The Draw Of Islam

Perplexed or unfulfilled by their parents’ faiths, a growing number of women are becoming Muslims

by Michael Paulson, Boston Globe Staff, 5/13/2001

Ellen Anderson’s father was a lapsed Catholic, her mother an active Pentecostal, and she was confused. So at 14, torn between her father’s atheism and her mother’s fundamentalism, she dragged herself to the library and started reading about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. She found herself drawn to Islam, which she believed rang truer than her mother’s Christianity. On March 8, the Wellesley College junior recited one sentence – “I believe there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is the messenger of God” – and became a Muslim. “Christianity seemed like going to church once a week and trying to be a good person, but Islam is a complete way of life,” Anderson said.

She is part of a growing number of women embracing Islam in Greater Boston, and in one mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, they outnumber new Muslim men by as much as 2 to 1. That trend runs counter to the national picture; a recent survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that two-thirds of new Muslims in the United States are male. Women turning to Islam are aware that some people – including some of their own families – can’t understand why any American woman would choose a religion often depicted as oppressive of women. But they insist that depiction is a false image perpetuated by the media, and that in fact Islam is more forward-thinking about gender than many Western traditions. As evidence, they note that Islam allowed women to own property and vote long before Western cultures took similar steps. In modeling a more egalitarian form of Islamic culture in the United States than in some parts of the world, these women also say they may influence Muslims worldwide.

“Unfortunately, the way Islam is practiced currently in some countries is not ideal,” said Christina Safiya Tobias-Nahi, 30, of Somerville, the child of a nonobservant Jewish mother and a Catholic father who became Muslim six years ago. “A lot of countries are looking to see how we practice it here, and we have the potential to be a really strong role model for men and women in other countries. “For white Christian women, the majority of those becoming Muslims at the Cambridge mosque, adopting Islam usually means a dramatic life change. These new Muslim women generally choose to cover their hair with a scarf called a hijab, to follow Muslim dietary laws that include prohibitions on pork and alcohol, and to pray five times a day.

Many of their families are profoundly unhappy. “My dad really freaked out and told me I’d never be able to get a good job or a good husband, and my mom started crying and calling on the name of Jesus,” said Anderson. “When I got home for spring break, my dad didn’t want his other kids to see me in my hijab. “Islam places a high value on family relationships, and Anderson is still working on repairing hers, but it’s difficult. Her father has stopped paying her college tuition. On the other hand, Anderson, who has waist-length curly blonde hair, says she finds the experience of wearing a hijab liberating. “I used to have random guys who would come up and say, `Can I touch your hair?’ and it would drive me crazy,” she said. “It’s liberating because people don’t look at you and think about your figure and your hairstyle and guys don’t look at you and think about making a pass at you.

“American Muslim women tend to view the subjugation of women in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran as aberrant examples of Islam. They point to the fact that while no woman has been a serious contender for president of the United States, Muslim women have led Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey and a Muslim woman is poised to become the next leader of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world.

But there remain issues for women in Islam – as in every major world faith. Some are critical of traditional Islamic inheritance laws, which give short shrift to women, and some balk at traditional Islamic dress, which requires women to cover their hair and wear loose, enveloping garments. Women in Islam can not lead men in prayer – a restriction similar to the ban on female clergy in Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and Mormonism. And in mosques, as in most Orthodox synagogues, women are separated from men during prayer, usually at the back of the mosque. Some Muslims have expressed concern that many, but certainly not all, mosques and Muslim advocacy groups have been slow to allow women to assume positions of leadership.

“There is an intellectual revolution taking place, as women are raising their voices and pointing to the Koran and demanding their rights,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who in speeches to Muslim audiences argues that male-dominated organizations are vestiges of other cultures and not appropriate in the United States. “Our admonishment is that … all barriers against women participating in organizations should be removed, because that participation is their God-given right.”

Women who become Muslim in the United States offer a variety of explanations. Many American women encounter Islam by meeting, and often dating, a Muslim man. Some are drawn to the spiritual mysticism of Islam, while others are attracted to the conservative family values and structure of Islam, according to Marcia K. Hermansen, a Muslim theologian at Loyola University in Chicago. “In the new millennium, conversion seems to be hip,” Hermansen said. “There’s a different way of young people hearing about Islam and thinking about it as something radical and cool.”

Hoda Elsharkawi, who runs a support group/class for new Muslim women at the Cambridge mosque, says about one-third of her students come to Islam through boyfriend or male acquaintance, while others are introduced by friends, and still others explore it on their own. Many of the new Muslim women are highly educated and affiliated with tolerant college campuses; the majority in Cambridge are white, but some are African-American and Hispanic. Elsharkawi theorizes that women are drawn to Islam for the same reason that women fill many church pews – because they are often more concerned with faith and spirituality than men. Several of the new Muslims interviewed said their own faith background left them confused or dissatisfied.

Laura Cohon, a 20-year-old Harvard junior who wants to go to medical school, was introduced to Islam by a high school boyfriend, explored it over the Internet and in a college class, and then became Muslim one evening in her dorm room four months ago, reciting the pledge of faith. “Everything I found out about it made sense to me,” she said. “I was sitting at my desk, and I said the prayer, and it felt like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders. “Only then did she start to interact with other Muslims, e-mailing the Cambridge mosque for advice. “It was an incredible relief, because I had felt very alone for a while,” she said.