In the shank of a desert evening in April 2001, as the hour for Muslim prayer drew near, Shareda Hosein crawled out of her bunk in the huge warehouse doubling as a female barracks. She was in Kuwait for her annual two-week training with a U.S. Army Reserve unit.
For some time now, she had been pondering a new career path. And, as she headed for the nearby chapel on the sand-buffeted U.S. base, she wondered if her idea could ever fly in the male-dominated traditions that have been so central to her life for so long: the U.S. military and Islam. Should she pass up her dream or press on with it?
The Reserve major, who stands 4 feet 10 inches tall and has maple syrup smooth skin, was looking for a sign.
She found it, of course, when she least expected it.
Inside the chapel, a male Muslim soldier was trying, with some difficulty, to teach a female soldier the precise moves of the obligatory, pre-prayer washing of hands, face and feet.
"She doesn't know how to make the ablution, could you help her out?" he asked Shareda.
The two women went to the ladies room where, at the sink, Shareda demonstrated the ritual performed by Muslims for more than 1,300 years. Suddenly, it hit her. Here was God's whispered blessing for the unusual goal she had set for herself: to become the first female Muslim chaplain in the U.S military.
"I just got so choked up because I had prayed to God asking, 'Is this the right thing for me to do?'" Shareda says now, recounting the incident almost seven years ago. "And I was like: 'You can't get a bigger sign than this. You just can't.' And so I helped her. He led the prayer. And we prayed."
Shareda's quest to be commissioned an Army chaplain presents what some might see as an insurmountable challenge: Three years ago, the Army declined her application, citing Islam's general prohibition against women leading prayers in the presence of men. But Shareda sees opportunities where others see obstacles. At 47, she's proved herself adept at overcoming difficulties: boot camp, officer training school and more than 20 years of service in the Army -- almost four of them on active duty. There also was a divorce. Working her way through college as a single mom. Getting her real estate license.
Now, in the summer of 2007, she is about to become the first female graduate of a pioneering degree program for training Islamic chaplains at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, one of America's oldest Christian theological schools. And, with some respected American Muslim leaders backing her dream of becoming a military chaplain, she hopes the Army will relent.