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Soldier of Faith
As a graduate of an intensive program to train Muslim chaplains, Shareda Hosein wants to be the first woman in the U.S. military to be one. But the Army says it's not a battle she should win.

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.

As immigrant Muslims begin "to feel more and more that America is home for them, they come to understand the potential contribution of this profession to the Muslim community," says Abdullah Antepli, associate director of Hartford Seminary's Islamic chaplaincy program. This shift, he says, points to an emerging "American Islamic identity" and the inclusion of Muslims into the social fabric of American society and culture.

Shareda's introduction to American culture came in 1972, when she and her four younger siblings joined their parents in Boston. Three years earlier, Abidh and Ojeefan Hosein, Trinidadians of Indian descent, left their Caribbean island home, lured by educational opportunities for their children. Shareda's father, a cable splicer with the telephone company, raised his family in a Dorchester, Mass., triple-decker, where newly arrived Trinidadians were frequent dinner guests. "My father would bring strangers home because he knew what it was like to be a lonely immigrant without family," Shareda says. "Everybody loved him."

But with his children, the patriarch was old school: Stern discipline was how to instill good behavior. "Wanting the best for us, he came across in a fearful way: 'Don't do this. Do this, or else,'" Shareda recalls.

Because she was a girl, her parents were especially protective. Shareda couldn't have a part-time job after school. She had to ask permission to wear jeans. "I'm like, I want to be American. I want to blend in, fit in. I don't want people to make fun of me!" she recalls. "My friends were going out and doing things, and my only external activity was playing sports after school and coming home."

Her family also worshiped at the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy, Mass. But what Shareda heard in Sunday school did not always jibe with what she was experiencing in the rest of her life. It was "this ideal form of Islam, not looking at the culture that you're in and trying to find accommodations on how to live in this society," she explains. "At the same time, I wanted to be comfortable with being a Muslim in the mainstream society." The conflict sometimes made her feel "schizophrenic," she recalls.

The Army held out the promise of travel, a way to pay for college and, above all, a chance "to make my own choices and not have to ask permission," Shareda says. Barely a month after her 18th birthday, she enlisted, then matter-of-factly told her surprised parents.

Her father's response was curt: "Can you kill someone?"

Shareda did not reply but his pointed question hit home. "I thought, 'I have to kill somebody? That's not what the recruiter told me,'" she remembers thinking. "He never told me that I'd be learning to fight and kill."

After basic training, she was assigned to West Germany and then Panama. In 1981, she wed a fellow soldier. But it was a difficult match, and by the time they divorced, she was pregnant. She decided to leave the Army and returned to Boston. For a while she worked as a cashier at Au Bon Pain. In 1983, her daughter, Farhana, was born.

In the fall of 1984 she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and also landed a job as head secretary in its biology department. While her mother helped care for Farhana, Shareda went to school year-round and graduated with a BA in business and marketing in 1987. She got a real estate license and started selling property.

During these years, she also reignited her relationship with the military. "I do things there that I would never ever do as a civilian," explains Shareda, who joined the Reserve. "And I like the sense of discipline. I like the sense of structure. You know when your next promotion is due. You know how you have to perform to get a good evaluation. It's set. There's no magic to it. And so I missed that."

In 1986, she took a semester off from school to attend the Army's Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. It was around that time that her faith began to blossom.

THE COMMON ROOM OF HARTFORD'S IMMANUEL CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST IS STIFLING. Waves of humid, 90-degree June heat float through mammoth, wide-open windows, wilting the scores of robed men and women assembled for Hartford Seminary's 2007 graduation.

"It's too hot to wear a tie," Jack Keenan complains as his white shirt darkens with moisture. But he dutifully Windsor-knots a pale blue number and stands before his wife for inspection.

"Ah, it's too short here," Shareda says, tugging the bottom of the tie and giggling. Jack unties and re-knots.

"It's great that she's actually completin'," says Jack, the tall Irish American who became Shareda's second husband in 1993 after converting to Islam.

"At least you won't hear me saying: 'I have to write the paper! I have to write the paper!'" says Shareda, who did her master's thesis on Muslims in the U.S. armed forces from Revolutionary times through the Civil War.

"Oh, the paper! The paper! The famous paper!" Jack teases, rolling his eyes in mock horror. "That was a big day when she completed that!"

Amid the room's happy chatter, the graduates are ordered to fall into line for the procession. They are white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim.

