Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition

Media Coverage

CONGRATULATORY MESSAGES FROM ELECTED OFFICIALS IN WISCONSIN FOR MMWC 10TH ANNIVERSARY

On its 10th Anniversary, the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition received praise for its accomplishments from public leaders and community members, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Some spoke at Saturday’s gala; others sent congratulations that are included below. And some did both.

Governor Tony Evers

“Our diversity makes us stronger. The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition has been doing great work promoting understanding, empowering women, and advocating for justice and equity throughout Milwaukee and our state. MMWC is helping build a state that is stronger and a more inclusive place for all Wisconsinites to thrive. I congratulate them on their anniversary, thank them for all their good work, and wish them many more successful years ahead.”

Governor Tony Evers

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes

“I have known about the good work of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition since long before I was in elected office, and I have seen firsthand their efforts to fight for social justice and civil rights for all people through advocacy, dialogue, education, and outreach. They are truly an essential organization, not just for the Milwaukee community, but for the entire state, and I’m so proud to be a part of their 10th anniversary celebration.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes

U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore

“The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition is an organization that’s committed to uplifting communities through education, honest and open conversations, and advocacy that aims to actualize justice and fairness. I am so thankful for their passionate engagement in Milwaukee.”

U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

“Congratulations to the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition on its 10th anniversary. MMWC is a true community partner that has built an impressive offering of original projects and programming to serve, educate and transform our community. Our city benefits from the diversity, vision and leadership of the Coalition’s outstanding members.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

Dr. Russell Brooker, Professor of Political Science, Alverno College

“The MMWC, especially Janan Najeeb, has been very kind to me over the years.  Each year Janan speaks to one class. The class is on Race and Ethnicity in America. I include a unit in the course on Muslim American Women on Campus each spring. I take the class to the Islamic Resource Center where Janan introduces them to Islam. I ask only that she tell them what she thinks they should know.

“She has always been very gracious to me and her talk has always helped the students and me. Except for some Muslim students, the students know very little about Islam and have been subjected to a steady stream of lies for the last four years.

“I realize that Islam is not a race or ethnicity, but I think Muslims are treated as such by most of American society. That is why I include them in the course.”

Dr. Russell Brooker, Professor of Political Science, Alverno College

Sheikh Ziad Hamdan, Islamic Society of Milwaukee Imam

“The MMWC is a role model Muslim organization we are all proud of. For almost three decades, they have grown and demonstrated their importance with all of the great projects, programs and services to the Milwaukee community. There is much to learn from them and I hope their success continues.” 

Sheikh Ziad Hamdan, Islamic Society of Milwaukee Imam

Will Perry, President of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance

“For over 25 years, the MMWC has championed Islamic values by educating, enlightening and encouraging the minds of women. It is with this sound mission, women globally have benefited. It is through their efforts women, families and communities have become stronger.”

Will Perry, President of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance

Kristin Hansen, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance

“I had the honor of working with the board of the MMWC this year to help create their strategic plan for the next five years, and one of the things I did was interview people about the organization. Without exception, they praised the MMWC as an essential community leader, providing a wide array of services that can be found nowhere else. The library, children’s activities, networking brunches, WMJ, Film Festival, and now Our Peaceful Home…where would the community be without these programs? The Speakers Bureau alone provides an essential service to spread the truth about women in Islam. The MMWC has earned its place among the top organizations serving the Muslim community and beyond.” 

Kristin Hansen, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance

Tom Heinen, Executive Director Emeritus, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee

In my roles as the religion reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and later as executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, I have seen and experienced first-hand how Janan Najeeb and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition have built extraordinary bridges of interfaith understanding in Southeastern Wisconsin. Through their own programs and at other times in collaboration with the Interfaith Conference, they have been and continue to be a local, regional, and national model in countering stereotypes, educating and engaging the public, and nurturing attitude-changing relationships.

Tom Heinen, Executive Director Emeritus, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee 

Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition: Showing the world who Muslim women really are for more than 25 years.

Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition held its 10th Anniversary Gala Saturday but is celebrating more than a quarter century of service. From its beginning in 1994 as a women’s circle, MMWC has been educating the Greater Milwaukee community and beyond about who Muslims, especially Muslim women, really are.

The MMWC started with a group of young women getting together for a Sunday circle. Some were newly married; others had young children; most had professional degrees, including a doctor, a nurse, an accountant and a microbiologist. They gathered at each other’s homes and discussed important issues of the day.

