Feature Woman. Muslim. American. 

In her campaign for social justice, Sarwat Husain shatters the stereotypes

The car had been following Sarwat Husain for more than 10 miles, from near downtown where she had attended a meeting about the Patriot Act at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, almost to Loop 1604. No matter how Husain detoured or doubled back, the car shadowed her.

At a stoplight, the car pulled alongside hers. "I just kept looking straight ahead, but I could tell they had rolled down the window and were screaming at me."

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When Husain arrived home, well after 10 p.m., she ran inside. After about a half hour, she returned to her car to retrieve groceries that she had left in her haste. "I heard a sound and I thought it was a gun," she recalls. "I turned and looked and it was two ugly men in the car. I ran into the house screaming."

Husain called police. When the officers arrived, they found Husain's home and car peppered with splatches of paint. The men had shot paint pellets, not bullets, but the police reportedly told her, "Had they hit you, you would have been hurt."

It is hard to scare Sarwat Husain. An American immigrant from Pakistan, Husain is president of the San Antonio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization. She started a monthly newspaper, Al-Ittihaad (Unity), writes opinion columns in the Express-News, and regularly speaks to groups ranging from Texas Republicans to Our Lady of the Lake students to Mensa members.

"The news of the day is, What are the Muslims doing? Who are they killing today?" she told a room of students at Our Lady of the Lake University last month. "Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the West."

In post-9/11 America, all Muslims are under suspicion. The Patriot Act, which endowed the U.S. government with wide surveillance and detention powers, codified America's paranoia. The media has further inflamed passions by portraying Islam as one-dimensional, instead of as a diverse religion whose sweep from right to left is like that between evangelical Christians and liberal Episcopalians.

Since September 11, 2001, Husain, who until then operated nursing- and child-care facilities, has embarked on a mission to correct public misperceptions about Muslims: They are not all Arabs. Islam does not advocate violence, but rather, social justice. And to lump all Muslims together with fundamentalist extremists is like condemning all white men because Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City or Eric Rudolph bombed abortion clinics and the 1996 Olympics.

As one of the most visible and politically outspoken members of the local Muslim community, Husain is accustomed to eliciting curiosity, fear, and hostility from those who do not know her - or from those who think they do.

"I can take it in stride," says Husain, who moved to San Antonio in 1989 and earned her master's degree in clinical nutrition from the University of the Incarnate Word. "Many of my friends, they shut themselves in. They're scared. But that is no way to live. Stand up for who you are."

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Husain was cooking breakfast when she received a phone call from a friend in South Africa. "She asked, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm making breakfast.' And she said, 'America is on fire and you're making breakfast?'"

Husain turned on the television as the second plane hit the Twin Towers. When she heard that the terrorists were likely Muslim, her thoughts moved from the tragedy unfolding on TV to her fellow Muslims. "I thought, What will happen to Muslims in this country? It will never be the same. My whole self changed."

Her appearance also transformed. Before 9/11, Husain didn't cover her head with hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by some Muslim women. After the World Trade Center bombings, Husain says, "Women called me and told me stories: You don't know how it feels, somebody is looking at you."

So Husain began wearing hijab, but she was unprepared for the public reaction. "I had it on two weeks and started seeing how I was treated. It's unbelievable, the looks I had never seen before in my life. The hatred. It hits you and you cannot ignore it."

She still wears hijab as a symbol of solidarity with Muslim women. "It has become a part of me. I feel secure. Hopefully `non-Muslims` will see it and start feeling comfortable."

What once was a celebration of her faith is now a strategy to educate others about Islam. During her college days in Wisconsin, Husain often held festive open houses and shared Eid and Christmas with people of all faiths. "The things that used to be fun for me are now work. People will read this and say, She is here with an agenda. Yes, it is an agenda; we are pushed for it."

Husain will take that agenda anywhere - even into hostile territory. At a recent speech before Republicans in Dallas, Husain was confronted by a barrage of questions: Does your husband treat you very badly? Does your husband know you're here?

At another presentation, Husain says, a man approached her afterward and told her, "The best thing I like about you is you're so modestly dressed."

"I said 'Thank you.' And he said, 'I wish American women would do the same; then we wouldn't have traffic jams for them putting lipstick on. And they would be saving hundreds of dollars on hairdos.' But that's not what it's about, yet he's telling me he's standing for the freedom of women."

"Anything you do or say is analyzed.

People want to know,

What's her agenda?"

