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.

Belgian King Acts Over Islamic Veil Death Threat

King Albert II voices solidarity with Remmery, company boss facing death threat for defending Amzil’s right to wear a headscarf. BRUSSELS – Belgium’s King Albert II has voiced solidarity with a company boss facing a death threat for defending an employee’s right to wear an Islamic headscarf, in a case gripping the country, officials said Wednesday. The Belgian monarch will grant an audience next month to Rik Remmery, who runs a food processing firm in western Belgium, and his staff member Naima Amzil, the royal palace said. Albert II “is following the case closely and is very impressed by the manager’s decision not to give in to pressure,” said the king’s top aide cited by the Belga news agency. At the end of November Remmery received a letter, signed by a group calling itself “New Free Flanders,” demanding that he sack 31-year-old Amzil if she persisted in wearing a headscarf to work. The letter accused him of being “a bad Belgian who collaborates with Muslims,” and threatened both Remmery and his family. In response Amzil offered to take off her headscarf during working hours, and also said she could resign. But her boss refused both options, and has been backed by a growing wave of support in Belgium’s northern Flanders region, where the anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang group has backing from about a quarter of voters according to polls. One employers’ group has collected 17,000 signatures backing Remmery. “May your calm resolve become symbols of tolerance in Flanders,” said the Unizo bosses’ association. Remmery and Amzil will be received by the Belgian monarch on January 12, the royal office said.

Belgian School Accepts French Veil Refugee

BRUSSELS – A 12-year-old French girl who was expelled from school for wearing a headscarf is to be educated in Belgium, it emerged on Wednesday. Hilal was excluded from her school in the east of France because she refused to take off her Islamic headscarf, which has now be banned in schools by the French authorities. She will now attend a Belgian boarding school that allows more religious freedom, said her lawyer, Mrs Boukara.

US Opposes Oklahoma Headscarf Ban

The US justice department has filed a complaint on behalf of a Muslim girl who was twice sent home from school for wearing a headscarf. The education authorities said the hijab breached the dress code of the school in Oklahoma. But the justice department says it amounts to religious discrimination. The case of 11-year-old Nashala Hearn follows rows in France and elsewhere about whether the school is a suitable place for religious symbols.

Headscarves In The Headlines

France is not the only country where headscarves have proved contentious. A number of countries already ban the garment from schools and other public buildings, while elsewhere it is the failure of women to don a veil which prompts outrage.

Singapore
Singapore, keen to avoid racial and religious tensions between its ethnic Chinese majority and the Malay Muslim minority, has banned the scarf from schools. The Singapore government believes the ban is necessary to promote racial harmony, but Muslims say it infringes upon their religious freedoms.

Germany
The issue has come to a head in recent months after Germany’s supreme court ruled that a school was wrong to exclude a Muslim teacher because she wore a headscarf. The judges declared that current legislation did not allow for such a decision, but added that individual states would be within their rights to make legal provisions to this effect.

France The French parliament is widely expected to approve legislation banning overt religious symbols – including headscarves – from schools. President Jacques Chirac believes such a ban is necessary to preserve the secularity of the French state.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority recently warned of “”grave consequences”” if women continued to appear unveiled.

Turkey
For the past 80 years Turks have lived in a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward looking in his campaign to secularise Turkish society. Scarves are consequently banned in civic spaces in the country.

Belgium
Two politicians, inspired by developments in neighbouring France, are hoping to push legislation through parliament that would ban the headscarf from state schools.

Russia
Muslim women last year won the right to wear the headscarf for identification photos, which was banned in Russia in 1997.

Denmark
A Muslim woman last year lost a high-profile court case against a large supermarket chain in Denmark after she had been fired for wearing a headscarf at work in 2001. The court ruled that her contract contained a dress code banning headgear.”

Headscarf and French Civil Servant

A court has ruled that a French civil servant who wore an Islamic headscarf on the job committed a “particularly serious offense” and may face disciplinary action because she violated the separation of church and state. Nadjet ben Abdallah, a 33-year-old work inspector in the central city of Lyon, had argued that a disciplinary committee’s decision to sanction her for wearing the headscarf at work was unjust. The administrative court in Lyon disagreed and in a decision released Friday, the court said the woman was wrong to go to work “wearing an item of clothing that ostentatiously expresses membership in a particular religion.” France, which has a large Muslim community, has long had an emotionally charged debate about wearing headscarves in public schools. Girls who refuse to remove headscarves if asked have triggered strikes by teachers and an outcry from many others, particularly politicians. French President Jacques Chirac has set up a commission to study how France’s secular ethic should be applied, an attempt to satisfy a changing, increasingly diverse France without compromising secularism.