Born and raised in Queens, Faiza Masood felt like all the other kids in her school — an American whose parents came from another part of the world. That changed after Sept. 11, 2001.
One day, a student in Masood’s fourth-grade class blurted out: “Oh my God. She is going to bomb us.”
Remembering the painful moment, Masood said recently: “I can’t forget it. I was crying and the teacher didn’t do anything. I was bullied a lot. . . . People would make fun of me and I didn’t even know why.”
Today, Masood, 21, is a senior at Hunter College and one of two New Yorkers awarded the prestigious Marshall Scholarship — an academic achievement that will enable her to earn graduate degrees in Islamic law and gender studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The other New Yorker is a student at West Point.
Masood’s achievement was made possible through Hunter College’s Office of Prestigious Scholarships, which prepares students to apply for fellowships in the global arena. The office offers support, including interview training, to students interested in competing for scholarships, such as Rhodes and Fulbright, that usually go to Ivy League students.
Masood is the first Hunter student to receive a Marshall Scholarship. A religion major with a minor in Arabic, Masood attended Harvard Divinity School’s Diversity and Exploration program and won summer fellowships to study Arabic in Jordan and Morocco.
Masood is “focused. She is a visionary,” said Jennifer Raab, Hunter College president. The program gave “Faiza the support to compete for this life-changing opportunity,” she said.
In retrospect, Masood said the 9/11 backlash against Muslims and the bullying at school motivated her to become a scholar in Islam and gender studies. Learning Islam “strengthened my faith and has motivated me to undo a lot of the misinformation” about Muslims, she said.
At 12, she embraced her faith when her parents enrolled her in an Islamic school. Her parents were not religious when they arrived to New York from Pakistan in 1986. And her mother did not wear a hijab until she was in her 40s and became more observant while living in Middle Village, Queens.
Masood said her travels to the Middle East and Africa showed her the different ways the head scarf is used to express modesty. “It is a personal choice and the culture of that country. . . . And it is not the government’s job to enforce these cultural laws.”
Masood’s goal is to be the fiery female voice within Islamic scholarly circles where, she said, men dominate interpretations of religious laws that minimize women’s rights. “Islamic law is empowering for women. But unfortunately the male scholars don’t talk about it.”
Masood’s religion professor, Bert Breiner at CUNY, said she will “widen the interpretation of Islamic practice. She is actually someone who can deal with the issues in a Western way. . . . She is a locust for dialogue. I expect great things from her.”
After Masood receives her doctorate, she will teach at public colleges “where resources are lacking” to teach Islam. “People want to learn about Islam for a better understanding of the differences because we read about it [Islam] all the time.”