This religious and ethnic diversity would astonish the Calvinist dissidents who broke with their Yale College brethren to found Hartford Seminary in 1834. Less than a century later, the school was in the forefront of Christendom's grand project so aptly described by one of the era's most prominent missionaries, Samuel M. Zwemer: "We hope to point out . . . the true solution to the Moslem problem, namely the evangelization of Moslems and to awaken sympathy, love and prayer on behalf of the Moslem world until its bonds are burst, its wounds are healed, its sorrows removed and its desires satisfied in Jesus Christ."

But Hartford was also deeply influenced by Duncan Black Macdonald, a Scotsman who taught Arabic and Islam at the school around the turn of the 20th century. A towering figure in Islamic scholarship, Macdonald insisted that students could successfully evangelize only if they first learned the language and theological heritage of Islam. "I discovered," he wrote, "that you could smuggle Muslim studies into a theological seminary under the guise of training missionaries."

Progressive for its time, Macdonald's approach was controversial. But it eventually infused Hartford's missionary education. Mac-donald's more tolerant attitude toward non-Christian faiths also contributed to a major transformation at Hartford decades later. "The missionaries that we sent," says Hartford President Heidi Hadsell, were "coming home saying [Muslims] already believe in God. What we need is dialogue between Muslims and Christians."

In 1973, 30 years after Macdonald's death, Hartford created the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Its mission is to nurture Christian-Muslim understanding. Today, Muslims make up 35 percent of Hartford's student body.

In 1998, the center hired Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian-born convert to Islam with a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago, to direct the chaplaincy program. Mattson was among the first to see chaplaincy as an avenue for young Muslims to exercise greater leadership in their own communities and in America's multi-faith institutions. It is particularly attractive for Muslim women because it entails far more than officiating at worship services. Chaplains also provide spiritual counseling, pastoral care and grief consolation.

As Mattson explored what an Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford should offer, the U.S. military was aggressively seeking chaplains for growing numbers of Muslim servicemen and -women. "I visited all the chief of chaplains of all the different services and asked them what they were interested in," recalls Mattson, who also is the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America, a major Muslim advocacy group. "And they all expressed a lot of interest."

Hartford's program, unique in the country, was designed to be the equivalent of a master's of divinity degree, the minimum educational requirement for chaplains in the military and federal prison system.

The program launched in early 2000 with three male students. Enrollment was disappointingly low for several years, but it has picked up in part because of increased demand from hospitals, prisons and campuses for Muslim chaplains. As Shareda graduates on this June day, 20 students are pursuing only the practical component, which will allow them to work as associate chaplains in some institutions. But 19 are enrolled in the complete program, covering both academic and practical tracks, which will make them eligible for full chaplaincy positions. Shareda is about to become the fourth student -- and first female -- to complete the entire program.

Once inside the church's red-carpeted sanctuary, the graduates step forward as the presiding dean, Ian Markham, calls their names. Each receives a diploma and then an academic stole laid in place by a relative or close friend of the graduate. A late-afternoon sun slants through the sanctuary's arched windows by the time Shareda and Jack are called forward.

"It's my duty to attend to one special student," Markham announces to graduates and relatives seated in the wooden pews. "I'm pleased to present to you Shareda Hosein."

As the audience applauds, Jack places the red velvet and gold silk stole over his wife's head, fussing with its folds so they drape gracefully down her back.

Shareda's father, who proudly supports her Army chaplaincy quest, is absent because of a long-standing business commitment. But her mother is there holding a long-stemmed red rose for her daughter.

"It's a very proud day," says Ojeefan Hosein. "I feel great. My daughter accomplished what she wanted."

FOR MANY YEARS, SHAREDA WAS NOT SERIOUS ABOUT HER FAITH. "I was more like a 'holiday Muslim,'" she says, going through the motions but "still living an American lifestyle."

That changed when her parents insisted on taking her daughter, Farhana, then in kindergarten, to their mosque's Sunday school. "I realized that, to be a responsible parent, I needed to give my daughter at least the foundations that my parents gave me. And then she can choose, as I did later on in life," Shareda says.

So she joined the mosque's board of directors and got involved with its youth program, aiming to help young people avoid the internal conflicts of faith that she'd struggled with.

As she became more attached to her faith, the military ethos -- to lead by example, not just orders -- also influenced Shareda. "I had to do my own self-examination," she says, and that meant a reckoning with the Islamic head scarf, or hijab. She asked herself why she had no problem complying with the military's rules -- keeping her hair above the bottom edge of the collar when in uniform -- but ignored her religion's injunctions. "Am I more afraid of man's laws than God's laws or God's requests?" she wondered. "And that was, like, the shift for me . . . The next day I decided to wear it." She was 35.

At one point, Shareda, now a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, questioned whether staying in the military was right, given that she has to go without the scarf when on duty. She decided to stay, but the tension between head scarf and beret remains. After two Reserve stints at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa this summer, she felt familiar pangs of conscience as she put her head scarf back on.

"There's a war that goes on in my head, because covering is the essence of being private and keeping my beauty for my home life, my family. And when I wear my uniform I can't be covered, because that's for the public," she explains.

"It's a big part of my journey and my struggle," she says. "I want to be true to both my career paths, my personality and my life. And in every way I feel integrated with both, going from one to the other, with the exception of not being able to cover . . . in uniform.

"This is where we would be using the 'jihad' word, but it would get misconstrued wouldn't it?" Shareda remarks wryly, referring to the post-9/11 reality that jihad's ancient meaning as a Muslim's inner struggle for spiritual growth has been all but lost.

Shareda has also dealt with community pressures regarding her military service. Not long ago, a man approached Shareda at the mosque and said, "I like you a lot, and I know your family and your husband, they're good people, and you should get out of the military because it's haram," meaning religiously forbidden, because she might be called upon to kill other Muslims.

"So I said, 'Well, if you have that perspective, you could say it's haram to even live in the United States because you're paying your taxes to support the military,'" Shareda recalls. "He just couldn't accept the fact that he was part of the machine."

By early 2001, Shareda and Jack had settled down in a close-knit, working-class section of Quincy, where she served for a time as a Republican Party activist and sold real estate. Even so, her life felt only partially fulfilling. She happened to see an article in the Boston Globe about the new Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary. It quoted a Muslim veteran of the Marines about the need for female Muslim chaplains in the military. By coincidence, Mattson visited Shareda's mosque just days afterward to lecture about Hartford's chaplaincy program. A few weeks later, Shareda shipped out to Kuwait, where her aspiration to become a military chaplain turned from daydream to destination.

Then came 9/11. Her desire to integrate her faith with service to her country deepened.

Shareda first applied to be an Army chaplain in 2003. Informal feedback was negative. During a 10-month mobilization in Kuwait with her Reserve unit in 2004, she asked for a meeting with the Army's visiting chief of chaplains. She was given time with his aide instead.

"He pretty much said: 'Hey, we'd love to have you. We need you, but you can't lead prayers with men and women. So you can't come onboard,'" she recalls.

Although Muslim scholars are pretty much unanimous that a woman cannot lead prayers and deliver the sermon when the congregation includes men, Shareda argued that chaplaincy involves more than worship services and that she could ask any male worshiper to lead the prayers and deliver the sermon she had written. She also told the aide that, because of her military experience, she "could explain to the spouses, the women, the wives, this is what your husband is experiencing because I've lived the life."

Unmoved, the Army formally rejected her application in 2005. But Shareda holds out hope that the decision is not final.

ON A GOLDEN AUTUMN DAY LAST OCTOBER, Shareda navigates her teal blue BMW 325xi along the asphalt cow paths of Boston's financial district to the Boston Kebab House. "I'm hosting today's iftar," she says, referring to the evening meal of Ramadan when Muslims break their daily fast. It is part of her new role as Tufts University's first female Muslim chaplain, a job she assumed in September.

Shareda's trunk is soon loaded with aluminum tubs of steaming rice and kebab. Twenty minutes later, she arrives at the Tufts Interfaith Center in Medford, Mass. The food is arrayed on a table in the second-floor common room. Headlights of passing cars flicker on the floor-to-ceiling windows as about a dozen Muslim students perform the evening prayer before sitting down to eat.

Wearing a beige head scarf to match her ankle-length skirt, Shareda casts her animated brown eyes around the table, purposefully including everyone. Conversation, frequently punctuated by laughter, ranges from bargain-priced rides to New York on a Fung Wah Bus to upcoming activities planned by the Muslim Students Association. Shareda brings up a religious study group she is launching and asks one student what night he'd prefer to meet. "Would you want it Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday?" she asks accommodatingly.

"Say 'Wednesday!'" she commands before he can reply, sparking chuckles around the table.

As chaplain, Shareda advises the Muslim Students Association, counsels students, and organizes religious and social activities for them. "She's so understanding, and she's helped the community so much," says Tufts senior Danyal Najmi, adding that "she helped us get our act together" at the association and has "always been there for us."

After dinner, as Shareda and the female students talk about baseball and dress designs, she notices that all of the male students are having an intense discussion at another table. They haven't told her what they are talking about. But she can guess.

Unlike her male predecessor, Shareda cannot act as an imam -- that is, officiate at the students' Friday service and give the khutba, or sermon. So she is tapping a network of male imams to lead the service each week. But some students wonder how effective this will be. If there are different imams each week, will their khutbas be relevant to their lives? What if he gets snarled in traffic and is late?

