Interviewed by Israel Salas-Rodriguez
Podcast by Leah Shaw
Shanjida Choudhury is an American Muslim who, when she was young, had trouble accepting her religion and held a good deal of anger towards God. When she was seven, she was sexually assaulted by her Koran teacher at the mosque. “As we grow up we are taught that the mosque is the house of God, and in my mind it is like ‘how can the house of God be the source of my pain?’” she said. “How can the divine being allow for something like that to happen to an innocent child?”
Because of her early experiences, she said she not grow up with a Muslim identity and it caused her religious belief to crumble. “My first experience with religion was not great at all. Not a lot of people know this of me because they just think I’m a very happy person, but I think my first experience with religion was very detrimental to my growth as an American-Muslim,” she told her long-time friend Cornea Kahn, who interviewed her for the Brooklyn College Listening Project. “I don’t think I grew up Muslim, as weird as that sounds, even though I wear a hijab on my head now,” she said.
As a young adult she would often question the difference between culture and religion. She described her upbringing as being raised in a culturally Muslim home. “The way that I sort of come to define it in my head is that my extended family isn’t necessarily religious. In the spiritual sense they are Muslim because that’s just the way they were brought up, that’s all they know,” she said. “My mom and I are the only ones who wear the Hijab so that sort of shows the extent of our religiosity. But I think for me growing up cultural Muslim, it resulted in confusion over what religion is and what’s culture.”
As time passed, she began to forgive and set aside her anger towards God to the point that she was able to cultivate her religious identity on her own, without it being handed to her by her family. “But I think because of this rocky relationship that I had with God I was able to sort of look at it from my own perspective rather than a perspective that was filtered by my religious family,” said Choudhury. Now as an adult, Choudhury doesn’t take her religion for granted it’s something that is strongly attached to her heart, calling it her own independent decision.
Her perspective on religion started to change in high school. She and her brother decided to start a Muslim Association in their school. The process took some time but during her senior year the organization kicked off with about 40 members, and to no one’s surprise, Choudhury was elected president. “It was really nice to have this platform to educate people especially about things like hijab and Islamophobia, obviously is something that’s on the rise in parts of United States,” she said.
Her new love for religion and culture continued into college where as a freshman at New York University she joined a dialog group named Bridges. The members of Bridges were both from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds. “One thing Bridges does is it combines faith with altruism. I think that is a beautiful combination because altruism is something that is fundamental in both Judaism and Islam, helping others you do on to others what you wouldn’t want done on to you,” she said.
Her passion for getting to meet different people lead her to travel with Bridges to different cities in the United States that were struck by natural disasters to help out the affected people. Twenty Muslim and Jewish students traveled to places like Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. To Choudhury these aren’t places she would normally take vacation trips to, but is very grateful for the experiences she learned along the way. “These are three areas I probably would never go to. I wouldn’t be like ‘hey guys, let’s go to Oklahoma” today. I was really curious about sort of the society and the social built up there,” she said. “My freshman year when I was going to Missouri I was very scared. I was like ‘oh my gosh I don’t know what kind of people are there, these people are going to be very judgmental.’ I was scared as a Muslim. And during that year only two Muslim girls went, me and this other girl named Sarah.” To their surprise, the people welcomed both of them like members of their community even though both were Muslims.
“It was really nice to be able to share this amazing experience by helping people who lost everything that they had; their homes, their jobs, their schools were gone. Things were just devastated because of the tornado that hit there and so it was nice for us to be able to go there and be able to share this pain of the people that were there,” she said.
Her experiences with Bridges have had an impact on her and her faith. “I think I find more ownership in my faith. I don’t think it was handed to me. I think it’s something that I had to discover for myself. But it’s definitely something that I take more pride in because it is something that I think I worked really hard to achieve—and I do think of it as an achievement,” she said.
“Like I said I was really angry with God for a really long time in my life, during the formative years of my life actually and I think because of that I didn’t necessarily have a healthy relationship with people as well,” she said. “I was really shy. I know it’s hard for you to believe that because I am an incredibly open person, really happy, and really eager to meet people, but I was definitely not a people person before. And that was a struggle because I remember when my parents would invite their friends over to our house and I would literally run to their bedroom and not come out for the entire night.”
“I thank God that I overcame that and I think if people go through similar experiences they could be scarred or traumatized for the rest of their lives. I’m just grateful that I was able to overcome it on my own. Yes it’s a part of my history but I doesn’t dictate the rest of my life.”