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Her Private War

Shareda Hosein wants to be the US Army's first female Muslim chaplain. But not everyone wants her to succeed.

She's a 43-year-old wife and mother from Quincy, but Major Shareda Hosein is also on the brink of becoming a 4-foot-10, fatigue-clad symbol of all the tension between the Middle East and America. She's been in the Army for 24 years, either on active duty or serving in the reserves. Her jobs have mostly been administrative; she served, for instance, as a transportation officer, making sure units were ready to be mobilized. But then a few years ago, she decided she wanted something different from the Army, and since last fall, she had been looking forward to February, not just because she would be travelling to Mecca to perform hajj for the first time, but because she was to hear the Army's decision on her application to become the first female Muslim chaplain in the history of the US military.

For a woman to have any religious authority in conservative Islamic cultures is extraordinarily rare, especially when it's authority over Muslim men. This is why some people familiar with Hosein's case are speculating that if the Army does make her a chaplain, it could be seen as an attempt by the US government to push Islam in a more moderate direction.

"There is a concern that by making me a chaplain, the Army would be telling the conservative Islamic world that the US is trying to change Islam from the inside out," Hosein says. "Some Muslims wouldn't understand my role as a chaplain, but many others will."

The Army won't talk about Hosein's chaplaincy. But two decision dates on Hosein's application have come and gone, and the Army won't say why -- or tell her when a decision will be made.

Six days after Hosein returned home to Quincy in February from her pilgrimage, she got a call from a personnel officer at the 94th Regional Readiness Command at Fort Devens. Her reserve unit was being activated, and she was to report to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Hosein, who had just traveled to Mecca to do her duty as a devout Muslim, was about to return to the Middle East -- this time as a soldier. "I had 10 days to close out one life and begin another," said Hosein as she packed the gear next to her bunk into green canvas duffels at Fort Bliss. The following day -- March 6 -- Hosein left for Kuwait.

Hosein's job in Kuwait mostly involves personnel management. This, she says, makes her year-and-a-half deployment a little easier for her husband, a mortgage broker in Quincy who converted to Islam to marry her, and her daughter, a college student in New York City. But for Hosein, the deployment only prolongs her anticipation of the Army's final decision. Some think the Pentagon will tell her she's too old to be an active-duty chaplain (she argues that, because of the shortage of priests, the military takes Roman Catholic chaplains regardless of their age).

The Army installed its first Muslim chaplain 10 years ago, and today there are nine on active duty in the armed forces, according to the Pentagon, serving between 4,000 to 10,000 Muslims (out of a total of 1.4 million in the US military). Hosein points out that her chaplaincy would not only be a comfort to the 500 or so female Muslim members of the armed forces but also to the wives of Muslim soldiers.

Ingrid Mattson, director of Hartford Seminary's Islamic Chaplaincy Program, says the military has accepted male Muslim chaplains with less military experience than Hosein's, and chaplains of other faiths with less formal education. When she completes her final paper, Hosein will graduate from the seminary with a master's degree (her concentration is in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations) and a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy.

By the time they left for Kuwait, the other women in Hosein's unit at Fort Bliss were used to seeing her take her prayer rug off a rung of her bunk to pray. Many of them came to rely on her as their de facto chaplain -- seeking counsel about everything from the death of a family member to the dread of leaving their children while on active duty. Told of Hosein's unofficial role in the unit, Mattson says, "People will get to see her in action, and maybe she'll get some advocates on her side."

Hosein says, "There aren't enough female chaplains in the military regardless of faith. I'm going to push this as far as I can without tarnishing the chaplain corps. I want women to take back their leadership roles."

Hosein's empathetic abilities come, she says, from her father, who brought his wife and five children to Boston from Trinidad when Shareda, his oldest, was 11. Hosein's large eyes tear up when she tells how her father left the island he loved because he wanted his children to get better educations. She laughs about being so sentimental and quickly waves a hand to dry her eyes. Her father, she says, landed a job splicing cable for the phone company in the late 1960s, and he had a habit of inviting strangers to the family dinner table: "He was an immigrant, and he knew how hard that could be. So whenever he found someone who had just arrived from another country, he would ask them over for dinner. Some became part of our extended family."

Her father's wish that his children be good Muslims is the engine in Hosein's desire to push the Army to accept her as a chaplain. "It's the only thing he wanted from us," she says. "To maintain the faith." Hosein sees herself as a good Muslim and a good soldier. By attempting to maintain her faith in both institutions, a tiny immigrant from Trinidad is about to challenge the immense might of the American armed forces.

"Shareda could become a huge symbol of the tensions between Islam and America," Mattson says. "That's a lot of responsibility to bear, especially when all she wants to do is help people."

Upon graduation this month from Yale Divinity School, Tim Townsend will be the religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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