Soldier of Faith

By Caryle Murphy
Sunday, January 20, 2008

IN THE SHANK OF A DESERT EVENING IN APRIL 2001, as the hour for Muslim prayer drew near, Shareda Hosein crawled out of her bunk in the huge warehouse doubling as a female barracks. She was in Kuwait for her annual two-week training with a U.S. Army Reserve unit. For some time now, she had been pondering a new career path. And, as she headed for the nearby chapel on the sand-buffeted U.S. base, she wondered if her idea could ever fly in the male-dominated traditions that have been so central to her life for so long: the U.S. military and Islam. Should she pass up her dream or press on with it?

The Reserve major, who stands 4 feet 10 inches tall and has maple syrup smooth skin, was looking for a sign.

She found it, of course, when she least expected it.

Inside the chapel, a male Muslim soldier was trying, with some difficulty, to teach a female soldier the precise moves of the obligatory, pre-prayer washing of hands, face and feet.

"She doesn't know how to make the ablution, could you help her out?" he asked Shareda.

The two women went to the ladies room where, at the sink, Shareda demonstrated the ritual performed by Muslims for more than 1,300 years. Suddenly, it hit her. Here was God's whispered blessing for the unusual goal she had set for herself: to become the first female Muslim chaplain in the U.S military.

"I just got so choked up because I had prayed to God asking, 'Is this the right thing for me to do?'" Shareda says now, recounting the incident almost seven years ago. "And I was like: 'You can't get a bigger sign than this. You just can't.' And so I helped her. He led the prayer. And we prayed."

Shareda's quest to be commissioned an Army chaplain presents what some might see as an insurmountable challenge: Three years ago, the Army declined her application, citing Islam's general prohibition against women leading prayers in the presence of men. But Shareda sees opportunities where others see obstacles. At 47, she's proved herself adept at overcoming difficulties: boot camp, officer training school and more than 20 years of service in the Army -- almost four of them on active duty. There also was a divorce. Working her way through college as a single mom. Getting her real estate license.

Now, in the summer of 2007, she is about to become the first female graduate of a pioneering degree program for training Islamic chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, one of America's oldest Christian theological schools. And, with some respected American Muslim leaders backing her dream of becoming a military chaplain, she hopes the Army will relent.

ON ONE LEVEL, SHAREDA'S STORY IS A PERSONAL ONE of an immigrant striver's determination to be fully accepted by American society. It's also a tale of negotiating the tension between being both a devout Muslim and dutiful soldier. Shareda worries, for example, that she may be hypocritical in bowing to the Army's rule that she forgo her Islamic head scarf when in uniform. And while many Muslims see the U.S. military engaged in a war against Islam, Shareda sees it as an institution promoting religious pluralism where American Muslims are destined to make their mark.

"Muslims have a great role to support the military and the country" in the wake of 9/11, says Shareda. "I feel the role of a chaplain in these times is even more critical."

Shareda's struggle also illuminates how immigrant Muslims are adapting to mainstream America -- in this case by warming to a model of religious leadership unfamiliar in Muslim lands, where "chaplain" conjures up a Christian cleric out to convert Muslims. Although chaplaincy's earliest practitioners were Christian, nowadays it is an occupation drawing members of many denominations. Working in multi-faith environments such as the military, hospitals, universities and prisons, chaplains are expected to assist people of all beliefs and are forbidden to proselytize.

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