Muslim women face decisions on traditional, modern values

New York, USA - Muna Irziqat, a recent immigrant from the West Bank, wired the computers in the entire social service organization in Brooklyn where she volunteers. By using the technical skills she learned in college in the Middle East, she said she proves that Muslim women can do whatever they put their minds to.

But when a male client recently asked to speak to her alone about a confidential matter, Irziqat, who wears the traditional head scarf, or hijab, panicked and stopped him from closing the door.

''I wasn't afraid of him, but he was an Egyptian Muslim and he knew the religion," Irziqat said afterward. ''I felt guilty. In our culture, when a man and woman who are not married are in a room by themselves, it is said, there are three people present. The third is the devil."

Like Irziqat that day, many Muslim women from immigrant Arab families experience the push and pull between the traditional Islam of their homelands and the relative freedom enjoyed by women in the United States.

The tension is fiercer, observers said, for women who are new to the ways of this country, who take on leadership roles, or who are first-generation Americans still committed to traditional customs. When those women try to balance both worlds, they can have contradictory impulses because they respect their culture, but do not want to be held back by it.

''A lot of Muslim women who grew up in this country always had freedom of movement and speech, and so those are not real issues for them," said Tayyibah Taylor, editor of Azizah, an Atlanta-based magazine for Muslim women. ''But when you are coming from a Muslim-majority country where women are not encouraged to be part of the public space, then women who come here have to go through [introspection] on how to negotiate public space or if to attempt to do it at all."

''Sometimes I feel like I am two people," said Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American and community activist. ''To mainstream Americans, I am always talking about my culture and trying to show women are not oppressed, but to my people in the community, I am progressive."

Although Sarsour was born in Brooklyn, she made a conscious decision to follow the cultural norms of her parents' homeland. Irziqat was born into a conservative religious culture in Jordan. But both women say they struggle with guilt and frustration as they try to be independent Muslim women in America.

Their stories, said Taylor, are not unusual, but represent a chapter in the evolving saga of Muslim immigrants in this country.

The daughter of a banker and a homemaker, Irziqat, 22, said her large family in the Jordanian capital of Amman always followed tradition. Although she was engaged to her cousin for three years, she said he never saw a wisp of her hair or touched her hand until they wed. Yet, she said her husband, whom she married when she was 19, has always been supportive of her career. She received a degree in computer science from a West Bank college and worked as an administrative assistant and graphic artist for a publishing company.

''I know that not all Muslim men are like my husband," she said, struggling with her English. ''Some can be jealous."

In February, Irziqat and her husband, who works as a salesman for a cellphone company, arrived from the Palestinian territory to start a life here. The center where she volunteers five times a week opened several weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in response to the needs of the Arab-American community in Bay Ridge, one of the largest in the nation.

The center's small paid staff and host of volunteers assist the community with many concerns, arranging healthcare for documented and undocumented workers, assisting with translations, and providing legal aid on immigration issues. Based in a small storefront, the center is funded by individuals in the community along with grants from organizations such as the Red Cross.

Back home, she said, educated Muslim women worked and they gathered at cafes, but she said New Yorkers, who see her walking down the street covered from head to toe, assume she is backward, subdued, and afraid.

''To be honest, when I first came to this country, I hated it. Not the people. But, in my home, I was working. I was very active," said Irziqat, who does not have children.

Still, she concedes that part of the frustration comes from her trying to hold onto tradition in a Western work setting: When the client tried to close the door earlier this month, she asked a staff member to keep an eye on the door for her. Every day at the center, she plays musical chairs to ensure she is not in a room alone with the only male staff member at the center. ''He's like a brother, but he is not my brother, so we can never be alone," she said.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, author of ''What's Right With Islam Is Right With America," said the Koran is silent on the issue of men and women being together, but he said conservative interpretations say unmarried, unrelated men and women should not be alone together.

Sarsour, an outspoken, spirited New Yorker, was raised to believe that was true. She said she comes from a traditional Muslim family whose conservative ways were less a result of religion, but more about maintaining a good standing in the community.

''My male friends from high school knew not to even raise their eyes my way if they saw me with my mother. They just acted like they didn't know me," recalled Sarsour, 25.

By age 17, she met her future husband when he paid her family a visit with his extended family in tow and a $10,000 dowry. The only thing she asked of him on the day the imam, a religious leader, met with them for premarriage counseling was to support her career ambitions and pursuit of a college degree. He agreed and asked only that she be a respectful wife and a good mother.

Now a mother of three, she is a graduate of Brooklyn College with a degree in English. She works a second job as a family advocate at a city hospital and plans to run for City Council one day.

''I am 25 years old, married with three kids, and I was married in an arranged marriage, and that happened right here in Brooklyn," she said. ''People always say, 'What! Most people don't get married until they are 30,' and I say 'not my people.' "

But, unlike Irziqat, who dresses in long coats even when it is warm, Sarsour tries to hold onto her Western ways by wearing hijabs that are colorful, short jackets, long jean skirts, and jazzy high-heeled boots. She spends $150 to streak her hair blond, though few will ever see it. Whereas Irziqat reads the Koran and prays five times a week, Sarsour goes to mosque twice a year.

Sarsour, program director for the Arab-American Association of New York where Irziqat volunteers, began covering her hair in 2000 as a testament to her faith and to follow tradition. Now that she does, she is often asked if she speaks English.

Sarsour admits, though, that sometimes it is her internal quest to prove she can be both progressive and traditional that causes her to feel duplicitous: The women at the center teach an ''empowerment" seminar that encourages Muslim women to take more time out for themselves, but the classes are disguised as ''social councils" so as not to offend the imams or men in the community.

''We don't want a backlash and for men to think we are telling them to leave their husbands," said Sarsour.

Recently the center helped sponsor a domestic abuse seminar, which 65 Muslim men attended. ''But it would have to be an extreme case for us to call the police on a Muslim man," she admits, adding that domestic abuse issues are often worked out through counseling with the imam.

Even Sarsour, whose position demands she meet with men and women, constantly makes sure the door of her office is ajar when meeting alone with a man. Her husband, Maher Judh, 35, who grew up in El-bireh, a town in the West Bank, and works in a grocery store in Brooklyn, said he is proud of his busy wife.

''She shows Americans that Muslim women are not all down," he said, adding that he has no problem with her working with men. ''But, if the door is shut, then that is not right."