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Campus Greek Life Could Get Islamic Touch

Young Muslim women are intrigued by the prospect of a sorority where they wouldn't have to compromise their religious beliefs.

November 22, 2005|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tottering on stilettos, Amira Shalash, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, tossed back her long, tousled hair and tugged at the neckline of her sweater, which had slipped off her shoulder.

Giggling, her friends -- who wear hijabs, traditional Muslim head scarves -- teased her that she was not dressed modestly enough.

The nine young women were gathered to learn about the nation's first Islamic sorority.

The motto of Gamma Gamma Chi: "Striving for the pleasure of Allah through Sisterhood, Scholarship, Leadership and Community Service."

The sorority, whose national chapter is in Greensboro, N.C., hopes to establish its first campus chapter at the University of Kentucky.

Taking a seat at the introductory meeting, Boushra Aghil, a 20-year-old junior in an olive green shirt and black hijab, studied the sorority's gold brochure. She was curious about how Gamma Gamma Chi would reconcile Islamic morals with sorority life -- and the party atmosphere associated with it.

"My parents would never, ever let me join a regular sorority," Shalash said. "I don't know any Muslim sorority girls."

Yet many young Muslim women are intrigued by the concept. Since Gamma Gamma Chi was founded seven months ago, Muslim students from 14 states -- and from Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates -- have e-mailed the sorority's national headquarters in Alexandria, Va. The biggest response came from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, a city with a Muslim population of about 2,500.

The idea for Gamma Gamma Chi came from Imani Abdul-Haqq, a 34-year-old business administration major at Guilford College in Greensboro. She hopes to establish chapters in every region of the United States by 2015.

An African American who converted to Islam in 2000, Abdul-Haqq considered joining an established black sorority but worried that she would have to compromise her Muslim beliefs. Even the nickname for the nine predominantly black fraternities and sororities -- the Divine Nine -- makes her uncomfortable. Only Allah, she says, is divine.

"As a Muslim who dresses modestly and does not drink, I wouldn't want to set myself apart from the people I was pledging with," she said. "I want to feel the unity."

The Muslim women at the University of Kentucky said they also wanted that feeling of connection.

"The American white-bread sorority girls wouldn't always understand our issues," Aghil said. "We already wear a scarf, we recognize we are the odd people out, but we need a support system, a group that can support us in the Islamic way."

Gamma Gamma Chi is not the first sorority to offer an alternative to traditional, predominantly white American sororities.

Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first of four major black sororities, was founded in 1908 at Howard University in Washington. In 1991, Latina-oriented Gamma Phi Omega was established; in 1997, the multicultural Theta Nu Xi; in 1998, the South Asian Kappa Phi Gamma.

As the first Muslim sorority, Gamma Gamma Chi has the challenge of creating sorority life that is in keeping with Islamic law.

Although alcohol is banned in most sorority houses, a national study conducted in 2001 identified 62% of sorority members as binge drinkers.

That type of behavior won't be tolerated at Gamma Gamma Chi. Its president and executive director, Althia F. Collins, an education consultant and former college administrator who helped her daughter, Abdul-Haqq, establish the sorority, has devised a strict induction process.

"It will be a bit like 'The Apprentice' or 'America's Next Top Model,' " Collins said. "We will give them 'Gamma mail,' which details a challenge for them to work on, like learning verses from the Koran."

If more than five students at the University of Kentucky submit membership applications by January, Gamma Gamma Chi hopes to establish its first campus chapter in February.

At her Nov. 6 presentation on campus, Collins wore the sorority's colors -- lavender and green -- as she explained the concept of a Muslim sorority to the young women. Collins, who converted to Islam in 1999, pledged Delta Sigma Theta -- a traditionally black sorority -- when she was a student in the 1980s.

Many Muslims do not know what to make of the girls' interest in Gamma Gamma Chi. The National Muslim Student Assn., which e-mailed its local chapters this year seeking their opinions on the sorority, declined to comment for this article.

Tahir Rajab, 21, president of the Jacksonville Muslim Student Assn. in Florida, thinks Muslim women should not seek to emulate American women. "All these sororities sound very good on paper," he said. "But partying is what they are known for."

Muslim women who want sisterhood, he suggested, should call themselves the Righteous Woman Organization and use Arabic, rather than Greek, letters.

But many young Muslim women -- more integrated in American life than their mothers and grandmothers -- long to develop a campus identity. Already their clothes and speech blend Islamic standards with American style.

According to Waheedah Bagby, chairwoman of the Muslim Women's Council of Kentucky, a Muslim sorority would help them say, "Yes, we are Americans, we want to be part of college life, but we are also Muslims."

In this way, she said, young Muslim women are drawing a picture of what American Islam will look like.

After Collins' presentation, all of the women said they wanted to join Gamma Gamma Chi. They had just one question.

"Why," asked Aghil, "did you choose those colors?"

"Green is for the color of the prophet," Collins said. "Lavender is a peaceful color; people like to smell it before they go to sleep."

Aghil frowned.

"I've never been a fan of purple," she said later. "But I know it's very superficial of me to worry. We could have a Muslim sorority here in little-town Kentucky."

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