Rise of Converts


Women & Islam: The rise and rise of the convert

Three-quarters of Britons who become Muslims are female. Now a major new study has shed light on the difficulties they face in adjusting to their new life.

Richard Peppiatt - INDEPENDENT - 6 Nov 2011

Record numbers of young, white British women are converting to Islam, yet many are reporting a lack of help as they get used to their new religion, according to several surveys.

As Muslims celebrate the start of the religious holiday of Eid today and hundreds of thousands from around the world converge on Mecca for the haj, it emerged that of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam last year, more than half are white and 75 per cent of them women.

In the past 10 years some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam, of whom some three-quarters are women, according to the latest statistics. This is a significant increase on the 60,000 Britons in the previous decade, according to researchers based at Swansea University.

While the number of UK converts accelerates, many of the British women who adopt Islam say they have a daily struggle to assimilate their new beliefs within a wider culture that both implicitly and explicitly positions them as outsiders, regardless of their Western upbringing.

More than three-quarters told researchers they had experienced high levels of confusion after conversion, due to the conflicting ways Islam was presented to them. While other major religions have established programmes for guiding new believers through the rigours of their faith, Islam still lacks any such network, especially outside the Muslim hubs of major cities.

Many mosques still bar women from worship or provide scant resources for their needs, forcing them to rely on competing cultural and ideological interpretations within books or the internet for religious support.

A recent study of converts in Leicester, for example, found that 93 per cent of mosques in the region recognised they lacked services for new Muslims, yet only 7 per cent said they were making efforts to address the shortfall.

Many of the young women – the average age of conversion is 27 – are also coming to terms with experiences of discrimination for the first time, despite the only visible difference being a headscarf. Yet few find easy sanctuary within the established Muslim population, with the majority forming their closest bonds with fellow converts rather than born Muslims.

Kevin Brice, author of the Swansea study A Minority Within a Minority, said to be the most comprehensive study of British Muslim converts, added: "White Muslim converts are caught between two increasingly distant camps. Their best relationships remain with other converts, because of their shared experiences, while there is very little difference between the quality of their relationship with other Muslims or non-Muslims.

"My research also found converts came in two types: some are converts of convenience, who adopt the religion because of a life situation such as meeting a Muslim man, although the religion has little discernible impact on their day-to-day lives. For others it is a conversion of conviction where they feel a calling and embrace the religion robustly.

"That's not to say the two are mutually exclusive – sometimes converts start out on their religious path through convenience and become converts of conviction later on."

Another finding revealed by the Leicester study was that despite Western portraits of Islam casting it as oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to the religion precisely because of thestatus it affords them.

Some analysts have argued that dizzying social and cultural upheavals in Britain over the past decades have meant that far from adopting an alien way of life, some female Muslim converts are re-embracing certain aspects of mid-20th-century Britain, such as rigid gender demarcation, rather than feeling expected to juggle career and family.

The first established Muslim communities started in Britain in the 1860s, when Yemani sailors and Somali labourers settled around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Hull. Many married local women who converted to Islam, often suffering widespread discrimination as a result.

They also acted as a bridge between the two cultures, encouraging understanding among indigenous dwellers and helping to integrate the Muslim community they had joined. Today, there is growing recognition among community leaders that the latest generation of female converts has an equally vital role to play in fostering dialogue between an increasingly secular British majority and a minority religion, as misunderstood as it is vilified.

Kristiane Backer, 45

Television presenter and author, London

I converted to Islam in 1995 after Imran Khan introduced me to the faith. At the time I was a presenter for MTV. I used to have all the trappings of success, yet I felt an inner emptiness and somewhat dissatisfied in my life.

The entertainment industry is very much about "if you've got it, flaunt it", which is the exact opposite to the more inward-oriented spiritual attitude of my new faith. My value system changed and God became the centre point of my life and what I was striving towards.

I recognise some new converts feel isolated but, despite there being even fewer resources when I converted than there are now, it isn't so much an issue I've faced. I've always felt welcomed and embraced by the Muslims I met and developed a circle of friends and teachers. It helps living in London, because there is so much to engage in as part of the Muslim community. Yet, even in the capital you can be stared at on the Tube for wearing a headscarf. I usually don't wear one in the West except when praying. I wear the scarf in front of my heart though!

I always try to explain to people that I've converted to Islam, not to any culture. Suppression of women, honour killings or forced marriages are all cultural aberrations, not Islamic ones. Islam is also about dignity and respect for yourself and your femininity. Even in the dating game, Muslim men are very respectful. Women are cherished as mothers, too – as a Muslim woman you are not expected to do it all."

Amy Sall, 28

Retail assistant, Middlesbrough

I'd say I'm still a bit of a party animal – but I'm also a Muslim. I do go out on the town with the girls and I don't normally wear my headscarf – I know I should do, but I like to do my hair and look nice! I know there are certain clothes I shouldn't wear either, even things that just show off your arms, but I still do. My husband would like me to be a better Muslim – he thinks drinking is evil – so it does cause rows.

