ISLAMIC WOMEN OF MADISON
By John-Brian Paprock © 1995
They gather with religious intent every Friday night. Fifteen to twenty women dressed modestly, most with heads and necks covered. They are doctors, engineers, teachers, students, wives, and mothers. They are all races and from many nations.
These women meet in an unassuming building tucked behind the Taco Johns on Regent Street. They have their own entrance, and although men also gather there, they have almost no contact with the opposite sex. Dedicated, intelligent, these women are articulate about their religion, their practice, and their faith: Islam.
Islam, which can be translated as "submission to God," has become the second largest religion in the world behind Christianity. Estimates run from three to six million Muslims in the U.S. (Muslim is the term for a member of Islam.) At the turn of this century, there will be more American Muslims than American Jews. In the Madison area, there are over two thousand Muslims.
The Midwest is home to the first two mosques, or places of worship, in America (Iowa and Michigan). In the Madison area, the U.W. has one of the oldest Muslim student organizations in the nation. The Muslim Student Association was established in the sixties. However, the Islamic Center/Mosque on Orchard Street is just over ten years old. A second mosque, Masjid Us Sunnah, opened this year on Madison's west side and is home base to a national Islamic publication, "The Friday Report."
With all this growth, Islam continues to be misunderstood, especially with the role of women, even though more women are becoming Muslim than men. In England, for instance, Muslim women now outnumber Muslim men four to one.
More than the men, the women of Islam are visible indications of the growing diversity of our area. In submission to God (and no one else), Muslim women from the time of puberty wear the tradition hejab, the Arabic term for the covering of femininity. It can resemble a scarf and covers their head and neck. Most are long enough to drape over their shoulders. In strictest practice, it is the "burque," covering the entire body except eyes, hands and feet.
On one Friday night, The Islamic Center of Madison's women's study group spoke about being Muslim women in Madison and five local women shared their journey to Islam.
The Muslim women reported few overt negative experiences in Madison wearing Hejab. It seems more acceptable as ethnic or cultural garb. One woman of European descent, Julie Green, said that people assume she's foreign and often ask which country she is from. One of the predominant perceptions of Islam is that it is Middle Eastern. In fact, less than 20% of Muslims are Arabs. The majority doesn’t even speak Arabic as their primary language. However, all Muslims pray in Arabic.
Monica Laurence, another of European descent, said that Madison is more tolerant and open than other parts of Wisconsin. "When I go back home," Monica was raised in rural southern Wisconsin, "it's like everybody stares. Up here, it's just, 'oh, she's different', but down there, 'it's a complete stare forever until you're gone out of the picture." Aminah, who changed her name when she came to Islam, presented a tolerant view. "You run into smart alecs no matter where you're at and, whether you be Muslim or something else, there are people that just stare at something's that's different."
Staring is not the only negative experience. In a local high school, kids have pulled off the hejab. Re=em, one of the teenagers in the group, said they probably wouldn't have if they understood what it means. Julie Fustok said her European-American family has been the harshest about the hejab. "They say that hejab really isn't necessary and that women way back when did this when some man told them to, but now everything evolves. So, women aren't supposed to do those things anymore." Julie Green responded, "They're not necessarily hostile. We willingly and enjoy wearing hejab. When we put on the head covering, we're removing ourselves from the comments of people walking by. We're taking ourselves out of the loop of trying to be more beautiful than the rest. We're not in competition anymore."
In America, women have been fighting oppression for decades. What is not commonly known is that Mohammed, the prophet founder of Islam, advanced the status of women in the sixth century! "There is nowhere in the Koran that makes a woman lower than a man," said Fau, an Indonesian member of the study group. Many of the rigorous restrictions of women derive not from the Koran, but from later interpretations of Islamic law.
"I think some of the Islamic countries have political oppression on women," said Laila, the study group leader, "and they call themselves 'Islamic Nations.' Well, that's not Islamic. They are using that as a type of control. So, everyone over here thinks all of Islam is like that. It's not. That's political oppression!" She pointed out many of the rights Islam has given to women over 1300 years ago: the right to inheritance, the right to own a business, the right to choose a profession, the right to choose a husband.
