Saturday, May 13, 2006

US Muslim women Americanizing mosques, book finds

Wednesday, May 10, 2006 8:19:07 AM ET
By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The face Muslim women present to America is as diverse as the faith itself -- and one that is changing as waves of often impoverished immigrants come to the United States.
That is part of the picture that emerges from a new book shedding light on the lives of Muslim women by way of well-crafted profiles of more than four dozen of them, cutting across cultures and lifestyles.
"Part of what we found is that the United States is one of the best places in the world for women to practice Islam because they do have freedom, because of our ideas about women having careers and a voice in houses of worship," said Donna Gehrke-White, author of "The Face Behind the Veil" (Citadel Press).
"Muslim women here have much more to say in how the religion is practiced," challenging some traditions such as separate entrances and second-rate worship spaces in some mosques, she said in an interview. "In some countries women don't even go to mosques."
"The other thing is that women are Americanizing the mosques, bringing in Brownie (scout) troops, self-help programs" -- common adjuncts to other houses of worship but not often seen in places where mosques were there for prayer and nothing more, added Gehrke-White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Miami Herald newspapers.
She estimates there are 3 million Muslim women in the United States. While earlier immigration patterns brought in the educated and affluent, whose children have moved easily into middle or upper class society, more recent trends have brought in the poor and desperate, many from Africa and Asia.
Since the middle of last decade more than 229,000 Muslim
refugees have settled in the United States, an unprecedented influx, she writes.
Many are illiterate, willing to sacrifice themselves to see that their children get the education denied them, she said.
"But even these women who were denied the right to read or write in their countries are now eagerly attending classes in the United States for the first time," she writes, and they credit the Koran's emphasis on education for their desire to learn.
The women profiled fall into several broad categories, she writes, including "new traditionalists" who have taken to wearing a veil even after earlier generations did not, others who have eschewed head coverings and blended in with society and converts who are the most enthusiastic about using traditional garb associated with Muslim women.
There is Zarinah in Arizona who wore a scarf from sixth grade on who is now a law student with boundless enthusiasm.
"Muslim women were once teachers, scholars, leaders on the battleground and naval commanders," she tells the author. "I feel our generation and the next generation will be reclaiming that history."
At the other end of the spectrum is a South Asian woman whose marriage to the scion of a wealthy European family was arranged. He beat and abused her after they moved to Florida and divorced her when she was caught in web of mental and legal problems.
He eventually moved to South America with their two children. She is resigned to never seeing them again. After a group of Muslim families helped her recover, she moved back to the country of her birth.
Others, like Iraqi refugee Batool Shamil, have persisted despite obstacles. She wound up as a single mother raising two children, sometimes holding down two jobs.
"My dream is for my kids to go to college," something that would not have happened in Iraq, she tells the author.
Despite a tide of anti-Muslim feeling that swept the United States after September 11, "Islam is flourishing with new mosques opening every year," Gehrke-White writes. "While many American women are pushing for reform within the mosque, they don't give up their faith. In Islam they find solace."
Some in the book have become international leaders in helping other Muslim women, from sending delegations to Bosnia to setting up a group to help stop "honor killings" -- women being murdered for bringing shame to a family for alleged adultery or even for having a boyfriend.
But Gehrke-White said American Muslim women often find themselves on the defensive. Other Muslims, particularly in Saudi Arabia and other strict countries, are suspicious of Americans who don't wear a veil.
"They see them as practicing Islam-Lite," she said, though Muslims in some other countries support a woman deciding for herself. What most Muslims around the world seem to be united on is questioning the American women about U.S. foreign policy, she said.
At one international Muslim conference, Edina, a Muslim from Los Angeles, found "other Muslims from around the world pounced on her to tell how they despise the United States for sending troops to Iraq and causing thousands of deaths of civilians there," the book recounts.

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