Looking at the SUVs corralled in the driveway of the Lafayette home, one would suspect a meeting of mothers.

Indeed, inside preschoolers race around with toy fire engines, eat chunks of mango and learn to make tornadoes out of plastic bottles.

Thursday is “arts projects day” for these children and their mothers, who come anywhere from Oakland to Concord to Martinez. What distinguishes them from the stereotypical suburban gathering is the interethnic mix: black, white, Pakistani, Moroccan, Chinese. What they share is that they are all Muslim.

In America, a secular society with a tradition of Judeo-Christian principles, Islam is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the world’s religions.

Perhaps even more misunderstood are Muslim women, who often find themselves in a position of explaining why they find comfort, power and respect in a faith that the West regards as repressive.

Now, in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies and the military action in Afghanistan, Muslim women who choose to wear veils or body coverings seem especially conspicuous. To some non-Muslims living in this country, the covering serves as a metaphor for a religion that appears to bind and constrict half of its followers.

Yet talk to a woman who covers herself, and she will talk about dignity and liberation. It is here in America that Muslim women say they are at home and have the freedom to practice the true faith of Islam in all its possibilities, as daughters, wives, mothers and workers.

For Hina Khan-Mukhtar, one of the mothers in the Lafayette group, practicing her faith in America is a much different prospect than in Saudi Arabia, where she grew up among American expatriates.

“If I lived in Saudi Arabia (now), I would not choose to be a Muslim,” says Khan-Mukhtar, who lives in Martinez.

Khan-Mukhtar, who would describe herself as a born-again Muslim if such a term existed, says that despite her comfortable lifestyle there, she would not choose to live in a country where an entire segment of society is rendered invisible. Women aren’t even allowed to drive.

“People who live here are living a real Islamic life,” agrees Mariam Hosseini of Fremont, where she is a member of the largest Afghan-American community in the country.

Religion and politics

Many of these Bay Area women, whether they were converted or born into Islam, took an intellectual route in their spiritual journey. Although tensions exist in living a religious life in a secular society, their freedom in how to live their faith reflects the cultural differences between their roles and those of Muslim women elsewhere in the world.

“Women have had rights in Islam since the beginning,” says Moina Noor, who works on the staff of American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism. She, like many others, points out that the holy book of the Quran notes that the Quran and the Shariah (the holy book and the practices of the prophets) directly grant rights to property, voting, divorce and work. On the other hand, women’s suffrage wasn’t recognized in America until 1920.

Religious practice is inextricably intertwined with its political environment. Islam in Indonesia, for example, is different from Islam in Saudi Arabia, says Shahin Gerami, a sociology professor at Southwest Missouri State University, whose 1995 book “Women and Fundamentalism: Islam and Christianity” compares fundamentalist movements in the Middle East and America.

Islam began about 1,400 years ago, in a time and place where women could be bought and sold, and female infanticide was sometimes a form of birth control. Muhammad emerged during this time. His wife Khadija – a twice-widowed, “very enlightened businesswoman” 15 years his senior and also his employer – likely influenced the prophet’s teachings. Khadija was Islam’s first convert.

While such rights are legal according to the Shariah, Gerami says, “it doesn’t mean it happens in real life.”

Roots of extremism

To those unfamiliar with Islam, Afghan women have become symbols of that religion’s extremes. Under Taliban rule, women cannot attend school or work outside the home. Public beatings occur at least weekly for infractions such as venturing outside – or even to a male doctor – without a male relative. Women have been sold into marriages, and shot or stoned to death for prostitution or adultery.

This repression angers and saddens Bay Area Muslim women, who say the Taliban’s restrictions are not of Islam but borne of tribal traditions. To explain the causes of the extremism, they point to the Soviet occupation and the ensuing anarchy, and to poverty exacerbated by a drought.

Tribal warfare in Afghanistan, also, historically often has resulted in restrictions and crimes upon its women long before the Taliban came into power, or Islam came into being, they say. Nor is it only the women who suffer in this land mine-studded country: Poor boys are recruited to be soldiers with the promise of one meal a day.

As dire as these circumstances are, even greater violence had been perpetuated against women during the years of factional fighting in the early 1990s. “Not that I’m sympathetic with the Taliban, but there was a power vacuum within the country and someone had to fill it,” says Khan-Mukhtar.

Hina Azam, a Duke University graduate student now in Berkeley while writing her dissertation on feminism and Islam, points out that the impetus that gives rise to repression can also promote reform.

“Islamic movements seek to restore a pure Islam. They seek to almost go back in time, go back to a purer state, the time of the prophet,” she says. “There are attempts by men and women to reconsider the tradition, what aspects are cultural and what aspects are God’s intent.”

