A new generation speaks up ‘Muslim feminist cowgirl’ tells her own American story

By Yasmine Bahrani

When Asma Hasan was majoring in religion and American studies at Wellesley, she decided she wanted to read more about Islam, especially about American Muslims like herself.

Most of what she found was in magazines, which described a group of people she barely recognized, living isolated in enclaves.

”It was really patronizing,” says Hasan, 28, a ”Muslim feminist cowgirl” who grew up in Colorado playing Pac-Man and listening to The Go-Gos. She’s now a first-year associate at a San Francisco law firm.

To set the record straight, she wrote her own book about the Muslim community in the USA, offering an insider’s view of its history and inner dynamics, from Pakistani immigrants such as her parents (her dad’s a physician) to black converts and others who identify with Islam. She weaves her own story into the narrative.

”I certainly don’t think every Muslim has had a life like mine,” says Hasan, who attended Catholic school in Colorado and has a slight Boston accent from years attending boarding school and college in Massachusetts. ”I was trying to present my story of growing up as a Muslim. I wanted people to get a sense of the normalcy of my life.”

American Muslims: The New Generation, was published in 2000. But it has found a growing mainstream audience since last year’s terrorist attacks, when the nation’s attention became riveted on the Muslim world.

A new edition came out in July and is now being used as a textbook in several university classes around the country. It has been updated to address Sept. 11 and includes a study guide for students and book club readers.

Some object to Islamic studies. A local group sued the University of North Carolina recently over an assigned book on the Koran. A federal appeals court rejected the case. But with estimates of the number of Muslims in the USA ranging from 2 million to 8 million, the need to understand is undeniable.

And Hasan’s book is compelling because it offers the voice of ”a young American Muslim reflecting on a variety of issues, both on her faith and its interaction with American culture and society,” says Georgetown University’s John Esposito, who uses it in a class on women and Islam. ”She makes a lot of good points.”

Esposito, author of What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, notes that the book not only chronicles change but also illustrates it. Young Muslim women ”are now representing themselves instead of having men speak for them.”

Hasan makes for a disarming spokeswoman. Many Americans expect Muslim women to be silent and cover themselves in veils, but ”I don’t fulfill those expectations or perceptions,” she says. She is comfortable in jeans and T-shirts.

She does not attend prayer services regularly or belong to a mosque, yet Hasan calls herself an observant Muslim and says her faith makes her a better American. For example, Islam requires donating to the poor — which benefits U.S. society.

One of her favorite topics is the frequent clash of the more traditional values of many immigrant parents and their American-born offspring.

Hasan recalls that when she first attended a cultural gathering at an Islamic Society of North America convention, a speaker vehemently emphasized that Muslims should stay away from ”MTV American culture.” She says she and her sister felt guilty; they had just been watching MTV in their hotel room.

”People like me, who grew up here, sometimes chafe under some immigrant attitudes,” she says. For example, traditionalists criticize modern Muslim women for shaking hands with men and not wearing the traditional headscarf, or hijab. Hasan makes much of the hijab, worn for reasons of modesty. Echoing many modern Muslim women, she argues that such covering should not be compulsory, that each woman should decide for herself whether she wishes to wear it. ”The veil has become some kind of litmus test,” Hasan says. ”I’ve done so much, but I will never measure up because I don’t wear a headscarf.”

Hasan, whose book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother ”for being tough, strong, feminine and feminist,” says she gets fan mail from many Muslim women, as well as from non-Muslims, thanking her for explaining a complicated subject. She also gets hate mail, especially after TV appearances. But she shrugs it off.

”A lot of people who point out the flaws have flaws themselves,” she says.

Hasan sees the American Muslim community at a ”crossroads.”

On the one hand, she says, there is the harsh Wahhabi (traditional Saudi) version of Islam, from which many of the Sept. 11 terrorists arose; on the other, there are the vast majority of Muslims, whose views are more moderate.

”We are in a real struggle,” Hasan says. ”To some degree, it is an extension to the war on terror. I’m sad to say that my side is losing. We don’t have as much money, and we are not as religiously motivated.”

But she quickly adds that more moderate Muslims ”are developing. There are scholars who are countering (the Wahhabi) view. There is a hope for the future.”

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