Dilemmas over wearing the hijab, pressures to marry, abuse from BNP family members and trans-sexuality are just some of the experiences of female Muslim converts in Britain explored in a groundbreaking new study.
Women interviewed for the project co-ordinated by Cambridge University and The New Muslims Project.spoke candidly about feeling like "trophy converts" as white British followers of Islam, the negative portrayal of Islam by the media and their struggle for acceptance and understanding from society, friends and families.
Around 50 women, from across the age and racial spectrum, participated in the study from the University's Centre of Islamic Studies. Project leader Yasir Suleiman said women repeatedly expressed concern over the "overwhelmingly negative portrayal" of Muslims and Islam in the UK media.
Muslim female converts participating in the study
“Conversion is a complex phenomenon. It is often full of joy and pain for the convert and her family and friends, regardless of the faith to which she converts, but no more so than when the faith is a maligned Islam and its followers," explained Suleiman.
In the report, women said they faced persistent questions as to why a "liberated/free Western woman embrace a backward faith that oppresses her?". Professor Suleiman said that the question implied that there "must be something ‘wrong’ with, or‘perverse’ about, the female convert to want to do this ‘wrong/perverse’ thing."
The study addressed the pressures Muslim women converts faced both in finding acceptance in their own community, and in wider society, especially if they decide to wear the hijab, which all described as a "feminist symbol, allowing women to reject representations by society of women primarily as sexual beings."
Many white women expressed concern their conversion is "treated as a ‘victory’" by heritage Muslims, something which they resent because it values them for the "colour of their skin" rather than for their standing as Muslims.
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"A white convert is seen as a trophy and she is figuratively given pride of place on the mantle-piece of the Muslim household. This, it is reported, is not the case with non-White converts to Islam," the report said.
"The silent conversions of African-Caribbean female converts do, as a result, go unnoticed and they are made to remain invisible as if they were socially unworthy."
Most said it was common to be introduced to the religion by a "boyfriend, fiancée or husband" but none portrayed their Muslim spouses as being "pressurising". However, some women expressed concern for many single women who convert.
One said she was married two days after being introduced to her husband, what transpired to be a "difficult" marriage, and questioned the community's awareness of the vulnerability of single Muslim converts.
"There is often haste to persuade converts to get married, often to unsuitable prospective partners such as political refugees or men seeking British passports," the report said.
They also expressed concern about converts who had previous sexual experience as being seen as "impure".
One convert’s prospective husband was told that "you shouldn’t marry a White woman; she will exhaust you in the bedroom".
Most, but not all converts, had a dim view of polygamy, but a few converts said they sought a submissive, subjugated role for women by actively seeking to be second, rather than first, wives.
Kristiane Backer, a former MTV presenter who converted to Islam, at her home in London
The 49 participants included many from previous faith backgrounds: Church of England and Catholic as well as Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and agnostic and atheist converts.
Surprisingly, many women from religious families said their families found it easier to accept their conversion, but a majority from atheist families expressed extremely angry reactions, ridicule, offensive remarks and attempts to belittle, diminish and undermine them.
One participant cited her atheist mother’s alarm that her grandchildren were going to be indoctrinated into Islam and brainwashed into a set of mythical, "fairy like" beliefs, from which they would suffer irreparable harm.
One participant described how her father, unable to accept that his daughter had converted to a "barbaric and uncivilised" faith, threw her out of the house.
The brother responded by joining the British National Party to prevent the further ‘Islamification’ of Britain, starting with his sister, and the family told neighbours that their daughter had died.
When the participant travelled abroad to engage in humanitarian work, her family informed the security services of the country concerned that their daughter was a terrorist.
THE TEENAGE CONVERT
Anisa Atkinson, from Scunthorpe, converted to Islam 15 years ago at the age of 17. She is divorced with two children.
"I was 17, studying in college, raised a devout Catholic. I went to Catholic school, but I had some Jewish ancestry and was fascinated with it, and considering going to Israel. I took a job in a restaurant and the proprietor's nephew was a born-again Muslim who handed me a pamphlet one day, about Islam.
"I said I'd read it, I had no intention of doing so, but on my break I was pretty bored so decided to flick through it. And a few pages in I realised this what what I had been searching for, it was a lightbulb moment.
"So I read more, and studied the religion, and a few months later I become a Muslim. My mother was devastated. At 17 I was not good at articulating my reasons and real feelings, I announced it at an Easter meal in front of all my family that they were all going to hell. I upset my mum a lot, and I got upset.
"I started to wear a headscarf and religious clothing and dressing more modestly and that embarrassed my mum, she was a teacher at a public school, and it looked bad for her. My mother and grandmother thought it was a teenage rebellion, that I'd been brainwashed by a dangerous cult.
"There was pressure for me to get married, certainly, I was introduced to brothers, cousins, relations from Lebanon and Pakistan. But I resisted all help, and ended up making a mistake with who I married. Born Muslims have a lot of help from their families, vetting their spouses, and converts don't have that support.
"Converts are never portrayed in the media as middle class girls, doing it for intellectual reasons. We aren't mentioned or discussed."
THE TRANS CONVERT
One participant in the survey was born as a man, but during early childhood identified clearly with femininity, rather than masculinity. "I tried to be a normal lad," she said.
As a man he had converted to Islam, married a Muslim woman and had fathered two children. Years of wrestling with the complicated issues arising from sexuality, which she maintains were not the result of a lifestyle choice but part of her biology, ensued.
The decision to undergo a gender changing operation had proved a difficult one for the family to negotiate. At the transitional stage of changing from a man into a woman, the participant had sought the support of heritage Muslim communities, but found that she was shunned. "It just freaks them out," she said.
Prior to the gender alignment surgery, the participant had lived as a male convert in a Muslim country. As a skilled male professional, she was treated with great respect and it was wonderful for her to be a Muslim and to fit into society.
This treatment contrasted starkly with the apparent disdain and revulsion that the participant experienced in Britain from heritage Muslim communities following surgery to become a woman. The rejection described led not to bitterness but to an awareness that it had enabled her to see things in a different way, and which gave her alternative perspectives on faith, people and life, she said. She now describes herself as reconciled and complete as a person.