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Muslim women walking KU Plaza photo by Larry Burgess

In their eyes

3:35 PM  Feb 11th, 2013
by Cilla Shindell

Why would Muslim women want to study at a Catholic university? As they see it, there’s no better place to be than UD.

Just a light breeze is ruffling the leaves of the trees around Humanities Plaza on a June day. The sun is out, warming the low walls surrounding the green space. There’s plenty of space for the four women to sit and linger and catch up on the things that students do between classes. Head bent, one holds a BlackBerry with two hands, typing out text messages; the glittery purple phone case catches the sun and flashes with her movements. Another student, wearing a tropical print top, is studying, writing in a red University of Dayton notebook imprinted with the image of the Immaculate Conception Chapel and its distinctive cross-topped cupola.

The other two women look a bit like Jackie Kennedy Onassis with large-lens sunglasses masking much of their faces and large handbags embellished with designer logos at their feet. As classes change and the foot traffic heads to Kennedy Union, the women are people-watching, paying particular attention as the women go by, some clad in T-shirts, others in what looks like job-hunting skirts and heels.

“I don’t like those shoes with that outfit,” says one fashionista. “It’s very old-fashioned.”

The other nods her agreement. As the chapel bells ring the quarter hour, all four gather their books and notebooks, purses and cell phones, and head off to class.

Before they go, one tugs at a long black sleeve to pull the edge over her wrist. Another makes sure the snow-white scarf she’s wearing completely wraps her hair and covers her neck, framing her face and accenting her large, dark eyes.

As they walk into the shade toward Rike Center, their long skirts swing gently side to side. They appear to be gliding across the brick walkways. With the long skirts, long sleeves and covered heads, they evoke the statues and images of Mary, veiled and robed, that grace the campus.

Tuntas Hartini

Meet the international Muslim women of UD, comfortable on a campus where there’s a crucifix in every classroom, images of Jesus and Mary everywhere, and a deeply rooted identity as a faith-based university. They are both a part of and apart from life on a campus that is consciously encouraging globalization and embracing it as beneficial for the entire community. Which means it shouldn’t be surprising that a Catholic university is getting a reputation as a good place for Muslim students — especially women from even the most conservative countries.

“I don’t feel like I’m a stranger here,” said Sarah Abdullah, an Intensive English Program student from Saudi Arabia.

One woman, an undergraduate in the premed program, said she was drawn by UD’s high academic standards, and the fact that UD is a Catholic school also had appeal. “Actually, when I found out it was a Catholic college, I thought it might be a little better. Like I thought that it might have a little more stricter guidelines that Muslims … like more discipline and stronger morals — that might make it better for me. I respect religious people of any faith who are sincere.”

*     *     *

With their distinctive headscarves, or hijabs, these Muslim women are unmistakable evidence of the University of Dayton’s expanding global reach and growing reputation. Although the increase in Muslim women at Catholic colleges is a fairly new trend, research shows that the women are finding security and comfort on campuses where faith is honored and respected. They bring cultural, religious and linguistic variety to campus, enriching the learning environment and helping UD’s domestic students become citizens of the world.

“I was surprised I felt so comfortable here,” said Eelaf Aqeel, a civil engineering major from Kuwait. “People are nice, they talk and they say hi. They don’t make me feel different. I love how people respect people here.”

“We feel that this is a friendly place for Muslim women,” said Tuntas Hartini from Indonesia.

In 2012, the University enrolled more than 1,400 international students from 40 countries. Although UD doesn’t ask or track the religions of students, an analysis of enrollment from predominantly Muslim countries paints a picture. Nearly a quarter of today’s international students are from 14 predominantly Muslim countries. In 2010, there were 175 total students from predominantly Muslim countries. In 2012, that number nearly doubled to 326.

The growth is in line with national trends. The Institute of International Education estimated the number of international students in the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa increased 15 percent from 2010 to 2011. For 2009, the Higher Education Research Institute found that Catholic campuses had a higher percentage of Muslim students than the average four-year institution.

