Enshala, Sisters

What's it like to be Maryam Zia?

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Standing 5-foot-1 in clunky-heeled black boots, USF junior Maryam Zia wears a flowing jilbab that covers her from neck to ankles, her nearly-hidden jeans dragging on the ground, the ends grated into threads. A black hijab covers her neck and hair.

Zia, 21, is president of the Sisters United Muslim Association, or SUMA, which meets on campus in the Marshall Center every Friday (the Muslim holy day) at 11 a.m. On this particular day, the first meeting of the spring semester, the group doesn't file in until almost 11:30.

Maryam chastises the girls for their tardiness. "It's not professional. I will be the mean person for this semester, Enshala, to benefit you."

Enshala, or "God willing," is sprinkled into at least every other sentence, notably when the speaker refers to an event to take place in the future, near or far.

Of the 16 or so members present, the majority are veiled. Of the uncovered, a couple wear makeup. Everyone in the room, covered or not, wears long sleeves. The meetings are open to any females, no matter their religious affiliation, but non-Muslims rarely sit in.

Going around the table to introduce themselves, each woman states her age and major — most in the sciences. One young woman in soft pink eye shadow says: "When you're brown, your parents want you to be either a doctor or an engineer!"

Maryam's major is criminology, with a minor in women's studies.

The meeting begins with a prayer, followed by a lesson evocative of Sunday school. Zia passes out a red rose to each person at the table and stands at the head of the table, ready to begin.

"This rose is each of us. This petal is a sin," she says as she plucks off a petal and lets it fall to the table. Then she rips out petals by the handful and finally pulls off the head.

"The dead flower represents us. No hope for us to enter paradise. But Allah is compassionate."

She explains that, regardless of how often one sins, when a believer repents in her heart and prays to Allah, the petals are restored. "Allah loves us. He makes us beautiful again." Maryam pulls out a fresh rose from her bag. "Let's become this today."

"Allah knows we are all human beings. We make mistakes. We are the children of Adam. 'I shall not mind if you call me. I will forgive you.' There's always hope for you."

One of the young women is moved to tears.

After the lesson, the rest of the meeting is devoted to planning the upcoming Muslim Women's Awareness Day and discussion of the next day's party, to be held in a ballroom in the Marshall Center.

There is no dating in Islam (at least not until a couple is married), so if a man wants to connect with a woman he goes through a trusted third party to reach her (or he sends her an e-mail). Drinking is also prohibited, as Allah wants to erase all possibility of addiction. So the young and Muslim don't know what it's like to hit the clubs.

Club SUMA is their answer. It's to be the first all-girl party of the year, hijab-free. Maryam's only anxiety is the possibility of men in the halls outside of the ballroom. (Quite uncharacteristically in a room full of women, this was the first mention of men in over two hours.) Men cannot be allowed to catch sight of the girls.

Friday prayer is led in another large room down the hall, across from the cafeteria. The men kick off their shoes and take the first available seat on the floor. They crowd the front of the room, closer to the East than the women half a room behind.

There are only seven women on the carpet. A SUMA member sits against the wall behind everyone else. When questioned, she whispers she's excused from prayer because she's menstruating.

Despite the common Western perception that Islam limits women's freedoms, these students were quick to disagree, noting that Islamic women had many freedoms long before American women; for example, the Koran encourages women to be educated. And a husband and wife are each other's partners in life, equal in the household. But some countries use Islam as an excuse to oppress women, placing social mores before the ideals of the religion.

Maryam says that the decision to "cover," or wear the hijab, is an individual one — in the U.S., at least. Though the Koran states that a woman must cover when she reaches puberty to show her piety and modesty (hijab is the Arabic word for modesty), it's not uncommon for a Muslim woman to wait until she is sure of her devotion to God. Maryam waited until high school before she started to cover and then looked down on those who didn't cover.

It wasn't until college that she adopted a different view. "I realized that there's more to it. That it's nothing to do with the way we cover but what is in our hearts. I was too narrow-minded."

Later in the afternoon, Maryam is to meet with the co-ed Muslim Student Association. She doesn't mind talking to men. "We can't get rid of them, after all." And while she is against being alone in a room with one ("The Devil is always the third party"), when she does have to talk to a male MSA member in the office, she stands with her body half in, half out the door.

She is as frank in her talk about human sexuality and homosexuality as any modern woman and, because of her criminology background, up on the issues of human trafficking and domestic violence. She says that her Muslim sisters in and out of SUMA can be very sheltered and unaware of the ways of the world, especially women's issues. But she hopes to be the bridge. Enshala.

For each Curiouser profile, I ask the subject to tell me whose life he or she is curious about; the answer determines the person I'll be talking to in the next installment. Maryam told me she's curious about what it's like to live with a disability in Tampa Bay. In the next Curiouser, I find out.

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