St. Louis Muslim Women: One Religion, Many Cultures
As March winds blasted the region, West County lawyer Lubabah Abdullah’s hair remained neat under a bright scarf, giving her the élan of Grace Kelly riding in a sleek convertible with Cary Grant. Abdullah, an American-born Muslim of Sudanese Arab heritage wraps her head in bright colored scarves for modesty.
Now in her mid-30s she began covering her head daily when she was 13. She was one of two girls in her St. Louis County middle school class who witnessed their Islam faith by wearing plain black, grey or white headscarves. At Parkway West High School, she was teased for her scarves and her faith. Classmates knew that she was a “preacher’s kid,” daughter of Imam Mohammed Nur Abdullah. He was then the religious leader at Daar-ul-Islam, the region’s largest mosque, which faces Queeny Park in Ballwin.
“We called it teasing,” she said. “Then, our idea of bullying was (physical) fights. Today, we would say I was bullied. Then, teachers looked the other way.”
After years of living away from St. Louis for college, law school, study in Egypt and marriage, she returned nearly two years ago.
As many as 1,000 Muslim St. Louis women wear head scarves in public – outside mosques – Abdullah roughly estimates. Today only rarely do strangers stare at her headscarf. It may signal that St. Louisans are more tolerant than they were in her teens.
“St. Louis is much more diverse than it was 20 years ago,” the Arab American said. “Of course, there will always be some bigots.”
Except when they visit mosques, most St. Louis Muslim women do not wear headscarves or face veils or cover their clothing in a burqua or chador. Quran, Islam’s scripture, does not require them to cover up. The Quran charges women to dress modestly.
The diversity of Muslims and the issues particular to women will be the focus of a talk Monday evening at Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church. The Lee Institute will host Muslim scholar Mehnaz Afridi who plans to focus on Malala Yousafzai, a teen who was shot in the face for her advocacy for girls’ education in her native Swat Valley of Afghanistan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-described atheist. Growing up Muslim in Somali, Ali survived ritual genital mutilation. Her books have called the faith backward while defending women's rights in Islamic societies.
Afridi teaches religion studies at Manhattan College, a Catholic school sponsored by the La Salle Christian Brothers. As director of the school’s Holocaust Genocide and Interfaith Education Center, she works closely with synagogues.
St. Louis history
Until fairly recently, most St. Louis Muslims were African-American, Arab or Southeast Asians.
“Until the early 1990s I knew most every Muslim in St. Louis,” said Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a neurologist, Saint Louis University Med School professor and former chairwoman of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. Now the foundation’s public relations committee chair, she was the first woman to head a large U.S. mosque.
Twenty years ago, the region had two mosques: the foundation rented space in a converted office building on the Saint Louis University campus and a long established African-American mosque. Today St. Louis has 20 mosques and two more planned: Afghanis have blueprints for one and the fourth mosque built by Bosnians will be at Reavis Barracks and MacKenzie roads.
About 100,000 Muslims live in St. Louis, according to the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. About 25,000 to 30,000 of them are adult women, Hayat estimates.
Two New Waves of Muslims
Hayat and her contemporaries were part of the second great wave of Muslim immigrants who arrived in this country in the 1970s. The first Muslims to arrive were captured Africans brought over on slave ships.
Hayat came to St. Louis in 1971 from Pakistan with her medical degree in hand. The door to citizenship was open to her because of a major change in U.S. immigration law. The 1968 Immigration and Nationality Act threw out the “national origins” formula. Under that, specific nations – mostly European and China – had quotas for immigration based on existing ethnic representation in the United States.
The new law sought talented and well-educated people from across the globe. Among those who settled in St. Louis in the ’70s were Pakistanis, Indians and Arabs with advanced degrees. Many worked as scientists, physicians and mathematicians; still others created companies. Over the next generation they were allowed to bring in their relatives, who in turn brought their relations.
“At first it was all professionals, then, some relatives who were blue collar workers,” Hayat said.
A dozen years later, Americans’ compassion for defeated South Vietnamese led to the Refuge Act of 1980. That law’s provisions eventually extended beyond Southeast Asia. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. State Department assigned Muslim refugees from Bosnia, Palestine, Iran, Somalia, Iraq, Morocco and Afghanistan to International Institute and Catholic Charities Refugee Service here. Many in this third wave of Muslims were skilled but spoke no English. While taking English classes, learning new skills in fields as varied as modern agriculture methods to computers, many worked several part time jobs at minimum wages to support their families and assure that their children could thrive.