At UD, the increasing number of international Muslim women is even more striking, the estimate growing from just 27 in 2010 to 78 this year. Women from Saudi Arabia, considered among the most conservative Muslim countries, have increased from 18 to 55; 10 years ago, only two Saudi women were UD students. Seven Kuwaiti women are students this year — five of them undergraduates. Others come from Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia and other countries.

The governments of most of the Middle Eastern students provide full scholarships to fund their overseas studies, and governments not only recommend — but also guide students to — schools that have good support systems and strong academic programs. One of those programs is the University’s Intensive English Program. IEP boosts language skills to fast-track students into their degree programs. Getting a high-quality degree as quickly as possible is imperative for the students because the governments have high expectations and the support comes with some limits.

Sarah Almalhem, from Saudi Arabia, is one of those. She’s been at UD only three months but has already moved into a high-level IEP course and is about ready to start her master’s coursework in computer science. While nearly all of the international women are here with a male family member — commonly a husband, brother or uncle, who is studying here — Almalhem is a bit different.

“I’m living here with my father and mother,” she said, explaining that her father retired so that she could study here. “When you get the scholarship, a condition is that you must have a male family member here.”

*     *     *

Most of the women are here to study engineering, some business, some computer science. A few are seeking degrees in educational leadership and political science. Riad Alakkad ’80, associate dean in the School of Engineering who helps with recruiting and acts as unofficial godfather to many students, says word is getting around, and the word of governments and male family members are deal-makers or deal-breakers.

“They’re hearing that UD is a good place, that it gives you all the support you need,” he said, adding that the University is building a strong reputation with the cultural offices in many countries that recommend and send students to school in the U.S. As their students report those positive experiences, countries send more. Kuwait, for example, customarily imposes a 35- to 50-student cap on schools until they develop a good track record for academics and support; that cap was lifted for the University last year and Alakkad expects a significant increase in Kuwaiti students in the future.

Shirin Jouzdani

“I think they recognize that, as a campus, we do a good job for our students,” said Amy Anderson ’09, director of UD’s Center for International Programs.

Along with the enrollment, the University’s academic and support network for all international students has grown, with special attention given to accommodating the Muslim students’ faith practices. When Rike Center was renovated in 2011 for the Center for International Programs, a large classroom was outfitted for double-duty as a prayer room with a room divider to provide the required separation of men and women. A small adjoining room offers separate spaces for ablutions, the ritual washing of hands, feet, arms and face required before prayers.

Father James Fitz, S.M. ’68, vice president for mission and rector, said the accommodations are consistent with the University’s Catholic, Marianist tradition to welcome all people. Providing welcome, giving support and creating space to practice faith is in line with Catholic teaching and what Pope Benedict XVI has asked Muslim countries to do. “The pope called on Muslim countries to provide worship spaces for Roman Catholics,” Fitz said. “Creating a prayer room here is reciprocal. It’s a statement about religious freedom. If we ask that for ourselves, we should provide a space for them.”

He thinks the University of Dayton’s deep-rooted identity as a place of faith and religion sends a powerful message of welcome. “I understand why Muslim students feel comfortable here,” Fitz said. “It’s a faith-oriented campus; the atmosphere is not adverse to talking about faith. We respect their religious practices and we support them.”

*     *     *

When Muslim women in hijabs first started appearing on campus about three years ago, Cynthia Shafer ’96 was intrigued. A self-confessed globetrotter throughout her life, she had spent months at a time traveling and living in a number of majority-Muslim countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia. She had also spent time in other countries where Muslims were in the minority, and she saw firsthand the resulting friction when Muslim culture collided with other cultures. She wondered about the apparent incongruity and possible tension from highly visible Muslim women on a Catholic campus, and she wondered how they were adjusting.

Shafer is particularly attuned to student issues. In her eight years as the communication department’s director of academic advising, she had encountered scores of students with much more mainstream American backgrounds having trouble adapting to college life. She was curious about how Muslims from very different cultures coped with those challenges.

Outgoing, energetic, with blond hair that just grazes her shoulders, often dressed in a short skirt, she’s passionate about students and brings a nonjudgmental compassion to her work. As a doctoral student in educational leadership, she channeled her curiosity and focused her research on the experiences of Muslim women at UD. Shafer, who is now assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, made exploration of their adjustment the center of her doctoral dissertation and began interviewing women at the University of Dayton and Xavier University in fall 2011.

