The Faith of Four UC Women
In the upstairs room of Rohs Cafe, I was joined by four women, students at the University of Cincinnati, who graciously volunteered to discuss their faith. That’s not an easy conversation in this day and age. But with Zara Ahmed, Jessica Friedman, Carrie Shephard, and Faryaal Zindani, it was a conversation that flowed with ease and understanding. Each woman has a different background in faith. Zara is one of the presidents of the Muslim Student Association. Carrie, is involved in a Christian college ministry organization called Delight. Jessica works with the Cincinnati Hillel. Faryaal has been attending Sunday School at her family mosque for as long as she can remember. After their willingness and excitement to participate in the conversation, I knew these women would approach the topic with respect and I was beyond excited to hear their perspectives.
Women of Cincy is an apolitical organization dedicated to giving a voice to women of all beliefs. We encourage our readers to have open minds, make informed decisions, and be engaged in their community.
Introduce yourself and give us some background on your faith.
Faryaal: I am an American Muslim and my parents are from Pakistan. Honestly, it’s a little scary today. The new presidency is bringing out a lot of opinions and voices that haven’t really spoken out before on Islam and their hatred or love for Muslims. In a way, I feel closer to people because they feel so supportive of us. In another way, I’m losing a lot of friendships because they are pretty much saying that they don’t support us being in this country. By social media posts and things like that, I’ve had to delete a lot of friends, and it’s crazy, because I’ve never had to do that until now.
Zara: I’m also an American Muslim, and my parents are from India. I am kind of on the same page as Faryaal. I’m one of the presidents of the Muslim Student Association on campus. One of the reasons I wanted that role was because I’m very anti-apathy, meaning that with everything going on I didn’t want to stay silent even though I know how difficult that is. Especially with people who feel afraid. I mean, I don’t wear the headscarf, so I’m not a visual target but it’s definitely frightening, as Faryaal said. But I think it’s also the perfect opportunity for people to speak out about what Islam truly is and what we want people to know about us.
He said, “If everybody just learned to have empathy towards every other person we wouldn’t have any problems.”
Jessica: I’m an American Russian Jew. My parents grew up in Ukraine, moved here, and I was born. They moved because Jews weren’t allowed to practice their religion over there. My dad applied to medical school and didn’t get in because he was Jewish. I grew up Jewish, went to Sunday School. As I got older, I kind of leaned back from Judaism and started questioning my own beliefs and God. So, I don’t believe in God, which means I’m atheist, in a way. But I define myself as Jewish. I identify with the values, but I’m unsure of God. It’s interesting because no one really expects Jewish people to think that.
Carrie: I’m a Christian and I was raised that way. My parents are both Christian. While my siblings – they’re all older than me – don’t totally believe in God, I think once I got into junior high and high school, I definitely made my faith my own. I believed it when I was younger because I was in Sunday School and that’s what my parents believed. When I got older, I realized, “Oh, yeah, this is what I want for myself. This is what I believe.” Lately, I’ve been more involved with it. I’m a sophomore, and my freshman year of college, I just wanted the freshman year experience: doing whatever I wanted, being able to feel like an adult. This year, I definitely made it more my own and made more friends that are Christian. Like what Faryaal was saying, once Trump became president, it kind of scared me, in a sense. This man says that he’s a Christian, yet he is targeting people of other religions, and I’m so uncomfortable with that. It makes me extremely sad to know that there are people who believe in God and Jesus but don’t respect people of all beliefs, of all color, of all sexual orientations.
Do you often find yourself having a conversation about religion?
Jessica: I’m from Cleveland – Beachwood, which is a very highly populated Jewish area. So growing up, all my friends were Jewish. I came to Cincinnati and it was like, no Jews. That was kind of a shock to me, so now I talk more about it. People ask me questions. Coming here, I went back into my religion because it’s so scarce here. I work for Hillel, which is the Jewish organization on campus, so I do talk about religion frequently.
Faryaal: For me, when I first started seeing Facebook posts, I asked my friends in kind of a laughing manner to see what their viewpoint was and why they said what they said. Their facial expression changes and they just don’t acknowledge my questions. With those kinds of people, no matter what you say or how you explain your religion to them, you’re not gonna change their viewpoint, and I’ve just come to accept that. It’s really upsetting, but at the same time I’ve noticed the Muslims on campus, we’ve all grown stronger and closer. I talk about my faith mainly with them and some of my close friends that are comfortable talking about it and are open to Islam. That’s one great thing that has happened. If anyone were to say anything about being Muslim, I know that I’m gonna have a full force behind me.