Muslim melting pot
St. Louis Muslims come from more than two dozen nations. National heritage explains differences in how they express their faith, celebrate holy days and even the strictures that define daily living. When Muslims from various nations mix and listen to each other’s imams (religious scholars) the variety is clear.
Often national cultural traditions and law are so tightly braided with faith that people have confused culture with religion, according to Afridi, the Lee Institute speaker, in a phone interview. Immigrants often lack the ability to separate their beloved mother nation’s traditions from what the Quran says is necessary to observe their Islamic faith.
The core worship in Islam is in Arabic, the language of the Quran. Muslims who don’t read Arabic can read the Quran in translation. At Friday Jum’ah prayer services at mosques the imam delivers a khutbah – sermon – in English or in the congregation’s home language then leads prayers. Combining various nation’s traditional rites presents challenges in multi-ethnic U.S. mosques.
Most St. Louis Muslims can agree on core beliefs. More than eight-in-10 U.S. Muslims say the Quran is the word of God, according to a Pew Center for Religion survey. Half of American Muslims say the scripture should be taken literally. Generally U.S. Muslims don’t attend Friday Jum’ah prayer service as frequently as those in Muslim nations, Pew found. Muslim men but not Muslim women are obliged to attend. Women the world over attend Friday services in much smaller numbers than men. Generally women are seated in balconies or in the back of the room.
A couple weekends ago, Afridi, who was born in Pakistan and now lives in New York, made a weekend religious retreat. Seated beside a Palestinian Muslim woman, she noticed that their prayer ritual and movements were different. “But we were praying the same words in Arabic,” Afridi said.
At a wedding ceremony at Daar-ul-Islam mosque in Ballwin, foreign-born parents occasionally demand their native tradition of keeping the bride and other women guests outside the view of male guests. Male guests may sit through a service and never see the bride.
“That is not Islam; it’s a tradition in countries that might be predominately Muslim. We had a wedding like that in my family, too,” Afridi said. “It’s patriarchal. It’s cultural but not Islam, not in the Quran.” In her Monday evening talk she’ll distinguish charming cultural extras from barnacles such as Taliban bans on educating women or African female circumcision as she profiles two international Muslim women.
Hayat, who has long encountered cultural misunderstanding about her faith, works with the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis and the Interfaith Partnership to welcome non-Muslims to the mosque and to holiday events. She has led her mosque in partnerships with interfaith high school groups and services projects.
“There is so much misunderstanding about what is cultural tradition and what is Islam, even among educated Americans … sometimes among some Muslims,” Hayat said.
Many non-Muslim Americans are convinced that many Muslims don’t want women to learn to read, and that they must be veiled head to toe, and must only marry the men parents chose for them. The Quran requires none of these.
Recently, Hayat and some non-Muslim medical colleagues were talking about infant male circumcision. Some colleagues assumed that Islam allowed removal of female genitals of young girls, called female circumcision. Hayat explained to her colleagues that the dangerous, life-altering cutting is custom in some African and Middle Eastern countries that have a Muslim majority.
“That is not part of Islam, in fact, it is condemned in Islam,” she said.
A ban on women’s education, as enforced by extremist groups such as the Taliban, also has no basis in the Quran, Hayat said. Khadija, the prophet Mohamed’s first wife and the Quran’s first promoter, was not a stay-at-home wife, Hayat said. Khadija was a shipping magnate whose prosperity allowed the Quran to be widely promulgated in the Arab world.
Sometimes wearing a scarf has been an act of more than identity but bravery. Abdullah, the West County lawyer of Sudanese descent, was 20 and a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia at the time of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She was moved that many non-Muslim students were very protective of her.
“They would walk me to my car,” she said about the stressful months after the attacks.
“Women I know wear the scarf because they want to, not because some man says they must,” said Abdullah, the mother of two. She would like to defend an American Muslim women’s right to keep her hair covered. She sees their right to wear a scarf as guaranteed under Freedom of Religion. She's disappointed that France and other European nations ban head coverings.
“Younger American Muslims believe in the Constitution,” Hayat said. “They believe that and that they will be part of the mainstream of Americans, like the Italians and Irish and others before.”