A new woman leader for North America's Muslims

Ingrid Mattson aims to address women's rights, "Muslim fatigue."

Published September 20, 2006 2:25PM (EDT)

From today's New York Times: For the first time ever, a woman (and North American native) has been elected president of the Islamic Society of North America, described as the largest umbrella organization for Muslim groups in the United States and Canada. Ontario-born Ingrid Mattson, 43, a convert to Islam and professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary, had served as vice president of the group for the past five years, so, the Times reports, "her election was both anticipated and unopposed."

But that doesn't mean it was not heralded as a "breakthrough," the Times adds, "a chance for North American Muslims to show that they are a diverse, enlightened community with real roots here -- and not alien, sexist extremists bent on the destruction of Western civilization. Some naysayers grumble that a woman should not head any Muslim organization because the faith bars women from leading men in congregational prayers, but they are a distinct minority."

Mattson is known for her commitment to social justice. Among the goals of her tenure: supporting Muslim women's rights and addressing what she calls "Muslim fatigue" among Americans "weary both of the extremists who use the religion to justify their attacks and of the moderates who seem powerless to influence them" (Times paraphrase).

Mattson herself, whose predecessor cut an older-school -- and native Sudanese -- image, says there are both pros and cons to the hubbub around her election. "Somehow there is the feeling that someone who is white is safer and less scary," she told the Times. "But I am who I am. So if there is some social capital that I can use to counteract some of the negative perception and open ears to what we have to say as a community, then that is a benefit."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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