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Ambassadors of Islam: after Sept. 11, a young generation of Arab Muslim women finds liberation in religious observance.

For fitness instructor Mona Safiedine, teaching aerobics has recently become something she's had to work out with God. Last year, after deciding to wear the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, and follow her faith more closely, she knew her routine would have to change.


Now Safiedine confines her workouts to women-only gyms, in keeping with Islam's call for modesty. "I didn't feel right wearing tight clothes and teaching men at the same time," she says. And she has shunned pop music, citing an interpretation of Islamic law that forbids lyrics.

But beyond that, Safiedine, a 24-year-old Lebanese American, won't let anything stop her from carrying on with her six-day-a-week class schedule in everything from high-intensity kickboxing to yoga. "I wear the hijab when I enter the gym and take it off once I'm in," she explains. "Since men are not allowed, it's a safe zone for me."

In Dearborn, Michigan, the Arab-American hub where Safiedine grew up, her choice represents something of a trend among Arab Muslim women of her generation. Among those born in the United States to Arab immigrant parents, a movement to emphasize their Muslim identity is taking root.

"Everywhere I go, I am seeing girls covering right and left--even high school girls," says Safiedine, a graduate student involved in a religious pluralism project at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. "These are girls whose mothers don't even cover."

Although prayer had always been a part of Safiedine's life, other tenets of the faith had not--her friends joke that she used to throw a robe on over her mini skirt and pray before going to nightclubs--and she had long resisted the head scarf, considered mandatory by many observant Muslims.

Now she and others describe their decision to wear it as a journey of empowerment and spirituality. Yet it is also a journey they're embarking upon in a post-9/11 world, when Islam is looked upon with suspicion, even contempt.

Making a Place for Themselves

One in four Americans holds a negative view of Muslims, according to an October 2004 poll released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group based in Washington, D.C. Twenty-six percent of the 1,000 respondents reported a belief that Muslims teach violence and hatred; 27 percent said Muslims value human life less than others.

It helps little that nightly headline news from Iraq features terrorist beheadings and so-called "Islam experts" such as Bush appointee Daniel Pipes, board member at the U.S. Institute for Peace, incite fear with statements about U.S. Muslims' long-term designs to replace the Constitution with the Qur'an.

Such attitudes have motivated some young Arab Muslims to set the record straight about their maligned faith. Depicted as outsiders, they are attempting to reclaim their place in American society and, in the process, are forging a new Muslim-American identity.

"Today, many Muslims realize that it is not their Islamic identity but their American citizenship that is fragile," writes Muqtedar Khan, a fellow with the Michigan-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, in a 2003 New York Times editorial. Attacks on civil liberties, enshrined in such legislation as the PATRIOT Act and anti-terrorism measures, he adds, have served to marginalize and target Muslims as un-American.

The trend is perhaps most pronounced among women, because by wearing head scarves and long, concealing robes, they embody the Muslim presence in America.

"I feel a big responsibility on my shoulders, because now I'm a walking representative of Islam," says 22-year-old spoken-word poet Gihad Ali, who began veiling nearly two years ago after her mother died. "I knew it was going to be difficult following 9/11, but I thought, 'Fine, that's my test.'"

Ali, who was born and raised in Chicago, says she was tempted to put on the veil right after 9/11 to make a statement but felt that would be doing it for the wrong reasons. Instead, she waited until she could "cover for religious reasons" and now embraces her visibility as a Muslim as a way to dispel popular misconceptions.

One misconception is that veiled women are foreigners who do not speak English. While renewing her driver's license at the department of motor vehicles, Ali says the clerk behind the counter spoke to her in an exaggeratedly loud voice. "DO-YOU-WEAR-CONTACTS?" she asked.

"I don't know if she expected me to speak with an accent or have to use sign language," recalls Ali. But she knew her Islamic attire stood for something. "Just because I don't look like you and I dress differently doesn't mean I can't speak the same language," she says. "I have a job. I have family. I have friends and hobbies. The only difference is that I cover, and I have a different faith."

