Who Is That Veiled Woman?

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."

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?

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2001
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