket and showed her and the audience) in which CAIR was advising the Muslim community not to talk to the FBI. I added that in my view, this only increased the level of suspicion toward the Muslim community when the largest Muslim organization in America was advising the community not to talk to the FBI. In the second part of the question, I asked if she could tell us the punishment for adultery under (hudud) sharia law. (Hudud is the section which provides criminal penalties.)
Billoo replied that the flyer in question had been created decades ago and had been used by many activist organizations. She advised that CAIR (national) had not endorsed that the flyer since it “did not represent appropriate legal advice”. Yet, she added that the US Constitution insured that every citizen had the right to remain silent and have legal representation when questioned by law enforcement (see second segment).
As to the second question, Billoo said that the laws against adultery in Islam applied to both men and women, and an accusation of adultery required 4 eye-witnesses, which she added was, in practical terms, almost an impossibility. In the end, she stated that for both men and women, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning (see second segment).
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Part 2 

Part 3


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