Conversion to Islam: Narratives of White Women in America

There are many reasons why Caucasian women in America may choose to convert to Islam; however, there are several reasons why such conversions warrant study. To begin, the European and North American perception of Islam has historically viewed the faith as oppressive towards women.[1] Moreover, events such as 9/11 have only served to increase the levels of islamophobia present in American culture, while simultaneously compelling some Americans to explore the often negatively portrayed faith through research. Next, women’s adoption of religious symbols to express newfound faith, such as the hijab or other forms of veiling, often carries a negative connotation of oppression within America.[2] The orientalism brought over by European colonialism and perpetuated in American culture has long bolstered a sense of “otherness”- or of “us” and “them”- towards Muslims of Middle Eastern, Asian, or African heritage.[3] In turn, the hijab- being an immediately visible indicator of a woman’s faith- is often looked upon by white Americans with prejudice as the “other”. How, then, may the choice to veil affect the conversions of white women, both in terms of their position in their community as well as how their social circle may react? Moreover, women’s conversions to Islam within marriage to a Muslim man occur at a greater frequency than men’s conversions within marriage.[4] Caucasian-American conversion in the United States takes up approximately 3% of conversion rates, a figure which is estimated to be increasing.[5] This essay will utilize the conversion narratives of  Caucasian-American women who converted after 9/11, to explore the intersection of gender and conversion within Islam, and the ways in which American society may impact such conversions.

Reasons for conversion to Islam are vast and depend upon the individual as well as the circumstance. Religious conversions can entail a relatively sudden transformation, or can be a gradual process, involving spiritual, ideological, and/or psychological factors.[6] Utilizing conversion narratives retrieved from YouTube channels as well as online forums, this analysis will demonstrate that while the reasons white women convert to Islam are vast, reasoning tends to fall into relatively similar categories of positive initial exposure to the Islamic faith, and spiritual, intellectual, religious, and emotional alignment with Islamic teachings. To fit the criteria for this study, the women had to be Caucasian, American, living in America during the time of their conversion, and have converted after September 11th, 2002. The conversion narratives were chosen according to their correspondence with the necessary criteria and are otherwise randomly selected. The majority of conversion narratives were retrieved from a YouTube channel called “Muslim Convert Stories”, which bolstered 348 thousand subscribers at the time of access. The YouTube channel features conversion stories from all over the world- although Europe and North America hold the majority- presenting individuals of any gender or ethnicity. The majority of individuals whose videos are posted on “Muslim Convert Stories” channel explain during their video that they were “invited by a brother” or “sister” to share their conversion story via video. 75% of the women whose conversion narratives were chosen for this study identified as Christian from birth- this overwhelming majority was not intentional but was difficult to avoid considering the specific demographic. Furthermore, the reshaping of one’s identity involved in the conversion process often provokes converted women to frame their identities against Muslim men, as well as Non-Muslim women.[7] Reflecting on her interviews with converts in American mosques obtained through fieldwork in 2015, Rao notes that “converts to Islam don't just become Muslim, rather they learn to become Muslim men and Muslim women, differentiating themselves from non-Muslim Others, but also from religious counterparts of the opposite sex*”.*[8] Many converted women express a sense of unparalleled “sisterhood” with other Muslim women, looking to them for guidance as well as companionship during and after the conversion process.

