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Hockey and the hijab
Hania Sobhy, a political science graduate student, and a Muslim, says, "The prophet used to say that difference of opinion is mercy from God."
The prophet must have foreseen how the Islamic tradition of openness would lead to debate over what it means to be Muslim. Towards the end of Ramadan, four McGill students shared with me what their religion, the fastest growing in the world, means to them.
When I ask second-year psychology and neurobiology student Sarah Elgazzar why she joined the Muslim Student Association, she says, "I just need a place to pray!"
The MSA helps provide prayer space for all Muslims, who pray five times a day.
Elgazzar says it took her three months at McGill to find out about the MSA. "If you live up at rez, you might never know anything. 'There's a prayer house, what are you talking about?' I was surprised. 'You mean I can stop praying in stairwells?'"
Sobhy prays regularly at their space and is on the MSA mailing list, but she isn't a member. "Historically the MSA has been very exclusionary. It adopted it's own sort of 'This is the right way to be Muslim.' In fact, most of the 1,500 Muslims on campus felt excluded. And that's changed -- but it hasn't dramatically changed, it's a direction for change."
Two years ago, the MSA administration switched hands. Isam Faik, president and mechanical engineering student, and George Stroubakis, history major and council member, are keen to polish up the tarnished image of before, when men without beards and women without cover were not considered 'good' Muslims.
Hundreds of local Muslims, not just from McGill, take part in the MSA-hosted Friday prayer service. For now, there's space in the Birks Building, but soon they'll have to find other digs, using the women's small prayer room in the University Centre for the interim. Faik says, "It's going to be a disaster if we don't have a prayer room, it's crucial."
The University doesn't provide denominational space for any religion -- the Newman Centre and Hillel House are sponsored by the Catholic and Jewish communities respectively.
"McGill was the first non-denominational university in the British Commonwealth," notes Dean of Students Bruce Shore. "The chaplaincy is working actively to help [Muslim students] find space. We're eager to help and fully supportive. It's a worthy cause."
Elgazzar says getting together with fellow Muslims at McGill helps her to feel less isolated. "It's a community. If I have a problem, these are the people I can trust and they will understand."
Sometimes, non-Muslims have trouble understanding where Muslims are coming from, she says.
"For example, it's not protocol in Islam for a man to touch a woman he's not related to," relates Elgazzar. "So when someone from my lab is, like, 'Hey, high five, hug,' I'm cringing, hoping no one else can see me. I can talk like this to my community and they will understand. But if I were to say that to my non-Muslim friends, they'd be like, 'whaddaya mean, I don't get it.' They don't understand."
Sobhy, however, feels differently, and this sparks a discussion. "A lot of Muslims on campus wouldn't have these problems. They're okay touching peoples' hands." She goes on. "If you come up to a Muslim and it's very polite in your culture to actually shake hands, to me, I'm being impolite [if I don't shake hands]."
It is differences such as these that can cause tension among Muslims at McGill, says Sobhy.
Stroubakis says, "Islam has very strict rules on people who try to separate and divide the community. And it's actually in the spirit of Islam to unite people, not to divide them. If we are going to make an issue over shaking hands, that's not Islam. We're not going to base Islam on just shaking hands."
As Faik points out, "The tolerance has to be on both sides. As people who don't stick to this rule, want other people to be tolerant toward them, the tolerance has to go the other way too."
Sobhy adds, "It's also socially defined. Of course in Arabia, in the time of Mohammed, it wasn't the norm to shake hands, and it wasn't the norm to hug when you meet someone, between the sexes. So of course they wouldn't accept it. But part of the cultural background that I come from [Egypt], it's completely inconsequential and it doesn't impinge on anything I think is right or wrong, for me to shake hands with a man."
Elgazzar gives another example of cultural differences among Muslims. "In Egypt, it's respect to look someone in the eye when you speak to them. But in Islam it's respect for a man when he's talking to a woman to lower his gaze, because then you know he's not looking at you to look at your beauty, he's talking to you because he needs to say something.
"A lot of people will find it offensive that people don't look them in the eye, but they're actually doing it out of respect. It's a clash of the culture. Where you come from plays a really big role in how you practice and what you do."
Elgazzar's practice of Islam has changed over time. Growing up in Cornwall, Ontario, of Egyptian parents, at first she didn't quite understand the meaning of what her parents taught her. Her dad just told her that one day her Muslim identity would hit her like a ton of bricks.
That day came during a grade 10 discussion on immigrants, when her classmates' ignorance pained Elgazzar.
"That's when I started to identify more with my religious beliefs. I made it a point to leave class to pray. I'd say. 'See you in five.'"
And this year, she adopted the hijab. "People are surprised because I'm a hockey player. I carry my hockey sticks around, with the hijab, and the bag. I have a bag that's as tall as I am! Hockey's the ideal sport for hijab. You don't have to show skin."
Stroubakis underwent a dramatic change in faith. He grew up in Greece and converted to Islam three years ago. Originally Christian Orthodox, he had plans to become a monk.
"I would see Muslims pray on TV, and I found that the prayer made so much sense. To the point when I would go pray, in a church, or at home praying at night, I would actually prostrate, put my head on the floor.
"In church I was criticized by one of my aunts, who told my mother 'you should tell your son to stop praying like that because only old women pray like that!'
"The biggest thing was I wanted to have a family, I wanted to get married, but if I wanted to become a monk, or advance in the hierarchy of the priesthood, I could not marry." Further exposure to Islam, led him to realize that, with this religion, he could have his cake and eat it too. "I can have a traditional family and be dedicated!"
For Stroubakis a major part of Islam's appeal is in how "every sphere in life in Islam is a worship to God. Everything for us is sacred. Working is sacred, studying is sacred, raising a family is sacred, sleeping with your wife is sacred."
Salam el Manyawi, volunteer Muslim chaplain for both McGill and Concordia, says he believes students "enjoy a very good student atmosphere and life" at both universities.
He hopes McGill will do what it can to help Muslim students in their quest for prayer space -- there are no mosques near campus and students need some place close at hand where they can pray.
"It's important for the University to show that it cares -- it will result positively in student loyalty to the University."
Although the students agree that McGill is generally peaceful and sensitive to religious issues, women who wear hijab can be subjected to stares, assumptions that they're being made to wear it, and are sometimes made to "feel small," according to Elgazzar.
Apart from one well-publicized instance in which a Muslim medical resident was roughed up at a teaching hospital by a visitor -- an incident that drew strong condemnations from both Dean of Medicine Abe Fuks and McGill University Health Centre executive director Hugh Scott -- the students say that mostly they haven't been made to feel uncomfortable on campus in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Stroubakis says the MSA is striving for a higher profile. "We're in a society where there are different ideologies, and we're presenting ours and trying to inform people and educate them and to invite them to see what Islam is.
"Western countries have benefited Muslims in many ways, and the best that we can give back is our message of peace and Islam."
Elgazzar hopes to organize a sports tournament for women. But most of all, she's striving "to open people's eyes and say, look, Muslims aren't bad people, we're not terrorists. There's no AK 47 beneath my hijab. We have values, we have morals and we adhere to those morals and we believe in something. But we don't want to hurt anybody. We're some of the most peaceful people.
"I'm tired of being perceived as oppressed or stupid. I'm really tired of being judged. If you want to find out about me, come and ask me.
"I'm Muslim. And I play hockey, and I do the same things you do, and I breathe and I eat and I sleep, and I do all the things that you do. And I'm Muslim. So what."