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British womens top choice revert to islam

It’s a controversial time for British women to be wearing the hijab, the
basic Muslim headscarf. Last month, Belgium became the first European
country to pass legislation to ban the burka (the most concealing of Islamic
veils), calling it a “threat” to female dignity, while France looks poised
to follow suit. In Italy earlier this month, a Muslim woman was fined €500
(£430) for wearing the Islamic veil outside a post office.

And yet, while less than 2 per cent of the population now attends a Church
of England service every week, the number of female converts to Islam is on
the rise. At the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, women account for
roughly two thirds of the “New Muslims” who make their official declarations
of faith there – and most of them are under the age of 30.

Conversion statistics are frustratingly patchy, but at the time of the 2001
Census, there were at least 30,000 British Muslim converts in the UK.
According to Kevin Brice, of the Centre for Migration Policy Research,
Swansea University, this number may now be closer to 50,000 – and the
majority are women. “Basic analysis shows that increasing numbers of young,
university-educated women in their twenties and thirties are converting to
Islam,” confirms Brice.

“Our liberal, pluralistic 21st-century society means we can choose our
careers, our politics – and we can pick and choose who we want to be
spiritually,” explains Dr Mohammad S. Seddon, lecturer in Islamic Studies at
the University of Chester. We’re in an era of the “religious supermarket”,
he says.
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“The first time I wore my hijab into the office, I was so nervous, I stood
outside on the phone to my friend for ages going, ‘What on earth is everyone
going to say?’ When I walked in, a couple of people asked, ‘Why are you
wearing that scarf? I didn’t know you were a Muslim.’

“I’m the last person you’d expect to convert to Islam: I had a very
sheltered, working-class upbringing in South Yorkshire. I’d hardly even seen
a Muslim before I went to university.

“In my first job at a solicitor’s firm in Barnsley, I remember desperately
trying to play the role of the young, single, career woman: obsessively
dieting, shopping and going to bars – but I never felt truly comfortable.

“Then one afternoon in 2004 everything changed: I was chatting to a Muslim
friend over coffee, when he noticed the little gold crucifix around my neck.
He said, ‘Do you believe in God, then?’ I wore it more for fashion than
religion and said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and he started talking about his

“I brushed him off at first, but his words stuck in my mind. A few days
later, I found myself ordering a copy of the Koran on the internet.

“It took me a while to work up the courage to go to a women’s social event
run by the Leeds New Muslims group. I remember hovering outside the door
thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I imagined they would be dressed
head-to-toe in black robes: what could I, a 25-year-old, blonde English
girl, possibly have in common with them?

“But when I walked in, none of them fitted the stereotype of the oppressed
Muslim housewife; they were all doctors, teachers and psychiatrists. I was
struck by how content and secure they seemed. It was meeting these women,
more than any of the books I read, that convinced me that I wanted to become
a Muslim.

“After four years, in March 2008, I made the declaration of faith at a
friend’s house. At first, I was anxious that I hadn’t done the right thing,
but I soon relaxed into it – a bit like starting a new job.

“A few months later, I sat my parents down and said, ‘I’ve got something to
tell you.’ There was a silence and my mum said, ‘You’re going to become
Muslim, aren’t you?’ She burst into tears and kept asking things like, ‘What
happens when you get married? Do you have to cover up? What about your job?’
I tried to reassure her that I’d still be me, but she was concerned for my

“Contrary to what most people think, Islam doesn’t oppress me; it lets me be
the person that I was all along. Now I’m so much more content and grateful
for the things I’ve got. A few months ago, I got engaged to a Muslim
solicitor I met on a training course. He has absolutely no problem with my
career, but I do agree with the Islamic perspective on the traditional roles
for men and women. I want to look after my husband and children, but I also
want my independence. I’m proud to be British and I’m proud to be Muslim –
and I don’t see them as conflicting in any way.”

*Aqeela Lindsay Wheeler*
Housewife and mother, 26, Leicester

“As a teenager I thought all religion was pathetic. I used to spend every
weekend getting drunk outside the leisure centre, in high-heeled sandals and
miniskirts. My view was: what’s the point in putting restrictions on
yourself? You only live once.