She turned her attention to Muslim women — both international and domestic — because, while the numbers of men were greater, the challenges of women in adapting to campus were much more complicated. Shafer said the hijab many choose to wear make women much more visible and is in essence an identification badge, announcing to the world their devotion to their faith. “The Muslim men on campus wear western clothes, and they’re not obliged to make this public commitment to their faith,” she said. “Men can fly under the radar; women really can’t.”

Although the hijabs are outward signs of faith, they are more than just badges of identification. Islam’s holy book, the Quran, says women should cover their heads and most of their bodies as a sign of modesty, a very important aspect of the faith. While interpretations vary across Islam, covering is among the distinctive practices many adherents follow in their daily lives: praying five times a day, avoiding alcohol, fasting during monthlong Ramadan, washing before prayer, avoiding pork and other meats not ritually butchered, and maintaining social separation between unrelated men and women.

Shafer found the women for her research one by one, starting with a student she already knew, and asking her to connect Shafer with other women willing to be interviewed. As her circle grew, Shafer attended prayer services, was invited to parties and gatherings, and she developed genuine friendships.

She found that the schools’ Catholic identities were strong, positive selling points for the women because they signaled institutions that were not only faith-based, but which emphasized values that were closely aligned with their own. The fact that the distinctive image of the cupola of the Immaculate Conception Chapel on everything from notebook covers to letterhead doesn’t bother them in the least, they told her.

“I came here because I wanted to know the American people. And I wanted to know their religion, so I am really happy to go to a Catholic university. It’s a great experience for me,” said one of the international students Shafer interviewed.

While the women told Shafer they are happy here, they feel safe, comfortable and welcomed, she found that they essentially live on the margins of campus life and the campus community.

Their conservative lifestyles lead international students to form tight communities with women from their own countries. Their social gatherings are women-only, abiding by the Muslim requirement to keep separate from unrelated men.

A conservative lifestyle doesn’t equal a somber one. Shafer tells of a “surprisingly raucous” party of nearly 40 women in the basement of Virginia W. Kettering Residence Complex with loud music, dancing, food and children running around playing. Since there were no men present, it was a chance for the women to fully express their personalities and fashion sense. Even some of the most observant women were in western clothes with no headscarves, or elegant traditional clothes, wearing heavy gold and enameled jewelry.

“Some of the women wore revealing western clothes: tight dresses with plunging necklines and stiletto heels,” she wrote. “It was interesting for me to see women who outside this party room would be covered from head to toe in yards of loose fabric wearing skin-tight, cleavage-revealing dresses and wearing fully made up face and hair.”

Through these diametrically opposite modes of dress and behavior, Shafer saw the women expressing very distinct, complicated identities and being totally comfortable and at ease in both worlds. It seemed to her a great contradiction — like Muslims on a Catholic campus — but also shed light on the women’s abilities to navigate those apparent contradictions.

*     *     *

Shafer’s research and the phenomenon of Muslim women choosing and thriving at Catholic colleges caught the attention of The New York Times, which sent a reporter and photographer to Dayton in August to tour the campus and talk to Muslim women. The resulting Sept. 3 front-page story featured the University of Dayton leading a trend in Catholic schools in attracting and supporting Muslim women and emphasized how welcome the women feel on the campus.

“At those schools, Muslim students, from the United States or abroad, say they prefer a place where talk of religious beliefs and adherence to a religious code are accepted and even encouraged, socially and academically. Correctly or not, many of them say they believe that they are more accepted than they would be at secular schools,” reported the Times.

The story included four large photos of the women in conversation, walking across campus, all with headscarves and modest, head-to-toe coverings. It depicted some of the variety in how Muslim women at UD interpret the Quran’s requirement for a woman to dress modestly, covering her head and most of her body. The most conservative women are swathed in loose-fitting outer garments and veils that cloak all but their eyes. Others wear the hijab along with loose western clothes. Others wear a hijab with jeans and long-sleeved shirts. And still others are indistinguishable from most of the women students on campus in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Shafer said she found women who come to UD from abroad generally tend to wear the hijab as a barrier or as a signal of limits in interactions. Women born or raised in the U.S. tend to wear it as a flag and a demonstration of their identity as a Muslim.

