The largest Muslim organization in North America has elected a Canadian-born professor as its first female president – a result the group says signals support for women as leaders throughout their community.

Ingrid Mattson, a convert to Islam from Catholicism and an Islamic law scholar at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, was elected to lead the Islamic Society of North America just ahead of its annual convention, which starts Friday in Rosemont, Ill.

Mattson, who grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and studied philosophy at the University of Waterloo in the 1980s, now lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children.

In a profile posted on the Hartford Seminary’s website, she describes how she became interested in Islam while travelling to British Columbia by train for a tree-planting job in the summer of 1987.

She later went to Pakistan to work at a refugee camp, helping women and children displaced by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

“Soon after I met my husband, he told me about a woman he greatly admired,” she wrote in another internet posting, on the Why Islam? website. “He spoke of her intelligence, her eloquence and her generosity. This woman, he told me, tutored her many children in traditional and modern learning. With warm approval, he spoke of her frequent arduous trips to refugee camps and orphanages to help relief efforts”¦

“When I finally met this woman I found that she was covered, head to toe, in traditional Islamic dress. I realized with some amazement that my husband had never seen her. He had never seen her face. Yet he knew her. He knew her by her actions, by the effects she left on other people.”

Umbrella group in existence since 1963

Formed in 1963, the Islamic Society of North America is an umbrella group that represents Muslim associations for youth, college students, engineers and others, and also provides support to Muslim chaplains and North American mosques. Its annual meeting regularly draws more than 30,000 people.

The president serves a two-year term, leading the society’s committees and executive boards that set policy through consultation with its members.

Mattson’s election represents “a wonderful message to the Muslim community that Muslim women, who are sometimes seen as less, can rise to these positions,” said Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society.

American Muslims have struggled over the proper role for women, debating most recently how far mosques should go in separating men and women during worship and whether women should lead mixed-gender prayer in mosques.

Still, women have had prominent roles outside of religious services, founding and leading some Islamic groups throughout North America.

The Islamic Society president is only rarely called upon to lead prayer, Syeed said. He added that Mattson will lead only ritual worship for women.

“That does not in any way limit her role as president,” Syeed said.


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