Ali has also made it a point to represent Muslim women on stage, where her fiery poems now include themes about Islamic women. "It's not just important for me but for all Muslim sisters that veil to let people know that we're not submissive, that we're not subordinate, that we're individuals," she says. She offers an impromptu line from one such poem: "When you look at me, see liberation, cause I'm not the product of some Osama-bin-Laden-Islamic-fundamentalist-type nation."

Ali's sense of mission post-9/11 is echoed by her Chicago peers. "There is this feeling that you are a constant ambassador of Islam, wherever you go," says 27-year-old Tammie Ismail, a history teacher and administrator at an Islamic girls school in Bridgeview, a Chicago suburb with a growing Arab population.

Immediately after 9/11, Bridgeview's mosque was surrounded by an angry, anti-Arab mob in a demonstration that made national news. Ismail says the incident prompted some in her community to take a long look inward. "We realized that maybe our neighbors didn't know who we were as well as we thought," she says. "In the process of trying to build our community, maybe we hadn't given enough time to the greater community."

Ismail got involved in local interfaith dialogues as a way to promote understanding. "There was something empowering about knowing that you could define Islam for others through who you are," she says.

Doing so, however, remains an uphill battle. A February 2004 front-page story in the Chicago Tribune painted Bridgeview's mosque as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism and the funding of overseas terrorism.

It's the kind of bad press that makes Ismail want to shun the media. "I felt the whole goal of the article was to say, 'If you're an observant Muslim, you're radical'," she says, "and if you're not observant, then that's good. Those are the kind of Muslims we want. Well, where does that put me? Or the thousands of Muslim Americans who live around here who believe they have a right to practice their religion?"


With challenges such as these, an outsider might wonder why young women like Ali and Ismail take on the battle at all.

"The more people are targeted as Muslims, the more they're going to say, 'This is me. I must understand who I am and how I fit in this group,'" says Chicago sociologist Louise Cainkar, who is studying the trend toward increased religious observance among Arab Muslims. "It's people looking for meaning in their lives and explanations for things."

Yet the "targeting" has also come in the form of well-meaning attempts to understand the Sept. 11 attacks.

"People at work knew I was an Arab and a Muslim but I wasn't practicing," says 24-year-old Dearborn resident Jennifer Berry, who works as a bank teller. "They would start asking me questions about my religion, and I didn't know what to tell them."

Berry says her co-workers' questions sparked a drive in her to start learning, and she began spending after-work hours reading the Qur'an. "It just took off from there," she says. "Within the next year, I had covered."

Once a self-described "party girl," Berry's Friday nights are now spent with friends at Dearborn's Islamic Center of America, a predominately Lebanese Shi'a mosque where the 8:00 p.m. service is packed with people her age, and prayers are recited in English in an attempt to reach out to American-born youth. She and her friends are part of the center's Young Muslims Association, a group they say started three years ago with a few members and now boasts more than 300.

A Changing Infrastructure

No formal studies have been done on the Arab Muslim identity trend, but scholars and community leaders point to indicators of a growing U.S. Muslim infrastructure that began in the 1990s with the proliferation of mosques, Islamic schools and national Muslim civil rights groups.

Cainkar, who has studied Chicago's Arab community for more than two decades, says the change mirrors a global Muslim resurgence and traces the shift in the United States to just after the Persian Gulf war, when most of the city's secular Arab community centers closed, only to be replaced by mosques and religious institutions as gathering points for social life and activism.

But some community leaders like Ismael Ahmed, executive director of Dearborn's Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, caution that it isn't only Arab Muslims who have been mobilized in the wake of 9/11.

"I think it's certainly a significant, new aspect," he says. "But we still see young activists of all religious backgrounds, and the formats for them are not only religious." Ahmed refers specifically to Arab Christians who make up 58 percent of the Detroit-area Arab community and, incidentally, comprise the majority of Arabs in the United States.

But walk onto any college campus in Detroit or Chicago and the presence of Muslim student groups is undeniable, evidence, some say, that 1980s-era secular Arab groups have been eclipsed by Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Students Association.

Longtime community leader Maha Jarad was a student activist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, during the 1980s and experienced the secular-religious shift first-hand. It was an era, she says, when few women wore head scarves, and Muslim groups were practically nonexistent.

"At that time, I embraced a more leftist, Marxist perspective. Religion was seen as an oppressive tool," says Jarad, who as director of an Arab-American social services agency in the 1990s established the nation's first domestic violence program for Arab women.

