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Sisters United Muslim Association creates a supportive and empowering environment

Growing from three to hundreds of members since its creation, club president Juwayriyya Dayala said the first female Muslim association on campus has had a great impact on both the USF community and the lives of its members. ORACLE PHOTO/JUSTIN SEECHARAN

Sisterhood, family, happy place and love – these are the words used by Sisters United Muslim Association (SUMA) members to describe what the organization means to them, according to SUMA president Juwayriyya Dayala. 

When Dayala ended up in the hospital after an accident, the caring nature exhibited by her fellow members confirmed the truth behind those words. “You have such an amazing family,” the paramedics told her upon seeing the gathering of girls that followed her to the hospital. Dayala said that what the paramedics didn’t know is that the sisterhood among them was not based on blood relations, but something stronger.

Dayala initially attended SUMA meetings upon receiving invitations from friends. She said discovering the organization also meant finding her place at USF after moving from Chicago at 14 years old.

Sharing the same values discussed in weekly gatherings is one of the reasons why these girls responded to her struggle in such a helpful way, and what makes them a true sisterhood, according to Dayala. 

The positive impact of SUMA on her life led Dayala to run for president of the organization, where she said she hoped to extend the family experience to more people at USF. She wanted to offer students something to look forward to amid the hardships of college life and contribute to building a more intimate relationship with God and religion in a lighter way, both for Muslims and non-Muslims. As a representative of Islam, she said clearing up misconceptions about Muslim women is also a part of her mission.

“I wear my hijab like a flag. I know I’m representing my religion. It keeps me conscious,” Dayala said. “It also means to me freedom because I’m getting to control how much I’m showing.”

“Wearing my religion like a flag allows others to become more familiar with it, and USF is all about empowering other people and cultures.”

A prime example of this is “Hijab Day for Everybody,” where, in association with other Muslim organizations, hijabs are offered for anyone interested in trying at Bulls Market once a year.

“Everyone was really excited about it, and people would say ‘I had no idea how beautiful I could feel in it,'” Dayala said.

For Cuban-American member Salma Borges, wearing her hijab is like wearing a crown. 

“I learned that a Muslim woman covered and wearing her veil is compared to a hidden pearl in its shell and I found it so beautiful,” Borges said. 

It was after her first meeting with SUMA that she decided to take her shahada – the declaration of faith to become Muslim. The support from SUMA has been crucial for her during the challenges of choosing to wear different clothing. 

“Regardless, it’s not like you have to wear something to fit in or be appreciated or loved by the girls. And we have many Muslims who choose not to wear the veil as well. But we know that sitting among these girls, it’s going to inspire them. I’m coming to these gatherings to be inspired by others as well,” Dayala said.

As an organization with a focus on inspiring and reaching out to others, this has always been at the core of SUMA. The club was founded in 1995 by USF alum Najia Kurdi, who said it was necessary given that there was not much Muslim presence on campus at the time. Inspired by her advisor, Kurdi started the club with the support of two non-Muslim friends. Initially called Sister’s Ummah, the name carried the Arabic word for community.

“It was an organization that was out there to try to help build those bridges and those ties of friendship, helping people to recognize the similarities we had and not the differences,” Kurdi said.

She wanted to change the feeling of being an “oddball” she had experienced since elementary school, where she was the only Muslim student, according to Kurdi. To establish means to be seen as she wanted, rather than what the media or others would say — a place where people could reach her on her own terms — was a motivation for creating SUMA.

The group’s events, filled with Islamic art and food, created a safe space for those who were curious, and their active work helped them become a powerful voice, both inside and outside of USF.

This was especially true following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Kurdi. The organization was thrust into the forefront of public discourse, as Kurdi was asked to be a spokesperson in a time and place that was extremely uncomfortable and dangerous. From speaking against claims that “Muslim women are oppressed” or “just weird,” the shift to being labeled as “evil” is something Kurdi said made the organization an important representation of who they really were. 

Although more information has become available and the Muslim presence at USF has grown exponentially, new struggles have arisen. As the organization has blossomed from three people to hundreds, the need for a designated space for their activities has yet to be fulfilled, according to Dayala. 

“Having our own space would give us a sense of belonging when compared to being allocated to an all-purpose room,” Dayala said.

Furthermore, although there are some good options when it comes to halal food on campus, there definitely could be more offerings that aren’t mixed with meat contamination, according to Dayala.

Thursdays are still the favorite day of the week for many of the girls that attend the Halaqa meetings, which boost their energy and confidence along with the other events, according to Dayala. Sitting in a circle, they deepen their relationships with their faith and with one another. Against the backdrop of a colorful sunset sky and students returning from classes on the MSC lawn, Dayala said girls of all ages, from different places around the world and with different faiths, come together in support of their sisterhood, their community, their Ummah.

“The warmth and love around you are very addicting,” Dayala said. “It’s gonna be hard to get away from it once you get into it.”