“In every discussion, we came back to the same idea – that the image of Muslim women is very problematic, very negative and uninformed. Muslim women were seen as oppressed,” said MMWC founder and president Janan Najeeb. “We thought we really need to do something about this.”

The active group of early MMWC members included Najeeb, Comilita Salah, Naheed Bleecker, Inshirah Farhoud, Dr. Sahar Kayata Katib, Naheed Arshad and others. Their commitment to showing the true face of Islam and finding ways to serve not only Muslims but the larger community helped Milwaukee’s Muslims become an integral part of  Greater Milwaukee, Najeeb said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations started around the same time as the MMWC. CAIR’s founder, Nihad Awad, used to travel around the country, sharing the success of the MMWC in convincing The Milwaukee Journal to change the name of its church directory to “Directory of Worship” and include mosques. He said it was an example of what dedicated grassroots organizations can do, Najeeb recalled.

Launching the MMWC Speakers Bureau

“I’m most proud of the impact we have had in portraying who we really are and not what people have made us out to be,” Najeeb said “From the beginning, the core of our work has always been our Speakers Bureau. Everything thing we have done has helped people know who the Muslim community really is.

“The greatest pride and joy of the organization – if I had to pick one – is the impact we have had of the image of Muslims and Islam, not only in Greater Milwaukee, but across Wisconsin but to some extent across the world.”

In the mid-1990s, MMWC began an outreach effort. They decided on a list of topics they felt comfortable discussing. Then they began sending letters to women’s clubs, high schools and other groups “to let them know we would be glad to come in and speak if they would like to know more about the Muslim community here, about Muslim beliefs and practices, and about women in Islam.

”We got a handful of requests from women’s groups and high school social studies teachers. Pretty soon, we were very busy. People who heard us were also part of other organizations. They started inviting us to speak to their adult education groups at their churches; some even invited us to visit neighborhood book clubs.”

The MMWC spoke at universities to civic groups to Interfaith organizations and, in 2016, Najeeb was invited to open the Wisconsin State Assembly with a prayer.

Najeeb alone has given more than 2,000 presentations since the MMWC Speakers Bureau began, according to MMWC records. “I think we were unusual to some people. They had never met Muslim women; it was something that interested them,” she said.

A decade of Catholic-Muslim Women’s Dialogues

The many presentations of the Speakers Bureau led to other projects. A year or two after the bureau launched, Judith Longdin, the director of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Concerns, sought out the MMWC as a partner in creating a Catholic and Muslim women’s dialogue.

“It was an amazing experience that went on for decades,” Najeeb said. “We probably visited every Catholic parish in Milwaukee. For many Catholics, we were probably the first Muslims they ever met.”

The Catholic-Muslim Healthcare Initiative

One thing leads to another. By the early 2000s, the MMWC and their Catholic collaborators decided to help uninsured or underinsured people in Milwaukee address their healthcare needs. Parish nurses and Muslim doctors worked together to open a free, mobile healthcare clinic, one of the first of its kind.

“We visited different parishes and set up shop,” Najeeb said. “The nurses would triage to decide if patients needed to see a specialist or a general practitioner. We had 20 Muslim physicians who participated and provided their services for free. The service was advertised through community newspapers.

“We made little insurance cards with our name on it – The Catholic-Muslim Healthcare Initiative. They would take it to the doctors and would be seen for free. It wasn’t embarrassing to them because they had an insurance card like everybody else.”

Training immigrant women to be medical assistants

Another successful service project was the MMWC’s Medical Assistant Training Program. Funded through a grant, the six-month program aimed to help women who were immigrants and had English as a second language. Some had medical degrees from their countries but had no opportunities here. We helped them find a place to start from which they could move forward, Najeeb said.

The MMWC hired instructors from Bryant & Stratton College and, over the course of several years, “we had 40-50 individuals who were able to get into full-time jobs and were able to get insurance for their families. Many of them went on from there to go to other levels, as physician assistants or X-ray technicians.”

Opening the Islamic Resource Center

By the time the MMWC incorporated in 2010, it was already a well-known organization in the community. That same year, it built an office that also serves as a resource and cultural center for the Greater Milwaukee Community.

The IRC, at 5235 S. 27th St., Greenfield, hosts university classes and community groups for educational programs, films, poetry slams and discussion groups. It also offers a lending library with books about Islam for all ages.

“We have more non-Muslims than Muslims coming to the center,” Najeeb said.

Since then, the MMWC has accomplished many other projects, many of them on-going. They include the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival, Our Peaceful Home, a culturally specific domestic violence program, and the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, which is published twice weekly.