– Sarwat Husain

Critics have also accused Husain of being a token, that as president of a CAIR chapter she is a mere doll for a man pulling the puppet strings. "If anybody else were running the show, I wouldn't be going out and speaking. Somebody else would be giving these talks," she says.

Khalid Iqbal, director of operations in CAIR's national office, praises Husain for her spirit of volunteerism (her position is unpaid) and her outreach not only to San Antonio's 13,000 Muslims, but also to diverse social groups. "She's dynamite," Iqbal says. "She's very much a people person, approachable, down to earth. Everybody who meets with her loves her. She's made friends with people of all faiths, all walks of life."

CAIR, which has 28 chapters nationwide and in Canada, also has come under fire from incendiary author, columnist, and Harvard graduate Daniel Pipes, and a Washington counter-terrorism think tank, the Investigative Project, for allegedly supporting militant Islam and benefiting from Saudi money. (It should be noted that American investment bank the Carlyle Group also has deep ties to the Saudi royal family and many on its board of directors are Republican policymakers, including Frank Carlucci, who was Defense Secretary under President Reagan. Former President George H. W. Bush was a senior advisor.)

Pipes is a formidable opponent of CAIR who carries clout with many evangelical Christians, conservative Jews, and even The Wall Street Journal, which called him an "authoritative commentator on the Middle East."

"The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is gaining acceptance among the gullible, the ignorant, or the foolish as a legitimate 'civil liberties group,'" he wrote on his website in response to the number of private groups, church leaders, politicians, and government officials who have embraced CAIR. Yet, if one thinks Pipes' comments are fringe, his reach is far enough to influence public policy on Muslims in America. In 2003, Bush appointed Pipes to the U.S. Institute of Peace - albeit during a Congressional recess so Pipes would not have to undergo the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation.

"If anybody thinks that 8 to 10 million people in the U.S. are here to hurt him, he must be stupid," counters Husain, who criticized Pipes in an opinion piece in the Express-News. "He has the right to lie about others, but others can't tell the truth about him. CAIR looks the other way; we just keep on doing what we have to do."

After 1 o'clock prayers, Husain greets me at the door. She is wearing a chocolate-colored, long-sleeved shirt, pants, and hijab, which frames her round, translucent face and accentuates her penetrating brown eyes.

We sit at an elegant, wood dining-room table. The walls are adorned with color photos of her two children and an old, sepia-toned picture of her father, a colonel and engineer in the Indian army when India and Pakistan were under the British flag. Her husband, Mohammad, a soft-spoken, retired college professor, relaxes in a recliner in the next room.

Husain was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to an upper-middle-class, politically aware family in which her father was the head of the household. However, she says, it is untrue that women are subordinate in mainstream Muslim life. "A man is the head, in that he's supposed to go out and take care of things outside the home. That does not mean a woman doesn't have equal say in the matters of the family. Everything that is involved, a woman has an equal say, and if a man cannot make a final decision, a woman does. There are many families in which men always depend on their women."

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She and her father were close, and every night after dinner she read the newspaper to him. "I loved it. For some reason I could sit with him and discuss issues where my other siblings couldn't. I could ask questions that were senseless to him, but he took time to explain them."

While church and state are not separate in Pakistan - Islam is taught in school - Husain's father required his children to read and study not only the Qu'ran, but also the Bible and Torah. "The Qu'ran says we're supposed to believe all of them; the message is the same," Husain explains. She compares Islam to the "new and improved" products she learned about while studying for her MBA. "In 1,400 years not even a dot has been moved. Its message is social justice; it is timeless and it should never be changed."

As a child, Husain looked to her father for guidance, and often questioned the nature of God, who she briefly envisioned as a "boss sitting in a posh office with people bringing Him folders."

"When I was young, I had radical ideas," she recalls. "And I'd say 'Daddy,' I called him Babba, 'I want to do it this way. Will God like it?' And he'd say, 'Well, ask him.' 'What if he doesn't answer?' 'He won't answer to you, but you will get the answer.' Anything that happens, right or wrong, that is the answer."

As Husain grew older, she chafed against her family's religious regimen and the restrictiveness of Pakistani society. Her brother is 11 months younger than she, and many of his friends were also hers until she was 8 or 9. "Then my mother started telling me, 'Now you must stay in the house.' This is when I started questioning religion. And the prayers at 4 in the morning. If I wasn't up, my father was knocking, Get up, get up. And I would say, 'You're telling me that this is between me and my God.' He always laughed and never got angry. He just said, 'Well, God also says you have to listen to your father.' And I thought, 'When I go away from here, I will not get up early for prayers and I know God will understand.'"