“At university, I lived the typical student existence, drinking and going
clubbing, but I’d always wake up the next morning with a hangover and think,
what’s the point?

“It wasn’t until my second year that I met Hussein. I knew he was a Muslim,
but we were falling in love, so I brushed the whole issue of religion under
the carpet. But six months into our relationship, he told me that being with
me was ‘against his faith’.

“I was so confused. That night I sat up all night reading two books on Islam
that Hussein had given me. I remember bursting into tears because I was so
overwhelmed. I thought, ‘This could be the whole meaning of life.’ But I had
a lot of questions: why should I cover my head? Why can’t I eat what I like?

“I started talking to Muslim women at university and they completely changed
my view. They were educated, successful – and actually found the headscarf
liberating. I was convinced, and three weeks later officially converted to

“When I told my mum a few weeks later, I don’t think she took it seriously.
She made a few comments like, ‘Why would you wear that scarf? You’ve got
lovely hair,’ but she didn’t seem to understand what it meant.

“My best friend at university completely turned on me: she couldn’t
understand how one week I was out clubbing, and the next I’d given
everything up and converted to Islam. She was too close to my old life, so I
don’t regret losing her as a friend.

“I chose the name Aqeela because it means ‘sensible and intelligent’ – and
that’s what I was aspiring to become when I converted to Islam six years
ago. I became a whole new person: everything to do with Lindsay, I’ve erased
from my memory.

“The most difficult thing was changing the way I dressed, because I was
always so fashion-conscious. The first time I tried on the hijab, I remember
sitting in front of the mirror, thinking, ‘What am I doing putting a piece
of cloth over my head? I look crazy!’ Now I’d feel naked without it and only
occasionally daydream about feeling the wind blow through my hair. Once or
twice, I’ve come home and burst into tears because of how frumpy I feel –
but that’s just vanity.

“It’s a relief not to feel that pressure any more. Wearing the hijab reminds
me that all I need to do is serve God and be humble. I’ve even gone through
phases of wearing the niqab [face veil] because I felt it was more
appropriate – but it can cause problems, too.

“When people see a white girl wearing a niqab they assume I’ve stuck my
fingers up at my own culture to ‘follow a bunch of Asians’. I’ve even had
teenage boys shout at me in the street, ‘Get that s*** off your head, you
white bastard.’ After the London bombings, I was scared to walk about in the
streets for fear of retaliation.

“For the most part, I have a very happy life. I married Hussein and now we
have a one-year-old son, Zakir. We try to follow the traditional Muslim
roles: I’m foremost a housewife and mother, while he goes out to work. I
used to dream of having a successful career as a psychologist, but now it’s
not something I desire.

“Becoming a Muslim certainly wasn’t an easy way out. This life can sometimes
feel like a prison, with so many rules and restrictions, but we believe that
we will be rewarded in the afterlife.”

*Catherine Heseltine*
Nursery school teacher, 31, North London

“If you’d asked me at the age of 16 if I’d like to become a Muslim, I would
have said, ‘No thanks.’ I was quite happy drinking, partying and fitting in
with my friends.

“Growing up in North London, we never practised religion at home; I always
thought it was slightly old-fashioned and irrelevant. But when I met my
future husband, Syed, in the sixth form, he challenged all my
preconceptions. He was young, Muslim, believed in God – and yet he was
normal. The only difference was that, unlike most teenage boys, he never

“A year later, we were head over heels in love, but we quickly realised: how
could we be together if he was a Muslim and I wasn’t?

“Before meeting Syed, I’d never actually questioned what I believed in; I’d
just picked up my casual agnosticism through osmosis. So I started reading a
few books on Islam out of curiosity.

“In the beginning, the Koran appealed to me on an intellectual level; the
emotional and spiritual side didn’t come until later. I loved its
explanations of the natural world and discovered that 1,500 years ago, Islam
gave women rights that they didn’t have here in the West until relatively
recently. It was a revelation.

