Isra’a Belgasem sits with her hands folded gently in her lap and listens intently as the imam’s voice sounds over the intercom, low and resonant.
Ten other women and three children join her on the dark green carpet in the basement of the Islamic Center of Fort Collins, located at 900 Peterson St., as Arabic pours out of the speaker in the women’s mosque. The men can be heard upstairs shuffling into position to listen to the imam’s weekly Friday sermon.
Some of the women wear jeans and T-shirts, along with a simple hijab on their heads. Others, like Sahar Babak, are garbed in a full, flowing abayah. Only Babak’s face and hands appear out of the black beaded edges of the cloth.
After removing their shoes, the women file into the room, face northeast toward Mecca and begin quietly muttering versus of the Quran. All the while, they go through a series of bows, eventually placing their foreheads to the floor in devotion.
The imam’s voice switches to English.
“You are from many countries,” he says, asking his audience members to help one another learn the Arabic of the Quran.
This is an understatement.
The women here today come from Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and America, and Belgasem says today is a small turnout. If the men upstairs are included, people from at least a dozen different countries fill the center for today’s prayer.
The intercom goes quiet, signaling the service’s end. The basement erupts in an amalgam of Arabic and English greetings. The women hug and kiss cheeks saying, “Assalamu Alaikum sister,” “How are the children?” and, “Hello Isra’a, how are classes going?”
This weekly prayer time, jumuah, takes place every Friday at noon and is required for all Muslim men and suggested for women. Muslim Americans’ religious routine has not changed since Sept. 11, 2001.
But since the Twin Towers fell and war erupted throughout the Muslim world, many of the simplest aspects of daily life have changed.
“People ask me, ‘What do you think about Americans?'” said Zaki Safar, president of CSU’s Muslim Student Association. “And I say ‘Americans at the airport or the rest of Americans?'”
Each time Safar flies, he goes through the same process of long security lines and passport checks as everyone. But his experience is always slightly different from his fellow travelers’. Recently the added attention was more than annoying — it was humiliating.
Safar was traveling through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when he was selected to go through “special registration.”
Security led him into an all-glass room and emptied his belongings onto a table.
“Everyone walking by could see while they searched my body and my bags,” Safar said. “They all looked and I don’t blame them. If some man is getting searched by security, people get nervous about him – they suspect he is bad.”
Many Muslims have airport stories.
“People look at you differently when you’re in airports,” said Belgasem, a senior psychology major.
The women have a laundry list of encounters with sometimes hateful people, but say they try to remain patient even in the most difficult situations.
“People say mean things like, ‘Go back to your country,'” said Belgasem. But she laughs and shakes her head. “I was born and raised right here in Fort Collins.”
Since many Muslim women wear the special dress of a hijab or an abayah, often they take more public criticism than Muslim men.
“I actually had someone ask me if I hide bombs under my hijab,” said Belgasem.
Despite the scrutiny, many of the women who don’t wear the hijab say they wish they could, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. Neither Babak, a senior accounting major, nor her cousin Meena Oriakhel, a junior human development major, wear the hijab, but only because their parents won’t let them.
“Our mothers worry about us. They worry we will be discriminated against if we wear (the hijab),” says Oriakhel, who also says she wishes she could wear the hijab so she could show her devotion to Islam.
Since the terrorist attacks, Muslim parents worry more about their children. Safar says his parents tried to talk him out of coming to America despite his scholarship to come here because of fear of discrimination.
“Before 9/11 (in Saudi Arabia) everyone said: Who isn’t going to America? After, it was: Who is going to America?” said Safar.
“My mom asks me to call her even when I go to the grocery store now,” Belgasem said.
Huma Mehdi, a junior political science major, sits through a lot of classes like Security Policy and Current World Problems and said she finds the ignorance about her culture draining.
“After 9/11 I felt obligated to always be defending the Muslim community, but that doesn’t really allow me to share my views,” said Mehdi. “People don’t understand that my views are not the same as all Muslims’ views.”