Gerami notes that Middle Eastern and South Asian countries had already experimented with “socialism, Leninism, Marxism, any of those -isms that came from the West.” Their embrace of an Islamic state was a return to a life more in tune with their spirit and a rejection of Western materialism.

The gulf of misunderstanding – broad to begin with – has widened over the years. “Their perception of us is just as ridiculous as our perception of them,” points out Ahsia Khan, a UC Berkeley graduate student in public health. Americans see the Middle East as full of terrorists; in the Middle East, courtesy of satellite TV, they see America populated by the same folks in “Baywatch” and “The Jerry Springer Show.” Says Khan of each side: “What they see, they see each other through a veil.”

Still, the Muslim world has a long way to go in confronting issues from banning female drivers to clitorectomies to honor killings, adds Noor.

“In that respect, it’s hard to explain to a secular world why you’re a Muslim, and why you’re able to come to peace with it,” adds Lynn Jehle of Berkeley.

Turning to faith

Jehle, Khan and Noor are part of an informal group of East Bay women who study the Quran in Arabic. It’s led by Azam, who formed the group “to give something back” after being inspired by six months of field work in Egypt.

Although Azam started the class as a form of female empowerment in understanding true Islam, she has had her own doubts whenever she faces abuses done in its name.

“Islam is the scariest religion out there. It’s way more scary than Buddhism – or Hinduism. If everyone is so darn scared, you have to wonder, is there something I’m missing? – What does God really want of me? What does God really want of human beings? What does God really want of women and men?”

That is where faith comes in, she says. What draws Muslims is the desire to get closer to God. “We really believe God is our creator and that divine guidance is for our benefit.”

Noor, who grew up in a liberal Indian family, returned to her faith because the ambiguous, fluctuating values that a secular society presented “seemed to pale compared to a system, a framework that guides our lives.”

The system that Noor refers to is the behavioral practices outlined in the Quran and Sunnah, a compilation of the prophet’s practices, sayings and approved actions.

“Islam offers a full-fledged package,” says Angel Newell. The Oakland resident, one of the mothers’ group, had been raised a staunch Catholic but converted in college. “This is how you dress in order to dignify yourself, this is how you marry to bring families together, to build relationships together. This is how you eat, to really give God thanks.”

The individualistic American might blanch at such specific prescriptions, governing details from dress to premarital sex and alcohol consumption, but to many of the women, these rules liberate, not constrain.

“I need an absolute truth to live my life,” Khan-Mukhtar says. “I don’t look at them as restrictions. I look at them as guidelines. The definition of what’s good and what’s bad is always changing if you leave it up to the individual. Two hundred years ago, slavery was fine. Now it’s a shame.”

Khan, the Berkeley student, also sees choice without structure as repressive. She saw the enormous pressures her female friends went through over premarital sex. “I don’t even have to deal with that,” she says. “It saves you the heartache.” Agrees Azam, “There’s a wisdom in not doing.”

The aftermath

Many Westerners find it difficult to reconcile personal freedom and covering, seeing it as a metaphor for repression.

Hosseini says she had always felt comfortable going out in her veil or hijab until Sept. 11. After that it took days before she would venture outside without her husband or father.

“When most Westerners see that (covering), they think, ‘Her mind must be covered. Her voice must be silenced,'” says Khan, who does not cover except at religious events.

“Women look at me wearing my head scarf, they think I’m itching to take it off,” says Khan-Mukhtar. “They don’t know I had to fight with my husband to cover my hair.”

The word dignity comes up often in discussion with women about why they wear the veil.

“It’s a different vision of what constitutes dignity,” Azam says. “Even men generally wear pants.”

“It’s a really beautiful thing for me,” says Hosseini, a lifelong Muslim who decided to cover two years ago. “It doesn’t stop you in terms of education, work or social life.”

For better or for worse, how Americans look at Islam has changed forever since Sept. 11.

These women, like many other people, have been moved to introspection and to action.

“I definitely realized it was a time for Muslims to look at themselves to see what’s happening, what’s allowing things like this to come out,” says Khan-Mukhtar. She attributes part of this extremism to a “dearth of true Islam scholars,” and says Muslims must educate groups left behind in their way of thinking. Otherwise, she fears, “if one more extremist is going to try to do something again, people aren’t going to give us another chance.”

Still, reaching out from both sides remains vital. Despite fears, despite real violence and harassment, kindness has emerged.

“One thing I’ve realized with everything that happened, we as Muslim women have to reach out more and know our neighbors more,” Khan-Mukhtar says. She and her family had been exchanging friendly waves for years with the people next door. After that Tuesday in September, her Martinez neighbors invited them over for tea.

“This whole event has brought out such goodness,” she reflects. “It was sad it took something like this for them to invite us and for us to go.”

Reach Vera H-C Chan at 925-977-8428 or