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LOCAL MUSLIM WOMEN SEEK CLARITY IN A CHANGED WORLD

Jameylah Thomas recalled the night she decided to follow Ebony Pope's car as the two women went somewhere. Both women, clad in traditional Muslim garb, suddenly noticed another car following closely. They thought the third car was headed for a local hospital, but as the women pulled their own cars off the road, they heard the driver hurling obscenities at them.

Theresa Jahmi of Lackawanna had a similar experience when she went to retrieve her daughter from school.

"This guy is beeping, and I turn to look at him, and he's giving me the finger," she said.

As unpleasant as those experiences were, the local women can consider themselves fortunate. Across the nation, Muslims, Arabs and those who appear to be one or both have been assaulted and even killed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon.

We, as a nation, have suffered a tragedy. However horrible, there have been misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims. But the imams and clerics who have done the explaining, to date, have been mostly men. The women's voices seemed muted.

Ignorance breeds prejudice, and there seems to be plenty of that to go around right now. Stereotypes that portray Muslim women as oppressed, less educated than their male counterparts and submissive continue to fuel the bias.

But the stereotypes are far from the truth, as proven by 10 Muslim women of different shades, dress and backgrounds who gathered last week in a home in Getzville to talk to The News about life after Sept. 11.

All American citizens and strong in their opinions, the women ran the gamut: businesswoman, corporate worker, kindergarten teacher, college administrator, politician and engineer. They are proud mothers and wives.

They feel it's time for American Muslim women to identify themselves, Yasmin M. Dara insisted. It's time to dispel the misperceptions.

"Muslim women are seen as veiled, no education. Here, if you see around the room, they're all different. We are a very productive part of this American community," said Dara, who dresses like every other American.

Ibtisam Taher couldn't agree more.

"This is us, and we are American Muslims. I don't dress like my other sisters do," Taher, who wears traditional American clothes, said. "We have many different choices, because we live in this country. That is the beauty of America."

These women, of all backgrounds, but united in the Muslim faith, refuse to cower. In fact, they are determined to educate non-Muslims about their faith.

Said Dara: "I'm a proud Muslim, and I say it very proudly. I am a proud Muslim."

Pope wants non-Muslim women to ask and not judge and assume that she's oppressed, ignorant and frightened of her husband. "I want you to get up and be a woman to a woman and say, "What do you believe in?' Ask me, as one adult to another adult. Ask me as a human being to another human being. And have the common sense to respect me. You don't have to like me, but respect me."

For those who don't have the courage, Taher would ask they go to a library. There they will discover that the first convert to Islam was a prophet's wife and a businesswoman, she explained. "That's the history of our faith. That's our heritage."

Of course, there have been stories of kindness and understanding, too - the neighbor who baked an apple pie for Dara; the boss and co-workers who rallied around Silvat Majeed, who lives in North Tonawanda - but these kind acts have been overshadowed by the gross abuses heaped onto a community for the senseless acts of a group of extremists.

Dara was driving along Route 33 on the morning of Sept. 11 when she heard the news on the radio. At first, she thought it was a freak accident. Later, as she watched televised reports, she saw what millions of other Americans witnessed - a second plane slamming into one of the World Trade Center towers.

"My first thought was, "I hope it's not a Muslim.' "

That would be a refrain echoed around the nation. For American Muslims, life would change dramatically in the next few weeks.

"We're being victimized," said Dara, who was recently accused of being a terrorist sleeper (someone waiting to be called to action).

"Suddenly we are all Muslims. If you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist."

These women had a lot to say this week, not only about the tragic events and the aftermath, but also about their personal feelings, the effect on their children and how they're coping. Not all of that can be contained in one column, but it's important enough to continue the conversation. In my next column, on Oct. 13, we'll hear them discuss how they're helping their children understand why their lives have changed so drastically.

E-mail dbracely@buffnews.com

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