American Muslim Women

BOB ABERNETHY: American freedom and Muslim tradition. What's it like for young Muslim women to live in a culture in which it sometimes seems that anything goes? Of the world's more than one billion Muslims, it's estimated between three million and six million live in the U.S.; they include immigrants from more than 60 nations, as well as many African-Americans. Anisa Medhi talked with several American Muslim women about stereotypes and head scarves, drinking and dating.

ANISA MEDHI: Muslims are linked by their faith to fellow Muslims around the world. In Islam, like other major religions, there is a wide range of interpretations, beliefs, and practices. Muslims from different cultures have varying views on the roles of women.

The Akbars of Saginaw, Michigan moved to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1976.

Dr. RAANA AKBAR: Muslims in America are very lucky because this is the one country where you can practice Islam as it was brought to humanity. The rights of the individual are protected in Islam. The rights of society are protected in Islam. The Constitution of the United States of America does precisely that.

MEDHI: Dr. Raana Akbar, an allergist, and her husband, Dr. Waheed Akbar, an orthopedic surgeon, appreciate America's religious rights and freedoms, but these same freedoms pose great challenges to Muslims, as well as to many other parents, in raising families.

Dr. R. AKBAR: When the girls were growing up, it was rather shocking for me that some of their classmates started drinking when they were 12 or even younger and were sexually promiscuous. And that we do not see in Muslim society. I used to think that they would do drugs, they would drink alcohol, that they would date, and though -- you know, all those things bothered me tremendously. And it was one of my nightmares that -- and I used to sometimes argue with Waheed that we should go back, because there, we would be certain of the girls following the faith.

MEDHI: The Akbars' daughters, Amna and Zainab, now in their early 20s, worked on Capitol Hill this summer. They maintained their traditions in the face of pressure to be part of mainstream culture.

Ms. ZAINAB AKBAR: There are certain people who I didn't know -- who didn't know that I was Muslim. When I told them, they're like, 'What? You don't drink? I thought you -- you're a partier, man. Like, you -- your personality's so out there. I -- you're not Muslim.' Like, people just -- you know, they assume that I'm going to be like, you know, 'Yes, I'll do what you say.'

MEDHI: They had to deal with public misconceptions about their faith, media images portraying Muslims as terrorists and stereotypes of repressed women.

Ms. AMNA AKBAR: I saw this portrait of, like, this homogeneous sea of women wearing chadors and, like, you know...

Ms. Z. AKBAR: Men in beards.

Ms. A. AKBAR: And men with beards.

Dr. R. AKBAR: And you keep on hearing this, this negative stereotyping. For us, you know, we were brought up in a culture which was Muslim, so we -- our self-identity is not going to be destroyed by this, but for our children, that's another matter.

MEDHI: Some of these stereotypes stem from how Muslim women are treated in some societies abroad.

Dr. WAHEED AKBAR: For the majority of the Muslim countries, the problem has been it has been very much controlled by the male. And over the years, they have tried to really suppress the equality in which the Muslimist -- Muslim women have been given.

MEDHI: Of course, American women often complain of unfair treatment here, too.

Ms. Z. AKBAR: Hey, we still get 65 cents for every dollar a guy gets. You know, we still get, you know, whistled at, hooted at, hollered at when we're walking down the street when we want to look nice, you know? And just because you see that as normal in this society doesn't mean that, like, we are completely free in society, because we're not.

MEDHI: The creation story in Islam says that when God created humans, he didn't create Eve from Adam; rather, God created Adam and Eve as two separate, complementary beings. For Amna and Zainab, equality and freedom are important Islamic principles. They believe men and women are equal before God, although they have different responsibilities and roles.

The Akbars were raised to believe that acquiring knowledge is an Islamic imperative for both boys and girls. Their faith guides their career paths.

Ms. A. AKBAR: One of the key concepts in Islam and in the Koran is to work towards establishing a just society, because God thinks of all people as equal.

Ms. Z. AKBAR: As Muslims, we're obliged, you know, if we see oppression, to do something about it. And, I mean, I think that's something that's been instilled in us by our parents and by our religion.

MEDHI: Muminah Ahmad was also born Muslim. Her parents converted to Islam in the 1970s. Like many other African-Americans, they were looking for a religion they felt stressed freedom from oppression and treated people of all races as equals. Unlike immigrant Muslims, whose religious practices are infused with their native culture, African-Americans build on American culture.

Ms. MUMINAH AHMAD: Our culture's American culture, so what we have to do is kind of take it on and just see how we can work our religious values into the American culture. We take the guidelines and we came up with our own styles and our own way of doing things.

MEDHI: Many American Muslim women dress modestly, in accordance with their understanding of the Koran. For Muminah and her sister, Sara, modesty means covering their hair. The head scarf, sometimes called hajab, is the most visible sign of being Muslim in the U.S.

Ms. SARA AHMAD: It says be modest and then, also, you know, lower your gaze. It also says to cover yourself as well. And this is where the interpretation then comes in, in terms of, you know, how do you feel that this is done?

Ms. M. AHMAD: I always see it as just keeping the -- keeping within the principles of my religion and trying to please my Lord, and in that, you know, different things that he commands us to do. And I don't see it as a sacrifice.

Ms. A. AKBAR: I respect women who wear hajab, and it is a struggle, especially in this society, because there's no -- when you're wearing hajab, then people see there's no question that you're Muslim.

MEDHI: They believe the Islamic values of modesty and self-control also guide the relationships between men and women.

Ms. M. AHMAD: The general rule is, OK, don't be alone in a situation where it may tempt you; that you may decide to, you know, do something that's not going to be conducive to a family -- having a family.

MEDHI: Safe and wise advice as that may be, it would put a damper on the lifestyles of a lot of American young people. Dating for fun rather than with an eye for marriage is one of the things American Muslims know they shouldn't do.

Ms. M. AHMAD: I would say, like, going clubbing or going to dances, things like that, I know that there would be nothing I had to gain in a situation like that. You know what I mean? Although I might have a good time and I might enjoy myself, it's nothing that I would gain spiritually.

Ms. A. AKBAR: Both of us think it's important to have relationships with guys and girls and that -- but you have to know your bounds.

Ms. M. AHMAD: When you have the principles down, which -- you know what I mean? -- is ingrained in you, and you feel like you generally know what pleases God and what doesn't, it just feels right and you feel better when you make that choice.

MEDHI: American Muslim women are looking for a balance between the freedom and choice America has to offer and the cultural and religious values they hope to preserve and pass on to the next generation. I'm Anisa Medhi for RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY.


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