By Donna Leinwand, USA TODAYMon Apr 10, 7:17 AM ET
Christine Ortiz slips quietly from the Muslim prayer room on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and into a group of squealing young women. Some of them are Ortiz’s Muslim sisters, the undergraduate pals who embraced her when she converted to Islam from her family’s Roman Catholicism.
Less than a year after she graduated from MIT, Ortiz, 23, has returned to campus on a chilly night to help introduce them to a new concept in Muslim sisterhood: the first Muslim-oriented sorority, Gamma Gamma Chi.
The sorority, which was formed last year, has no campus chapters but is trying to drum up interest with informational meetings across the nation. It aims to be a sorority unlike almost all others by adhering to principles of Islam: no alcohol and no casual mixing between men and women.
Ortiz is a member of Alpha Phi, one of five traditional sororities at MIT. She says she wants her Muslim girlfriends to have the sorority experience without having to compromise their religious values. In theory, the existing sororities’ policies are in line with Muslim beliefs, but in reality, she says, the sorority culture at MIT and other campuses “unfortunately is based on men and alcohol.”
Muslim women at MIT, the University of Kentucky, Rutgers, the University of Maryland-Baltimore and the University of Southern California have expressed interest in Gamma Gamma Chi, says founder and President Althia Collins, who owns an educational consulting business in Alexandria, Va.
Collins and her daughter Imani Abdul-Haqq, both Muslim converts, created the sorority in 2005.
The MIT gathering attracted 13 women – five in traditional Muslim head scarves and loose-fitting clothes but most with uncovered hair and typical campus attire of jeans and sweaters.
“I never felt attracted to sorority life,” says Tania Ullah, 20, a junior from New York City. “Aside from the drinking and partying, which I don’t do, I didn’t feel comfortable with pledging loyalty to the principles.”
‘We’re already a close-knit group’
Collins and Abdul-Haqq’s idea for a Muslim sorority reflects both the increasing presence of the religion on U.S. campuses and the growth of multiculturalism, says Denise Pipersburgh, a lawyer in Newark, N.J., and president of the National Multicultural Greek Council.
The National Panhellenic Conference represents 26 historically Caucasian sororities and women’s fraternities with 3.8 million members. The National Panhellenic Council, which represents four historically black sororities and five men’s fraternities, has 1.5 million members. The first Latina sorority was formed in 1975, and Asian-American Greek organizations have existed since the 1920s.
At the MIT session, the Muslim women, whose majors include brain and cognitive sciences and chemical engineering, seem intrigued by the idea of their own sorority. But they also are skeptical.
“An Islamic sorority is almost an oxymoron, isn’t it?” asks Tasneem Hussam, 20, a junior from Centreville, Va.
Muslims are active at MIT, where the Muslim Student Association on the 10,200-student campus regularly attracts 200 people to its dinners. All of the women at the presentation belong to the association.
“We’re already a close-knit group,” Hussam says. “I’m a little unsure about how necessary it is to have a sorority.”
Tayyba Anwar, 18, a freshman from New York City, wonders how she’ll explain the sorority concept to her parents and persuade them to let her join Gamma Gamma Chi.
“They’ll say, ‘What is this? Is it good or bad?’ ” Anwar says. “To me, it sounds like a respectable thing.”
Ortiz notes that Greek life is a big part of MIT. “Once they are organized, it’ll give Muslim women a face and voice on campus,” she says.
Ultimately, none of the MIT students submitted applications to Gamma Gamma Chi.
‘An American phenomenon’
The Muslim women at MIT say they rarely suffer from discrimination or isolation on campus. Panhellenic President Shannon Nees, 20, a junior from Hatfield, Penn., says they would be welcome in any of MIT’s five sororities.
“MIT is a very diverse group of people,” Nees says. “None of the sororities discriminate.”
Abdul-Haqq says Gamma Gamma Chi, unlike traditional sororities, will allow Muslim women to feel more comfortable without compromising their Islamic beliefs.
Abdul-Haqq recalls trying to join a sorority at Bennett College in Greensboro and fearing she might be required to dress immodestly while pledging. “I don’t wear short sleeves,” she says. “I wear my hair covered. I felt put off from the beginning.”
Collins and her daughter have sent e-mails to Muslim student groups and received enthusiastic responses, but no campus has signed up the 10 to 15 members needed for a chapter.
“We have to keep in mind that sororities are really an American phenomenon,” Collins says. “A lot of Muslims come from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. This is not a part of their experience.”
The sorority has collected the names of 200 women who have expressed interest in joining. The sorority, Collins says, would also welcome non-Muslim women who support its mission.
Xenia Tariq, 19, a freshman at Kentucky whose family moved to the USA from Pakistan, attended the sorority’s recent seminar in Lexington and applied to join. She has been spreading the word among her Muslim girlfriends and hopes the university will have a chapter by fall. “I guess the appeal was that it is the first ever Muslim sorority,” Tariq says. “I was thinking this is going to be really cool and groundbreaking, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
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