Carrie: I used to not really talk about my faith a lot because I used to kind of be ashamed of it. A Christian value is saving yourself for marriage, and I used to hate talking about that because I was the only one who wanted to do that. Everyone would judge me for that. It’s so easy to look at God as this old guy sitting on a throne telling you what to do, but that’s not what it’s supposed to be. I look at Jesus like my friend, so it’s easier to talk about him casually because it’s like He’s my friend – we’re homies! I find it easier to talk about Him now and why I believe what I believe.
Does the worry of offending people prevent you from talking about religion, or do you find you want to educate them because of that?
Zara: I guess I used to be more cognizant of not offending people. I still don’t want to offend people. But it’s more where I keep it in the back of my mind. When I talk about religion I start with, “I am not an expert in my religion. I grew up in this faith. This is how I interpret this faith and this is how I practice.” How I practice cannot be applied to anyone else. When I say that, if people are still offended, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not telling you how to practice; I’m just talking about my experiences.
Do you find that it’s a conversation that easily offends people?
Jessica: I never really thought about it that way. Personally, I’m an open person. If you want to believe whatever you want to believe, do it.
We care if you have negative thoughts about us, but we’re not going to let that bring us down and show attitude. We’re going to rise above it.
Carrie: It’s weird because I used to totally try to be in the business of “Oh, I have a friend that doesn’t totally believe in God. Let’s fix that.” And I’m not like that anymore. I think different beliefs are so beautiful. I find it hard to speak up sometimes. There are so many jokes that go around that people just brush off their shoulders, and it’s so hard to actually say something about it without offending anybody. I’m not going to lie, I totally get why some people don’t believe in God. This world is a really scary and terrible place sometimes. There’s so much violence and there’s so much hate. But again, you can’t do anything to change someone’s beliefs. That’s all up to the god that you believe in or don’t believe in.
What kind of struggles do you find when you try to have those conversations?
Jessica: Personally, I always just say what’s on my mind, which is a good thing and a bad thing. [Laughter.] I’m the one who is offending people, but I don’t mean to. I defend myself and I speak up. I don’t care if you don’t believe in what I believe in, but you can’t judge me for my religion.
Carrie: I have a roommate that is atheist. The reason we actually became friends in the first place was because we believed in God and we were both really strong in our faith when other people were not super upfront about it. Then a lot of stuff in her life happened that made her question God. Every time she’s struggling, I find myself telling her, “Oh, pray about it.” She’s like, “Pray to who?” I think it’s more in the things that you do and how you live. You don’t have to say a certain thing. If you act out of generosity, I think that’ll speak to people more than words could.
Faryaal: When you talk to people who just shrug it off, you can’t change their viewpoint. I used to just kind of ignore them and roll my eyes, too, but then I learned that’s not the way to go about it. I just try to show even more kindness to them. They might not say anything or talk to me about it ever again, but at least they have a different perspective in their mind. We care if you have negative thoughts about us, but we’re not going to let that bring us down and show attitude. We’re going to rise above it. I think that approach has definitely helped a lot of people that have had negative views of Islam.
Zara: I think one thing I’ve really had to learn is trying to differentiate when people are asking things out of ignorance or just out of malice. Everytime someone asked me something that I found to be a “dumb question,” or something that I was really offended by, I would immediately think they said it to hurt me when a lot of times they just didn’t know. So, I think it’s really important to be open and be present for people to know that they can come up to you and they can ask questions. That’s been a journey for me: making sure I’m available to people so they do feel comfortable asking me questions instead of feeling like I’m judging them or I don’t want to talk to them because they don’t know something. When really, why would they know the answer?
How do you work to reduce that ignorance about religion?
Carrie: I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t done that a lot. We’re in America; there are just so many churches everywhere. A lot of people do know about the religion. But a lot of people think that it’s just a god that’s just up there and not totally present because the world is just a bad place. It’s like, how do you believe in a god that’s all-loving and all-powerful if there’s war and the sex trade and all this terrible stuff? I think, especially with Christianity, it’s a message about grace. Instead of being like “God created the world and Jesus died for our sins and here we are,” I try to make it about grace and how we’re forgiven.