It also launched activities and programs that have been adopted by other organizations, such as the annual Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan. In 1995, the MMWC created the first Eid celebration for the Milwaukee community that was held outside the mosque. They aimed to make a fun, memorable event for families. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee has taken the reins and the Eid celebration has become an annual event.

Going forward

“We are constantly reinventing ourselves,” said Najeeb. “If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you are not improving as an organization and you lose effectiveness.”

Going forward, “we realize there is a tremendous need to focus on youth in the Muslim community. Many of them have done really well in certain areas – their classes and in their secular lives. But there is definitely a disconnect between the generations. There is also a disconnect between immigrant parents and children who are born and raised here, and consider themselves very American.”

Another future focus of MMWC will be finding new ways to help the many refugees in the Milwaukee area, she said. “The trauma many of them are carrying with them is untreated. This is affecting their family life, their children, their ability to succeed.  Of course, this is not across the board; there are many who are very successful. What we are trying to do is help people reach the highest potential they can.”

MUSLIM COMMUNITY SUPPORTS INTERFAITH GET-OUT-THE-VOTE RALLY

A large canopy tent stood Monday afternoon in a lot adjacent to Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1905 W. Wisconsin Ave. Under it stood rows of metal chairs, carefully spaced six-feet apart in every direction. A forest of red, white, and blue yard signs lined the street urging passersby, VOTE!

The scene was set for the Interfaith Candlelight Rally Kick Off for Early Voting. On the eve of Wisconsin’s two weeks of early voting (Oct. 20 – Nov. 1), a diverse group of religious and cultural organizations brought together faith leaders to “light up Milwaukee” and inspire their communities to vote.

The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance lent their support to the effort as sponsors of the event.

Other sponsors included MICAH (Milwaukee Intercity Congregations Allied for Hope), Souls to the Polls, League of Progressive Seniors, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Congregation Shir Hadash, Hmong American Women’s Association, MASH, Milwaukee Area Labor Council, Progressive Baptist Church, SEIU, Tikkun Ha-lr and Urban Underground.

Redeemer Lutheran Church served as host. “Redeemer is a great location and we like to host. We pride ourselves on our hospitality,” said Pastor Lisa Bates-Froiland in an interview after the event. “To remind people to vote the day before early voting starts is so close to our mission. As citizens, we are called on to live out our responsibilities as we can.”

By 5:30 p.m., when the rally started in earnest, amid a chill in the air and light snow, more than 150 people of multiple creeds and cultures joined together to share music and speeches, and to raise candles in celebration of the right to vote.

Muslims value the right to vote

Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition President Janan Najeeb spoke about why it is particularly important for Muslims to vote in the 2020 election.

“As a Muslim American, I already voted because the values of our country are at risk.  On January 27, 2017, the first thing this administration did in office was to launch an attack against Muslims and refugees by instituting the Muslim Ban, closing our nation to a multitude of Muslim countries and refugees fleeing war zones and genocides. They were denied simply because of their faith,” she said.   

Janan Najeeb, President of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition

“I already voted because my children deserve to feel proud and deserve to be safe.  They should not hear their faith being maligned by their government leaders.”

She also said she voted because she is concerned about the future of the Affordable Care Act and access to healthcare for millions of people, climate change, management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rights of American citizens to vote who are endanger of being disenfranchised.

“I want a leader that does not coddle dictators, oppressors, occupiers and arrogant supremacists,” she said to applause from the crowd. “I want a leader that upholds human rights and justice and holds one standard for the world.

“I already voted because I believe our country is enriched by it’s diversity, and I believe the only two Muslim Congresswomen in office deserve to have a voice and be safe, not threatened because they are Muslim.”

In a statement about the importance of the vigil, Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance President Will Perry said that for Muslims, voting is “worship in actionOur engagement in the political process brings value.

“As Muslims, Islam instructs us to do what is good, to be good neighbors, and to be of good character. When Muslims stick to our values and use them as a tool when making decisions, the outcome is ultimately good.”

The most diverse voter turnout in American history

Interfaith Executive Director Pardeep Kaleka shared a personal story about his parents immigrating to America from a small, rural village in India to go on to learn English, pass a test on the civil process and earn citizenship. “They instilled in me this promise of engaging in the civic process and voting, and making a better life for themselves.”

Kaleka noted that this election year is unique in Milwaukee. “This year, 2020, you will see thousands of Sikh families being able to vote in Wisconsin. This year you will see the largest number of Hispanic voters, Arab American voters, Asian American voters, Muslim Americans, Black Americans. In short, 2020 will represent the most diverse voter turnout in American history.

Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance representative, Ameena Yusuf.

Interfaith Executive Director, Pardeep Kaleka.

“While this fills me with joy and hope, it is not without its own particular challenges. Our country is having an existential crisis – whether to be exclusive or to be inclusive, opened or closed, united or divided. Is it for the rich or is it for the poor? Is it for the few or is it for the masses? Is this country a truly representative democracy?”

Building power with the vote

The Early Vote Candle Vigil developed as the interfaith community rallied to support an effort launched by Souls to the Polls, an organization that unites ministers and their congregations in Milwaukee’s central city to strengthen the voting power of the Black community.

Souls to the Polls was established in 2013 and has a leadership team of central city ministers committed to building an army of 100,000 voters. It views a strong voting bloc as the key factor in pressing state and local leaders to address the major issues facing African American families, including education, clean water, economic development, gun violence and governmental transparency, according to its website.

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WISCONSIN FAITH LEADERS HOLD PRESS CONFERENCE ON COVID SAFETY PLEDGE

More than 200 Wisconsin religious leaders from many different houses of worship, including mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches, have signed the Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge, committing to do all in their power “to keep our congregations and communities healthy and safe in the midst of this pandemic.” The pledge asserts that, though the faith leaders are of “varying practices and theologies, all our traditions hold life as sacred and believe the imperative to protect and preserve life outweighs all other considerations.”

On Thursday, October 15, the organizers held a press conference with Madison and Milwaukee faith leaders to announce their continuing commitment to limiting public gatherings, despite the importance of such gatherings to religious practice. Governor Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Health’s October 6 directive stated that all public gatherings be limited to “no more than 25 percent of a room or building’s total occupancy.” However, houses of worship were exempted from the order.

The faith leaders went further than the governor’s directive by pledging to “steward the health of all by prioritizing remote worship and other activities until this crisis has passed.”

Last Thursday, on the same day as the faith leaders’ press conference, Sawyer County Judge John Yackel issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the governor’s statewide order, after the Tavern League of Wisconsin filed suit. A hearing was held on Monday, October 19th to decide the issue.

Evers had issued the October 6 order because Wisconsin is a now a covid hot spot, seeing a daily increase in coronavirus cases. Nearly 1,600 people in Wisconsin have died from covid-19.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and one of the organizers of the pledge and press conference, said faith leaders had been meeting regularly by phone with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes since March, when the rapid rise in covid cases resulted in a statewide lockdown. Rabbi Margulis said the group had been “sharing our deep concerns as faith leaders about the alarming rise of covid cases” in the State.

Most congregations, said Rabbi Margulis, were already meeting virtually or in small groups. But given the continuing rise in cases, the faith leaders decided further action was necessary and created the pledge, which can be found online at Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge.

Rabbi Margulis said that more than 220 leaders of faith groups have already signed the pledge, “Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan – everybody.”

At last Thursday’s press conference, Janan Najeeb, president of Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and director of the Islamic Resource Center, and Dr. Mushir Hassan, vice president of Medical Affairs at Ascension Elmbrook Memorial Hospital, were among the speakers.

“It’s sad that we have to be here today to affirm the sanctity of life,” said Mrs. Najeeb. “I really doubt that there is a faith on earth that does not place the sanctity of life above all other concerns.”

Mrs. Najeeb said that “this pandemic has touched every country on Earth, whether rich or poor, and every corner in every city,” and that this “should be cause for us to come together and unite in our common humanity.”

She commented on the eagerness of some to return to “normal life” by saying, “We can always make up for missed social events and gatherings. Businesses and livelihoods can be rebuilt. . . Even a school year can be repeated. But you can never replace your child or your parent. Nor can you replace someone else’s child or their parent.”

After affirming that “social distancing, wearing masks, and staying home unless it’s necessary to leave is not a matter of personal choice, it’s an ethical duty,” Mrs. Najeeb said, “As people of faith, we know our personal desires take second place to the welfare of humanity. We know that entitlement and arrogance are not attributes of the faithful. The vulnerable have an ethical claim on all of us to promote their well-being. We trust in God, yes. But God demands reason and common sense.”

Finally, Mrs. Najeeb announced, “The Muslim community joins the pledge to do everything in our power to keep ourselves, our families, neighbors, our fellow citizens, and even those we do not know, safe. This is a shared fight, and we will emerge as a more resilient society.”

