Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims

Surveys Show That A Majority Of Americans Have An Unfavorable View Of Islam. With This In Mind, Our Writer Set Out To Explore The Religion As It’s Lived In Our Own Community.

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 It’s not hard to understand why many non-Muslims have the perception that Muslim women are subordinate to men. As noted earlier, for example, women worship in a separate room at the Islamic Center of Tidewater. In other mosques, depending on the design, they sometimes sit in a balcony. The practice of women wearing a hajib—and covering the rest of their bodies with long dresses and long sleeves, even in the summer—further reinforces the impression.

And yet, every Muslim woman with whom I talk says that women in Islam are accorded great respect.

One of them is Eman Radwan, a 35-year-old Egyptian who has been living in Norfolk for the last two years while studying cardiovascular medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School on a scholarship.

When I meet Radwan and her husband, Hosam Elshanawany, at a local coffeehouse, I shake Elshanawany’s hand, then extend my hand to her. They politely tell me that it is not considered appropriate for a woman to shake a man’s hand unless he is a member of the family.

This is certainly not the case with all Muslims, particularly in the United States. But it is an Islamic tradition to which many women adhere.

“Whether we’re talking about shaking hands or the hijab, it’s simply about preserving modesty and minimizing physical attraction,” Radwan says. She adds that it is in no way forced upon women by men.

Abdous makes the same point about the practice of men and women worshipping separately—a practice that is due in part to the manner of praying: sitting on one’s haunches, then bending over until your face touches the floor. He said it’s about minimizing distraction.

But none of this, I’m repeatedly told, means that women are in any way considered subordinate.

“I feel that the Muslim woman is the luckiest woman in the whole world,” Radwan says. “In this country, for example, women had to fight for the right to vote. Muslim women have had those rights since the beginning of Islam.” She points out, for instance, that if a Muslim woman works outside the home, she is entitled to keep her own money. There is no expectation that her husband is entitled to it.

On this subject, Elshanawany goes further than pinning it to particular cultural practices in certain countries. 

“The oppression of women,” he says, “is ultimately personal. There are some men who beat their wives, for example. But that’s the man, not the religion, whether it’s a Muslim man or Christian man who does so.”

Indeed, the relationship between Radwan and Elshanawany seems to be a model of independence and mutual respect. During the time that Radwan has been living here with her two young daughters, Elshanawany has remained in Egypt. A former police officer, he now works for a Ukranian gas and oil company. He visits Norfolk as often as possible, but Radwan is on her own, pursuing her studies, for much of the time.

Elshanawany has nevertheless spent a lot of time here over the past two years, and both he and Radwan say their experiences have been unconditionally positive.

This surprises me to some degree, since, at the very moment that I am initially meeting them, a young woman sitting at the coffeehouse glances at Radwan in her hijab and frowns in disgust. Radwan simply smiles at the young woman.

“There was one time someone called me ISIS, or something, but that’s the only negative thing I can recall,” she says. “The experience has been very good.”

Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims Islam Religion Hosam Elshanawany
Hosam Elshanawany, Eman Radwan and their two daughters at Disney.
Courtesy Photo

Both of them have been impressed with their time in the United States, not only because of the kindness with which they’ve been treated but because of their impression that Americans are afforded rights that many people in Egypt are not. 

Elshanawany says he is not bothered by Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric or efforts to impose travel bans that target Muslims.

“Politicians will say whatever they feel they need to say to appeal to certain people,” he observes. “But there are limitations on what he can do. That’s the beauty of this country. In many other countries, the president has far more power.” He points, for instance, to the fact that courts ended up overturning the travel ban.

In light of their positive impressions of the United States, I ask why they are returning to Egypt

“Because it’s home,” Radwan says. “You don’t choose your home. That’s where our family is. That’s where our roots are.”

Wherever they happen to be living, however, it is their faith that keeps them grounded. Like all observant Muslims, they pray five times a day at prescribed times: sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nighttime.

“It’s a way of organizing the day. When I planned to meet you, I thought, OK, we’ll meet after Dhuhr (midday prayer).” The prayer cycle, in other words, is the top priority for the day, and everything else is scheduled around that. Not that they must always be in a sacred space to do so. “You pray on an airplane, or wherever you happen to be,” Elshanawany tells me, adding as an aside that prayer, for him, is the best antidote to jet lag.

Before we part, I feel compelled to ask Elshanawany and Radwan as well about the tendency of many people in this country to associate Islam with terrorism.

They echo Hussein’s remarks about terrorists going directly against the teachings of the Koran itself—and add that people like the members of ISIS would not consider Elshanawany and Radwan to be true Muslims.

“In their minds,” Radwan says, “everyone is an infidel except for themselves.” The tragedy, she adds, is that the ground soldiers in terrorist groups tend to be troubled young men who are recruited and manipulated by leaders to serve a political agenda. It reminds me of stories I’ve heard about cults, from Jonestown to Charles Manson’s “family,” which have preyed upon people who are troubled and searching for meaning and belonging.

As we say goodbye, Radwan remembers, “Oh wait—we brought you something.” It’s a copy of the Koran, with scholarly interpretations. She also tells me that they would like to have me over during Ramadan. I am deeply touched.

In turn, I have one other question. I want to know how they sum up the teachings of Islam in a single sentence.

“Don’t judge anyone before you know him,” Elshanawany says simply.

This brings me back to my conversation with Abdous.

“At the end of the day,” he tells me, “there is one creator who has the ability to judge. If I know that, then I have no authority to judge. Let Him do the judging, and let us do the living.

“When you see the situation of humankind, it’s sad,” he adds. “But still, there are beacons of hope. I see a lot of people doing good things. One day, maybe we’ll be able to deal with each other without killing each other. After all, what we have in common is far greater than what makes us different.”

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