“Religion wasn’t exactly a ‘cool’ thing to talk about, so for three years I
kept my interest in Islam to myself. But in my first year at university,
Syed and I decided to get married – and I knew it was time to tell my
parents. My mum’s initial reaction was, ‘Couldn’t you just live together
first?’ She had concerns about me rushing into marriage and the role of
women in Muslim households – but no one realised how seriously I was taking
my religious conversion. I remember going out for dinner with my dad and him
saying, ‘Go on, have a glass of wine. I won’t tell Syed!’ A lot of people
assumed I was only converting to Islam to keep his family happy, not because
I believed in it.

“Later that year, we had an enormous Bengali wedding, and moved into a flat
together – but I certainly wasn’t chained to the kitchen sink. I didn’t even
wear the hijab at all to start with, and wore a bandana or a hat instead.

“I was used to getting a certain amount of attention from guys when I went
out to clubs and bars, but I had to let that go. I gradually adopted the
Islamic way of thinking: I wanted people to judge me for my intelligence and
my character – not for the way I looked. It was empowering.

“I’d never been part of a religious minority before, so that was a big
adjustment, but my friends were very accepting. Some of them were a bit
shocked: ‘What, no drink, no drugs, no men? I couldn’t do that!’ And it took
a while for my male friends at university to remember things like not
kissing me hello on the cheek any more. I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, it’s a
Muslim thing.’

“Over time, I actually became more religious than my husband. We started
growing apart in other ways, too. In the end, I think the responsibility of
marriage was too much for him; he became distant and disengaged. After seven
years together, I decided to get a divorce.

“When I moved back in with my parents, people were surprised I was still
wandering around in a headscarf. But if anything, being on my own
strengthened my faith: I began to gain a sense of myself as a Muslim,
independent of him.

“Islam has given me a sense of direction and purpose. I’m involved with the
Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and lead campaigns against Islamophobia,
discrimination against women in mosques, poverty and the situation in
Palestine. When people call us ‘extremists’ or ‘the dark underbelly of
British politics’, I just think it’s ridiculous. There are a lot of problems
in the Muslim community, but when people feel under siege it makes progress
even more difficult.

“I still feel very much part of white British society, but I am also a
Muslim. It has taken a while to fit those two identities together, but now I
feel very confident being who I am. I’m part of both worlds and no one can
take that away from me.”

*Sukina Douglas*
Spoken-word poet, 28, London

“Before I found Islam, my gaze was firmly fixed on Africa. I was raised a
Rastafarian and used to have crazy-long dreadlocks: one half blonde and the
other half black.

“Then, in 2005, my ex-boyfriend came back from a trip to Africa and
announced that he’d converted to Islam. I was furious and told him he was
‘losing his African roots’. Why was he trying to be an Arab? It was so
foreign to how I lived my life. Every time I saw a Muslim woman in the
street I thought, ‘Why do they have to cover up like that? Aren’t they hot?’
It looked oppressive to me.

“Islam was already in my consciousness, but when I started reading the
autobiography of Malcolm X at university, something opened up inside me. One
day I said to my best friend, Muneera, ‘I’m falling in love with Islam.’ She
laughed and said, ‘Be quiet, Sukina!’ She only started exploring Islam to
prove me wrong, but soon enough she started believing it, too.

“I was always passionate about women’s rights; there was no way I would have
entered a religion that sought to degrade me. So when I came across a book
by a Moroccan feminist, it unravelled all my negative opinions: Islam didn’t
oppress women; people did.

“Before I converted, I conducted an experiment. I covered up in a long gypsy
skirt and headscarf and went out. But I didn’t feel frumpy; I felt
beautiful. I realised, I’m not a sexual commodity for men to lust after; I
want to be judged for what I contribute mentally.

“Muneera and I took our *shahada* [declaration of faith] together a few
months later, and I cut my dreadlocks off to represent renewal: it was the
beginning of a new life.

