About five thousand British people convert to Islam every year, and most of them are women.
A British newspaper called The Guardian featured a story about six women who converted to Islam.
They share personal reflections on why they converted, and what challenges they faced.
With me to discuss their insights and to talk about religious conversions more generally Dr. Shabir Ally.
Q: Brother Shabir, The Guardian article featuring theses women who converted to Islam was very insightful in fact. The women converted for many different reasons and they found Islam in many different ways. What are your thoughts on the interviews?
A: Yes, the interviews are very interesting. It gets me thinking about some of the problems that women face when they think about converting to Islam, problems that can encounter with their families who may be resistant to the idea of somebody converting to Islam, and then the subsequent problems that they may face in trying to integrate within the Muslim community and to absorb some of the practices from the religion and culture of Islam.
Q: Men and women convert of course, it is not just women, but women seem to face very many different problems than men do. Their situation seems a lot more complex.
A: Yes. There is of course the story of this 26 year old girl who converted from a Sikh background. Naturally, she is now distancing herself in some way from the cultures and practices that she was familiar with. Now she is within the Muslim community, and in the mosque and other Islamic gatherings men and women do not generally mix, so she feels that it may be very difficult for her to find a husband because she is even wondering “do men even know that she exists?”
Q: Yes, and then the question of the Hijab (the head scarf) many women seem to grapple whether or not they should wearing it, and what impact that would have in terms of their role within their community but also in the wider community and within their families as well?
A: Impact within the wider community is obvious.
We have the case of Kristiane Backer who was a TV personality, presenting for MTV. When she embraced Islam and that became public, she lost her contract with the TV station.
She has obviously had to repackage her old career, and now she is still working on something but this shows the kinds of difficulty that people can go through when they embrace Islam, both men and women, but many men can embrace Islam and they just seem to fit in because not much outward physical change is generally expected of the men.
But women are sometimes expected in the communities they’re joining to immediately done an Islamic sort of traditional Muslim clothing, and that can set them apart from other people in the environments in which they had already been comfortable, such as in their work environment and hence one might lose one’s position. So what does one do in a situation like that?
Q: Dr. Annie (Amina) Coxon is very interesting because she said that when she converted to Islam, she lost family and she lost friends, but as she tried to search for a community, she found difficulty because the Muslim community can sometimes be divided on ethnic lines. So every mosque that she went to, she felt kind of unwelcome until eventually, it took a while, but eventually she did find a community that embraced her.
A: Yes, this can be a difficulty where people click together with others of their own “kind”, and they define their own kind as you know, especially if they speak the same language, in which case you can have a person, let’s say you have a Caucasian person who has embraced Islam, they come in to the Muslim environment, whether it be a mosque or somewhere else, they find people grouped together with their own kind and then this one person is in isolation, not knowing which group to join.
And sometimes, there is the opposite effect where everybody tries to take this person under their wing, as one of the interviewees said.
Q: And the person becomes overwhelmed because they’re not quite sure what to do.
A: Yes, because everybody wants to get this new white Muslim to join their click, or their little group. So these are all challenges.
On the other hand, one can be encouraged by the story of, let’s say, Ioni Sullivan who said that after completing her MPhil, she worked in many different countries such as Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. And there she found that people had lives which may be described as being sub-standard from the point of view of life in many of the developed countries where everything seems to be well suited for her, life of pleasure and luxury and so on.
These people had very little to live on; their lives may have even been described as miserable from another point of view and these people were happy, they were content with their surroundings and with the lives that they had because they had deep faith in God, and that faith in God made their mundane lives pleasurable in its own way. That made her think deeply about the religion of Islam and that made her convert.
Q: And several people actually pointed out that it was the Muslims themselves that made them interested in Islam. One individual says that she was going to university and she met Muslims, and they seem so normal, they seem like everyone else. So she started to question all the assumptions that she had about Muslims.
And Kristiane Backer said that she noticed that Muslims are very generous and very selfless and that motivated her to think more about Islam.
A: Yes, I find that the intellectual appeal of Islam is very strong, and that explains the story of this one girl who was from a Hindu background, but then she had become a Christian and she began to engage Muslims in conversation to try and find fault with Islam to convince Muslims that Islam is not right and eventually, the more she did that, the more she realized that actually Islam is true. And that is when she decided to embrace Islam as her own religion.
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