Shatha Alali

The Quran’s injunction to dress modestly goes beyond just clothing — it includes piety, respect and modest behavior, according to Hadil Issa, a chemical engineering student born in Palestine but raised in Dayton since she was 12. When she started high school at the Dayton Early College Academy, she found it was part of the school’s culture for boys and girls to hug one another. But as she grew out of childhood, she increasingly defined her identity as a
Muslim woman. She turned to a decidedly modern solution.

“I had this problem with guys because they wanted to give me hugs,” she said. “When I decided I didn’t like that, I went on Facebook and Facebooked all the boys, telling them that they couldn’t try to hug me anymore, that it was part of my religion.” The hugging attempts stopped.

In fact, she said her experiences have made her much more thoughtful and aware about her religion. “Coming to America shaped me into who I am now. It challenged me and deepened my understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. Coming to America is what made me a better Muslim.”

The Muslim women don’t understand the attitude of some American women who perceive that they are oppressed by men or by their religion. Modesty and piety do not equal oppression in their eyes. Some said they feel cherished and protected by the men in their families. They’re proud of their religion and most say they’re comfortable with limits on clothing, behavior and contact with men. Those limits make life easier by providing clear lines and principles that aren’t crossed or are easy to enforce. They say they have choice and some flexibility, especially while they’re here in the U.S. and out of their own countries. Some have friends here who are men, which would be prohibited back home.

“We can be flexible on some things,” said Donia Almadani, a Saudi in the IEP program. “But there are some red lines and some principles that we don’t cross. We respect those limits. Those limits make life more easy.” Almadani said that by living in the U.S., she’s become more open-minded and more flexible. “In my country, women aren’t permitted to be friends with men. Here I have men friends from other countries.”

While they’re in the U.S., they’re going to take advantage of some aspects of life here. For the Saudi women, that means learning how to drive a car, which is prohibited for them in their country. Sarah Almalhem said her father has insisted that she learn to drive a car, and she recently acquired her learner’s permit. But she’s emphatic that she’s not violating any stricture of Islam, because the rule that women can’t drive isn’t based on religion, “it’s because of cultural reasons.”

Almalhem isn’t shy about talking about her faith and culture. She’s not alone. The women say they like being ambassadors for their faith and cultures and don’t mind it when people ask questions about their scarves, the Islamic faith or their country’s culture. In fact, they know that people are curious; the students seem to relish the opportunity to be a window on their world to others and, perhaps, change a few minds.

“I don’t mind it when people ask me about my scarf and my faith. I like to be asked about my culture and my religion,” said Aqeel, the Kuwaiti engineering student. “Ask me about where I’m from.”

Almalhem said that she finds American students are interested but don’t know how to start a conversation or approach her. She’s been disappointed at how little Americans know about her religion and culture. “One asked me if I slept in my headscarf,” said Almalhem, adding that the coverings are for when women are in public or unrelated men are present.

Another woman added, “Sometimes like, they are so friendly and they are interested to hear about the Muslims. I notice that sometimes they look at me and they are amazed. They don’t smile. I think they don’t know about Muslims and they are worried about us. I think they don’t understand.”

*     *     *

Dayton Early College Academy graduate Issa literally grew up on the UD campus; her high school is located in the University’s College Park Center on Brown Street, where she rubbed shoulders with students, faculty and staff and had the opportunity to take classes at UD. She’s long experienced the friendly comfort of the campus environment. As a UD student, she said she’s never felt like an outsider.

But she echoes the other Muslim women, who say the academic acceptance they have felt doesn’t often cross into the social realm. “I’m totally comfortable in the classroom, but outside of there we had different ways of socializing,” she said, adding that being classmates doesn’t often translate into friendship.

Nearly all of the Muslim students at the University said they felt outside the mainstream of campus life not only because of where they live — most live off campus — but how they live. “I don’t drink, I don’t go out,” one told Shafer, testimony that the cultural and religious parameters that shape their lives are radically different from the ways many students socialize and form friendships.