I haven't worshipped in a mosque since I got married, I find it intimidating. I worry about doing something wrong; people whispering because they see my blonde hair and blue eyes. Middlesbrough is a difficult place to be a Muslim who isn't Asian – you tend to be treated like an outsider. Once, I was out wearing my headscarf and a local man shouted abuse. It was weird because I'm white and he was white, but all he saw was the scarf, I suppose. It did make me angry. My family were surprisingly fine with me converting, probably because they thought it would rein me in from being a bit wild.

Nicola Penty-Alvarez, 26

Full-time mother, Uxbridge

I was always interested in philosophy and the meaning of life and when I came across Islam it all just clicked. In the space of four or five months I went from going to raves to wearing a headscarf, praying five times a day and generally being quite pious – I did occasionally smoke though.

I felt very welcomed into the Muslim community, but it was a mainly white convert community. My impression of the Asian community in west London was that women felt sidelined and were encouraged to stay at home and look after the men rather than attend mosque. I think this was more a cultural than religious thing, though.

Non-Muslims certainly treat you differently when you're wearing a headscarf – they're less friendly and as a smiley person I found that hard. After a year-and-a-half of being a Muslim I stopped. I remember the moment perfectly. I was in a beautiful mosque in Morocco praying beside an old lady and something just came over me. I thought: 'What the hell am I doing? How have I got into this?' It just suddenly didn't feel right. Needless to say my husband, who was a fellow convert, wasn't impressed. He remained devout and it put a lot of strain on our relationship. We split up, but are on amicable terms now. I'm not really in contact with the Muslim friends I made – we drifted apart.

I don't regret the experience. There is so much that I learnt spiritually that I've kept and I haven't gone back to my hard partying ways.

Donna Tunkara

Warehouse operative, Middlesbrough

I was a bit of a tearaway growing up – drinking, smoking, running away from home and being disrespectful to my parents. I converted 10 years ago because I met a Muslim man but I've probably become more devout than him.

Sometimes, I miss going shopping for clothes to hit the town and then going home and getting ready with my mates, having a laugh. The thing is no one is forcing me not to – it's my choice.

It did come as a shock to my family, who are Christian. They've not rejected me, but they find it difficult to understand. I feel bad because I don't now attend weddings, funerals or christenings because they're often at pubs and clubs and I won't step inside.

There needs to be more resources for women who convert. I know some mosques that won't allow women in. But in the Koran there is an emphasis on women being educated. I've learnt about the religion through my husband's family and books – if you want support you have to look for it. It's taken time to regain an identity I'm comfortable with. Because I'm mixed race and a Muslim ,people don't see me as British – but what's important is that I know who I am.



Tribe Converts


Mexico's Tzotzil Indians convert to Islam

AFP - 4 Nov 2011

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Raised a Christian, Manuel Gomez now goes by Mohamed Chechev, and counts himself among a handful of Tzotzil Indians converted to Islam by Spaniards in southern Mexico.

"I am Muslim. I know the truth. I pray five times a day, celebrate Ramadan and have traveled to Mecca," Chechev said in rudimentary Spanish.

He lives in a mainly Protestant community in Chiapas called Nueva Esperanza on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, where he shares a modest house with 19 relatives and sells vegetables he grows on a plot of land.

Biblical references abound in Nueva Esperanza, with streets named Bethlehem and Damascus and a quarter called Palestine. But it is also home to some 300 Tzotzils, indigenous peoples of Mayan origin, who have converted to Islam and live in harmony with the rest of the population.

According to anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho, the 330,000 Tzotzil people of the Chiapas region have a history of changing religions, after the forced imposition of Catholicism at the height of the Spanish colonization in the 16th century although very few have become Muslims.

In the interior courtyard of the home, Chechev's wife Noora (born Juana) and his daughter-in-law Sharifa (Pascuala) swept and cleaned laundry. They wore long dresses and a veil covered their hair.

Noora is the daughter of a Protestant indigenous leader who was driven out of San Juan Chamula, a nearby town where the Institutional Revolutionary Party and Catholicism reigned supreme, with dozens of other families in 1961.

"In Chamula, not being Catholic or a PRI party member was a crime. They were also angry because Protestants stopped drinking alcohol, one of the main local businesses," said Susana Hernandez, who lives in the neighborhood.

Some indigenous people have been sharply critical of Catholics for identifying too closely with the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled Mexico for 70 years.

And Chechev followed in the footsteps of another indigenous leader, Domingo Lopes, who was an official at an Adventist church before converting to Islam, introduced to the region by the Marabutin movement which moved to Mexico from Spain in 1993 in a bid to create a self-sufficient community.

The Marabutin sect is a hangover from the days when Spain was part of the Muslim empire for some seven centuries.

A few steps from Chechev's home is a three-story building housing a madrassa, with a school, workshops and a prayer center run the Murabitun World Movement, a Sufi community founded in 1968 by a Scottish convert to Islam that now has offshoots in many parts of the world.

Mexico is 83 percent Catholic, but Chiapas state, with a population of some 4.5 million inhabitants, has the least numbers of practicing Catholics, according to the 2010 census.

