Seema Karim and her mother were once stopped on the street by a woman who, upon seeing that the two were wearing headscarves, or hijabs, asked them: “Why are you still wearing that? It’s a free country!”
Karim and Muslims across the nation have become the targets of prejudice following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the stereotyping extends to campuses as well, said several Muslim students.
Karim, a senior majoring in biomedical science, is the president of the Sisters United Muslim Association (SUMA) at USF.
She said the Muslim community at USF is a close-knit one, and that it helps Muslims overcome prejudice and loneliness and help one another uphold their religion in a college environment.
Participation in two organizations, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and SUMA, engenders a strong solidarity among Muslims at USF, said Rana Elshamy, a sophomore engineering major.
“We all know each other,” she said. “Even if we don’t know someone and we see that she is covered (wearing a head scarf, or hijab), we’ll say hi.”
Yasir Abunamous, the vice president of MSA at USF, was born in Pakistan to Palestinian and Egyptian parents. He said Muslims are forced to weigh their morals against peer pressures. Islam, more than a religion, is a lifestyle, many Muslims said. Shireen Hijaz, a junior majoring in bio-medical sciences, said she feels it is her duty to model an Islamic lifestyle to her peers.
“Islam is a way of life and you’re always representing it 24/7 and you have to keep having good morals. You have to keep a good representation of it,” Hijaz said.
Maintaining the values and ideals of Islam on an American college campus can be challenging, Abunamous said. He said Muslim students who live on campus feel isolated, away from friends, family and even familiar foods.
Stereotypes about womenStereotypes about Muslims – particularly Muslim women – present a challenge.
“A lot of people think Muslim women can’t have an education, or that they have to stay at home and do whatever their husbands say,” Elshamy said. “A lot of people think that being covered is something that your husband forces you to do.”
Hijaz said people tend to think Muslim women are introverted, abused or not allowed to do things. The hijab worn by many Muslim girls – including Hijaz – is a representation of Islam to others, she said.
“That’s what keeps me more motivated to stay good. These days, more people are more aware of our holiday, Ramadan. They know that I’m supposed to fast. So if they were to see me eating, they would ask, ‘aren’t you supposed to be fasting?'”
The oppression of women in Islam is a stereotype that Muslim students at the University want to dispel, Abunamous said.
“In Islam, women are very cherished, placed on a pedestal even. For example, the Prophet Muhammad – Peace Be Upon Him – said that Paradise rests at the feet of mothers, emphasizing the importance of mothers and the importance of treating them with the utmost love, care and respect,” he said.
Although there is equality between the sexes, Islam comes with strict instructions on how men and women should interact with one another. Hugging or shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex is prohibited by Islam. Dating is strictly prohibited, and men and women are not to socialize with each other unless they are meeting for business or academic purposes, Abudamous said. Male and female MSA members sit separately at meetings.
“Some people think it’s unnecessary because it’s a meeting, not a social event,” Hijaz said.
If a young man and woman wanted to marry, they would state their intention and then begin to court one another, but only in the presence of a third party. Ideally, the third person would be the brother, uncle or father of the woman. However, many Muslim women in America do not have those immediate family members here with them, so they find another person to fill that role, Abunamous said.
CultureUSF’s MSA comprises approximately 300 students from across the world who share a religion, but sometimes little else. Hijaz explained the difficulty that MSA faces in negotiating the religion of Islam with the various cultures that embrace it against the background of 21st-century college life in the United States.
“In MSA, everyone comes from a different culture. What we try to ingrain in everyone’s head is that it is a Muslim student association, not an Arab student association. It’s Muslim, and the religion has its book and its ways. Some people can say ‘I’m not supposed to do this.’ They can say ‘in my culture,’ but they can’t say ‘in my religion.’ It’s one religion.”
AlcoholAbunamous said Muslims are taught to keep themselves away from environments in which alcohol is served. Some MSA members, said Abunamous, think Muslims should not go to places like Applebee’s.
“A majority of our constituents would accept being in a place where alcohol is served, but not if it is the sole purpose of the event,” Abunamous said. “For example, going to Applebee’s for a meal would be OK because even though there is a bar in Applebee’s, drinking is not the sole purpose of going there.”
Some MSA members – though not those on the Executive Board – even go to fraternity parties.
Hijaz said she struggles with being Muslim and being a member of a sorority, Sigma Sigma Rho. She said many people judge her for being in the sorority, believing that by doing so she is violating her Muslim principles.
“People think it’s all drinking,” she said.”Because there’s always that stereotype that sororities just drink and stuff. I found the right one that – in my opinion – that would not make me look bad.”
More than anything, Karim said, she wants people to learn about the religion before they judge it.
“If you don’t know who we are, don’t judge. If you have any questions, just ask.”