As a young adult, Husain ached to leave Pakistan and attend college in the U.S. Her father agreed to send her only if she got married. "He didn't think that I would," she laughs. Later, she was introduced to her future husband, a Pakistani already studying in the U.S., through a mutual friend. After the parents considered the couple's backgrounds, likes, and dislikes, the marriage was arranged, although the tradition is Pakistani, not Muslim. The two have been married for more than 30 years.

"We were brought up that once you're married, it's a matter of growing together, of adjusting your life," she says. "Marriage is a form of worship."

The newlyweds moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Husain explored her newfound freedom. She earned her bachelor's degree in nutrition from the University of Wisconsin and joined social clubs.

"Luckily, I have a husband who never questions anything I do as long as I take care of my house," says Husain. "I have the energy to do extra things."

Yet, as Husain immersed herself in American society, she discovered that some of its mores clashed with her social conservatism.

"I'm not putting down the culture at all, but I saw friends very close to me having affairs outside of marriage, the mingling of men and women. It was very wrong to me."

She rediscovered the Qur'an - this time not under pressure from her father or Pakistani culture, but of her own choice. "I call myself a born-again Muslim - Muslims don't like it when I say that, but that's what I call myself - and each time I read it I find something new. Just this morning I was reading that even if you pray five times, it means nothing. Praying alone is not enough; fasting alone is not enough. You have to be a total person. And that is a big thing to say. I don't know if anyone can become a total person. No one can say I know it all."

The Qur'an's message of social justice resonated with Husain, which has enabled her to reach out across all faiths - and to those with none. "Many atheists and agnostics are the first ones to stand up for others' rights. I really feel that's the way to be a religious person - in your actions," she says. "Unless people are hurting you, you are not supposed to put them down. If they don't believe in God, that's up to God to judge. What difference is it if they call themselves believers or not?"

Socially conservative, Muslims have traditionally voted Republican and, in 2000, they cast their ballots for George W. Bush because he claimed to espouse "family values."

"But Bush is not following those values," Husain says. "He's not a Christian. Like a Muslim can call himself a Muslim and go blow someone up, but he is not a Muslim."

The Patriot Act and the war in Iraq have soured many Muslims on the GOP. While there are still Republican holdouts devoted to the party's social conservatism, Husain says the majority of Muslims are shifting to the Democratic Party, and she hopes to inspire Muslims to become involved in politics, including running for office.

"You need people up there not to promote Islam, but to show there is a faction whose issues are not being taken into consideration."

In March 2004, then-presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat, addressed several hundred Muslims at a North Side Knights of Columbus Hall to rousing applause. In his speech, Kucinich compared Muslims in America to canaries in coalmines: bellwethers of the U.S. government's "intolerance, surveillance, and oppression" of all citizens.

"You need people up there not to promote Islam,

but to show there is a faction whose issues

are not being taken into consideration."

– Sarwat Husain

"We must cherish and be with them `Muslims` in their suffering and defend them," he said. "In its suffering the Muslim community is helping America to transform. We're defending all Americans, all liberties. Stand up and live your faith: Celebrate Islam. Promote and share understanding. This country owes you a debt of gratitude."

"They loved him," says Husain. "He doesn't twist the truth. He says it exactly the way it is and that's what people want to hear: That there is no peace without justice. That we are wasting time if we think justice can happen by force."

Yet, according to crime statistics, force is still being used against American Muslims. The paintball attack on Husain was one of dozens of incidents - including a string of fires at local Muslim-owned businesses - that have been reported in Texas since 2001. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in 2002 there were 36 reported civil-rights violations against Muslims in Texas; last year there were 104.

And while some lash out against Husain and her fellow Muslims, others recoil in fear. Three months ago, Husain was in the checkout lane at Best Buy. In the line next to her stood a woman, pale and trembling. "Her husband was saying, 'It's OK honey, there's nothing she can do to you. The security guard is there; I'm here,'" Husain recalls. "I thought, How can I reach out to them? I wanted to touch her, but what would happen. Would her husband take a swing at me?"

Some Muslims, too, are afraid. When Husain invited an FBI agent to speak to a group of local Muslims, only 75 attended. "There is fear on both sides. Some are busy with their lives, but others are in hiding; it is hurting them.

"Our fight is not only to protect Muslims, it's for everybody," Husain says. "I don't believe in Americans hurting Americans. But that is what I'm seeing: Americans being fearful of fellow Americans."

By Lisa Sorg



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