The Common Good
May-June 2001

Who Is That Veiled Woman?

by Pat McDonnell Twair | May-June 2001

There are now more Muslims in the United States then Presbyterians—and (surprise!) half of them are women.

When California-born Laila al-Marayati was in her early 20s, she wore hijab, the head-covering worn by many observant Muslim women. "It was a rude awakening to learn that if you dress differently, you're treated differently," she said. "I now know I didn't get as many interviews as I should have for medical school because of the scarf."

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After completing her residency at U.C. Irvine, she was told that certain faculty members were against her acceptance (though one professor later admitted that she turned out to be one of the best residents). "I decided then to avoid the discomfort of the attention the scarf attracted," said Dr. al-Marayati.

But this was not an avoidance of what many might see as conflicting identities—professional woman, American, Muslim. "I don't view myself through separate identities," al-Marayati said. "The yardstick I measure by is my faith; everything else falls into place. My identity is an American Palestinian who is a Muslim."

TO MANY WESTERNERS, Muslim women have been unknown others, nearly invisible, reduced to fleeting and stereotypical images: Scantily clad maidens in secluded harems or women shrouded in black, crudely referred to by Western journalists during the Gulf war as BMOs (black moving objects).

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. Within it are Muslim women who are gaining public prominence, such as Dr. al-Marayati—who, along with her medical practice, is the only Muslim on the nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Who are they? What challenges do they face being Muslim in "Judeo-Christian" America?

Many Muslim women are quick to point out that Islam is an Abrahamic faith. Other than the Muslim practices of praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and observing certain holidays, Islam and Christianity have much in common, they say.

"We believe in Abraham, Moses, and Jesus," commented Hanaa al-Wardi, founder of the Museum of Contemporary Arab Art in Alhambra, California. "A major difference is that we do not believe that Jesus is God, nor the biological son of God, but 80 percent of our beliefs are the same." Muslims revere Jesus as one of the prophets, but believe that Muhammad is the last prophet to speak the word of God, whose name in Arabic is Allah. Out of the 114 chapters of the Quran, Jesus is mentioned 59 times in 13 chapters (whereas Muhammad's name appears only four times). Mary, mother of Jesus, is mentioned 12 times, and Chapter 19 of the Quran bears her name, Miriam.

THE MUSLIM PRACTICE of abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset during the lunar month of Ramadan is a ritual most Americans would find daunting. According to the Prophet Muhammad, this was to make the faithful aware of the hunger the poor must endure all year long. Pregnant women and children under age 12 are not expected to fast, but everyone is obliged to give money to the poor at this time.

The month of Ramadan is a time to focus on family togetherness. Families gather to share special meals that are prepared for breaking the fast at sundown each day. Semeen Issa was born in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where two generations of her Muslim Indian family have lived. She immigrated with her parents to the United States in 1970. She observes traditions of Indian culture for the Ramadan meals. "I serve mostly Indian food to my family," Issa said. "But other than that and punctuating the day with prayers, I consider myself American."

For many Muslim women who are immigrants, faith serves as a guiding element in negotiating drastically different cultures. Necva Ozgur, principal of New Horizon School in Pasadena, weighed the pros and cons of her life in Turkey, where she grew up, and the United States, where she has lived since 1972. "I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to both cultures," she noted. "My children recall the close ties of our extended family in Istanbul—we had no TV, we shared every emotion. In the United States individuality is respected, I enjoy my privacy and solitude, the freedom of the press, and political expression."

Psychologist Ilham al-Sarraf concurs. "Islam defines my character—how I conduct myself and deal with my daily activities at work and at home," she said. "Since I was born in Iraq, I follow the ‘we culture' instead of the ‘I culture' of the West. My family and friends are the most important element in my life; hospitality and caring about others comes first; the family's hierarchy is central to my decision making."

HOWEVER, IT WAS the negatives of U.S. life such as violence, disrespect for others, the pop culture of drugs, and childbirth out of wedlock that spurred the Islamic community in greater Los Angeles to start the New Horizon School, where the emphasis is to grow up American with Islamic ethics. The school began with 20 preschoolers in 1984 and has expanded to 250 students from kindergarten through middle school. It has earned a reputation for turning out graduates who earn straight As when they get to high school. All of its graduates have gone on to universities.

Dr. Halima Shaikley, who co-founded the City of Knowledge campus in Pomona, California, had similar motivations. "We have no fear of drugs, gangs, or pregnancies [at the school]," said Shaikley, the school's administrator. "We teach the same curricula as public schools, except we have higher academic expectations and there is one period of religious ethics and one period of Arabic."

Shaikley, an Iraqi Kurd, explained why education is so important to her. "I was one of 10 children. We grew up in the village of Mandili. My father was self taught, a merchant who moved his family to Baghdad when it was time for us to enter high school. My mother didn't speak Arabic, but she made sure we children did our homework even though she had no idea what we were writing. Over and over, my mother told us to read the Quran, which praises education."

DISCRIMINATION IS a common experience for many Muslim women in the United States. Shaikley said she sensed discrimination when her school committee tried to buy a property in Claremont, California, for their school. "We had the cash, but the owners put up one obstacle after another," Shaikley said. "I had the feeling the neighborhood didn't want Muslims. Finally, we were told the city was going to take over the property. We found a better deal in Pomona, where the mayor and city council welcomed us."

Artist Hanaa Al-Wardi explained how invitations to enter her multimedia works in art exhibitions have diminished drastically since the Gulf war. "My biography states I am Iraqi-born, and the titles of many of my works reflect the destruction and environmental contamination caused by the war," she said. "The responses generally are that the exhibition sponsors love my work, but it doesn't match their themes. At first, I contemplated eliminating where I was born, but I have no reason to deny my identity."

Is there a specifically "Western model" of Muslim woman? The answer would seem to be mixed. "I don't think there is such a thing as a ‘Western model,'" said educator Semeen Issa. "The role of Muslim women differs throughout the West and depends on the type of community one is living in." But there may be some common themes as Islam and the West meet.

"A new role is evolving in terms of equality, which is good," noted Hanaa al-Wardi. "On the other hand, we don't appreciate the Western model of sexual promiscuity, drinking, divorce. This is not equality in my book—it's sexploitation."

Psychologist Ilham al-Sarraf sees herself as an ambassador of Islam and of Arab womanhood in the United States. "My first and foremost goal is to know who I am, be it a Muslim, Iraqi Arab, or American," she said. "When all my identities come together in harmony, they become a vehicle of motivation and power. When these identities collide—as during the Gulf war—they bring on agonizing conflict and pain."

All of these women are active in countering negative perceptions of Islam in the United States. Semeen Issa is president of the Muslim Women's League and founded the first Muslim Girls Sports Camp. "Research shows that girls generally tend to stay away from sports, especially if they must compete with boys," said Issa. "We're making sure the girls learn athletic skills without feeling hindered by their conservative attire. We want them to feel part of the American mainstream and not like oddballs." She is confident that if Muslim women participate in team sports, the mainstream public can become more accepting of them, scarf or no scarf. "A Muslim soccer mom in hijab sitting on the sidelines of her child's game," asserted Issa, "should not be a rare occurrence, but the norm."

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles who specializes in political and cultural news of the Middle East.

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