The Chaplain Wears a Hijab
Shareda Hosein is the new Muslim chaplain—and a lieutenant colonel
Shareda Hosein, the university’s new Muslim chaplain, boasts a varied and unconventional résumé. Before assuming her role as spiritual advisor and public representative for Tufts’ Muslim students, she sold real estate and served in the Army Reserves, including a tour of duty in Kuwait in 2004. Currently she is a lieutenant colonel in the Reserves.
A recent graduate of the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., Hosein completed a chaplaincy internship at Tufts last year. She is a native of Trinidad, a yoga enthusiast and the mother of a grown daughter. She spoke at her office in the university’s new Interfaith Center, which includes washing facilities specifically designed for the ablutions required before Muslim prayer. “Aside from the building being gorgeous,” she says, “it also feels like sacred space.”
Tufts Journal: As an American Muslim, serving with U.S. forces in Kuwait, a Muslim country, what were your experiences?
Hosein: It was amazing. Even though we were in Kuwait, we didn’t interact with the civilian population much. I think in my 10 months, I was allowed off the base four times for short R&R excursions, for three hours at the most. We ended up at the shopping mall, which was very Western. It wasn’t easy just to go up and talk to people.
On base, with all my colleagues, I was just like any other person, with the exception that they knew I was Muslim. Some of them utilized my expertise and asked questions. I briefed some of the staff on what to expect, especially during the hajj period [annual pilgrimage to Mecca]. Kuwait borders Saudi Arabia, so there was a lot of road traffic to get into Saudi Arabia, and that can be a conflict for our operations. The other privilege was to be an unofficial lay leader at the Muslim chapel, where I helped organize the Friday prayer.
I did have one interaction on a Kuwaiti naval base. My unit met with a [Kuwaiti] major, whose name, interestingly enough, also happened to be Major Husein—I think he spelled it with a “u”—and he said to me, “Do you feel that your colleagues trust you in the military?” And I said, “Alhamdulillah—Praise be to God—yes, they do, and they treat me equally.”
Muslim students at Tufts come from many different ethnic and national backgrounds and reflect different theological traditions in Islam. How do you, as chaplain, deal with this diversity?
Amazingly enough, theologically, that hasn’t been an issue, because the basic ways that Muslims pray, if you’re a Sunni or a Shi’a, it’s pretty much the same. The cultural diversity has not been an issue but more matter of fact, part of campus life. The issue of wearing a hijab, the head covering, also has not been an issue, because the majority of the female [Muslim] students at Tufts do not wear the hijab. The students are not so much concerned with the nuances of the theological differences in practice. I’ve not had any students come up to me and make any comments opposing another student’s theological practice—and I do know Muslims, and they are not afraid to voice their opinions.
You encouraged students to protest Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, which occurred on several college campuses, including Tufts, in October. Circumstances have created many political and cultural assumptions about Islam, both in the world at large and on campus. There may be expectations that Muslim students will assume political roles. How do you help young people deal with this?
I did have a few comments from students who did not want to tarnish religion with politics; they look at the MSA [Muslim Student Association] more for their spiritual life, not for their political life. They don’t want to bring the two together, because politics is viewed so negatively, and religion is where the students get their source of energy for doing “good” in the world. Unfortunately, in today’s world, students don’t have that luxury to separate the two.
Somehow, they need to stand up and look at the social, political and religious ramifications of Islam, and the way it is being presented by others, in the media or on campus. I feel they need to understand these three aspects of their lives, because at the university, they are encountering that, and it’s not going to be changing when they go out into the real world. I encourage them to use this as a learning ground, where it is still somewhat safe, so they will at least have learned some coping mechanisms.
And with Islam being on the daily news, with Islamists, the war on terror, jihadists—you cannot hide from it, nor can you run away from it. And as a Muslim, you are not encouraged to run away. You are encouraged to be in dialogue, to be in communication, to try to understand where the other person is coming from, to resolve issues. Going by both religious tenets and my personal experience, I say that by running away, you are allowing another person to speak on your behalf, and that person may not say what really needs to be said, or say what needs to be said in light of the teachings of Islam.
What are the challenges—and advantages—of being a woman in your position?
Let’s start with the advantages. Since I can only lead prayer to women [according to Islamic practice], it encourages some of the male students in the community to learn how to deliver and lead prayer. If I were a man, the students might not feel the need to even learn how to lead the prayer. I see that as an advantage.
By nature, females are nurturers. Students can relate to a female more easily, maybe as an aunt, a mother or older sister—not that I’m anybody’s mother—but they can relate a bit and feel somewhat more comfortable. What I’ve noticed, as another advantage, with the male students, is they’re practicing the etiquette of taking care of women. They are learning how to interact with women, how to treat women, how to respect the authority of women and the position. I’ve had no conflicts with male students. If anything, they have given me the utmost respect.
The only disadvantage I see is in shaping the community’s message through the Friday prayer. Since I have a few different imams [religious leaders] rotating on Fridays to lead prayer, the khutbah, or sermon, is more on what they determine than the message I may put forth. But the advantage to having rotating imams is the students don’t get bored with one voice. They get a variety of voices—they get to see different lecturing styles.
What is the most difficult part about being chaplain? And what is your favorite part?
I would say at this point, getting the students to really call on me for my services is the most difficult part. They don’t realize, as much as I tell them, that I’m here for them. Chaplaincy is a new phenomenon within the Muslim community. Therefore, I know it will take some time to catch on with the students.
You ask what I like best: being an advocate for the students. That they feel safe. That they are comfortable, that they feel like they belong here on campus just like any other student. I enjoy being able to talk to students in general on campus, to lecture in some classes dealing with Islamic issues; to educate others on campus about Islam. And being in the dialogue with people about their faith, and building support networks with faculty, staff and students of other faiths.
Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story ran in the December 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.