You’d think after watching BBC Three’s Make me a Muslim documentary, being a female convert to Islam is so riddled with fault lines. Not really. My recent interviews with Muslim converts offered a rare glimpse into the lives of three women who would flatly reject such comparisons. And they’re all buzzing with spiritual ecstasy, retelling what caused them to halal-ify their wardrobes and Islamise dress codes.
“Being Muslim keeps me from wanting to impress others and gives me more personal confidence,” says Chantelle, a 19-year-old convert from Hackney. Today, she goes by the name Khadija, as a sign of respect for Muhammad’s first wife and insists there’s more to British women trading bare midriffs for abayas than what meets the eye. “I wear the hijab because I want to. Because it’s between me and Allah. It’s not a fashion statement. Yes, I don’t go to clubs and don’t sleep around. It gives me a comfort which I know so many of my friends would love to have.”
One of those friends is Monique, who recalls how Chantelle’s embracing Islam inspired a raw honesty and emotion in her, helping her sense power and security in a head-to-toe cover-up: “I can’t really say for certain that I became Muslim because I read the Qur’an. But in a weird way, I felt Chantelle had more freedom than I did by covering herself, instead of letting it all out like me. I thought to myself ‘this was worth trying’. I can’t say I don’t miss our clubs and parties but I’d rather live like this. We still do what other girls do but it’s more toned down if you catch my drift. I haven’t looked back since”.
Both girls were gearing up for a lifetime of prostration, meditation and single-sex socialising and offered gleaning insights into how their lives had taken a better turn from the moment they embraced Islam. As we entered deep into our discussions, they also took a moment to discuss the challenges which lay in their wake.
We talked about everything from relationships, sex and family, and it was clear the prospect of love and marriage lingered heavily over their heads. Chantelle spoke candidly about some common anxieties with converts: “It’s not just what friends and family are going to say. ‘Oh my God, why are you dressing like that etc.’ I don’t care about being unpopular. But I do wonder whether I can have a boyfriend or what my chances of marrying a native Muslim will be. I guess I’ll have to stick to another convert”.
Similar emotions skittered across Monique’s face when I asked her the same question. Despite being saddled with the weight of conversion, theirs was a genuine humility and grace with which both accepted their “good fortunes” of becoming Muslim and as Chantelle put it, “Women who can at last be themselves and please themselves and not men”. Neither of them was borne of any resignation and were at pains to convince others that their new identities hadn’t sapped their career ambitions or aspirations in the slightest.
Contrary to the sneering stereotypes of some sections of the press, British women converting to Islam do not enter the realm of the socially immobile and culturally policed. Like those I interviewed, they’ve found a new lease of life as tee-totalling Brits, dragging women from under the voyeuristic yoke. If Chantelle and Monique are anything to go by, then sex doesn’t have to sell for women to compete on the same terms.
Then there was 32-year-old mother of two, Jessica. Defiant, unrelenting and unapologetic, she sat before me, niqaab-clad- a far cry from her early adolescent years which were “adrenaline soaked” and “godless”. “I’m just so thankful to Allah that I’ve left everything behind. The hangovers, the guilt, the promiscuous sex. Basically, I feel completely transformed and hate to be reminded of my past because that was me then, and this is me now”.
She claimed becoming Muslim was a “welcome distraction” from her previous, unspiritual lifestyle and was relieved to be confronted by a siege of female converts after she took her shahada (testimony of faith). There was a lot of frenzy surrounding her conversion, not least from her family: “My mum dismissed it as a case of teenage rebellion,” says Jessica, who spends much of her spare time buying and selling the intricate embroideries and jewel works of hijabs and jilbabs.
As I probed a little deeper, I realised the reason why she, like some other converts I’ve met in the past, came across as a lapsed Briton, cut off from their indigenous culture: “No one from our politicians to our newspapers are doing anything to fight the prejudice against women. Our culture has become so sex obsessed, its making parenting tougher than I thought”.
We spoke in length about the misogynistic gaffes served up by the media, and the recent description by The Daily Mail of an eight-year-old as a ‘leggy beauty’ unwittingly added fuel to her fire. “You see that’s exactly my point. My decision to become Muslim was a safety net from all this filth. My children are not going to grow up without realising that although we’ve got a lot of things right in Britain we’ve also messed a lot of things up, especially when it comes to respecting our girls”.
For Jessica, grubby tabloids and the casual sexualisation of British society helped explain the irresistible appeal of puritanism for some British females. Accepting Islam was a way of her silently reproaching the cultural failure to improve the lot of women: “Why do you think so many women are becoming Muslim in this country? Because the ‘wonderful’ freedoms in the west have only enslaved us.”
As interesting as it was hearing these converts share memories from the past and express delight at their leap of faith, I was looking more forward to interviewing native Muslims who had grown up in British Muslim families, to find out what they thought about their convert sisters in faith.
Like me and Shanna Bukhari, the documentary’s presenter, Fatima felt converts to Islam claimed an ambiguous spiritual advantage: “Seeing them offer voluntary prayers and study the Qur’an led me to a lot of soul searching and reflection. They’re much better at being Muslim than I could ever have imagined” she says.
For practising Muslim Lutfa, the no-nonsense hard-line exteriors of some converts bring a certain noise and colour to the religion which she feels can only be good for the faith. “If you look at Islam from a historical point of view, then you will see that we really owe a lot of our genius to the energy of converts”. I couldn’t agree any more. Among my Muslim friends, we’re often left feeling that converts have seized the initiative and run with it and to keep apace, we’ve got to step our God-game up so to speak. Lutfa also agrees that women converts offer Muslims a refreshing change of pace “Convert sisters are definitely setting a standard for others to follow”.
Whatever we may think of these converts, their decision to become Muslim may be a powerful indictment of some women’s lives in the west. That’s the impression they all left me, especially Jessica who would repeatedly ask whether feminism had delivered on its promise. So amidst all the everyday sexism and cultural creepiness hounding British women, is Islam somehow squaring their circle? Are burkas, niqaabs and hijaabs breathing soul in the lives of girls which desperately lack a higher calling, helping them reclaiming the watchwords of feminism? Does the conversion to Islam among British women bode healthily for Britain’s future? For Chantelle, Monique and Jessica, the answer to these questions is a resolute yes.