Something changed for Almas Abbasi, a mother of four in Parsippany, who is originally from Pakistan, after Sept 11, 2001. Until then, Abbasi was a suburban mother managing things on the home front while ferrying her children to various activities. Her normal attire consisted of pants or long skirts paired with t-shirts or blouses. She would devote some time every morning to fixing her brown, highlighted hair that she wore loose around her shoulders.
Abbasi did not then wear the “hijab”, the traditional cover-up of Muslim women that consists largely of a scarf tied securely around the head in order to hide the hair. But after the tragic events of September 11, Abbasi felt the need to connect with her Muslim persona. “I became more defensive”, she said, going on to describe how she read extensively about her religion during that period in an attempt to educate herself about it.
It became apparent to her then that the “hijab” was an integral part of her identity as a Muslim woman and that wearing it would be a way to proclaim that identity to the rest of the world. “Besides”, she laughed, “it’s a lot easier to get ready in the morning”.
She was pleasantly surprised by how well her decision was received by her non-Islamic friends and acquaintances. Though a small minority shunned their company after 9/11, most people reached out to the family in support, she said.
Now Abbasi has convinced her two older daughters aged 20 and 17 to adopt the “hijab” and the girls have complied. How hard was it to persuade two young girls to cover up? “It wasn’t that hard”, Abbasi said, since they saw their grandmother, Abbasi’s mother who lived with the family for a few years, wear the “hijab” all the time. Now, she said, the habit had grown on them and they were perfectly comfortable wearing it everywhere.
Contrary to popular belief, the “hijab”, Abbasi said, was not an instrument of female suppression and the decision to wear it was a purely voluntary one. In young women, as in the case of her daughters, she felt that it acted as a type of shield protecting them from unwanted sexual advances and harassment.
As she talked, Abbasi leaned back against the beige sofa in her minimally furnished living room. She and her husband, Nasar Shahid, who is an Associate Professor at New York’s Colombia University and also part of a private medical practice in New Jersey, rent their modest home set on a tree-lined street by Lake Parsippany. They have stayed away from buying a home so far, she said, because Islam prohibits the payment of interest, something that would be unavoidable with a home mortgage loan.
She offered visitors a soft drink but did not pour out anything for herself. This, after all was the holy month of Ramadan, the 30-day period during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset everyday. After the first meal is eaten at daybreak, not even water is consumed until the fast is broken as darkness descends on the area. Her three older children – her two daughters and her 18-year old son – were observing the fast, she said. Only her youngest, a five-year old girl, was exempt.
Fasting and praying during Ramadan, Abbasi said, were just ways to stay focused on Allah whom Muslims regard as the Supreme Being.
According to an article titled “Ramadan and its virtues” written by Komal Magsi, Abbasi’s 17-year old daughter, for a school newspaper, Muslims believe that it was during this month that Allah revealed the verses of the Koran, the Holy Book of Islam, to the Prophet Muhammed who is viewed as the messenger of God.
Ramadan culminates with the festival of “Eid-al-Fitr” (Eed-ul-Fith-er) that literally translates as the “Festival of the Breaking of the Fast” and is one of the most important of the Islamic celebrations. Back home in Pakistan, Abbasi said, the festivities surrounding this day were not unlike Christmas. “[People buy] new clothes, jewelry, and shoes”, she said. Lights and decorations would be everywhere and it was a joyous time marked by acts of charity and celebrations.
Though the festivities were on a smaller scale here, Abbasi said, the family still made a daily trip to the mosque in Boonton after breaking their fast at home with a meal known as “Iftar”.
In past years, she said, it was customary for members of the local Muslim community to host “Iftar parties”, potluck gatherings of family and friends, during this period. However, this year, the mood surrounding Ramadan was more subdued because of the recent earthquake that had ravaged parts of Pakistan. Instead of the parties, she said, efforts were made to raise money to send back home to those affected by the calamity.
Such charity is an integral part of Islam. Called “Zakat”, it is, Abbasi said, one of the “five pillars” or duties of Islam, of which the others include praying, fasting, and a pilgrimage to what is regarded as the birthplace of Islam, the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a trip that should be made at least once in a person’s lifetime.
Abbasi’s traditional appearance belies the determination and ambition that lie within. As a young girl, she attended medical school in the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. In 1991, she arrived in the U.S. with her husband and their then three children, and a few years later, began her residency program in Radiology at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. Earlier this year, she was accepted into a fellowship program in Abdominal Radiology at Stony Brook University in Long Island.
Though it is only a one-year program, it is proving to be a hectic and demanding year for Abbasi and her family. She stays in Long Island during the week, leaving home on Monday mornings and returning on Friday nights. Her husband and older children hold down the fort, sharing the cooking and other household chores. Her husband, she said, has been a source of strength and support for her as she attempts to launch her own career. “I couldn’t do it without him”, she said emphatically.
Still, it’s not always an easy ride. When she comes home on Friday nights, it’s often to a house that is in dire need of some tidying up. Once she came back only to retrieve some washing that she had hung out to dry when she left for Long Island at the beginning of the week and that was still hanging on the clothesline outside. “I can’t blame them”, she said of her children. “They are kids after all”, she added, with a lot of other things dominating their thoughts and time.
Her efforts to establish herself in her own profession does not run counter to the dictates of Islam, she said. The religion actually grants women a status on par with men giving them the right to work and to own property and allowing them complete freedom of expression. How this gets translated in reality is another matter.
In the past, images coming out of places such as Afghanistan showed women suffering under an oppressive regime. But that’s not how it was meant to be, Abbasi said. “Men [may be] dominant in society but not in the religion”, she said. “Women have more rights [under Islam]”.
Some of the bad press that the religion gets is politically motivated, she believes. She said she disconnected her cable TV connection after she got tired of seeing Islam portrayed as a religion that breeds terrorists and “jihadis”, an Arabic term for those involved in a “holy war”.
Why, she inquired, should the entire faith be blamed for the misdeeds of a few of its members? “When a Muslim commits a crime, Islam goes on trial”, she said. “There is no religion that tells one to do bad things”, she said, and Islam was no exception.
On the Sunday before Eid-al-Fitr, which fell on Nov 3 this year, the Islamic Center in Boonton hosted the traditional fast breaking dinner for members of its staff and their families. As is the norm in the mosque, men and women sat in two different areas separated by a sliding door.
The fast was broken with dates and “fruit chaat”, a mildly spiced fruit salad – two sweet items that provided an instant energy boost. Following a prayer session led by the Imam, the Boonton mosque’s priest, the group settled down to a dinner featuring “biryani”, a fragrant rice dish; goat and chicken curries; and a creamy spinach dish.
Hamida Amanat, the Director of Educational Programs at the Islamic Center, was among those present at the dinner. Amanat, who has known Abbasi for a number of years, described her as “exemplary”, a role model for Muslim women trying to walk the fine line between tradition and modernity.
And Abbasi herself was there, looking relaxed on yet another day when she had managed to balance her commitment to her faith, to her family, and to herself.