Student Profile: Milia Islam

Early in September of 2001, Milia Islam was already anticipating a tough transition in coming to a big northeastern city such as Boston after having lived most of her life in a small Missouri town (Fulton, population 10,000), and in undertaking a Harvard graduate program that is challenging under the best of circumstances.

But Milia, a devout Muslim who practices hijab (wearing a head scarf), could never have imagined what was to happen on September 11 or the way those tragic events would end up affecting her during her first months at Harvard Divinity School as a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) student. First, the closing of Logan Airport meant that her parents, who had helped her settle in, were stuck in Boston for a week. But much more troubling, Milia experienced an unexpected lesson in religious bigotry.

"When I left the Harvard campus, I felt like an outsider, and I realized the huge impact of September 11 on the American psyche," she recalled recently. Unpleasant remarks were directed at her on the sidewalks, and one of her friends had a hijab pulled off her head. After this incident, Milia said, "I found myself afraid to go out at night." Even in the safety of her room, though, she received threatening email messages.

Although Milia's fear, and the negative reactions of others, subsided, the experience only strengthened her resolve to study comparative religions so that she can help to counter the kind of ignorance and fear that can lead to violence and death—a vocation she had arrived at before September 11, because of childhood and college-age experiences.

Milia's family came to the United States from Bangladesh when she was 7 years old, and they were the only Muslim family in their Missouri town. "It was a mixed blessing growing up in Fulton," she said. "Sometimes people would say terrible things to me, but then they would come back three months later and apologize. Small towns are like that."

The most pivotal experience came when Milia was a sophomore at Westminster College, in Fulton, and her grandmother passed away. She views the day of her grandmother's death as "a day of transition from her life into the next and from my own former life into my new one."

"We had taken care of her for the past seven years of her life when she was bed-ridden," Milia said, "and I'd witnessed her transformation from a self-reliant individual to one who was wholly dependent on God and her family." She grieved for her grandmother deeply, and started to critically examine her own beliefs because, she said, "everything was confusing to me; nothing seemed to make sense." It was during this time that Milia started to wear the hijab.

Milia remembers the first day she walked onto the Westminster campus with her hijab on. "It was drizzling outside and I had on a green shirt, black pants, and a beige hijab with a green floral design on the border," she said. "But it was the stares I remember most vividly. I was greeted with scrunched eyebrows and looks of beleaguered puzzlement. A few brave souls actually gathered up the courage to ask me why I suddenly started wearing 'that thing' around my head. I explained that it was part of my religion. It is an attempt to be a bit more modest so that people do not judge me by how I look, but more for the content of my soul, for who I am."

Although she was aware of the misconceptions that existed about Muslim women as "oppressed" or "abused," Milia found herself needing to understand what made people act from their ignorance, so she switched her major from biology to psychology and religion. "Those adverse reactions I first encountered while implementing my religious beliefs motivated me to gain an understanding of other religions," she said. She also started doing independent studies to focus on Islam, including a project researching the status of Muslim women in the Qur'an and Sharia (Islamic law) in comparison to their status in "Islamic" countries.

Perhaps even more important than her academic work, Milia decided to receive the weird looks gladly, and to seize every opportunity to explain herself and her reasons for wearing the hijab. "It is amazing how scared people are of something 'different,' " she said. "On the other hand, it is astonishing how when they muster up the courage to seek answers to the things they do not understand, they can change completely." By the end of her time at Westminster College, she said, "I walked the halls and still got a few stares at times, but for the most part, everyone just looked at me for who I am, not what I am wearing."

"As a Muslim woman, I am under a stereotype wherever I go," she continued. "Yet I have also learned how to see possible solutions, and to provide a real human face to counter the image." Milia stresses that she makes a point of studying other religions besides her own, "so I don't contribute to ignorance myself." After all, she said, "This whole world is full of stereotypes, not only against Muslim people." 

Milia says she is enjoying the academic resources Harvard has to offer in Islamic studies, including her adviser, Professor Leila Ahmed, Professor of Women's Studies in Religion, and she is also relishing the opportunity to commune with other Muslim students at Harvard as well as at Boston-area mosques. "I was never able to experience that before," she said.

She intends to take courses throughout the university, and is currently taking one at the Kennedy School of Government. She is also doing research for Susan Sered in the Health and Healing Initiative at the Center for the Study of World Religions, continuing a concern she developed from years of volunteering in nursing homes. "I became interested in the relationship between religion and spirituality and coping with chronic illness in elderly patients and wrote my thesis on that," Milia said. Her research with Sered focuses on coping with illness within the Muslim community. After finishing her two-year MTS degree, she hopes to pursue a doctorate and, eventually, to teach Islamic studies at the college level.

But Milia is not waiting until she graduates to initiate activities that are both educational and relevant to the times. In only her first months at HDS, she has helped found and is president of an Islamic student organization called Shura': Islamic Forum. She has accepted speaking engagements at MIT and Boston College, and she is also a co-chair for the Islam in America 2002 Conference, which was held on Saturday, March 9, from 8 am to 9 pm at the Harvard Law School. The day included five panel discussions and about 20 speakers.

Milia says the conference, this year specifically titled "Facing New Challenges and Building Solutions," was needed because "while there is plenty of discussion about Islam's role in the Middle East and other places in the world, there is very little attention paid to the presence of the Islamic faith in America, including in academia. This conference aimed to give the study of Islam in America academic credibility." The Islam in America conference was initiated in 2000 by another HDS student, Precious Muhammad, who graduated last June and has served as a mentor to Milia. Like Precious, Milia is particularly interested in studying the role of Muslim women in America. After all, she says, contrary to what people often assume when they see her, "Everything I am is a byproduct of my religion and this country."

Milia credits her faith with allowing her to keep her priorities straight and providing the humility that she believes "is central to accomplishing anything." Pasted to the inside cover of her day planner is a list of the five prayer times for every day, which she manages to adhere to in the midst of a busy schedule. "I usually find a quiet room and pray between classes," she said. She said there is something very centering about "making a conscious effort that says, 'I'm going to make the world stop, if only for five minutes,'" especially in the stressful times we live in.

Although Milia adheres to the Islamic belief that this life is nothing more than a test of what's truly important and that it must be lived day to day accordingly, she admits that it is sometimes a challenge to meet the requirements—"particularly that morning prayer before sunrise . . . that's a killer!" But she finds them liberating rather than constraining, because of what she gains by finding utmost importance in something higher than self or this world.

"That's the thing about religion," she said. "When you love something so much, you try to implement everything that it calls for. My religion was the only thing that gave me some sort of peace of mind and heart, and answered my questions at a very difficult time. It continues to do so."

"Faith gives you something not material," she said, "and it gives you a firm grounding for your identity."