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US Latinas seek answers in Islam

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That creates an inaccurate image, insists Leila Ahmed, a professor of women's studies and religion at Harvard University. "It astounds me, the extent to which people think Afghanistan and the Taliban represent women and Islam." What's really going on, she says, is a reshaping of the relationship between women and Islam. "We're in the early stages of a major rethinking of Islam that will open Islam for women. [Muslim scholars] are rereading the core texts of Islam - from the Koran to legal texts - in every possible way."

New views of women and Islam may be more prevalent in countries like the US, where women read the Koran themselves and rely less on patriarchal interpretations.

"I think the women here are asserting more their rights and their privileges," says Zahid Bukhari, director of the American-Muslim Studies Program at George- town University. "

Some Latina Muslims say they harbored stereotypes about Muslim women before deciding to convert, but changed their minds once becoming close friends with a Muslim.

"I always thought, geez, I feel sorry for women who have to wear those veils," says Pinet. Then she met her Muslim boyfriend and began studying the Koran with a group of Muslim women. She says she was impressed with the respect they received.

"A women is respected because she is the mother, she takes care of the children, and she's the one that enforces the rules," Pinet says. "They're the ones who are sacred."

Critics of the decisions of Latinas to convert to Islam say they are adopting a religion just as patriarchical as the Roman Catholic faith that many are leaving behind.

"While it's true the Latino culture tends to be more male-dominated, and there's a tendency toward more machismo, I would venture to say it exists [in Islam] as well," says Edwin Hernandez, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

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