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Muslim Women in U.S. Struggle to Balance Western Freedoms and Islamic Culture

The "call to prayer" is a sound heard five times a day in this city, but this is not the Middle East. It’s Dearborn, Michigan — which has the largest Arab-American population in the U.S.

Like other immigrant groups, many came here years ago in search of a better life. In the past few decades, the auto industry needed workers, so Michigan became a top destination.

Over time, thousands of the Muslim faithful from around the world settled here, opening shops and restaurants and turning Dearborn into a heavily Muslim-influenced community, replete with mosques in every section of town and traditional foods from places like Pakistan and Syria.

But while there are plenty of comforts from their home countries, Muslim women say they’re constantly caught balancing their lives between the freedoms they have in Western culture and the restrictions they face from religious and societal pressure. They worry about whether they’re following the habits of "a good Muslim woman."

Zeinab Fakhreddine, a Lebanese-American woman raised in Dearborn, walks down the street wearing a traditional two-piece suit and a Muslim headscarf, called a hijab. The scarf covers her hair and tightly frames her face. She says the hijab was designed as a way to honor women in Islam, by concealing their beauty.

In her community, she says, so many women are dressed this way, nobody looks twice at her. "It's kind of like a comfort zone in Dearborn, but when you leave here, it kind of becomes very different."

Outside Dearborn, it's a different story.

Despite the fact that Islamic groups are growing in major cities in the U.S., many Muslim women living here say assimilating into Western culture is still very difficult.

Many of the immigrant women come to the United States from Muslim countries where they have few rights. Women are not allowed to drive cars or keep their own passports in Saudi Arabia, for example. It is very difficult for a woman to go to school or even leave her home without a male relative escorting her in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In fact, life for Muslim women in the U.S. is so different that they say they're not sure whether to accept the sudden opportunities they have here, or reject them for fear that it doesn't fit within their religious followings.

"In our religion it's forbidden to listen to music and there’s some areas that we stay away from ... because we don’t listen to music," said Fakhreddine.

Also under Islam, it's acceptable for a man to have up to four wives at a time. While that's illegal in the United States, Islamic leaders say the religion designates the man as the head of the household.

"The big decisions are from the husband. Actually, we have to discuss everything with them," says Umia Mustafa, who moved here from Pakistan 10 years ago, after her parents arranged her marriage to a Pakistani man already living here.

She says in her religion, no matter where it’s practiced, there's no question who is in charge.

And sometimes clashes of cultures can have deadly consequences.

Last month, Buffalo resident Aasiya Hassan, 37, was found decapitated after she had been complaining to police about domestic violence. Her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, was charged with the crime.

While Muslim leaders caution against stereotypes and point out that domestic violence happens in all cultures, some women's rights leaders worry that Islam is being used to justify violence against women.

"The typical Muslim man, they always are very overprotective, they're very controlling over the women. They're not allowed to do this, they're not allowed to do that," says 23-year-old Fai Oman, who was born in Yemen.

She says she feels lucky to be living in the West because she has more freedom and security than she would have in her home country.

Taking on Western viewpoints and a less traditional look makes Oman stand out in the typical female Muslim community. She dresses in jeans and a low-cut sweater. Her dark hair is highlighted with blonde streaks, and her eyes are colored with bright blue shadow.

Some Islamic leaders fear women like Oman will become more common and that Western culture will have too much influence over generations of Muslim women who grow up and live in America.

"It does worry me because it's improper behavior [that] does lead to ... harm to the female," said Yemen native Sakainah Faleh, a teacher who tutors young Muslim girls in the proper ways of Islam.

She's concerned about Muslim women straying too far from the religion, she says.

But Muslim leaders like Amina Aharif, from the Council on American Islamic relations (CAIR), say that with so many women coming here from multiple Muslim countries, there are already different viewpoints and traditions influencing them.

Each comes to the United States with her own versions of cultural and religious practices, she adds.

"Just like America is a melting pot for people from all over the world, it is a melting pot for Muslims from all over the world," said Aharif. "It is such a diverse community."