By Victoria Bresnahan
When Rachel Schaffer, a sophomore, disclosed to her family she was converting to Islam, she says they were afraid she would receive scrutiny. On campus, however, she says no such experience has ever occurred.
“I think so far this new generation is pretty understanding,” she says. “So, I haven’t really felt any scrutiny at Southern. In fact, it is probably the most comfortable public place I have been at.”
Faith means everything to Schaffer, the Arabic word hangs from a necklace around her neck. Her hair was covered by a sheer, pink hijab as she spoke about the beauty of her religion, Islam.
Schaffer says her parents allowed her to explore religion on her own terms. While they celebrated the traditional holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas, her parents did not enforce any one religion.
After high school, Schaffer took a gap year and explored different spiritualties, such as reiki and symbology.
“I think the thing about spirituality is, you have a lot of power in your own life, from what I assumed,” said Schaffer. “And I kind of abused that power and thought I could control what I wanted. It became kind of messy.”
Until, Schaffer says, she met Zaha Naeem, a senior, and close friend. Their friendship is when, she says, her outlook on spirituality and religion began to feel more peaceful.
“Without realizing it, the night we first talked, he explained to me a lot about Islam without ever saying, ‘hey this is Islam, this is what it is,’” she says.
Naeem, Schaffer says, has been the primary person, or guide, helping her transition into the religion.
“I guess Islam has allowed me to feel more peace with my myself than I ever have before,” she says, “and that is all thanks to him and what he’s taught me.”
Over the past year and half, Schaffer says she indirectly witnessed what Islam is through their friendship and how his family and friends treat each other. Their energy and lifestyle attracted her.
Without any explanation or formal teaching about the religion, Schaffer says she understood it through these observations.
“I felt that [the impact of Islam] was really beautiful,” she says.
Both Naeem and Schaffer are e-board members for the Muslim Student Association. Schaffer as secretary, aspires to bring non-Muslim students to the club meetings to push them to be open to disparate perspectives.
“Before, I was rigid, and it’s not a good way to live,” she says. “You know, you should be open and understanding. I love [for] people to just come to the meetings and just break down that barrier.”
Naeem says since most of the e-board is graduating, they are striving to grow awareness about the club.
Despite stereotypes and misunderstanding directed at Islam, Schaffer says others should remain open to it.
It is possible the misinterpretations of Islam are due to stereotypes that have been wrongfully enforced in cultures of predominantly Muslim-majority countries but, she says, that should not reflect upon the religion.
“If you remain open and you look at a person, look at them in the eyes,” she says, “you can tell if they’re a good person, you can tell if they’re a bad person. You just need to put aside the stereotype.”
Naeem, a computer science major, says his fascination with history began his self-taught journey into world religions. Despite his family practicing Islam, he says he spent some time away from it because he could not “prove” to himself it was the right way of life.
“So, I went around searching and went on my own journey of different spiritualities,” he says.
Islam, he says, was the last one he studied since he grew up around it. The more he studied religions, the more questions he had; however, Islam was the only one that had the answers.
Due to Naeem’s lengthy knowledge in religions, Schaffer says she feels most comfortable coming to him for guidance. She says, while he did provide guidance, she could come to her own conclusions on the religion.
“I think the most interesting thing was, he was a mentor, but I think he did such a good job at it that I didn’t realize it,” she says. “Because as I remember getting closer and closer to Islam and wanting to wear the hijab, I was almost like upset at him. Like, ‘come on, tell me some more.’”
Now that she has a belief, she feels more connected to others. She said one smile with another girl on campus that has her hair covered can make her entire day.
Recently, Schaffer questioned why women wear the hijab, and if she could find any empowerment through it.
Schaffer tried on the hijab for the first-time last year during Hijab Day—an event that encourages students of all backgrounds to try on a hijab. During that moment, she says she felt self-conscious of what others may think of her. However, she says, the experience was “cozy” and comfortable.
Before committing to covering her head, she never realized what impact hair has.
“By putting it on I felt the most like myself than I ever have,” she says, “which is weird because I never would’ve imagined [it like this].”
Six months ago, Schaffer says she officially put on the hijab and began to practice prayer.
“For me, because of how I look, putting this on was a way for everyone else to know that I was taking this step,” she says.
One aspect of wearing the hijab, Schaffer says, is her way of symbolizing to family and friends she is making a change. However, she says, it ultimately helped her feel more at peace.