By Hajer Naili
For one woman it started with a quest for a closer connection to God. For another it was the surprising discovery that Islam might help her resist the domination of her Catholic father. First of two stories for Ramadan about Muslim women in the U.S.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– For Zainab Ismail, a Bronx-born Hispanic woman, the turning point came in March 2009 after a wedding ceremony at a Catholic church.
“For some unknown reason, obviously now I know it was Allah–God–putting that thought and feeling in my heart, I no longer wanted to be Catholic. I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I no longer wanted to be Catholic,” Ismail recalls.
Less than three months later, Ismail embraced Islam and converted in June 2009.
“As a Latina, you are raised, if you got it, to show it, to flaunt it as much as possible,” says Ismail, 44, raised in a Puerto Rican Catholic family.
Now she shows very little of her skin. Instead she wears the hijab, the Islamic veil or headscarf.
Since the 9/11 tragedy, the Hispanic community in the United States has witnessed a significant rise in conversions to Islam, especially among women, says Imam Shamsi Ali, a Muslim scholar and imam of the 96th street mosque in Manhattan, on the border of the city’s Upper East Side and Harlem. They are “mostly educated, young and professional women.”
Although 9/11 incited bias and discrimination against Muslims, many non-Muslims, who some had never heard about Islam, also started to question the meaning of the religion, explains Ali.
The percentage of new female converts to Islam in the U.S. has increased 9 percent since 2000, from 32 percent to 41 percent, according to the 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country. Latinos–men and women–accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.
In 2006, the number of Hispanic Muslims was estimated at about 200,000 by the American Muslim Council, which has not provided any new figures since then.
Ahmad Akhar, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C., gave several explanations for this increase in a 2011 story in Illume Mag on the rise of Hispanics converting to Islam in the United States.
The most attractive part of Islam to Latinos seeking spirituality, he said, is its strict monotheistic orientation and structured belief system. Much more literature on Islam has been translated into Spanish in the United States, he added, which has made the religion more accessible to non-Arabic readers. By converting to Islam, some Latinos may also feel as if they’re connecting to their Spanish roots, which are embedded for 800 years in Islamic history in Spain’s southeast population centers of Granada, Cordova, Seville and Andalusia.
Over the next two decades the number of Muslims living in the United States will more than double, rising from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center in 2011. The study also found that about 20 percent of the estimated 1.8 million Muslims currently in America, 18 and older, are converts.
Focus on Gender Equality
Imam Ali says that the strength of Islam for some female converts is linked to gender equality. “Islam came with the idea that all human beings are equal, including male and female,” he said an interview at the Indonesian consulate in Manhattan. “Women have an important role in societies, not only at home.”
He adds that it’s important to differentiate between “what Muslims do in Muslim lands and what Islam is about,” in response to some Westerners’ ideas about traditional Muslim societies where gender roles are well defined and sharply divided.
Shortly before converting to Islam, Ismail described feeling a “lack of connection with God.” At the time she was working as a fitness trainer and a fitness competitor.
“I was living the lifestyle of a celebrity personal trainer, traveling between Las Vegas, Miami and Hollywood, regularly. My lifestyle was what you see in the magazines, the videos, and all the parties. I wasn’t thinking about religion but when it was quiet I knew I was lacking a connection with God,” she remembers.
Her first exposure to Islam came in elementary school through hip hop culture, particularly Zulu Nation, a global hip hop group formed by Afrika Bambaataa in New York in the 1970s. The movement incorporated many doctrines, including Islam. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that she became more familiar with Islam when a friend, also a bodybuilder competitor, gave her a Quran.
Her mother has readily supported her choice of a new religion but it took her about eight months to tell her father, a born-again Christian pastor living in Orlando, Fla. He finally accepted her decision but they have agreed to “try not to speak about politics and religion.”
Now once a week Ismail teaches a fitness and nutrition class for women, called Fit for Allah, at M.E.C.C.A (Muslim Education and Converts Center of America) in Manhattan, which mainly provides Islamic education to new Muslims such as herself.
Living Under Male Authority
S.A. is another Hispanic female convert. She was born in Chicago and has Mexican parents, growing up between the United States and Mexico. S.A., 34, now resides in Queens, N.Y., and requested anonymity for this article.
