Growing up in a mosque as an Indo-Caribbean young woman can be an intriguing experience. For Alyssa Shahzaman, a sophomore at Hofstra University and member of Masjid Al Abidin located at 104-14 127th Street in Queens, her place of worship is like a “little community center” where men and women are separated, yet pray together. In this edited conversation Shahzaman offers her perspective as a young woman of Islam.
How did you start practicing Islam?
I attend Masjid Al Abidin. My Dad took me there when I was a little girl and I pretty much grew up with the people there. It’s kinda like a little community.
What is the environment like at your masjid? Do you have any activities or groups?
Our masjid is separated. We have a male section and a female section. I’m part of a youth group and everyone from ages from 4 to 14 are involved in the youth group called “sisters” or girls only. We call it sisters only because anyone that is female, we refer to them as sister. The boys have their own group too but it’s separate from ours. Growing up we’d play basketball separate from the guys and have a time to learn Arabic and memorize the Koran. The boys group did pretty much the same things on their own time.
Are you a wearer of the Hijab? Do you wear it sometimes or at all times?
I don’t mind wearing it. But it’s kinda like an all or nothing. You’re supposed to wear it at all times. And if you don’t, you’re supposed to wear it at appropriate places. Ultimately I do want to wear it all the time. I’d love to wear it. But for now I’ll wear it when I have to. My friends do wear it all the time and it doesn’t bother them and doesn’t interfere with their lives. They still go to good schools and they’re still doing what everyone else is doing. They are just a little more modest than everyone else.
What does the Hijab mean to you?
It’s not just putting a cover on your head. It’s behaving and overall appearance. You can’t wear a Hijab and then go to a bar—There’s a whole lifestyle to it. It’s not just putting it on. You must be willing to make a sacrifice. But it’s a good sacrifice and it pays off in the end.
What was it like post 9/11 in your school? Did you face any teasing or negative experiences?
I went to Our Lady of Perpetual Help an elementary and middle school in South Ozone Park, Queens which has a large amount of kids of Indo-Caribbean descent. During that time was when September 11th happened. I was in fourth grade at the time and everyone made fun of me. But I also think that when you’re in fourth grade you tease and bully without really thinking about it.
Has college opened you up to any other individuals practicing Islam?
I met a lot of cool people in college that are also Muslim. One of my closest friends at Hofstra right now is Muslim and from South Africa but her family is of Indian descent. She was born and raised in South Africa , so she’s brown like us. She wears her Hijab full time too and her culture is very different from ours. She has very different traditions in Islam but after getting so close [to her] I realized there is more than one way to practice Islam.
A lot of religions are said to bring something to the devotee. What does Islam bring to you?
I think Islam brings me peace. For me it’s not all about going to church, wearing the best Hijab, or giving the largest donation. It’s about me being in touch with myself and God. For me Islam is a really simple religion as much as people may think it’s complicated.