“Just three weeks after our conversion, the 7/7 bombings happened; suddenly
we were public enemy No 1. I’d never experienced racism in London before,
but in the weeks after the bombs, people would throw eggs at me and say, ‘Go
back to your own country,’ even though this was my country.

“I’m not trying to shy away from any aspect of who I am. Some people dress
in Arabian or Pakistani styles, but I’m British and Caribbean, so my
national dress is Primark and Topshop, layered with colourful charity-shop

“Six months after I converted, I got back together with my ex-boyfriend, and
now we’re married. Our roles in the home are different, because we are
different people, but he would never try to order me around; that’s not how
I was raised.

“Before I found Islam, I was a rebel without a cause, but now I have a
purpose in life: I can identify my flaws and work towards becoming a better
person. To me, being a Muslim means contributing to your society, no matter
where you come from.”

*Catherine Huntley*
Retail assistant, 21, Bournemouth

“My parents always thought I was abnormal, even before I became a Muslim. In
my early teens, they’d find me watching TV on a Friday night and say, ‘What
are you doing at home? Haven’t you got any friends to go out with?’

“The truth was: I didn’t like alcohol, I’ve never tried smoking and I wasn’t
interested in boys. You’d think they’d have been pleased.

“I’ve always been quite a spiritual person, so when I started studying Islam
in my first year of GCSEs, something just clicked. I would spend every
lunchtime reading about Islam on the computer. I had peace in my heart and
nothing else mattered any more. It was a weird experience – I’d found
myself, but the person I found wasn’t like anyone else I knew.

“I’d hardly ever seen a Muslim before, so I didn’t have any preconceptions,
but my parents weren’t so open-minded. I hid all my Muslim books and
headscarves in a drawer, because I was so scared they’d find out.

“When I told my parents, they were horrified and said, ‘We’ll talk about it
when you’re 18.’ But my passion for Islam just grew stronger. I started
dressing more modestly and would secretly fast during Ramadan. I got very
good at leading a double life until one day, when I was 17, I couldn’t wait
any longer.

“I sneaked out of the house, put my hijab in a carrier bag and got on the
train to Bournemouth. I must have looked completely crazy putting it on in
the train carriage, using a wastebin lid as a mirror. When a couple of old
people gave me dirty looks, I didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I
felt like myself.

“A week after my conversion, my mum came marching into my room and said,
‘Have you got something to tell me?’ She pulled my certificate of conversion
out of her pocket. I think they’d rather have found anything else at that
point – drugs, cigarettes, condoms – because at least they could have put it
down to teenage rebellion.

“I could see the fear in her eyes. She couldn’t comprehend why I’d want to
give up my freedom for the sake of a foreign religion. Why would I want to
join all those terrorists and suicide bombers?

“It was hard being a Muslim in my parents’ house. I’ll never forget one
evening, there were two women in burkas on the front page of the newspaper,
and they started joking, ‘That’ll be Catherine soon.’

“They didn’t like me praying five times a day either; they thought it was
‘obsessive’. I’d pray right in front of my bedroom door so my mum couldn’t
walk in, but she would always call upstairs, ‘Catherine, do you want a cup
of tea?’ just so I’d have to stop.

“Four years on, my grandad still says things like, ‘Muslim women have to
walk three steps behind their husbands.’ It gets me really angry, because
that’s the culture, not the religion. My fiancé, whom I met eight months
ago, is from Afghanistan and he believes that a Muslim woman is a pearl and
her husband is the shell that protects her. I value that old-fashioned way
of life: I’m glad that when we get married he’ll take care of paying the
bills. I always wanted to be a housewife anyway.

“Marrying an Afghan man was the cherry on the cake for my parents. They
think I’m completely crazy now. He’s an accountant and actually speaks
better English than I do, but they don’t care. The wedding will be in a
mosque, so I don’t think they’ll come. It hurts to think I’ll never have
that fairytale wedding, surrounded by my family. But I hope my new life with
my husband will be a lot happier. I’ll create the home I’ve always wanted,
without having to feel the pain of people judging me.”
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