First Muslim Sorority Hopes To Form Chapters Across USA

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Christine Ortiz slips quietly from the Muslim prayer room on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and into a group of squealing young women. Some of them are Ortiz’s Muslim sisters, the undergraduate pals who embraced her when she converted to Islam from her family’s Roman Catholicism. Less than a year after she graduated from MIT, Ortiz, 23, has returned to campus on a chilly night to help introduce them to a new concept in Muslim sisterhood: the first Muslim-oriented sorority, Gamma Gamma Chi. The sorority, which was formed last year, has no campus chapters but is trying to drum up interest with informational meetings across the nation. It aims to be a sorority unlike almost all others by adhering to principles of Islam: no alcohol and no casual mixing between men and women. Ortiz is a member of Alpha Phi, one of five traditional sororities at MIT. She says she wants her Muslim girlfriends to have the sorority experience without having to compromise their religious values. In theory, the existing sororities’ policies are in line with Muslim beliefs, but in reality, she says, the sorority culture at MIT and other campuses “unfortunately is based on men and alcohol.” Muslim women at MIT, the University of Kentucky, Rutgers, the University of Maryland-Baltimore and the University of Southern California have expressed interest in Gamma Gamma Chi, says founder and President Althia Collins, who owns an educational consulting business in Alexandria, Va. Collins and her daughter Imani Abdul-Haqq, both Muslim converts, created the sorority in 2005. The MIT gathering attracted 13 women – five in traditional Muslim head scarves and loose-fitting clothes but most with uncovered hair and typical campus attire of jeans and sweaters. “I never felt attracted to sorority life,” says Tania Ullah, 20, a junior from New York City. “Aside from the drinking and partying, which I don’t do, I didn’t feel comfortable with pledging loyalty to the principles.” ‘We’re already a close-knit group’ Collins and Abdul-Haqq’s idea for a Muslim sorority reflects both the increasing presence of the religion on U.S. campuses and the growth of multiculturalism, says Denise Pipersburgh, a lawyer in Newark, N.J., and president of the National Multicultural Greek Council. The National Panhellenic Conference represents 26 historically Caucasian sororities and women’s fraternities with 3.8 million members. The National Panhellenic Council, which represents four historically black sororities and five men’s fraternities, has 1.5 million members. The first Latina sorority was formed in 1975, and Asian-American Greek organizations have existed since the 1920s. At the MIT session, the Muslim women, whose majors include brain and cognitive sciences and chemical engineering, seem intrigued by the idea of their own sorority. But they also are skeptical. “An Islamic sorority is almost an oxymoron, isn’t it?” asks Tasneem Hussam, 20, a junior from Centreville, Va. Muslims are active at MIT, where the Muslim Student Association on the 10,200-student campus regularly attracts 200 people to its dinners. All of the women at the presentation belong to the association. “We’re already a close-knit group,” Hussam says. “I’m a little unsure about how necessary it is to have a sorority.” Tayyba Anwar, 18, a freshman from New York City, wonders how she’ll explain the sorority concept to her parents and persuade them to let her join Gamma Gamma Chi. “They’ll say, ‘What is this? Is it good or bad?’ ” Anwar says. “To me, it sounds like a respectable thing.” Ortiz notes that Greek life is a big part of MIT. “Once they are organized, it’ll give Muslim women a face and voice on campus,” she says. Ultimately, none of the MIT students submitted applications to Gamma Gamma Chi. ‘An American phenomenon’ The Muslim women at MIT say they rarely suffer from discrimination or isolation on campus. Panhellenic President Shannon Nees, 20, a junior from Hatfield, Penn., says they would be welcome in any of MIT’s five sororities. “MIT is a very diverse group of people,” Nees says. “None of the sororities discriminate.” Abdul-Haqq says Gamma Gamma Chi, unlike traditional sororities, will allow Muslim women to feel more comfortable without compromising their Islamic beliefs. Abdul-Haqq recalls trying to join a sorority at Bennett College in Greensboro and fearing she might be required to dress immodestly while pledging. “I don’t wear short sleeves,” she says. “I wear my hair covered. I felt put off from the beginning.” Collins and her daughter have sent e-mails to Muslim student groups and received enthusiastic responses, but no campus has signed up the 10 to 15 members needed for a chapter. “We have to keep in mind that sororities are really an American phenomenon,” Collins says. “A lot of Muslims come from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. This is not a part of their experience.” The sorority has collected the names of 200 women who have expressed interest in joining. The sorority, Collins says, would also welcome non-Muslim women who support its mission. Xenia Tariq, 19, a freshman at Kentucky whose family moved to the USA from Pakistan, attended the sorority’s recent seminar in Lexington and applied to join. She has been spreading the word among her Muslim girlfriends and hopes the university will have a chapter by fall. “I guess the appeal was that it is the first ever Muslim sorority,” Tariq says. “I was thinking this is going to be really cool and groundbreaking, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Muslims, Sororities Explore Common Ground

