muslims praying in a mosgue

The other night I watched a documentary about five UK women who’d converted to Islam. A western convert myself, I was curious to hear the women’s experiences and gain some insight into what people think when they hear of westerners converting. With so much negative coverage of Muslims in the media, I wondered what kind of impression they would give of a widely misunderstood religion.

The presenter, Shanna Bukhari, a 26-year-old non-practicing Muslim and professional model, wanted to find out what made women give up their “western freedoms” for a more restrictive lifestyle; there was our first clue that this film was examining the issue from a very specific angle. In the end, it revealed more about the presenter herself than the women she interviewed.

I’m pious & I know it

All the interviewees were “hijabis”, the name given to Muslim women who wear a headscarf. Although the first (Safir, 24) admitted, “you don’t have to wear it,” we didn’t get to explore in any depth why she chose to – settling instead for the explanation that some Muslims believe you are more pious if you “cover”. She spoke about a desire to dress modestly and a sense that you didn’t need to have “everything out” yet admitted that since wearing the headscarf she got a lot of male attention, “It’s ridiculous how many men come on to me just because I’m wearing the hijab.” There was no examination of how a simple wardrobe choice could elevate your spiritual purity.

The second woman, Alana, 20, from Glasgow, told Shanna her choice of footwear was unIslamic (in Islam, “haram” means forbidden, while “halal” means permitted), “Take them un-halal boots off.” In a moment of feminine bonding she pulled a pair of high heels from the dark recesses of her closet and conspiratorially confessed that this remnant of her former life was “not part of the dress code.” She wasn’t asked about where she got her information or how this understanding was arrived at.

Shanna agreed to be “halalified”, in “muslim” dress and in response to Alana’s summation “You’re covered,” says – palms outstretched, “Yeah, but it’s not like I was naked and not covered before…it’s just…umm, I’ve got something baggy on me, I can’t see my hair, and I feel… less pretty” Alana reminds her “the whole purpose of wearing hijab is so that you’re not going out and drawing attention to yourself” and states Shanna’s dissatisfaction with her appearance as evidence that it’s working.

When “covering” is no longer a choice

Earlier in the film, Shanna accompanied Alana to the Islamic Studies evening class she attended weekly. The lecture was delayed and they waited patiently for it to begin, until Alana was informed it wouldn’t until Shanna covered her head – the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. Afterwards, the humiliated Shanna berated herself for her oversight, how it never crossed her mind that women would have to wear a hijab or the sexes would be separated. She felt bad for expecting everyone to be treated equally.

The next woman to be interviewed, Lisa, told a sorry tale of her high-school sweetheart being whisked off to Pakistan to be married with no warning or explanation. Rather than walk away, six years later she opted to become a “co-wife”, and share him with his first wife who lived “a few doors down”. After seven years of marriage and three children, she had finally converted to Islam the previous year and was considering wearing the niqab (full face covering). Her sister Kimberly frankly declared how bemused and saddened she was by the situation, as she knew Lisa wasn’t happy. To the viewer, she seemed the most clear-sighted person to speak so far.

More questions than answers

The other two converts were a western woman having difficulty finding a Muslim husband and a model/fashion designer. I won’t detail all the interviewees’ stories here; if you want to watch the film you can find it at the link below, but I was left deflated by the stories of blind acceptance. None of the representations of Islam the women gave were examined in any depth. In fact, the herd mentality seemed contagious, as the presenter ultimately decided to re-establish contact with the woman who had criticised her so strongly. It reminded me of Stockholm Syndrome when hostages come to develop a bond with their captors. Yes, it was heartening that Shanna discovered a renewed interest in her own heritage, but it was disappointing that she chose not to question the parts that made her uncomfortable, allowing them to cast a shadow instead of exposing myths.

Despite it’s maddening obscurities, there were parts of the film I related to. Safir mentioned how some people saw her as a “traitor” for adopting her new faith, and spoke of her lack of connection with the binge-drinking, casual sex culture and moral void prevalent in the UK today. I’ve also been showered in spittle as someone rabidly railed, “You’re not one of THEM!” while pointing to my Asian companion. I’ve looked for something more than shallow hedonism, but I recognized that free thought allowed me to pursue that path and understood that religious dogma is its antithesis.

I had a convent education and the idea of Original Sin (that everyone must share the guilt of Adam & Eve’s mistakes) never felt right to me. I liked Islam for it’s egalitarian view that YOU are responsible for your spiritual health, no one else. Yet Muslims today seem so preoccupied with the idea of women carrying the burden of EVERYONE’S purity. When did women become the scapegoat for the entire muslim population? How do we bridge the gulf between the attitude of protection, empowerment and equality espoused by the Qur’an in 7th century Arabia and the discrimination towards women woven into Islam today? Certainly not by ignoring the issues.

Why did those girls see their new spiritual path through the inverted telescope of sacrifice? And how did the presenter come to share their view? Was it the infectious enthusiasm of a new convert? The motivating zeal of a fresh perspective? Shanna seemed motivated more by guilt than anything else – why else would she be moved to revisit the abuse she received from fellow Muslims when she was a finalist in Miss Universe?

When I converted, I considered hijab. Coming late to the party, converts put a lot of pressure on themselves to “catch up” and there’s no shortage of advice on all the ways you can become a “better Muslim”. I read what I could on the subject, from the Qur’an to hijabi’s personal accounts of their decision, but didn’t find anything that convinced me it was a requirement. That hasn’t changed in the ten years I’ve been a Muslim. Neither has the pressure from others to conform.

A pissing contest of piety

Islam is split by myriad schisms into something obscure and unrecognizable, like a shattered windscreen. People are obsessed with details and oblivious to the bigger picture. They’ve ceased trying to outdo one another in good works and instead follow the lead of Islamists in clambering on the shoulders of those they consider lesser Muslims to reach the moral high ground. Why does everyone feel the need to speak on behalf of God? Why don’t we all just speak for ourselves?

Swapping one school of thought for another isn’t necessarily a reflection of independent thinking. It can be an indicator that you’re still making the same mistakes. Near the end of the film Shanna says that, for converts, “The hijab means “I am a Muslim, accept me for who I am now.”” So it’s both a declaration AND a way of staying unnoticed? Is anyone else confused? Any similarity I felt with these women was long gone. I may be in the minority, but at least I can still hear my conscience.

Make Me A Muslim