Although not always used in conversion narratives, some converted Muslims refer to their conversion to Islam as a “reversion”. This term acknowledges the Islamic theological belief that each individual is born Muslim, and that becoming Muslim later in life is not a “conversion”, but a return to one’s original, pure state.[9] In this way, following any religion or belief system other than Islam is regarded as the result of deviant socialization leading one away from their true state.[10] For the purposes of this paper, the term “conversion” will be used, although many of the women utilize the term “reversion” when speaking about their experience. The ideology behind the term “reversion” may enable the converted women to experience a sense of authority and authenticity during and after the complicated process of conversion, which has the potential to make converts feel inexperienced and inadequate.  Although conversion narratives- especially the narratives retrieved from platforms such as YouTube- threaten to display a somewhat fabricated and idealized account of one’s conversion experience, many of the women utilize their YouTube channels or online forums to express their hardships and frustrations with their newly found Muslim identity. That is to say, the online communities which the women from this study foster all claim to encourage authentic and open discussions of the conversion experience. Platforms such as online forums or YouTube offers the possibility of presenting one’s experience openly and can be regarded as a “potentially free and unconstrained way of creating and expressing new identities”.[11] Nonetheless, the experiences articulated by these women must additionally be analyzed in terms of their incentive to post their experiences online, as well as the social, psychological, and spiritual factors of their conversions. To begin the analysis of conversion narratives, common factors among the narratives will be analyzed.

There are several common reasons for converting to Islam among the conversion narratives retrieved for this paper. Many converted women who grew up in small, predominantly white and Christian towns in America express a sense of fascination upon their initial exposure to practicing Muslims in adolescence or early adulthood. In turn, this uninformed fascination towards the “other” prompts research, both in the form of searching for information on the internet, as well as by asking questions to new Muslim friends and/or romantic partners. Many of the women with Christian backgrounds additionally express a sense of disillusionment with Christian doctrines. Moreover, each woman who grew up Christian took time within their conversion narrative to delve into their family’s faith, often picking apart the aspects of the tradition which they did not agree with or could not reconcile. The majority of women who spoke about their dissatisfaction with their natal Christian faith specifically mention that they were deeply unsettled by the concept of the Holy Trinity. Others, like Avalon, explain more broadly that they were simply unsatisfied with the Church in general:

“[By the age of 20] I was already unhappy with the Christian Church I was in… I really tried to involve myself in the Church and get along with people… but I just knew I didn’t fit in there. It was about the faith.”[12]

This weariness regarding Christianity prompted several women to identify themselves as atheist or agnostic sometime within their adolescence or early adulthood. Some of the women expressed a sense of spiritual, emotional, and/or religious unfulfillment during or after their deconversion process from Christianity, prompting them to begin searching for alternative forms of fulfilment. Two of the women chosen for this study described a certain level of continuity between Christian doctrine and Islamic theology, and both women explained that this helped ease the transition into their newly chosen faith. Another woman who grew up Baptist found comfort from online resources which grouped Christianity, Islam, and Judaism under the term “Abrahamic traditions”.[13] In other words, searching for continuity between Christianity and Islam indicates that some of the women felt uneasy or confused while contemplating their conversion- which itself is a consuming process before one takes their Shahada.

Five of the converted women specifically mention that they were highly ignorant towards the Islamic faith, and two of the women from this study confess to a highly stereotypical and negative view of Muslims prior to their initial exposure or conversion process. Their initial ignorance is usually attributed to the community they grew up in, as well as the negative perceptions of Muslims which pervade American society, or even their family life. Furthermore, this ignorance often served as a gateway for many of the converted women to research or learn about Islam, as their curiosity was often peaked in relation to the extremely negative stereotypes they were often exposed to. While some women became exposed to Muslim practices upon entering into relationships with Muslim men, other women had what they often described as extremely positive experiences with Muslims as friends or coworkers. Emily, for example, worked with whom she simply referred to as a “Moroccan Woman” when she began working in her first semester at college, describing that:

“She kind of became like a mom to me, she would bring me food and talk to me about Islam. The first time I ever went to a mosque was during Ramadan because her family invited me. Because always in general I loved learning, and everything I understood about Islam prior to that was that it was really oppressive and terrible to women. There were Muslims I went to high school with but I never spoke to them about their faith. This Moroccan woman was the opposite of oppressed and she was so happy and she really wanted to wear hijab. And I thought, well, if its so oppressive, why is she so dedicated to it?”[14]

The positive experiences with Muslims often have a profound impact on the women who spoke about their previous lack of exposure to Islam during their upbringing. In essence, the women likely experienced a dramatic shift in perspective upon realizing the negative stereotypes which plague Muslim communities in America were untrue. The friendships and relationships with Muslims before the women underwent their conversion process often served as a gateway into exploring Islamic practices and beliefs and influenced the women to open their perspective to Islam.

