Students share faith and culture at the University

Student groups on campus give students a chance to connect and educate.

by Kathryn Nelson

What Alia El Bakri misses most about her former home in the United Arab Emirates is the call to prayer that rang from the Mosques five times a day.

“Just simple things like that made a big difference,” she said.

El Bakri, a 17-year-old political science junior, moved with her family to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic practices are integrated into society, at age 6.

In recent years, Middle Eastern culture and religion have been on the minds of American policy makers and citizens alike.

Several student groups at the University, including Al-Madinah Cultural Center and the Middle Eastern Student Association, serve these students and educate the community about their culture.

Transitioning to the United States in July 2004 was difficult for El Bakri, who said she was unable to find modest clothing and long skirts, the most typical clothing in the Middle East.

“There were no accommodations for being Muslim whatsoever,” she said.

El Bakri began wearing the Hijab, a head scarf that covers her hair and upper shoulders and symbolizes modesty in Islamic culture, when she was 12.

When living in Coon Rapids, many people were unfamiliar with her Hijab, she said. And now at the University, she has received strange looks and “secondhand treatment” because of her apparel, she said.

El Bakri stressed that her head covering is not a symbol of oppression, but rather a sign of inner strength to live modestly.

She also refrains from touching the opposite sex because, she said, each person has his or her own personal realm, and it is respectful not to violate that. But in the United States, some people become offended when she doesn’t shake hands, she said.

Her grandmother still doesn’t acknowledge her religious beliefs, as El Bakri’s mother converted from Catholicism to Islam. But she said she is very grateful to be raised the way that she was.

“The greatest gift is that I am a Muslim,” she said.

Biology sophomore Nawal Ahmed, who identifies herself as Oromo, came to Minnesota at the age of six and began to wear the Hijab in the fourth grade.

Ahmed said she feels like people find it hard to approach her because of her attire.

“Sometimes people didn’t know where my boundaries were,” she said. “Boys didn’t know if they could talk to me.”

As a black Muslim woman, Ahmed said she felt as though she was treated differently after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

People assume she is an oppressed woman because of her Hijab, even though no one has ever forced her to wear it. But in the Middle East, she said, there is no rigid standard of beauty.

“(In the United States) you have to sell your body to get you anywhere,” Ahmed said.

First-year electrical engineering student Murid Amini became involved in the Middle Eastern Student Association last semester.

The student group is nonpolitical and nonreligious, Amini said, and focuses on promoting and educating students about the Middle East.

Amini came to the United States from Afghanistan 15 years ago, and lived in Riverside Plaza for 12 years.

He said living in Minnesota has personally been a good experience, and having two different cultural identities has been positive.

Amini said he plans to visit family in Afganistan this summer.

El Bakri encouraged students to inquire about Islamic culture and beliefs to better understand her way of life.