She describes her Catholic family as conservative, with a strong patriarchal structure. She lived under the authority of her father and brothers for years although she supported the family financially as she was the oldest child.
“I supported my family because I wanted to and because of the cultural belief that this is the duty of the eldest son or daughter,” says S.A., adding that her father is a well-off businessman in Mexico and the United States. S.A. has worked as a chief financial officer and aviation broker.
S.A. never thought of becoming Muslim. In fact, she says she had “bad connotations” about Islam after 9/11. Like many non-Muslims, she felt resentment toward Islam after the tragedy. She eventually turned to Islam after learning more about women’s rights in the Islamic faith, discovering she could have rights she had never had in her male-dominated household.
Islam helped her stand up against her father and his beliefs, S.A. says. “There are a lot of injustices, and when I started learning about Islam and the rights of women it definitely helped me liberate and, of course, caused chaos in my house,” she said in an interview at the Islamic Center of N.Y.U. in Manhattan. She was dressed in a long royal blue skirt and a black blouse, her face and neck veiled by a niqab, which covers everything but her eyes. Her family in Chicago doesn’t know yet she covers her face.
Her journey toward Islam began a few years ago, when she started to question the existence of God and decided to attend classes about religions. She was reluctant to learn about Islam. As hard as she tried to stay away, however, she remembers that her Internet searches kept ending up on Islamic websites. Eventually, she decided to look closer, even though she wasn’t thinking about leaving her Catholic faith.
“Little by little, I started identifying with a lot of teachings of Islam,” S.A. explains.
In particular, the rights of women in Islam caught her attention. S.A. says she was surprised to find out that men are asked to help women in the daily household chores. She was also pleased to learn that she had no obligation to share her salary with her father or any other male relative as mentioned in Islam.
“If it wasn’t about the balance I found in Islam between men and women, I think I would still be doing a lot of things that made me suffer,” S.A. says, referring to the years she stayed silent and lived under her father’s domination.
“My dad expects me to do everything: to go to work, to bring home the paycheck, to take care of my brothers and my sisters like they are my kids, to pay half of the bills. He’s never thought about me,” says S.A.
Fear of Backlash
Guadalupe Marcado, who goes by the name Lupz Muslimah, was hesitant to convert to Islam because of her sexual orientation. She is a member of the LGBT community. “It was one of the main reasons I was scared to come to Islam. You hear all these stories about how they treat LGBT members in other countries; and it’s frightening.”
Born and baptized Catholic, Lupz Muslimah, 24, converted to Islam in November 2011. Her father is Puerto Rican and her mother is from Andalusia.
Her journey to Islam started when listening to rap music, especially what she calls “revolutionary songs,” where she says she found several mentions to the Prophet Muhammad and religions. This led her to beginning questioning her faith.
She now attends Rutgers University in New Jersey and expects to graduate in October with a major in criminal justice and a minor in psychology and LGBT studies.
She says she has been facing “a lot of backlash” from some Muslims because of her sexual orientation, but she will keep advocating for the LGBT community. She remembers a Muslim woman who told her one day that she would never pray next to her because of her sexual orientation; but Lupz Muslimah was also pleasantly surprised to hear other women saying they would pray next to her no matter what her sexuality.
Within her own family, Lupz Muslimah has also battled stereotypes. She recalls her father telling her “you wanna be a terrorist now!” after he saw her during her first prayer. To ease tensions within her family, Lupz Muslimah used the Bible and the Quran to show her parents that both texts are quite similar. They slowly accepted her choice.
When she decided to cover her hair, Lupz Muslimah had a hard time with family and friends who knew her as a model wearing “tight clothes or barely any clothes.” Some Muslims didn’t spare her either. “You shouldn’t wear the hijab because your jeans are too tight, or you shouldn’t wear the hijab because your shirt is too low or too tight,” some Muslims told her.
She has also had remarks because of her lip piercings and tattoos. For a short time, Lupz Muslimah took out her piercings to avoid being judged. She eventually put them back as she realized she “will always be judged no matter what.”
She admits to being always nervous to go out but she tends now to ignore people’s remarks and keeps remembering she is “not doing this for the people.” “I am doing this for me and God,” she says.
(Featured photo caption: Zainab Ismail praying at a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. PHOTO CREDIT: Nadine Abu Jubara)
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.