Toledo mosque Masjid Saad has elected a female president, the first woman to hold the leadership position at the 30-year-old mosque.
Salmenna Sediqe, a businesswoman and mother of five, was elected last month and will serve a one-year term as president of the mosque on Alexis Road in Sylvania. The administrative position is separate from the mosque's religious leadership.
Mrs. Sediqe said Monday hers was not a landmark election for Muslims, but she hopes it will change some negative stereotypes among non-Muslims.
"For local Muslims, there is no doubt in the minds of the mass majority that they are supportive of a female in a leadership position. For non-Muslims, this will help them break down misperceptions they have about
Islam," she said.
It is the second time a woman has been elected president of a Toledo-area mosque. In 2001, when the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg Township elected Cherrefe Kadri as president, it was believed to be the first time a U.S. mosque elected a woman to that position.
Mrs. Sediqe said Islam has a long history of treating women equally and with respect, beginning with the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam 1,400 years ago.
There have been some misinterpretations of the Prophet's teachings and the Qur'an, including in her native Afghanistan, she said.
Women at times have been denied equality, but that is a distortion of Islam, she asserted.
"It will be a challenge to break the myths that are reinforced in the public's minds through images and discussions of right-wing groups such as the Taliban," Mrs. Sediqe said.
Wearing a lavender hijab, Mrs. Sediqe said she had wanted to wear the head scarf as a child in Kabul but it was not common in that cosmopolitan city when she was growing up in the 1970s.
The daughter of a physician and an educator, Mrs. Sediqe, 42, said she began wearing a hijab after immigrating to the United States and settling in Sylvania Township in 1990.
She had fled Afghanistan after clashing with the Communist leadership after the Soviet invasion, and sneaked out of the country by disguising herself in a full-body burka.
A number of Muslims said they are thrilled to have Mrs. Sediqe as president of Masjid Saad, which has about 200 member families.
"She is some kind of bulldozer. She will get the job done," said Dr. Azedine Medhkour, a neurosurgeon and member of Masjid Saad. "She's got a plan and a lot of enthusiasm, and Toledo will gain. It will be good for the community."
Ms. Kadri said Mrs. Sediqe's gender "should be a nonissue. As long as she was the best qualified person, that's all that should matter. People should be judged by their merits and abilities."
Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "We're very pleased, of course, and I think it's important that competent women are advanced in our community. But I don't think it's an anomaly.
"There have been four women presidents or prime ministers of Muslim-majority nations, and we have yet to have a woman president in the United States."
Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan, a member of both the Masjid Saad and the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, said Mrs. Sediqe "has the respect of the community as a very hard-working and pious lady. People who voted for her saw that in her. It was not a gender issue."
Mrs. Sediqe said her biggest challenge will be budgeting her time. She and her husband own a used auto dealership in addition to being the parents of five children.
The most pressing challenge for Muslim Americans, however, is to overcome negative portrayals in the media, she says.
"If you walk into a book store and go to the 'Islam' section, 75 to 90 percent of the material is negative. You do not find this with other faith sections in the book store," she said.
She says it is critical that Muslim Americans become more engaged in the community.
"Islam is about balance; it's not healthy to shelter our children from other faith groups and our community," she said. "I truly believe the way we interact and have interfaith dialogue in Toledo can be an example for the rest of the world."
Contact David Yonke at: