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North America, Europe
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Islam, USA, New York, Hijab
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The exploration of the lives of two Muslim women living in Western countries and how they bridge cultural differences within the context of this particular historical moment.
Jessa Buchalter

2005 — student runner-up

Many people fear what they do not understand. America is a heterogeneous population representing many cultures, religions and ethnicities and yet Islam is often cast as a hostile, amorphous other with which we have little in common. Media news broadcasts of Muslim extremists, suicide bombers, Islamic terrorists and national alerts concerning Arabs create a definition of Muslims and Islam that is negative and opposite everything Islam stands for. There are about 7 million American Muslims and over 50% say they have experienced bias or discrimination since September 11th. Islam is the second largest religious population in the world after Christianity with almost 1 billion people made up of over 4000 ethnic groups. There is no one definition of a Muslim and certainly the majority should not be defined by the actions of a few.

Misrepresentative statements by media and religious leaders, only lead to more fear, misunderstanding and discrimination within our communities. The Atlanta Journal Constitution (9/11/02) reported, “Cable television news shows and talk-radio programs have criticized the Quran.” The Rev. Franklin Graham called Islam “wicked, violent and not of the same God” to which Christians pray. We need to improve the understanding of Islam before we can dissolve tensions here, let alone internationally. Mariam Mehter, my subject has created a bridge for me into the Syracuse Muslim community, offering me access to a religion and culture I still don’t fully comprehend. In doing so, Mariam has created an opportunity for me to share a vision and a perspective not seen everyday.

Mariam Mehter is an American Muslim attending Syracuse University. She is part of a new generation of Muslims where the future and the past are entwined with the opportunities afforded by American society and the structure of the Islamic faith. She is a link between historic traditions and traditions that are forming today. Her family is from Myanmar (formally known as Burmar). She, her parents, and four siblings have watched the Syracuse Muslim population grow into a diverse community incorporating Muslims from Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and many other countries, where despite significant differences they are bound together by a common faith and communal worship. During Islamic holidays such as Ramadan Eid, Mariam and her family visit with other Muslim families from many cultural backgrounds, sharing traditional foods and wearing the styles of their countries and cultures.

The Imam Taqiuddin Ahmed of the Islamic Society of CNY says his goal is to help people learn about one another. He has given me permission to photograph in the women’s section of the Mosque. Mariam is part of MSA (Muslim Student Association). Mariam’s faith is an integral part of her life, defining how she interacts with family and friends and providing a strict personal code, yet she has the same dreams and hobbies as many college students: she plays soccer, broomball and boxes, goes to the mall and the movies with friends, works at the ice rink and the dome, cheers on the basketball team from the student section and volunteers for literacy core. Mariam stands out visually from other students because of the Hijab, or head scarf that she always wears, except when she is home with her family or in her apartment with women friends. Mariam has opened her life to me, trusting me with the camera even when she is not wearing her hijab. I hope that in the end this project will share with others beauty of her religion and her culture and the understanding that within our differences are the same basic values and desires that unite us as a world culture.

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Saja Nurridin, Mariam and Katie Phelps spend an evening knitting and chatting during a visit to Sajda’s apartment on south campus. Like many other college students, Mariam would much rather hang out with her friends then do her economics homework. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Mariam walks to class from her off-camps apartment with roommate Katie Phelps and Tony, a next-door neighbor. Mariam’s parents emigrated from Myanmar to Syracuse where she was born and raised. She defines their culture as being very “Dosi” which is Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladesh. She, her parents and four siblings have watched the Syracuse Muslim population grow into a diverse community incorporating Muslims from Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and many other countries, where despite significant differences they are bound together by a common faith and communal worship. During Islamic holidays such s Ramadan Eid, Mariam and her family visit other Muslim families from many cultural backgrounds, sharing traditional foods and wearing the clothing styles of their countries and cultures. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
“Hey Minnie Might!” yells coach Frank Simons at Mariam. “Are you tired or something?” Minnie Might is Mariam’s nickname during boxing. Mariam has yet to get into the ring and spar but she loves shadow boxing and mitts with the instructors. Despite the fact that her father is a Martial Arts instructor, Mariam’s choice of boxing is controversial with her family and her faith. Islam is a peaceful religion and does not believe in violence, Mariam said. “We’re not really supposed to hit people in the head,” she said. “Some people say it’s ok because it’s about intention. I rationalize it to myself cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody. I have good intentions. I’m trying to hit her helmet.” Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Within her bedroom, Mariam prays in the morning before leaving for class. She lives in an apartment off-campus with three other young women, none of whom are Muslims. One roommate, Liz Crosby, has bible study in the living room every Friday evening. Muslims pray five times a day at specific times, but can fulfill the prayer requirement later. “I’d never leave in the middle of class to pray,” she said. Mariam arranged her schedule so she had a break between classes during which she went to the Muslim Student Association in Hendricks Chapel. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Mariam’s faith is an integral part of her life, defining how she interacts with family, friends and providing a strict personal code. Yet, she has the same dreams and hobbies as many college students. Mariam plays soccer, broom ball and boxes. She goes to the mall and the movies with friends. In addition, she works at the ice rink and the football dome, volunteers for literacy core, and is always there to cheer on the basketball team from the student section. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Saleha’s father encouraged her to return to university for her social work degree despite a good, respectable job in a hospital. “He said, ‘If I didn’t apply then I’d never know if I was capable of becoming a social worker,” she said. He died that January, her second daughter Yasmin was born the following August and the course started that September. “I rely totally on Allah because everything comes from God,” Saleha said. “Even something negative that happened, it happens for a reason. It teaches a lesson. I’m not in control. There is a greater force in my life even though I have free will.” Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Saleha stands outside a girl’s elementary school waiting for Janah. All of her daughters have gone to school here. “Because of dress and skin color, people think of me as foreigner, but I don’t think of myself as a foreigner. I’m British. When I go to Bangladesh, they know right off I’m a foreigner,” Saleha said. “We’re all human beings and underneath we’re all similar. Because people don’t interact with Muslims or vice versa, you have these views about the ‘other.’ One woman said one day she thought all Muslims live in a colorless room and sit there chanting something... When you’re home you can wear whatever you want. You can be stylish and fashionable. It is a complete misconception that how women dress outside is how they dress inside. It’s about my modesty, nothing else... I don’t think it’s important for people to have a glimpse of Muslims in society right now, which is why I’ve taken a risk...It’s just normal life, even if we dress different or have slightly different beliefs. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
“We have a very loving relationship, trust and understanding. I’m very fortunate because he has helped in my career. Some men may be quite jealous that their wife is doing very well, but he has always encouraged me. It’s not that he had a masculine role, and I have a feminine role. We just do what works for our family. He likes ironing and irons my shirts. It also helps our marriage that we have individual identities and we’re not just relying on our identity as husband and wife.” Saleha and her husband Nazrul Islam discuss plans to market his restaurant in Sylheit, a dialect of Bengali, before Saleha leaves to pick up her youngest daughter Jannah from school. Because she usually works during the day and he runs the restaurant in the evenings, Nazrul usually takes the younger children to school and picks them up in the afternoons. Saleha married Nazrul Islam when she was 16-years-old, which was unusual. Saleha explains that being the eldest and having a very particular role in the family at 16, she was quite mature. Their families were friends from Bangladesh and she had met him on a visit there when she was 11. The family traveled to Bangladesh for the wedding, however, Nazrul didn’t join her in London until she was 18. “I’m glad I got married young,” said Saleha. “I was able to have my family and my career.” Arranged marriage is part of the culture in Bangladesh and her two oldest daughters expect that their parents will arrange marriages for them. However, Saleha has told her daughters, that if they find a man they are interested in, they should let her know. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Firidousi Ahmed, the younger of Saleha’s two younger sisters, laughs with Saleha and her mother Saya Noor in the living room of Saleha’s home one evening. In Bangladesh culture, the mother usually lives with her son, but Saleha’s mother Saya had only daughters and lives with Saleha because she is the eldest. Nazrul’s mother has three sons and alternates with whom she lives. The family is very close and Firdousi’s youngest daughter Medina and Jannah are not only cousins, but also best friends. Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation
Saleha prays in her kitchen in the afternoon while her husband Nazrul watches television in the living room. Muslims pray five times a day. Normally, Saleha and Nazrul pray the evening prayer together in the living room but he had finished his prayer earlier. Saleha did not wear hijab until about 12 years ago. “I’ve always been religious and done my outer practice. I see the world, I see everything and I now see there has to be a creator,’ Saleha said. She began to reflect more on her religion after her father passed away. Soon after she participated in an Islamic Counseling Sufi Wisdom course, went to Hajj and left her job. “The Koran says that you come to this world and you’ll be tested and through those tests you will find out about your creator,” Saleha said. “If you pause and reflect, that brings you closer to your creator. A career and running from one thing to the next is outward, outward, outward. But when you pause and turn inwards, that’s what is lasting.” When Saleha began wearing a hijab she chose a method to wrap it that is not a traditional Bengali style. Instead, she says, it is a style she found that balances her religious life, her professional life and her own personality. Saleha says that one of the most common questions she receives is about wearing hijab. “They [non Muslims] can’t understand why people wear the veil,” Saleha said. “They can’t because they don’t follow the faith. When you believe in something, you can do it. [Muslim Women] do things to get closer to Allah. Not to please their husbands or fathers. Although some might, the real reason should be Allah.” Jessa Buchalter/Alexia Foundation