Jarad is now a practicing Muslim, though she does not wear a veil. For her, the search was deeply personal. In 1994, a close friend and activist mentor died suddenly, and the loss shook her foundation. "I started to really want to understand this whole life-death thing," she says.

Looking for answers, she turned to the Qur'an. "I wanted to get to the parts that I thought would confirm what I had known about it, that it was oppressive," she says. "I discovered that I was just totally wrong, that it was really very liberating."

The Arab Muslim women interviewed for this story agree. College-educated, in their 20s, and residing in two urban centers with large Arab-American populations--Dearborn, Mich. and Chicago, Ill.--they say they are proud of their Arab heritage, but growing up in the United States, they cannot fully relate to it and recoil at the sexism embedded within it. Nor, however, can they accept what they see as women's oppression in the United States.

Islam, they contend, helps them negotiate both worlds, including what they see as its mandate that women should veil.

Rehan Rashid, a 22-year-old Americorps volunteer, says she chose to wear the veil when she was 16. Doing so and "taking on Islam fully as a way of life" has delivered her from the clutches of American materialism, a world where ideals of feminine beauty have spurred an epidemic of breast augmentation, plastic surgery, anorexia and self-mutilation.

Even as a teenager, Rashid says she was bombarded by her peers with discussions of weight loss, marriage, hair and makeup, but she sought something deeper. "As a human being, as a Muslim, the most important thing you can do is worry about becoming a better person and changing the world, changing yourself," Rashid says. "Covering has literally freed me."

That logic may confound Western feminists who view veiling as a sign of women's subordination. Yet some scholars say it's all in the way the Qur'an is understood.

"Any text is open to one hundred different interpretations," says Leila Ahmed, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and an expert on women in Islam.

Although the Qur'an itself does not explicitly say "cover your head," Ahmed says, its call for justice and equality--for men and for women--is clear.

Rima Meroueh, 24, maintains that wearing the veil doesn't impose any serious restrictions on her. "Never in my life have I let [wearing a head scarf] stop me from doing something," says Meroueh, a Near Eastern Studies major at Wayne State University in Detroit. "I can't go to the beach in a bikini," she adds, "but I don't particularly want to do that." Once, when a male friend invited her to go jet-skiing, Meroueh merely substituted jeans and a long shirt for a bathing suit.

Nor has religion prevented her or her Muslim-identified friends from pursuing higher education, careers or political activism. From 1999-2002, Meroueh, who plans to become a doctor, worked with an Islamic relief organization to secure medical care in the United States for children in Iraq and Sierra Leone and co-led a delegation to Iraq to observe living conditions under U.N.-imposed economic sanctions.

Muslim activism like Meroueh's is increasingly being nurtured on college campuses, where Muslim students are carving out an identity that embraces pluralism and diversity.

At the University of Chicago in the 1990s, where she served a term as president of the Muslim Students Association, Tammie Ismail met South Asian and African-American Muslims and began to see that together they could form a distinctly American Muslim identity that went beyond ethnic origin.

"Belief is a strong unifying force," Ismail says. "If you're a practicing Muslim, in many ways you have more in common with someone who does not speak your language, does not eat your food, but believes what you believe."

Nedaa Alwawi, 22, had a similar experience as a campus activist at Chicago's DePaul University, where she joined United Muslims Moving Ahead, a group dedicated to social justice issues. She met African Americans and came to see how their historic struggles could inform Muslim civil rights organizing post-9/11.

"I feel that we can learn from the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement," she says. "If African Americans and Muslims come together, we could be a major coalition."

But both Ismail and Alwawi acknowledge that not all of their Arab Muslim peers are riding the same wave. After the Sept. 11 attacks, some women removed their head scarves and changed their dress.

Alwawi recalls a friend who shocked her by doing so. "Growing up I always looked to her as such a strong Muslim," she says. "A few months after Sept. 11, I saw her in a tank top. That scared me, but it also reconfirmed my faith because I didn't want to be that person."

Mary Abowd is a freelance writer in Chico, California. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, a program sponsored by the Independent Press Association.
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Author:Abowd, Mary
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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