In fact, in Islam are the origins of the pre-nuptial agreement. The woman can set any conditions she wants, including: the amount of the dowry (which belongs to her, exclusively), conditions of divorce, and the stipulation of no other wives. In Islam, a man can have four, but must be able to economically and socially support and love (in all aspects) each equally. It is, therefore, quite rare for a Muslim man to have more than one.
"We've had all of this a long time ago without rioting, without going out of our homes, without behaving like men, without anything. So, actually, Muslim women don't have to go out and say, 'Yeah, we have these rights.' We go to the Koran and the Traditions of Mohammed, peace be upon him,” said Laila.
"Most of the Muslim women I know are incredible. Most of them are professionals. I don't know many that don't have their master's or Ph.D. If that's oppression... Gosh." said Julie Fustok. The others nodded their heads in agreement.
Julie Fustok is a "revert" to Islam. Technically, she did not "convert," because Muslims believe everyone is born "obedient to God" - therefore Muslim. So, when one accepts the "truths" of Islam, which are embodied in the five pillars or obediences and the six articles of faith, she "reverts" back to that original state. She declared Shahada ("There is no God but God and Mohammed is His Prophet.") with the proper number of witnesses.
Is there a typical women declaring Shahada? No. The five women "reverts" in the Madison study group came from a variety of backgrounds, led to Islam by different roads. With the current trend of more women "reverting," a look at these women's journeys can provide some insight to the attraction of Islam.
Julie Fustok's journey to Islam took about a year. Julie is a waitress and a UW history student. She was born and raised in Wisconsin and was baptized Lutheran. She said that was the last time she was in church. Her family wasn't religious, but her brother and sister became Roman Catholic, because their spouses are Catholic. "Religion was no part of my life," she relates, "I couldn't believe they believed in Adam and Eve. I did have a sense of spirituality in different things with a little touch of occultism and environmentalism. But as far as the stories, I never took them seriously." Then she met her husband, a Muslim from Syria. "It was the first time I ever heard anyone talk about these stories and have such conviction about them." After hearing her husband talk, she decided to learn more about Islam. She didn't intend to become a Muslim, but started reading books on Islam. "I was personally moved reading a biography of the Prophet Mohammed. The idea of him being very unlettered but given the recitation from Allah (the Koran) and it is admired by so many people, started me looking here and there. I couldn't turn my back anymore. There were just too many truths in Islam. So, I declared my faith."
Her family has had difficulty accepting her new faith. "My mother, to whom I'm very close was very interested when I got into yoga and meditation. Then when I was becoming Muslim, I told her about prayer and fasting. The fasting was okay with her, but a whole month angered her. When I started wearing hejab, it was suddenly vilified in their minds. They didn't like it was taking their daughter away." That hasn't deterred her faith. "To hear the message of Islam you need to be strong, because there are some truths you have to deal with. There is no message, 'Oh Jesus will put you in his arms and hold you and tell you that everything is okay now.' You have to be a strong person to hear the message of Islam. It's like putting your feet on the ground. I have been the most flaky and cynical person and, finally, I committed to something. That says something about Islam."
Betty Zahid, a nurse at a Madison hospital, had a similar journey. However, being born and raised Lutheran, her life was dedicated to the Lutheran Church. She was a Sunday school teacher, bible schoolteacher, and choir director and went to a Christian college. When her sister married a Catholic it was nearly considered blasphemy. She developed the attitude, "It doesn't matter as long as they're Christian." Until she met her Muslim husband, "I love him and I'll convert him. I figured he'd become a Christian."
To cover all the bases, they had three weddings: first, in a mosque; second, in a church, then, in his home country of Morocco. "As we were married, his family would ask when would I be Muslim. I would answer, 'I got my religion' and I always spoke my religion."
As she tried to convert her husband, she was surprised how well he knew the bible. So, she started reading about Islam. "He never pushed me once. I'm really stubborn and, if he pushed me, I would have never pursued it again. The more I read, the more I saw what I already believed. Being born a Christian, you take a lot for granted; you don't really read the bible. The things I was questioning about Islam, the answers were there in the bible." Her last obstacle to declaring Shahada was the role of Jesus. "It finally hit me after three years. So, I reverted in December."