And Mehdi says, “Some people think I’m an Arab, and I’m not. I’m a Persian. It’s not my responsibility to keep up with what is going on in Saudi Arabia any more than it is theirs.”
This kind of misunderstanding of the Islamic culture is widespread and comes up with all of the women.
“People talk in those classes about war but they don’t know,” says Sahar who moved here from war-torn Afghanistan in 1992. “After living through war, you know what it is.”
Babak says she uses WebCT discussion boards to talk to people about political issues.
Belgasem avoids classes like Current World Problems. “All of the ‘problems’ they talk about in Current World Problems are about Muslims,” she says.
All CSU staff and faculty were required to attend a workshop last summer that was facilitated by the Muslim Student Association. When people were asked to list the first things they thought about when they thought of Saudi Arabia, they listed terrorists, camels, oil, sexism and oppression, says Safar.
“That is the worst stereotype, I think. We are not all terrorists,” says Safar. “And I only saw a camel once in my entire life, and that is when I went to the desert for the specific purpose of seeing a camel. We do have a lot of oil, but that doesn’t automatically mean we are all wealthy.”
An Aug. 10 USA Today/Gallup Poll said that 52 percent of Americans believe Muslims are not respectful of women.
Belgasem and her friends challenge these stereotypes of Muslim women. At only 19, Belgasem recently became the first female vice president of MSA and has traveled to Jordan, Libya and Egypt with her family to speak to and learn from the women there.
“The oppression of women is not a religious thing,” she said. “It is a cultural thing.”
Oriakhel agrees and recites a phrase from the Quran.
“Paradise is at the feet of mothers,” she says. “Women are very important in our religion.”
“And I am not at all shy,” says Belgasem.
In fact, these women are far from demure; they are active and passionate about their faith and the hijab for them is a symbol that commands respect, not submission.
Mehdi points out another stereotype that clings to the hijab.
“People think the hijab is supposed to make you look ugly,” she laughs and adds, “I hope not!”
Belgasem points out not all the backlash after Sept. 11, 2001, has been negative.
“It has been positive for me because I wanted to teach, she said. “People ask questions now.”
The backlash from the attacks has forced Muslims to grow stronger and more cohesive in their faith and in their organization. The students have come together and pushed aside discrimination within the Islamic community to survive all the scrutiny that came after the attacks.
The MSA’s hard work to educate the public earned them last year’s Exceptional Organization Award from ASCSU. Across the country, Muslim Americans have stepped up to help the country heal and learn.
“Prior to 9/11, a lot of people had no idea what a Muslim was,” said Lori Peek, a sociology professor. “Muslims have an opportunity to educate about their religion and the diversity of the Muslim community. They realized they had to be a stronger voice to say: ‘Of course we don’t support terrorism.'”
Staff writer Lauren Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
USA Today Poll Numbers
From: Aug. 10, 2006, USA Today “USA’s Muslim are Under A Cloud”
USA Today Gallup Poll 1
39 percent of 1,007 respondents feel prejudice against Muslims
22 percent said they wouldn’t want Muslims as neighbors
31 percent said they’d feel more nervous flying if a Muslim man was on the plane
39 percent believe Muslim Americans (MA) are not loyal to the United States
52 percent believe MAs are not respectful of women
40 percent believe MAs are not respectful of other religions
46 percent believe MAs are too extreme in their religious beliefs
Hijab – head scarf worn by Muslim women that covers hair, ears and shoulders
Abayah – full-length robe that covers women from their shoulders to their feet
Jumuah – Friday prayer required for all Muslim men, held at a mosque
Ramadan – The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Begins Sept. 24.
Wudu – The practice of cleaning one’s self before praying, required for both men and women
Thoub – men’s dress worn for prayer
Assalamu Alaikum – an expression that Muslims use when they greet each other. It is translated as “Peace be upon you.”
*All information according to www.answers.com.