Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

WHO Is That Veiled Woman?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

WHO Is That Veiled Woman?

Article excerpt

There are now more Muslims in the United States than 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."

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. …

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