Deeply spiritual and religious experiences are notoriously difficult for those who experience them to put into words. However, each woman recounted some form of an intensely spiritual experience while participating in or observing some aspect of the Islamic tradition, whether it be attending a Mosque for the first time, listening to or reading the Koran, or praying to Allah for the first time. None of the women in this study spoke Arabic, however a number of the women recounted an emotional and spiritual experience when listening to the Koran recited in Arabic, describing that although they could not understand the words, they felt the significance of listening to Allah’s words. Hannah, who travelled to Jordan for two weeks in her junior year of college, visited a mosque for the first time during her trip. While observing Friday prayer, Hannah remembers that:

“I had never felt so close to God before. The physicality of the prayer was so unique to me, it was nothing that I had ever experienced before growing up Catholic. When I got back from the trip I started researching more about Islam.”[15]

There is often an emphasis placed on the uniqueness of one’s spiritual experience with Islam throughout the conversion narratives, most commonly contrasted against the lack of spiritual and/or religious fulfillment experienced while participating in Christian traditions. After carrying out extensive interviews with American converts to Islam in the 90’s, McGinty observes “that for a religious belief to awaken feelings in the first place implies, however, that the religious system has the force and affinity to “speak to” the individual or, in other words, that the individual has internalized ideas that can be activated and animated”.[16] This is not to say that the converted women had previously felt pulled to Islam, but to suggest that the women may have previously been experiencing some form of “spiritual yearning” that facilitated the ability to undergo an intensely spiritual experience.[17] As Hannah’s narrative demonstrates, the experiences are quite frequently tied to the sensation of being in or feeling the presence of Allah.

In each conversion narrative retrieved from YouTube, the women explained their decision to wear hijab, often quoting Surah 24:31 for their decisions. The verse reads:

“And tell the believing women that they must lower their gazes and guard their private parts, and must not expose their adornment, except that which appears thereof, and must wrap their bosoms with their shawls, and must not expose their adornment, except to their husbands or their fathers or the fathers of their husbands, or to their sons or the sons of their husbands...”[18]

Women with Muslim husbands were highly aware of the pervasive American stereotype that would ultimately accuse their husbands of forcing them to veil. In turn, each married woman stated something similar to Nicole, a convert with an active YouTube presence, to counteract such negative beliefs from their audience*:*

“and I was already married [when I chose to start wearing hijab], my husband didn't have any part in my hijab story whatsoever. He never said anything about it… Hijab was completely my decision- me and Allah”[19]

Although speaking to a camera while alone in her bedroom, Nicole anticipates a negative and unwanted reaction from her viewers in regard to her decision to veil. This, of course, can be tied to the fact that “more than the [hijab] itself, it is its symbolic perception that is crucial” and often believed to be synonymous with oppression by white Americans.[20] In their article on the Hijab and American Muslim converts, Williams and Vashi argue that the decision to veil as an American convert occurs within a cultural binary: “(1) the assumption by many non-Muslims that hijab encapsulates Islam’s inherent violation of women's "equal rights"; and (2) a widespread Muslim critique of American culture for its individualism, materialism, and lax sexual mores”.[21] While it is often recounted as difficult for some converts, navigating the decision to begin veiling was presented by some women as a relatively effortless decision in order to live in accordance with Islamic values and “please Allah”. Like other aspects within the conversion process, some women express a sense of continuity within their values before conversion and the values of Islam in relation to hijab. For instance, Nicole details that:

“In the transition from childhood to womanhood I had a natural inclination to want to cover my body”.[22]