“I think there could be meetings where like we get together and have discussions and talk about problems we’re facing,” said one. “Or maybe even … include other faiths and get to know more about each other.”

Another woman interviewed by Shafer said that while she’s made a few friends outside the local Muslim population, she would like to have more American friends. “I only have one classmate that I socialize with. I invite them to my house, but they are busy. I have one classmate who has come to my house several times.”

Fatema Sayed Hamzah, a Kuwaiti undergraduate, said, although she’d like to make American friends, after two years, she’s found it to be very difficult. “I would really like to. They don’t ask me questions about my life or my religion,” she said. “Sometimes women treat me like I was discriminated against in my country.”

That sort of attitude makes Issa mad, and she fires up, eyes blazing, talking rapidly and shaking her head. “There are a lot of misconceptions about my religion, that it oppresses women. Women are abused all over the world, but in Islam, women are treated with respect.”

Hamzah recounted an incident last February on Kuwait’s National Day, when the Kuwaitis set up two tables near Kennedy Union — one by the men and one by the women — to share information about their country and culture. The women gave away free cupcakes. “The girls’ table was barely touched. No one would take any of our cupcakes,” she said, with a puzzled touch of sadness. “It’s only a cupcake.”

*     *      *

The Muslim women  are adding an important dimension to an increasingly multicultural campus, where a Marianist education is becoming more and more accessible to a global population and, at the same time, international students are bringing the world to Dayton, contributing to an enhanced learning environment for U.S. students. A hallmark of a University of Dayton education is appreciation and understanding of diversity to help prepare students as distinctive global citizens ready to learn, lead and serve in the world.

Anderson, of the Center for International Programs, said the Muslim women are also looking for ways to reach out and connect — to become part of that learn, lead and serve tradition. “The Saudi women would love to do a day of service to help them feel more a part of UD,” Anderson said. “They say this is a good place, this is a safe place. They want to give back to it. Giving to others is a pillar of Islam.”

Paul Benson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the opportunity to meet and interact with students who come to UD from around the world is an important learning experience for domestic students.

“A lot of our students are surprisingly sheltered in their prior experience before they come to UD,” said Benson. “They tell me, ‘I’ve never interacted with a Jew or a Muslim or a person of another faith.’ There’s value in simply broadening students’ perspectives, so they realize that most of the world’s people are not just like them.”

Benson said the religious diversity serves an important learning objective that ties into the new undergraduate curriculum currently under development, which requires familiarity with Catholic and other faith traditions. “Many people think that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are diametrically opposed, when in fact they are branches of a common tree. If we can foster greater dialogue among students about the great Abrahamic faith traditions, both Muslim students and Christian students can see they share many things in common.”

Crystal Sullivan, director of campus ministry, said religious diversity offers opportunities for all people to understand and deepen their own faith. A religiously diverse community also helps people enhance their appreciation of the different ways people experience and understand God as well as the sacred.

“The best way to understand your own faith is to encounter someone with different beliefs,” she said. “You find out ways that your beliefs are similar and ways they are different. You gain a new appreciation for who you are and for the sacred experiences of others.”

Accommodating and welcoming the devout of other faiths doesn’t diminish the University’s Catholic identity but carries out a fundamental charge from Vatican II, Fitz said, adding that dialogue among religions is essential in fostering understanding of the other side and helping people live in peace.

In many ways, the Muslim women at UD are on the cutting edge of increasing understanding, whether they’re engaged in an active discussion of their faith and culture, or whether they’re just walking across campus in hijabs. From initial uncertainty, they’re growing in understanding too.

“When I first came, I was worried. I felt weird and worried. I didn’t know the nature of Catholic people,” said Fatema Al-Balooshi from Bahrain, a doctoral engineering student. But she asked people she knew who were familiar with Catholic universities.

“I feel comfortable in this environment. It’s not that big, it’s a private university, it feels safe here. I’ve never felt uncomfortable because of the Catholic faith. Now, I feel lucky that I came here.”

Cilla Shindell grew up in a multicultural family in Dayton and has a lifelong interest in how people navigate the places where cultures touch. She is director of media relations for the University.

Shatha AlaliShirin JouzdaniTuntas Hartini

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