Aurelanio Perez, a Spanish convert known as the Emir Mustafa, founded the Marabutin community in Chiapas and found converts among the Tzotzils.

Chechev speaks the Tzotzil dialect, but can neither read nor write Spanish. And yet, learning prayers in Arabic only took him a couple of months.

"Our prophet Mohammed could neither read nor write. I may not be able to read, but I can recite the holy Koran. It's a miracle to be able to enter Islam. Allah is merciful. He teaches us everything and gives us everything that comes from him," Chechev added.

He knows the prophet's hadith, or collection of accounts of what Mohammed said and did, and says he follows the five pillars of Islam: creed (shahada), daily prayers (salat), fasting during Ramadan (Sawm), charity (zakat) and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).

Chechev traveled to the heart of Islam, in Saudi Arabia, in 1998 with the help of Emir Mustapha. Some of Chechev's relatives, including his wife, also made the trip.

"Aureliano told me that if we accept Allah, we need to visit the house of Allah. It was like a dream, we were all dressed in white. There were white, black, brown people, but it didn't matter. We were all equal," he said.

Noora's face lit up as soon as she heard about Mecca.

"When I went there, I felt proud of Islam, of being a Muslim. We ask Allah for a mosque. Inshallah, if God wishes, it will come," she said.

Noora was hopeful that her son, Ibrahim (Anastacio), will become an imam.


Female converts


Islam 'has given me a new life': Mentone woman

ABNA - 6 Nov 2011

San Barnardino, November 04: On a warm Thursday morning outside the John M. Pfau Library at Cal State San Bernardino, 24-year-old psychology student Gina Cuellar waited for her study partner.

Other young women passed by her, many wearing blue jeans and boots. Cuellar wasn't hard to spot.

A recent convert to Islam, she sported a hot pink head scarf known as a hijab, with her sunglasses propped on top.

"I think God watches over me whenever I wear it," she said. "You get blessings."
Her blessing for the day was an up-front parking spot in the university's otherwise crowded parking lot.

Cuellar's birth mother was a Mexican American who died when Cuellar was 11 years old. Her father is Caucasian.

The Mentone resident is among what many Muslim leaders say is a growing number of American women converting to Islam.

"The qualitative anecdotes are women particularly are converting at a much faster rate, particularly Latinas," said Ahmed Rehab, media relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington

Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask citizens about their religion, those trying to track the number of American conversions to Islam say the task is difficult.

Dany Doueiri, director of the Arabic language program at Cal State San Bernardino and co-founder of IslamiCity.org, said about 60percent of the website's traffic comes from the U.S. and Canada, and in the last three years, more than 1,000 visitors have contacted the website to learn how to convert.

Because so many have shown an interest in converting to Islam, he said he has been able to build a general profile of those who have recently become Muslims through his website.

Doueiri said he wasn't surprised by Cuellar's embracing of the religion.

"In the U.S., people who become Muslim generally are women of Latino or white heritage, who are between 17 and 33 years old," Doueiri said. "Then you may have men who are African-American who are somehow, somewhere incarcerated and also embrace Islam. Then, white men over 40 years old who are white collars."

Cuellar said she grew up in a Christian home but never felt comfortable in church.

"I had a lot of questions that weren't answered," she said. "They just told me to believe. That wasn't a good enough answer for me."

Eventually she met and married Domingo Cuellar, now a 26-year-old math tutor at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa who had turned to Islam.

The couple are members of the Islamic Community Center of Redlands, which is on Redlands Boulevard in Loma Linda.

"It made sense to me," Cuellar said of Islam, "and I feel like a completely different person."

Cuellar said she partied a lot before her conversion and life seemed to be without purpose.

After a raucous night of drinking last summer, she said she had enough.

"The next day I woke up and was like, `This has got to stop. Something is missing,"' she said. "It had such a profound impact....This religion has given me a new life. It's given me a second chance."

A Sunni Muslim - the biggest sect of Islam, representing 85 percent of all Muslims - Cuellar said she has read the entire Quran, fasted from sunrise to sunset and prays five times a day.

Cuellar said she has become a more patient and peaceful person through Islam.

But aside from her Islamic brothers and sisters at the mosque, Cuellar said she hasn't received a lot of support.

She said her father feared her marriage would lead her to Islam. Cuellar said it didn't, that she chose the religion for herself and her husband was actually shocked.

Cuellar has lost friends over her faith. One called her a terrorist, she said.

"I have stuff like that happen to me every day," she said.

On a recent outing at a fast-food restaurant, she ordered an English muffin breakfast sandwich with egg white and turkey.

Cuellar said the clerk told her she had to get ham or bacon with the sandwich, but Cuellar said Islam forbids her from eating pork.

According to Cuellar, the clerk told her next time she ordered the sandwich, she would have to get ham or bacon.

"I felt discriminated against because of how I was dressed," Cuellar said.

Still, in describing herself as a regular American who enjoys reading and reggae music, Cuellar said she wouldn't trade her faith for anything.

"I'm happy that I can be an example for other Muslim Americans," she said.



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