Born and raised in Egypt, Habiba Abdelaal came to Ohio University in 2017 to earn a Master of Art in Communication and Development with a Women’s and Gender Studies Certificate. She is currently working toward her second degree, a Master of Public Administration. Abdelaal took a job at the Women’s Center on the fourth floor of Baker University Center at Ohio University to become a leader for international students and work to represent their community.
The central ideals that outline the Islamic faith are called the Five Pillars of Islam. One pillar, Salat, says Muslims should pray five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and after dark. Praying this often is important for Muslims so they can connect with their god throughout their day. Typically, Muslims pray at a Mosque, although this is optional for women. Abdelaal, however, most frequently prays at home.
The city of Athens, Ohio, has only one public location dedicated to its Islamic citizens: The Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Ohio University. While Abdelaal has been to the MSA, she mainly prays in her home and the Vernon R. Alden meditation room.
Abdelaal has a small room in her house dedicated to prayer. She places her carpet facing toward Mecca and only brings a small candle and her Quran into the room with her. Because women do not need to attend a mosque, this option is the most convenient for her.
The meditation room on the fifth floor of Alden Library is a space available for any faith or spiritual practice students and facility need. Since Abdelaal can pray from her home or office, she goes to these public spaces to connect with the Muslim community. Without many locations to go to, the available spaces are small and can be far away. Abdelaal doesn’t visit the meditation room often because she can sometimes be the only person there, making it more difficult to feel connected to the Islamic community.
The Muslim Student Association, located in what was originally a house, is the closest thing to a mosque in Athens. While there are separate spaces for men and women, Abdelaal believes women are not properly accommodated, as the space for them is significantly smaller than the space for men.
“I keep telling [the MSA] that you are making people not want to come to pray because it’s really small, you cannot breathe after a while,” Abdelaal says. She thinks extra space for the children would make more women visit the MSA and help build their community.
Like Abdelaal, most Muslims in Athens are international students. Abdelaal says that the group often feels pressure to present themselves in a certain way to the community, which adds to the strain of learning to navigate an entirely new country and culture. There is no central group with the resources and connections that are needed to create a sense of community for international students. Abdelaal says the pressure is on Muslims to create their own community, but they have a difficult time reaching out to new members.
When Abdelaal first came to Athens, she wore a full hijab that covered her face. After facing racism and fearing for her safety, she changed how she dressed.
“I used to wear the veil, but then I decided to adjust the way of hijab to prevent attention,” Abdelaal says. “Wherever I went people stared.” Adjusting to a largely non-Muslim community was challenging for her. She felt she needed to move in groups for her safety and to avoid being a target for racism.