As an adolescent, Jackson Heights resident Carla Carballo, 29, would greet her male friends in typical Latin fashion – with a kiss on the cheek.
However, ever since she converted to Islam a decade ago, Carballo, who is single, has given up that custom and no longer socializes with men who are not relatives.
Carballo was eight years old when her family immigrated to the United States from Bolivia. She was drawn to Islam primarily because of the conservative lifestyle it endorses for women and began using the hijab (the Islamic veil) immediately after converting.
“My self esteem depended on how people saw me. Now, the only opinion that matters to me is that of my family,” explains Carballo, who was employed as a promoter for a nightclub before converting and now spends several months out of the year in Korea teaching English to school-aged children.
To veil or not to veil – modesty is key
The hijab has indeed become the iconic symbol of the Muslim woman although the Qu’ran – the Muslim holy text – does not explicitly state that women must veil. Rather, it dictates that women must be modest.
That is why Ninah Pretto, 24, who converted to Islam two years ago, does not feel pressured to wear the veil.
“I think maybe eventually I will wear the hijab but right now … I don’t want to be outward about [my religion],” says Pretto.
Pretto, who is single and lives in Forest Hills, began reading about Islam as a political science student at the University of Rochester and says she found in the Muslim faith the answers that Christianity had failed to provide.
“I’ve felt a very strong connection with God all my life, but I struggled with the concept of the Trinity. I believed in one God and I didn’t really grasp the concept of Jesus also being God,” explains Pretto.
In Islam, Jesus is a high-ranking prophet, but is not considered divine.
Unlike Carballo, who has the support of her family (her mother and her older sister are also converts), Pretto’s relationship with her Christian mother and her Jewish father has deteriorated because of her decision.
“My mom feels like I betrayed her and I don’t really speak to my father anymore. It has been a struggle because I love my family. I am Latina and family is a huge part of our lives. But I have my convictions,” says Pretto, who works in the registrar’s office at the New York Film Academy in Manhattan.
Islam encourages believers to ask questions
Like Pretto, Mary Delgado, a 40-year-old physical therapist from Colombia, converted to Islam two years ago when she realized that she did not agree with the teachings of Catholicism.
“The Trinity doesn’t make sense,” says Delgado, who lives in Jackson Heights and first encountered Islam through a Muslim coworker. “Islam encourages every believer to seek knowledge, to find the truth, to ask questions. I know many Christians have their doubts about the Trinity but they are afraid to question it.”
Delgado, who is divorced and has a 20-year-old son, does not presently wear the hijab, but is preparing herself to eventually do so. The biggest challenge, she says, has been assimilating the differences between her culture and the precepts of Islam.
“In [Hispanic] culture it is normal for a woman to have male friends, to go dancing, to have a drink. It took me a while to understand why this is best to avoid,” says Delgado.
Delgado, Carballo and Pretto have given up alcoholic beverages altogether because the Qu’ran prohibits the consumption of intoxicating substances.
Islam protects its women
Islam is often portrayed as a religion that suffocates women precisely because it endorses a conservative lifestyle. However, according to these three Latinas, that representation is incorrect.
“The negative things you see towards [Muslim] women are products of the cultures in which they were raised, not Islam. The Qu’ran talks about equality between men and women. I don’t think Islam oppresses women in anyway,” explains Pretto.
“In Islam, it is not right to hurt women or to be unfaithful. Women have to stand up for themselves. I live in this religion and I don’t allow myself to be treated badly,” adds Carballo.
The process of conversion to Islam consists of reciting the shahadah, the testimony of faith that affirms the two basic beliefs of a Muslim: that there is only one God and that Muhammad, who established the religion in the seventh century, is his prophet. All Muslims must follow five pillars of Islam: reciting the shahadah, praying five times a day, giving to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The United States census does not collect information about religious identity, which makes it difficult to determine the number of Latina Muslimahs in the country. The American Muslim Council calculates that there are approximately 200,000 Hispanic Muslims in the U.S. The highest concentrations can be found in large cities such as New York and Los Angeles where there are sizable communities of Latinos and Muslims.