SYRACUSE, New York (AP) — Gozde Demir says sororities are the most American you can get. But at first, she knew nothing about them. She was a freshman and a conservative Muslim from Turkey. As she walked to Syracuse University’s international center, she noticed the Greek-lettered houses and asked in her then-heavy accent just what they were for. Two years later, after some rejection and tears, she lives in one of them. When Althia Collins hears Demir’s story, she sighs. “I just wish we had found her first,” she says. Collins is the president of America’s first Muslim sorority, Gamma Gamma Chi, which inducted new members last month. For years, the Greek system has been edging away from simply white and Christian. Today, there are Hispanic sororities, Jewish, Asian, black and even lesbian sororities, each with its own answer to, “Where do I belong?” Now the latest twist is Muslim. Combining cultures Imani Abdul-Haqq keeps her bright headscarf closely around her. “I’m obviously Muslim, you know. I cover,” she says. But while out shopping not long ago, a clerk focused on her keychain instead, its three Greek letters stamped in classic green. “Oh, you’re in a sorority!” the clerk said. But not just that. The Muslim sorority is Abdul-Haqq’s own. The U.S.-born senior at North Carolina’s Guilford College founded Gamma Gamma Chi this summer. She’d been looking for a full, fun college experience, but she found it hard to be a good Muslim in the standard Greek world. “To not be part of something because you’re Muslim just shouldn’t be,” she says. The sorority, based in Alexandria, Virginia, mixes Greek accessories with its Islamic values. It has a secret ceremony and a special handshake, even tank tops, tote bags and printed coffee mugs. It also has interest from schools in 16 states. Gamma Gamma Chi arrived at the University of Kentucky with a formal presentation for about a dozen girls. “Maybe this will kill the stereotype of sororities — partying, drinking, you know,” says Kentucky freshman Naema Shalash. “It sounds pretty interesting.” But Gamma Gamma Chi does plan to party, in its own way. No men and no alcohol allowed. Group faces criticism The approach does get some criticism. Muslim men have written to Abdul-Haqq, “Why do you have to be like non-Muslims?” And some students say existing Muslim groups do just fine. “My only question is, why?” says Jameelah Shukri, a manager at the Al-Thalib student magazine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “We have our girl parties, we hang out, we live together. I personally don’t see the need to put Greek letters to it. But I guess if it’s increasing unity, more power to them.” Collins, the president and Abdul-Haqq’s mother, says Gamma Gamma Chi eventually will take part in campus Rush Weeks and perhaps even join the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella group of 26 women’s fraternities and sororities. The Indiana-based NPC says it doesn’t keep membership statistics based on religion. The headscarf will be the only way to tell Gamma Gamma Chi is a Muslim sorority, Abdul-Haqq says. But it will be an important symbol, too. “I would think seeing us getting to have fun and dressing cool, it would make people think, ‘Maybe I don’t have to set Islam aside,”‘ she says. “I can have fun and be Muslim.” Demir just wanted to feel American. “Some international students have their own little bubble,” she said as she curled up at a table in an off-campus teahouse not long after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “They hang out with friends and say, ‘Why go out and feel uncomfortable?’ “I’m like, ‘No. I’m going to get this. I’m going to do this.”‘ Greek life is foreign concept More than 565,000 international students study on American campuses, according to a report released last month by the Institute of International Education. But advisers say Demir’s leap to Greek life is one few students try. The national Multicultural Greek Council represents groups that emphasize diversity, but its president, Denise Pipersburgh, knows of few international students who get involved. “The idea’s too foreign,” she says. Demir arrived at Syracuse and decided to sample all she could. If you don’t get out there, she thought, why live in the U.S.? But international advisers hesitated at sororities. “I was concerned about the kind of life and freedom they have,” says Fariba Rahmanzadeh, an adviser. Twenty-five years after arriving at Syracuse from Iran, she says she’s never been past the lobby of a sorority house. So as a freshman, Demir let Rush Week pass. On bid day, doors in her dorm were covered with the teddy bears and bright balloons of acceptance. But not hers. “I missed that,” she told herself. “I should have done that.” A year later, her English improved, her circle of friends grew and she joined Rush Week. She found a sorority she liked, a partying crowd. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, we love you,”‘ she says. Then they rejected her, and she cried. “Why do you care?” other international students asked. At the teahouse, the 21-year-old junior picks at a piece of cake, and at an answer. “Our understanding of Americans is Americans as white Americans,” she says. “As much as they liked me, it was still not good enough for me to be part of them.” Of course America is more than white, she says. “But think about it. If you’re just 18, you don’t have the maturity to say, ‘It’s the culture.’ You say, ‘It’s me. They don’t like me.”‘ In time, she visited another sorority, one that promotes itself as non-sectarian and multicultural. “I’m Turkish,” she told them up front. They liked her attitude, and she was in. Demir was quickly named the sorority’s multicultural and diversity chairwoman. (She asked that her sorority not be identified.) She plans to mentor other Turkish girls who might want to join sororities. During Ramadan, she tried to set up a special dinner at the sorority house with the school’s Muslim association. It fell through. “The Muslim group was not comfortable with it,” she says. Next year, Demir might try again.