The first woman named president of a mosque on Long Island says she wants to use her new post to help dispel stereotypes about Islam and women.
Isma Chaudhry, a doctor of internal medicine from Manhasset, will begin a three-year term as president of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury on Jan. 1. She has served as president-elect for the past 2 1/2 years.
The mosque, opened in 1984, is Long Island's oldest and one of its largest. A $4 million expansion now underway will triple the size of the mosque complex.
Chaudhry, a longtime volunteer and board member at the mosque, said she was thrilled to be appointed its top administrative job. "I'm honestly humbled and honored by the trust the community has in me," she said.
The volunteer position involves duties such as overseeing the mosque's budget, but does not involve preaching -- that is reserved for the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader, which under Islamic rules must be a man.
Still, Chaudhry's elevation is a major boost for Muslim women on Long Island, community leaders said. "This is a very good thing," said Hafiz Rehman, a pediatrician and leader of the Masjid Darul Qur'an mosque in Bay Shore, the largest on Long Island. "It means we are moving in the right direction."
Habeeb Ahmed, a longtime leader of the Westbury mosque, said Chaudhry was selected because of her strong administrative background, leadership skills and devotion to the mosque. "She's a very qualified woman," he said. "She'll be able to do it wonderfully."
Long Island is home to at least 75,000 Muslims, according to community leaders, and more than two dozen mosques.
Chaudhry, a native of Pakistan, said that in her new post she hopes to counteract images some people have of Muslim women as "oppressed," partly because she and other women are "covered head to toe" in clothing as their faith requires, including a hijab.
She said the Westbury mosque is full of highly opinionated, successful women who occupy leadership roles both inside and outside the mosque. "I am certainly not an oppressed woman," she said.
She also hopes to combat stereotypes linking Muslims to terrorism. "It's a huge problem," she said of the stereotyping. "It breaks my heart," she said, adding that the vast majority of Muslims reject violence.
The problem of stereotyping "has improved" over the past several years on Long Island, she said, but "a lot of work can still be done."
Chaudhry said she hopes to continue the interfaith work she has done and make the mosque a place where people of all backgrounds feel welcome. She also wants to maintain good relations with neighbors of the mosque, which is in a residential area.
Many opposed the expansion of the mosque when it was proposed several years ago, but most have become supportive, Chaudhry and others said.
The 19,000-square-foot addition to the 8,000-square-foot mosque will house a new interfaith institute, along with a preschool, a food pantry for the poor, an exercise room and centers for young mothers and senior citizens. It will consist of two floors and a large basement.
The mosque has taken pains to mollify neighbors, Chaudhry said, dropping its plan to place a 60-foot minaret atop the renovated mosque and deciding to open to local youths a full-court indoor basketball court that will be in the new building's basement.
"I want to make sure people feel comfortable when they come in this huge institution," she said. "I want everyone who walks in that door, whatever faith, whatever ethnicity, to feel welcome here."