At first glance, Mu Delta Alpha might seem like any Greek organization on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
It has letters, colors – teal, white and peach – and it had rush week last month. While that may be pretty typical for a sorority, Mu Delta Alpha is different. It’s the first Muslim sorority on the University of Texas campus.
The chapter held its first meeting this month.
“I was personally very, very excited and very, very nervous, about our very first chapter meeting,” President Maria Haseem said at the meeting earlier this month. “This is my first time doing it, but inshallah, I’ll start doing it and I know each semester I’ll get better.”
Haseem used the phrase inshallah, a commonly used Arabic expression that roughly translates to "God willing.”
Founder Samira Maddox started the sorority three years ago at the University of Texas at Dallas because she was looking someplace to fit in and have a full college experience. She was born in Somalia, grew up in Canada and has been living in the U.S. for 10 years. But, she says, it was difficult to find a group that matched her unique qualities.
“I felt like there wasn’t a place of belonging for me, being a Muslim woman, African-American,” Maddox said. “I was like, maybe if we could have something for women only, in a university … what could that be? It happens to be a sorority.”
The sorority has launched two new chapters this year – one at UT-Austin and a joint chapter at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University. Each campus held rush week last month, and now over 60 young women are calling themselves sisters of Mu Delta Alpha.
But Maddox says getting here wasn’t easy.
When she decided to start MDA, she received a fair amount of pushback. Although UT-Dallas supported her efforts, it was difficult to find a faculty adviser.
“We could tell that people were scared. They’ve never had anything like this,” Maddox said. “Muslim people coming out of nowhere, and saying, ‘Hey! Do you want to be our adviser? You would be responsible for any event that we do. You would be the one who advocate for us at the school.’ There was a lot of pushback on that.”
Even after she finally found an adviser, there were other challenges ahead. While their first rush brought in over a dozen young Muslim women, some worried it would be a stereotypical Greek experience. A strict adherence to the Muslim faith means no alcohol, so many of those first pledges changed their minds.
“Everybody who thinks of sororities, they have the idea of the movies. You know, all those parties, in the houses, or whatever they have,” Maddox said. “That’s what people were thinking initially we were going to do. To them it’s like, ‘Why would you wanna do that?'”
Because of that misconception, only three people joined MDA’s inaugural pledge class.
But, after a couple years at UT Dallas, people started to better understand what the sorority was all about. It’s less social and more professional – they book motivational speakers and organize career workshops – but it’s also built around members’ sense of Islamic identity.
Haseem says that connection to identity is what drew her to the organization from the very beginning.
“My identity means everything to me, not just as a Muslim, but as an American-Pakistani, as a first-generation immigrant,” Haseem said. “All these things mean a lot to me, in that they shape my perspective in how I think, but also in the way that I move about the world, and … the way the world responds to me.”
One of the sorority’s main goals is to find successful Muslim women and make them accessible to the sisters. They achieve that, in part, through its speaker series.
“Essentially I really wanted … mentors that understood the types of struggles that Muslim women go through, and Muslim girls go through as they grow up,” Haseem said.
It was that focus on young Muslim girls that sparked the idea for their first annual event: the Young Muslimahs Summit. Back in April, the sorority held a conference in Dallas for around 200 young Muslim women, offering workshops tackling topics such as body image, bullying and education. And they brought prominent speakers, like Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the Muslim-American basketball player who was banned from playing with her hijab by the International Basketball Federation. She fought the ban, and, just this year, she won.
Maddox says it's stories like Abdul-Qaadir’s that she hopes will shatter the common misconceptions of Muslim women.
“She needs to walk behind her husband. She has no say. She can’t be a leader. She is not excellent. She has to stay at home because she’s oppressed,” Maddox said. “But you know what? The most oppressive thing is when people believe that.”
Lina Barakat, a sophomore at UT-Austin and one of MDA’s newest pledges, says she feels the organization gives young Muslim women a chance to develop into role models.
“Being Muslim to me is everything. It’s the best part of me, I think,” Barakat says. “I want to work at the U.N., but I don’t see that sort of role model yet. What I really love here is that we’re becoming the mentors that we don’t have right now.”
She says she hopes younger generations of Mu Delta Alpha pledges will look to her one day and say, “I want to do what she’s doing.”
When that happens, Barakat says she’ll be right to extend a hand.
Editor's note: This story originally appeared on KUT News.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, UT-Dallas and the University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.