"The thing is, Shareda is very good. We love her. But she can't lead the prayers," Shirwac Mohamed, co-chair of the Muslim Students Association, explains later. "We want the khutbas to address things that are going on with students on this campus. We don't want random 'Be good. Do this. Do that.' Students wouldn't get a lot out of it."

At the iftar, Shareda wonders why the male students did not bring their concerns directly to her. But she decides to be patient.

She is also trying to be patient with the Army.

COL. RICHARD PACE IS PERSONNEL DIRECTOR for the Army's Office of Chief of Chaplains and a Protestant chaplain who has served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and Afghanistan. A small black cross, signifying his chaplaincy status, is stitched over his name on his green camouflage uniform.

Sitting in his 12th-floor Crystal City office, Pace explains that, unlike institutions such as hospitals, the Army has "the expectation and requirement when you come in representing a religious organization that you can function and conduct all the religious requirements of that organization." That is why, he says, the Army takes only priests -- and not deacons or nuns -- as Catholic chaplains because only priests can celebrate Mass.

This requirement makes female Muslims ineligible to be Army chaplains, he notes, because the "vast majority of the Islamic community" says women cannot lead services when men are in the congregation. Pace says he's aware that some Muslims are challenging that tradition and that if a new consensus emerges that "women indeed can perform these functions, then the Army's open to it."

In the meantime, he says, the Army, which has six Muslim chaplains ministering to an estimated 1,675 Muslims, 175 of them women, does not want to become "a forum for debate" on Islamic practices. "I really don't think the Army needs to be the place for the Muslim community to work out the role of female religious professionals."

Some Muslim leaders support Shareda's contention that her inability to lead prayers can be worked around. Mattson wrote the Army to say that her chaplaincy "would be an asset" to the service. And Maj. Abdul Rasheed Muhammad, who became the Army's first Muslim chaplain in 1993, applauded her courage in seeking the job. He said: "She doesn't have to lead men in prayer to be chaplain. That's the bottom line."

Shareda says she is seeking a reconsideration of her rejection but that, as of now, Army officials won't cooperate. She intends, she says, to "follow up if necessary with legal counsel."

"I don't feel resentment, or anger," Shareda says, just "disappointment" and "incompletion." These are new feelings for her, "because whatever goal I've set for myself, I've been able to achieve it. And, for this one, I don't have the final say."

ON THE DAY AFTER THE IFTAR MEAL, two students sit at a plastic folding table with Shareda in the sun-filled community room of the Tufts Interfaith Center. Muslim Students Association co-chair Mohamed is briefing the chaplain, who is perched on the edge of her seat. Having different imams each Friday will be "kind of hard for us," he says, because they won't get to know the students and their sermons won't "delve deeper into issues that concern us as Muslims." One suggestion that emerged from the students' informal meeting the night before, he says, is to have male students lead prayers on some Fridays and give a sermon they write with Shareda's help, or one that she writes.

"That's why I talked to others before I came to talk to you," he says.

"I think that's very valid," she replies.

She's happy to assist students who want to do this. Above all, she wants the sermons to be relevant to "the reality of living in this society," with its legal and political challenges to Muslims, who often feel their faith is under attack. Her inability to lead prayers, she says, is "a gift" because it gives the male students the opportunity to learn to lead services.

Earlier in the day, Shareda had prepared for Friday prayers by laying out two large blue plastic tarps to demarcate the worship space. She does not feel slighted at being unable to lead prayers, she says. But it bothers her that she can't deliver the sermons and "shape the message" she wants the students to get.

Then there are the logistics. That morning, the assigned imam had called Shareda to say he couldn't come because an eye problem prevented him from driving. In a panic, she enlisted Jack to pick him up.

Shortly before 1 p.m., the imam appears at the top of the stairs, and a visibly relieved Shareda greets him.

"Salaam aleykum!" she says.

"Aleykum es salaam!" replies Riaz Khan, a professor of management at a nearby university, who has a full white beard and speaks with the accent of his native India.

"I'm not an Islamic scholar," he tells a visitor. "You don't need special people for this. That is why there is no clergy in Islam . . . I'm just an ordinary common Muslim [who is] older than anyone here so they put me in front" to lead the prayer.

His sermon to the two dozen male worshipers dwells on how the Koran is God's revealed word to mankind, urging them "to follow this book of guidance as closely as possible, as sincerely as possible."

Today, Shareda is the only woman at the service. She stands alone in the back, her feet bare, her eyes closed, reciting the prayers of obedience and submission to God.

Caryle Murphy, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of Passion for Islam. She can be reached at caryle.murphy@yahoo.com.

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