American Muslims balance faith, culture identity
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 16, 2012 at 5:16 a.m.
Inside the Victoria Islamic Center, Heidi Ajrami and Arooj Qureshi flipped their shoes off and found a comfy spot to lean against the wall in the back room.
The rear room where the ladies gabbed about their day while cross-legged on the plush blue carpet is partitioned from the worship area in the center of the building and across from the center's mosque.
It's an area the women spend much of their time throughout the year with their husbands and children - eating, praying, celebrating and observing their Muslim faith.
While each of them today are committed to the Islamic community, modesty of dress and teachings of the prophet Mohammed, they admit their identities as women of Islam is unique to other Muslim women who may not have been born in the United States.
Yet theirs is a story not-so-uncommon from many Muslim-American women nationwide, they said, who strive daily to fit in, as much as they do to stand out.
"My faith is much more at the forefront than it used to be," said a hijab-covered Qureshi, 34, a first-generation American Muslim born to Pakistani parents. "I don't want people to look at me and say, 'Oh, you're Muslim.' That's not it. It's much more a part of my life now, but sometimes it's very hard to find a balance because it's not just about being a Muslim. It's about being Pakistani and Muslim. And being Muslim and American. And I am an American."
Qureshi, a native of Beeville, said she grew up celebrating Muslim customs and holidays, often driving to Houston to find friends and family who also practiced the faith. But it wasn't until recently that she made the decision to daily wear the traditional head covering - an outward, physical display of faith - and committed to be more involved in a steady community of Islamic believers.
"I get more questions now that I wear (the hijab). I don't think people are used to seeing me in it yet. Sometimes kids in my daughter's class say, 'I really like your head thing,' and that's OK because I think they're just asking what the parents are thinking," Qureshi said. "I think everyone thinks I was forced to wear it, or I grew up wearing it. But I made the choice to wear it."
At home, with her husband and children, she will remove the head scarf, but when she's out in the community, Qureshi covers full time.
And even though she's grown up in Texas, received two bachelor's degrees from Southwestern University, and she's the daughter and wife of renowned physicians, Qureshi said many times people will look at her and assume she's un-American.
"I think they do, but it makes a big difference if I just open my mouth and talk because they don't expect me to talk like I do," she said. "I don't want to be stereotyped as 'off the boat' or have someone address me with that in their mind."
Qureshi, who works as an office manager in her husband's private medical practice, said when she was growing up, she experienced more of an American upbringing than a Muslim one. She played soccer and took piano classes. She watched football and barbecued on the weekends. Her parents were careful not to exclude American traditions from her adolescence, while the orthodoxy of Islam, for a time, seemed to remain in the periphery.
"We slowly learned the Quran, but it wasn't beat into our heads. We went to private Catholic schools, and I loved to sing the hymns at Christmastime," she said. "There was a disconnect when I was growing up, but now my kids have the advantage of the mosque and the Islamic community. I didn't have that experience growing up."
For Ajrami, the experience of being an American-Muslim woman differs somewhat from Qureshi's.
Ajrami, 44, an English associate professor at Victoria College, converted to the faith when she married her Muslim husband, Abed Ajrami.
Ajrami said her parents, self-professed Unitarians, were liberal with their children's faith practice when they were growing up and encouraged them to seek their own paths of spirituality.
"As kids we were not required to practice religion. If we celebrated the holidays, they were for fun, it wasn't attached to a religion," she said. "When I got married, we had a conversation about religion, and since I wasn't religious, I didn't care where we got married."
About four months after the nuptials, Ajrami said she decided to convert, which in Islam consists of declaring your faith audibly before two or more witnesses.
"I felt Islam had better answers to the stories of the Bible than Christianity did," she said. "Adam and Eve both at the fruit, and childhood is a blessing not a punishment."
In her daily life, Ajrami does not cover her head with a hijab, though she does make an effort to wear clothes that cover her arms and legs. When inside the mosque however, she will wear a hijab, and full dress when attending special events and holidays.
"It hasn't been difficult to explain my faith to the general public. They're generally curious, they want to hear about it," Ajrami said. "But as far as being an American Muslim, there are times when it doesn't seem to fit as well as it could, or should, but it's because our communities are so diverse."
Islam in the United States is steadily increasing, and was earlier this year announced by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life to be the fastest growing religion in America.
American converts to Islam have remained around 16.5 percent annually, but American women have been converting to Islam more frequently in the past decade, rising in numbers by about 9 percent, according to a Harford Seminary study on "The American Mosque," released earlier this year.
Ajrami and Qureshi are not surprised by the increases, especially for American women, because they recognize their faith to be at its core, one of peace and advancement of women.
"Today, women are more empowered to go and find answers for themselves, and when they go find them, they see that Islam is strong in women's rights. That in the Quran, women were given equality, allowed to vote, work, choose their husbands, and dowries were paid to the women instead of the men," Ajrami said. "The problems they have in the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam. It's cultural. In the United States, we have laws that protect religion."
"The pure religion is very beautiful and the women are not oppressed. If it were, you wouldn't see so many women converting," Qureshi added.
Both women say they're proud to be modern-day American women of Islam, and hope non-Muslims who are curious about the faith will seek the truth about the religion of Islam, and its people.
And for Ajrami and Qureshi, they're clinging to a identity trifecta to be women of God, family and country.
"We seem to be the faith of Islam because we're wearing our Islam, right? But I hope for my kids their experience is more normal, and one day more effortless to to be American, Muslim and Muslim-American," Qureshi said.