By Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Globe and Mail, Toronto
In a modest industrial park near Lester B. Person International Airport in Mississauga, 150 women varying white head scarves and long, black Saudi style coats called abayas sit in a medium-sized classroom listening attentively to their teacher.
This morning's lecture includes a perspective on the recent earthquake in Pakistan. "We must understand why such calamities take place," says Dr. Farhat Hashmi, addressing the room in Urdu. "The people in the are where the earthquake hit were involved in immoral activities, and God has said that he will punish those who do not follow his path." He students nod and murmur in agreement.
The classroom walls are pinned with interpretations of passages from the Quran, giving instruction on how Muslims should live their lives-guidance on when to smile, cry, tell the truth, when to be angry. Outside the front door, a sign reads, "no men allowed without prior permission."
Since April, 2005, women from across Toronto and as far way as Australia have come here to the Al Huda Islamic Centre of Canada to take a 20-month course called Taleem-ul-Quran; the "education of the Quran." Its teacher, and the school's founder, Dr. Hashmi, says she has come from Pakistan to enlighten young Muslim women about their religion.
Her critics in the city's South Asian community say she is encouraging women to cover up, stay at home and accept outdated gender roles.
The school is the latest extension of Al-Huda International which Dr. Hashmi founded in Pakistan in 1994 after graduating with a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Glasgow. Through her teachings, she has since become a well-known Islamic scholar, specially among middle and upper-middle-class women in Pakistan.
The school now counts more than 10,000 graduates and she has offered lectures to women in Dubai and London.
She has moved to Toronto with her husband and family, she says, in response to demand for young women in the city to gain a deeper understanding of Islam. For a nominal fee of $60 a month, students attend classes four days a week for five hours a day. During a typical class, students p=recite prayers from the Quran, then follow up with a long session reading the Urdu translation of the Holy Book with Dr. Hashmi.
In order to obtain the non-certified diploma, students are expected to learn how to translate the 30 books of the Quran. Her lessons are also available on CD.
"My Canadian friends invited me here because they feel that there is an need to educate young Muslim girls in this society," explains Dr. Hashmi in an interview conducted in Urdu. "They come to me for answers," she says. "I teach them the Quran, and they leave with a sense of peace."
The young women who have come to the Al-Huda Islamic Centre seem to agree. They say their experience learning with Dr. Hashmi has transformed them.
Sada Mohsin, 17, says she wore jeans and t-shirts and often stayed out partying with friends in her senior year of high school in New York. "I was like an average high school student," she says. "I would go with the flow, listen to music, have both guy and girl friends."
When her father suggested that she move to Canada to go to the Al-Huda Islamic Centre, she initially resisted. "I knew that my parents were angry at me for pushing them away. They felt that I was becoming too American in my ways," she says.
But over the past few months, Ms. Mohsin has enjoyed the classes so much that he has stayed out of choice. "I'm giving up my old American friends and making new ones here in class. My whole life is changing," she says. "I've started wearing the abaya, and its this new environment and these new friends that have helped me do that."
Dressed in a denim jacket, white pants and a head scarf, Ayesha Awan, 20, makes her way to class every morning. She has cut her studies at York University to part-time to attend Al-Huda's 20-month course. "I wasn't religious when I started her class. I didn't cover my head before, but now I do," she says.
Her perspective on the role of women has also changed. "I agree with Dr. Hashmi that women should stay at home and look after their families," she says.
Ms. Awan was so impressed with Dr. Hashmi's sermons that she convinced 10 friends to enrol in the course. She believes that people who don't agree with Dr. Hashmi's message change their mind after they attend her classes.
"It takes time to get used to everything, because we are not sued to segregation and covering up," Ms. Awan explains. "But there are a lot of people in Canada who practise it, so it is possible to do so."
But Tarek Fatah, the communications director of the Muslim Canadian Congress is highly critical of Dr. Hashmi's teachings. "Her concept is a grave threat not only to Canadian values, but also to Canadian Muslims. She is segregating society and encouraging the ghettoization=of the South Asian Muslim community and making it very difficult for them to integrate into mainstream society," Mr. Fatah argues. "She is completely brainwashing these educated, middle-class women top stay at home."
His concerns are echoed by Ms. Kausar Khan, 37. "It has taken (Muslim women) so long to come out of our homes," the Brampton business owner says. "We have had to fight for an education and the right to work and Dr. Hashmi's message is negating all that."
"She is encouraging our women to stay home and be submissive to their husbands, and that settle well with the rest of us."
The reason that Dr. Hashmi's students are embracing her interpretation of the Quran, Ms. Khan argues is that most of them are not well versed in Islam and cannot question her authority. "These young women are naive," she says.
Dr. Hashmi, who considers herself an Islamic feminist, disagrees. "I don't force anyone to do anything. They don't have to listen to me if they don't want to."
Furthermore, she says that she is only helping her students better understand Islam. "People accuse me of preaching my views, they are confused," Dr. Hashmi says. "I refrain from using my personal opinion in my lesson. I just translate the word of God. So people don't have a problem with me, because my message is from the Quran, they have a problem with God."
She applies this explanation in response to the interpretation some put on her teachings that she preaches polygamy-a common accusation her critics direct at her. Dr. Hashmi denies the claim, but notes, "Islam gives women rights, so that a man cannot take advantage of her. If a man has relations with a woman outside of marriage, the Quran orders him to marry her."
Her student Sadaf Mahmood, 18, agrees with this logic, arguing that Western society accords less respect to women, allowing men to have affairs without taking any responsibility. "There are more women than men in this world," Ms. Mahmood adds. "Who will take care of these women? It is better for a man to do things legally by taking a second wife, rather than having an affair."
On the issue of women working, she again point to the Quran, asserting that women must recognise their own abilities and circumstances when entering the work force. "Women that should understand the limits set by Islam," she says. "Whichever field fulfills both the requirement of the individual and Islam, that would be the appropriate career."
But Canadian Muslims point to the Prophet Muhammad, the messenger of Islam from God, whose own wife was a business woman and renowned for her skills.
Muslim Canadians such as Kausar Khan are most alarmed at the possibility that the next generation of South Asian girls are embarking Dr. Hashmi's teachings. "We live in a secular society, where there is separation of religion and state. Then why is this woman being allowed to bring her extremist views to our country? She poses a danger to us and our Canadian way of life."
Dr. Hashmi insists her message will not confuse these young girls who are a product of western world; "Islam is for all times. Why does the environment here have to change the young girls, why can't they change the environment?"
Students such as 18-year old Madiha Khokar see the change. "I was a feminist...But after taking her classes, I don't think that way. I think that women have a place in society, and their rights are accorded to them by God in the Quran."