Nearly 100 fraternities and sororities have chapters at US colleges. These social organizations for men and women - identified by Greek letters - build bonds among their members through shared experiences and public service efforts. One of the newest sororities is Gamma Gamma Chi, America's first Muslim sorority.
More than 30 years after graduating from college, Althia Collins still remembers the fun she had as a sorority member. She says being in a sorority is still a worthwhile experience for young women.
"A person would join a sorority because they want to have sisterhood," she says. "They want to have opportunities for networking. You also get opportunities to develop leadership skills, and that's one of the things that sororities are great for. They are also known for philanthropy, and getting involved in the community."
In the late 1990s, Collins converted to Islam, and so did her daughter, Imani. As a college student, Collins says, Imani found it very hard to fit in with any of the sororities on campus. Although they are social, not religious organizations, Collins says, "The existing sororities tend to be Christian-based. They usually start (their meetings) with a Christian prayer, and a lot of what they do has Christian references to it."
Imani Abdul-Haqq says she saw the need for a new type of sorority. "It was about time that there is such an organization because it seems like sometimes there is nothing out there for us, being American Muslims," she says.
Her enthusiasm, coupled with her mother's long experience as an education consultant and college administrator, led to the establishment last spring of Gamma Gamma Chi. The Greek letters stand for women on earth for a period of time.
The requirements for joining are similar to other sororities, such as reciting a creed, learning the sorority song and taking part in a secret induction ceremony. However, Althia Collins says, Gamma Gamma Chi has the challenge of creating sorority life that is in keeping with Islamic values.
"Ours will be different in that we don't have casual mixing between males and females," she says. "There will be times when we'll be working on projects, and we'll have women and men working together, but it's for a focused purpose. Then the other thing is obviously that there will not be alcohol involved in any activities that we have."
There's been positive feedback over the last few months from Muslim students and graduates from across the United States and the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Australia. In order to open a chapter, ten students at the school must express interest in membership.
The Sorority's first chapter will open this month at the University of Kentucky. Susan West is the school's director of Sorority and Fraternity Affairs. "I think that Gamma Gamma Chi will give women a new opportunity and another choice to join a group," she says. "I have talked with women that are in sororities now and they are excited to have a new group on campus that will bring something different to their sorority community."
At the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus, English major Halima Fatima Yahya is one of a dozen students working hard to get a chapter off the ground. "Everyone seems very interested, very enthusiastic about Gamma Gamma Chi," she says. "Everyone agrees that it's something that's been long awaited. We needed something like this, especially, with Islam being negatively portrayed in the media. We want to help make a difference. We believe that Gamma Gamma Chi is a very good opportunity to make a difference."
Sorority co-founder Imani Abdul-Haqq says although Gamma Gamma Chi is Islam-based, it welcomes women of all faiths to work together to serve their communities. In the process, she says, they can bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims.
"Part of the reason why Gamma Gamma Chi exists is to help people to understand who Muslims are and what Islam really is," she says. "It is not what you see on television. It's not the Taliban. It's not Bin Laden. I just want people to know how important it is for us to come together regardless of what religion we are, regardless of what nationality we are. That's what God intended, is for us to be able to come together, work together, live together, so we can understand each other."
Abdul-Haqq says the women of Gamma Gamma Chi hope that by 2015, there will be chapters of the Muslim sorority on campuses in every region of the United States.