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Asmaa Albukaie, the first refugee from the Syrian civil war to land in Boise, Idaho, speaks during a panel discussion in Main Hall on the University of Montana campus Tuesday. The panel touched on religion, culture and women in different religious traditions.

Asmaa Albukaie wears a head scarf, and knows a lot of people in the U.S. call her a terrorist.

The association confuses Albukaie, a Muslim woman who loves Allah and peace and mercy.

"I am a woman with a scarf. I am not a woman with a gun," Albukaie said.

Albukaie, the first refugee from the Syrian civil war to land in Boise, Idaho, gave the keynote address for Celebrate Islam Week in Missoula and spoke Tuesday at a panel discussion about religion, culture and women in different religious traditions.

Panelists talked about the importance of education, various paths to leadership, and upending stereotypes and questionable political narratives.

Rev. Jennifer Yocum, senior pastor at the University Congregational Church, described herself as a "progressive evangelical lesbian Christian." Her commentary? "My dominant culture doesn't think that should exist."

As young as 4 years old, Yocum knew she was supposed to lead a church, but she was told women weren't allowed. So she opted to get a master's in public administration and figured she'd lead a nonprofit.

"Now I am. It's just that it's also a church and a 501(c)3," Yocum said.

She told the audience that women don't have to wait for institutions to create spaces for them to lead. "We just have to lead."

In her career, Yocum has introduced the idea that God doesn't require a pronoun, and people can consider God to be "gender-full rather than gender-less." She said she can show people flesh wounds from the choirs she's wrestled with as she removed gender-specific language from hymns.

"My exception is Christmas. I don't screw around with Christmas hymns," Yocum said.

Albukaie, with Agency for New Americans, said people often confuse the constraints of culture for religious strictures. For example, Saudi Arabia used to prohibit women from driving, she said, and some families place limitations on women's participation in community.

But Albukaie said Islam does not force women to stay home and raise children, and it's important for women to read religious writings for themselves to know the truth and represent Islam accurately. Some Americans misrepresent the religion, she said, as do religious extremists on the right in countries with Muslim majorities.

"Women need to really read and find out their rights because if they keep following the culture, they will never ever change, and they will give this culture to their daughters," Albukaie said.

Panelists also showed the way one religion can repel a person for being limiting, but the same faith can be liberating for another.

Yocum grew up Catholic and felt spiritually homeless after she came out as gay. She found her place with the United Church of Christ, outside the Catholic tradition.

Sister Mary Jo Quinn, however, said her experience in the Catholic church offered her freedom. She grew up in Butte with a "women's lib father" and Wobbly uncle with the union, and she said she was raised with as broad a perspective as one can get growing up in Butte.

"I knew early on there was nothing I couldn't do," Quinn said.

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Quinn, part of the Blessed Trinity Catholic Community, decided to enter religious life partly because of the models she saw — other women at the helm of important institutions. "They ran hospitals. They ran high schools.

"As a ... Catholic religious woman, I've had a lot of advantages. I've gotten to travel," Quinn said. 

She herself is a music director, and she's met people around the country in leadership positions in music. In Missoula, she's gotten involved more publicly in social issues, such as with Family Promise, an interfaith collaborative helping families who are without homes.

"For me, Catholicism and being a religious woman has been a very freeing experience, and sometimes, I wonder how I would have been or who I would have been if I did not go on this path," Quinn said.

Kelcie Murphy, coordinator for SALAM — Standing Alongside America's Muslims — attends Har Shalom, and she said she ironically didn't start studying Judaism until she studied Arabic. She's also studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she said a lot of reformed Jews are in favor of coming up with a solution.

Murphy said a lot of confusion comes from a misguided belief religions are clashing when in reality, culture and politics are in conflict. In fact, she said there's a lot of coexistence in the Middle East, despite rhetoric to the contrary from those in power.

"A lot of this rhetoric about religion being this evil is coming from higher ups in politics, especially in Israel, to shine away from what is actually going on," Murphy said.

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