Two years into her marriage, Angie El Sherif found herself drifting from her husband. One-on-one time was scarce, and she felt like the high school sweetheart she married was no longer her best friend.
She saw divorce everywhere — in the media, among friends, in her family. Then she found direction from some unexpected sources: the conservative family values of self-help authors such as Laura Schlessinger and Laura Doyle, whose beliefs seemed aligned with her Islamic views on marriage.
"It stood out because I feel like modern American society is flowing in the opposite direction, where people are becoming more independent, less likely to get married," El Sherif said.
So El Sherif, 27, started a group called Wise Wives, which uses Islamic cornerstones — such as mutual respect and making home life a top priority — as building blocks for a strong marriage.
In a culture in which it's considered a sin to share secrets about one's husband, the women-only group provides solace to those who believe social views in America tilt to the left.
The Orange County group, which started with six people in El Sherif's Aliso Viejo apartment, is built on the belief that a strong marriage is a natural byproduct of getting closer to one's Islamic faith. El Sherif said the group also has active chapters in Los Angeles and in Riverside County.
On a recent evening, El Sherif, clutching a clipboard, greeted the group of about 20 women. "Assalam alaikum," she said — "Peace be with you."
As it happened, the night's guest speaker was author Doyle; the theme was "How to accept graciously." The women listened intently, scribbled notes and asked questions. A woman cradled a newborn in the back row.
Doyle offered a tip: Learn to accept favors instead of dismissing an offer, even for something as mundane as help with the dishes.
The tip inspired Rania Abdellatif of Laguna Nigel to raise her hand to talk about her own experience denying help from her aging father. She said that next time she will be more open to his assistance.
After the meeting, Abdellatif, 41, said she felt inspired.
"I think this is an excellent forum for women to come together and learn," she said.
But what was most inspiring to Abdellatif was that she was taking life advice from a non-Muslim.
"The common ground here is we're just women trying to be better people," said Abdellatif, a mother of three.
For Iman Saymeh, 36, the group has helped her navigate a blended marriage by helping her cultivate her parenting style. A recent session featuring women who had been married 25 years or more proved particularly helpful.
"Even if you don't participate, you hear other people's questions. You think, 'Oh, I'm not the only one,'" she said.
El Sherif, who recently started a publishing company and is working on a children's book, said she is not preaching that women give up everything for the home.
"I wouldn't want a woman to put all her interests and dreams on the back burner," she said.
But, she said, there is value in keeping the family first.
"If the wife is happy," she said, "the whole house is happy."