Dr. Hassan, as the only medical expert at the press conference, emphasized the practical, scientifically validated steps to combating the pandemic on the part of individual citizens. “We know the pathway forward to stay safe,” he said. “The pathway forward is to be careful about masking, careful about social distancing, careful about handwashing and really limiting our indoor contacts when at all possible.”

Dr. Hassan was instrumental in helping Wisconsin mosques “frame . . . our re-opening policy,” prioritizing “the safety of our communities . . . while still being sensitive to the data that we have about how disease spread is doing in our state.”

Dr.Mushir Hassan

All of the faith leaders present emphasized the importance of community in forming their decisions.

Rev. Sonja Ingebritsen, a pastor at Community of Hope, UCC in Madison, emphasized that “religious liberty is not threatened by health mandates” that seek to limit indoor gatherings and promote the wearing of masks and socially distancing.

“In fact,” she said, “many of our faith communities have found this to be a time of deepening spiritually.”

However, Rev. Ingebritsen said, “I won’t pretend these measures have been easy. But we understand that they are necessary. We faith leaders are here this morning because our calling is to care for our neighbor.”

While some people continue to say they are untouched by the pandemic, Rev. Willie Brisco, president of WISDOM, said, “I have suffered personally because of this pandemic. I have watched an aunt die over the phone. I have seen ten personal friends perish where I couldn’t attend their funerals. . . I couldn’t be near their side. I couldn’t even be near their families.”

In Wisconsin, Rev. Briscoe said, “We’re choosing party over praise, finances over life . . . going against our moral fabric as human beings. We have become a society by taking care of the least of those in our care. But somehow, they have become disposable.”

However, Rev. Brisco said, “There is no constitutional right for you to die and me to live. The national plan is for everybody to decide for themselves what’s best for them. Well, that’s not the way God planned it.”

Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a network she said connects 2,000 churches from 20 different Christian traditions, is another organizer of the Faith Leaders Covid Safety Pledge. “Clergy began to go digital in mid-March to protect their congregants,” she said. “Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams want to do right by their communities, to keep people safe, to serve well. We’re faithful people, seeking the counsel of science as well as our higher power.”

The Muslim Women’s Coalition Builds Bridges of Understanding

Janan Najeeb is one of the founders of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and currently serves as the president of the organization.

The Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition (MMWC) sits on the South Side of Milwaukee, run by a group of influential Muslim women who have worked to educate people about Muslim culture for the past 25 years. The idea for the organization started to take shape when the group would meet regularly to discuss the prejudice and disparaging comments they were experiencing at work. Upset about the remarks made about their hijabs and customs, the women decided that teaching others about their culture was the solution.

“The vast majority of people are not racist by nature, but their racism is manifested as a result of fear of the unknown,” says president and founding member Janan Najeeb. “If we can work to help them understand and to help them address those fears by creating opportunities to engage with them, then I think we will do a tremendous job of dismantling a lot of these hatreds that are out there.”

Najeeb and the group began hosting discussions and recommending readings about the Muslim religion to non-Muslim groups. But they soon realized how few accurate books were available in the Milwaukee area. They couldn’t blame people for knowing so little about their culture when most of the books they could find about Muslim culture were inaccurate and written by non-Muslims.

So, the group of women began collecting books with the right messages that they could lend out. Then, in 2009, when the group became an official 501c3 organization, they acquired their current space on the South Side and built a library. The library is now filled with thousands of books “that accurately represent who we are,” says Najeeb. The shelves are also filled with children’s books that have characters and stories that Muslim children can identify with. These books are not often found in our public libraries and schools. As Najeeb explains, it’s important for kids to see names of characters they recognize and holidays they know. “There’s a sense that they matter, that their story matters and that they are recognized. That is important when you are a minority.”

Reach Out and Connect

The MMWC makes a point to reach and connect with people through multiple mediums, and the library is only one part of their extensive programming. They host book clubs, give lectures, offer job training for women, and they even started the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival. This year, most of their events are online because of the pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed them down.

The organization still plans to host the film festival this year in collaboration with the Milwaukee Film Festival by giving people the chance to watch the film American Muslim online. The film follows a number of Muslim individuals that were affected by the executive order that Trump signed in 2017 banning predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The film and the other events that MMWC create all come back to their core mission of building bridges of understanding between the Muslim community and the greater Milwaukee community. As Najeeb explains, “If you create opportunities to really get to know people, to have a discussion, it’s really difficult to hate them.” The division in our country can start to wane if we take the time to understand the cultures we know little about and get to know people outside of our circles.

Learn more about MMWC’s work at mmwconline.org.