They moved because Jews weren’t allowed to practice their religion over there. My dad applied to medical school and didn’t get in because he was Jewish
Zara: I think a lot of the conversations I’ve had with people are in an interfaith space. A lot of times it’s those of the Abrahamic faith, so Islam, Judaism, Christianity. Whenever I’m in that space, I start off with “Listen, it’s the same God.” Allah is just an Arabic word for God. It’s the same prophets, same core message. The core message really is love for all religions. I think once people make the connection that it really is very similar to what I believe in – there are just different components involved – it get easier to have that discussion.
What has been your experience in trying to learn about other religions or others trying to learn about your religion?
Zara: I love learning about other faiths. Whenever I am in an interfaith space I try to ask as many questions as I can, especially if I don’t understand something. A lot of times as the only Muslim in the room, it’s hard because usually that dominates the conversation. When people find out you’re Muslim they just have a string of things they want to ask you. You get caught up in it and forget to ask. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t learn about you. What did you want to say about your faith?”
Carrie: In high school, I told myself I was going to read the Quran because I wanted to know more about it. Still have yet to do it, but it’s going to happen one day. [Laughter.] I’m interested in exploring other religions but I definitely haven’t done it to the extent that I should have. I like asking questions.
Zara: It’s funny that you mention wanting to read the Quran. I actually went to Catholic high school, so I’ve read the Bible. I’ve wanted to bring up to people, “Oh, I’ve read your book; you should read mine now!” [Laughter.] I was like one of six non-Catholic or Christian girls in my grade.
How has the different schooling impacted your faith?
Zara: So I went to Islamic school when I was little and then public school and then Catholic school, which is a really weird dynamic. In Islamic school, everyone was Muslim and it was super small. Then I go to public school where religion isn’t talked about at all – separation of church and state, not getting into it. Then going to a space where it’s about religion, but it’s not about your religion, kind of opened the door for me to be more vocal. That kind of got me started with more behind the scenes interfaith work where people were asking me questions. I started figuring out how I wanted to answer them. At first, I was kind of annoyed that I would have to be the one to answer it because I’m not an expert. I was in high school, a 14-year-old kid who didn’t know what was going on. It made me think about things myself. When someone would ask me about [Islam], I would take time to reflect how I actually felt about it and what my thoughts were – not just what I was taught to say.
As you’ve gotten older, do you find that your beliefs morph as you learn more about other religions?
Faryaal: I definitely think that as we’re getting older I’m noticing so many similarities in other religions and faiths. But then it just kind of confuses me as to why there’s so much hatred towards our religions. There’s so many similarities and people must know about that. It just drives me crazy that there’s still that sense of hatred. I think we’re all noticing – especially on a college campus – the majority of the students are educated on religion in some way. That’s why I feel comfortable. I’ve never felt targeted on campus. But then outside of campus, that’s when it all changes.
Zara: Not just off of campus, but with professors. There was a CCM professor that called out a Muslim student on her paper. She wrote about how her identity as a Muslim, Middle-Eastern woman made her feel in America, based on some song. [The professor] wrote this long response about how she was ungrateful to be in this country, how if she was in the Middle East she would not have any of these rights and she would be forced to be married off. Just all these awful things to say, for anyone. He was fired. Then there was a protest today because people didn’t want him to be fired. It’s kind of disheartening, because you would think you feel accepted; you feel like people understand you. But then there’s this untapped group that still has this animosity towards your faith.
Faryaal: Especially when someone in a leadership position, like a professor, is the one to say that, obviously other students are gonna be like, “Oh, a professor is saying that. He must be right.” There’s definitely gonna be a group of students that think that just because of his title. It’s just really sad that our leaders in the country and on campus are setting a bad example.
I didn’t want to stay silent even though I know how difficult that is. Especially with people who feel afraid.
Carrie: It’s insane to me that some people think “This religion is violent.” Like, no religion is based on becoming mass murderers. When people close their minds off, that’s when we run into these problems. One of my professors, Steve Fuller, said this one thing that really stuck with me: He said, “If everybody just learned to have empathy towards every other person we wouldn’t have any problems.” If we literally just put ourselves in other people’s shoes we would never treat each other badly. Well, we probably still would, because we’re human and we mess up, but we would have significantly less problems.
Jessica: Going off that, as I get older, I’m backing away from religion because they all have the same core values. You know, kindness, don’t kill. Basic morals that everybody should have. I think it’s more of the culture and tradition, rather than God.