Muslim Women Voice Their Concerns in Aftermath of Sept. 11 Tragedy

By McDonnell, Pat | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Muslim Women Voice Their Concerns in Aftermath of Sept. 11 Tragedy


McDonnell, Pat, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Muslim Women Voice Their Concerns in Aftermath of Sept. 11 Tragedy

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Just about every American has been traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Muslim-American women, however, face particular challenges. They must reason with their children as to why the terrorists were Muslims, and talk to students they teach, patients they treat, or neighbors and coworkers who may now regard Islam as a threat to their lives.

In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the Washington Report discussed the aftereffect of Sept. 11 with Muslim women leaders of Southern California, where more than half a million Muslims live.

All the women prefaced their comments with gratitude for the outpouring of good will and sympathy extended by the general public.

The Muslim community steeled itself for a wave of hate crimes such as occurred at the onset of the Gulf war, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. This time, however, there were only isolated incidents, in large part because of appeals to the public by President George W. Bush not to target Muslim Americans. In addition to it being the right thing to do, the president had both domestic and foreign policy reasons for his repeated calls for tolerance: he would not have been elected to office without the Muslim-American vote, and he had to convince potential coalition partners that the U.S. is not at war with Islam.

Dr. Halima al-Shaikley, who left her dental practice to found the City of Knowledge School in Pomona, said she was overwhelmed when strangers appeared at the entrance to her Muslim school on the morning of Sept. 12.

"I did not know any of these people," she said. "Most identified themselves as concerned neighbors, but every day since, 10 to 12 of these angels come to the school and make sure our students arrive safely in the morning and leave without incident in the afternoon."

Psychologist Dr. Ilham Sarraf found herself in the midst of the tragedy when the Red Cross called her and asked her to provide counseling to airline crews and passengers stranded in Los Angeles after the government grounded all commercial flights in the U.S.

"As soon as the flights were canceled," Dr. Sarraf explained, "the Red Cross stepped up to the plate and arranged for teams of psychologists and social workers to debrief crews and passengers who were put up in hotels and Los Angeles International Airport."

"It was a ripple effect," she continued, "in that many of the crews and passengers were doubly stressed by being stranded in Los Angeles and separated from their families during the crisis. Many crew members knew airline personnel who had died in the four hijacked planes.

When Dr. Sarraf appeared at a hotel just hours after the catastrophe, she asked a Red Cross director about the general mood of crew members and passengers. At that point, the Red Cross executive remarked: "Oh my, this could be a problem. I completely forgot you are Muslim. Many are voicing hostility toward Middle Eastern people."

"Never fear," Dr. Sarraf responded. "I won't preach to them."

The blonde psychologist listened to her emotional subjects vent their anger toward the "Arab hijackers," for a good half-hour before she calmly told them she was born in Iraq and is Muslim.

"Poof, just like that, my identity as an Iraqi Arab was no longer an issue," she said. "I became an element of education and healing to the victims."

MESSAGES OF SUPPORT

Educator Semeen Issa, president of the Southern California Muslim Women's League and founder of the first Muslim Girls Sports Camp, commented: "We've received hate messages on our MWL Web site e-mail, but I would say we've received far more messages of support from people who say they are ashamed when they hear that so-called Americans have been harassing Muslims, particularly women. …

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