The debate over Rana Irfan's frequent trips back home to India took years to resolve. She enjoyed them, but her husband Kareem found them unnecessary. Eventually the issue was resolved in Kareem's favor, as are many between them. Their marriage, says Rana, 37, a spirited and sophisticated native of Bombay, is based on "consultation," but in the end, "someone has to take charge. That is my husband." It says as much in the Koran.
Superficially, American Muslim women are living out the classic immigrant-socialization process, with time logged in the U.S. serving as the great liberalizer. Sociologists describe their increasing demand for equal rights and opportunities. But in the case of Muslim Americans, such impulses occur within a context of strong social conservatism. Without accepting many of the harsh strictures imposed on their sisters worldwide, Islamic women here still support the separation of sexes at mosques and believe in modest dress (although the definition of modest varies). Parity in family decision making is on the increase, but the husband often has the last word. Women sacrifice their careers for their families. The gender assumptions resemble nothing so much as those in America in the 1950s.
Of course, the back story is different. Rana's marriage to Kareem was arranged during a visit to the U.S. when she was 21. Engagement followed their second meeting; "he looked like a good chap," she says, laughing. She frames her American experience as a shedding of limiting Indian assumptions for a liberating Islamic understanding. Her upbringing taught women "to take care of our husbands." But as she studied the Koran with several (female) teachers here, "I learned more and more about my rights as a woman. I don't do the housework now because I have to; I do it because I want to. There is a reward from God if I do well."
If that falls short of Betty Friedan, there is more ground to cover. Asked about the controversial Koranic sura 4:34--with its sanction of spousal punishment, including beating, for "insubordination"--Kareem, who is chairman of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, is bemused. "It's amazing how many men know this quote from the Koran--if they know nothing else in it," he says. Most already understand the "beatings" as light taps. Further study, he maintains, would reveal that husband may punish wife for religious infractions only and that holy writ calls for "mutual consultation between husband and wife." He says so to men who come to him for Islamic counseling--advice they might have been less likely to get before moving here.
Those trying to imagine the future of Muslim feminism might keep an eye on Rana and Kareem's daughter Zuha, 13. In some ways, she out-observes her mom. Rana did not wear the hijab regularly before Zuha, who attends an Islamic private school, put on the pressure. "I would come to pick her up, and she would say, 'Mother, you're embarrassing me by not wearing the veil.'" But Zuha is also a budding hoops star, with shelves full of Nancy Drew and Harry Potter--not Britney Spears but hardly subservient role models. Zuha's marriage will be arranged, but her parents promise she can reject their choice of husband if need be. Despite her education to date, she will attend a non-Muslim college. "It will be different," she says, with both hesitancy and curiosity. It always is.