Recently, I was at a local park with my daughters, attempting to follow their exuberant patterns as they capered joyfully from swing to slide to monkey bars.
After several minutes, I became aware of an elderly couple nearby. Apparently they were observing me and my children with interest. The man had a long, bushy grey beard, and the woman was wearing an abaya and a headscarf. I walked over and offered my salaams and a smile.
They returned the greeting a bit hesitantly, and then the man asked me, with accented English, “Are you a Muslim?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“But where are you from?”
“From here, the United States,” I answered.
“Do you speak Arabic?”
“Not much,” I admitted.
“But you’re a Muslim?” he pressed on.
“Yes,” I answered, again. I had to try a little harder to maintain the smile on my face.
“Ah, your husband is a Muslim,” he surmised, with the air of Sherlock Holmes making a brilliant deduction.
“And you . . . you are Muslim?” he persisted.
At this point I realized I had, once again, stepped unwillingly into the Convert Zone: that bizarre realm where those of us who have chosen to embrace Islam at some point in our adult lives are subject to dozens of indelicate questions and unfair assumptions made by those who were born into a Muslim family.
For some reason, converts are sometimes treated like rare specimens in a zoo by our brothers and sisters in Islam. We are scrutinized, questioned, analyzed, doubted, and patronized.
The interrogations we endure might be circumspect, but they all pose the same fundamental questions at their core: Are you really Muslim? Do you know “enough” to be Muslim? Are you sincere? Can someone who looks like you really be a believer? Are you one of us, or one of them?
“Maybe the elderly couple was just surprised to see a white American Muslim,” some people might argue. “Perhaps they hadn’t met one before and weren’t sure if you were genuine. They’re probably just curious. They might actually be very happy for you. Why get defensive?”
Let’s break it all down:
1- I am not a unicorn. Yes, white American Muslims are a minority, but we are not rare, mythical creatures. There are thousands of us.
2- Even though I happen to be caucasian, my Muslim identity is immediately obvious to everyone else, wherever I go in Southern California. In the land of perpetual sunshine, most of the women wear t-shirts and shorts, or sundresses, or skinny jeans. No matter the weather, I dress in loose clothes from head to toe, including a hijab. I might as well wear a neon sign that says, “Muslim!”
3- I greeted the elderly couple with “asalaamu alaykum.” Any doubt they might have had should have been dispelled with that greeting. So, why did the brother still feel the need to ask me three times if I was a Muslim?!
4- People who are just curious and/or happy for you do not act suspicious or condescending.
Sadly, the park interaction was not a first. This scenario has played out in various ways over the past 17 years since I took my shahada. It is disheartening that no matter how comfortable I have become in my skin as a Muslim American, there are always some people who will remind me that I am not quite “authentic” in their eyes.
Here are some of the other squirm-inducing questions and comments I have received in the “Convert Zone”:
1- “Did you convert for your husband?”
Um, no. I love my husband and I would do many things for him, but I would not change my entire life, from the clothes I wear every day, to the way I interact with people, to the food I eat, to the God I worship and my preparations for the eternal fate of my soul.. . just to make my spouse happy.
To suggest that I have transformed my thoughts and identity and inadvertently made myself an outcast in my family and my country just to please my husband is both belittling and insulting.
It implies that I have no intellect or free will. No one should ever ask a female convert this question.
And you know what else, complete stranger who asks this question? Even if a woman did convert purely for her husband, it is really none of your business.
2- “Oh, yes, Arab men love women with pale skin and light eyes!”
I have heard this unsolicited observation several times over the years, and it never fails to make me sick to my stomach. There are so many false assumptions at its core. First of all, the Muslims — yes, Muslims! — who have said this to me did not even know where my husband is from.
They saw my headscarf, immediately assumed that I wore it because I was married to a Muslim man, further assumed he was an Arab, and additionally assumed that he married me because of my appearance! So many misconceptions and prejudices packed into one snide remark!
Please do not objectify any woman in this way. She is much more than skin and eyes and she will not thank you for inferring that her husband’s interest in her is superficial. Also, please do not paint Muslim men as shallow, lustful collectors of Western Barbie-like spouses.