When Tamara Gray got involved in the Macalester College Muslim student association in the 1980s, she felt a leadership role was off-limits to her as a woman.

So the owner of St. Paul's Daybreak Press Global Bookshop was thrilled to find out recently that women now lead the Muslim associations not only at Macalester, but also at Hamline, St. Thomas, Augsburg and, of course, St. Catherine University, a women's college. She set out to bring them together at her shop this month.

The women hit it off instantly — though they didn't think their gender was a big deal.

"I feel female leadership is such a norm these days," said Anisa Abdulkadir, co-president of the St. Thomas Muslim student association.

Gray attended a Macalester candlelight vigil after the killings of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C., in February. She met that Muslim association's female co-presidents and was curious to find out who is in charge at other local associations. She recalled a time back in the '80s when a Muslim student asked for support from her chapter as he faced a misconduct allegation. She wanted to help, but male board members dismissed her position without discussion: "I remember the frustration of not being heard."

Now, she found out women — a mix of U.S.-born and immigrant students — dominate Muslim association leadership. Abdulkadir, a Kenya native who grew up in Minneapolis, says she and her female co-president have enjoyed full support from four male board members as they've worked to revitalize the chapter: They've added a monthly bowling event and planned an Islamic Awareness Week this spring.

"I didn't see being female as a huge deal at all until I looked at it within a historical context," agreed Leyla Suleiman, co-chair of the Macalester association.

The panel discussion at Daybreak drew 40 people, including male leaders from community college Muslim associations. It sparked a discussion about joint projects across campuses. Said Gray, "It was just one of those times you tell yourself, 'Boy, I had a really good idea.' "

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781