"I still haven't gotten to where I can wear the hejab yet,” said Betty, "I wear it to pray, of course. There's no compulsion in religion and that's stressed in Islam. You can't force someone to do things or believe things. The more I go to the mosque, the more I'm interested in wearing it. I still have little hurdles to get over before I can do it. I don't feel threatened. They respect me and they know it is personal between me and Allah. This is one of the things that attracted me to Islam. No guilt trips or put-downs. No threats."
Julie Green, a retired apartment owner, was Jewish and, as she put it, very good at it. "I was president of the sisterhood for two years at Beth Israel and, yet, I was still looking for something." Then she met her husband to be, who claimed to be a Muslim. "I said to him, 'you don't know the first thing about Islam, because I'm Jewish and they're closely related. They believe in one God and are people of the law. You don't know anything about Islam.' He was my tenant at the time." Then, he was sentenced to prison and she told him to find the "real Muslim brothers" to teach him. As he grew more interested, she did too. When they decided to get married, the Muslim counselor told them they could get married because a Muslim can marry "a person of the book."
"That's the way we were proceeding, but there came a point where I saw the truth. It was overwhelming, when I recognized the truth was right in front of me. I couldn't deny it." Julie relates, "So, the next time we went to the counselor, I told him I wanted to declare shahada. All I had to do was make that leap into what was to me outer space, because it was a very big change. You sit there looking at the truth; you realize you have to move. To me, it was very striking."
Aminah Nadhirah chose a new name when she became Muslim. Raised in a small town in northern Wisconsin, she was forced to go to the Methodist Church, even though her parent never went. She became embittered with the hypocrisy of those that went to church. "There were so many people that would treat me nice while I was at church, but on the street, they would act like they didn't know me." Aminah went through rebellious times into her adulthood, drinking and such activities of which she didn't elaborate.
"I met what I now call a bad Muslim." Aminah explains, "He was telling me that Jesus was black and that all white people were devils. After meeting two African Americans that claimed they were Muslim, I decided to find out what the real deal was. I called this mosque and started reading. From what I read, there is no color in Islam. We are all one race. My first reaction to those that claimed to be Muslim was right. They were just trying to manipulate me and using Islam to do it."
"I found that Islam was just common sense. I never felt so much warmth and love since I have become a Muslim. I felt I could be myself and I didn't have to perform any longer." From the time Aminah first heard of Islam until she reverted was three and a half years.
"I started reading the bible when I was twelve, because I wanted to seek the truth. I was baptized when I was twelve,” relates Monica Laurence, a communications student at MATC. "I read as much as I could and tried to understand as much as I could of the bible."
Monica, who grew up in rural southern Wisconsin, moved to Madison when she was eighteen, where she met diverse people and beliefs. That is when she first encountered Islam. "It was something I thought I would like to check into because I wanted to seek the truth. I started reading on my own books on being a Muslim and the religion of Islam. Soon, I got caught up in it. It became such a beautiful thing to me. I had to totally embrace it because my heart told me to do so."
The impact of her reversion has been noticeable. "My dad said to me, 'I'd like to meet the people you talked to, the people that changed you, because I'd like to know how they in a matter of months can do what I tried to do in twenty years."
Monica added "To my non-Muslim sisters: I hope that they keep an open mind and are able to look into all religions for themselves, seeking the truth and finding peace with whatever direction they choose. I also wish that, as non-Muslims, they can feel, even for a day, what it is to dress like this and to wear the hejab; to feel the respect you get and knowing you are in complete submission to Allah and how warm and welcoming the religion of Islam is."
"The West," said Julie Fustok, "has certainly capitalized on their idea of feminism. They think they are getting to the top with it by being able to wear whatever they want and doing the man's work. I think they should consider a better idea of feminism, because I fell very respected, very at ease. I feel very strong. When I see other Muslim women, we don't look at each other with an envious eye. It takes away a lot of problems, a lot of bad feelings. Men don't look at me in a very one-dimensional level. Women, the same. We are not competing with hairdos. That takes away the one glance attitude. Women hate women and that's wrong. I don't feel any of that now. I feel a lot of love and no judgment."
As that Friday night came to close, the hejab melted away, revealing women truly rich in their faith. They often referred to each other as sister, an endearing term that seemed to hold a significance of spiritual importance. They did not stand alone and, in that, the women of Islam have found an extended family.