As Christians around the world celebrate one of the holiest days of their year we talk to three western women who have embraced Islam and how it has given them a fresh perspective on life.
A spiritual journey to Islam
As Christians around the world celebrate one of the holiest days of their year, Helena Frith Powell talks to three western women who have embraced Islam despite disapproval from their loved ones and friends, and learns how it has given them a fresh perspective on life.When she converted to Islam the British journalist Yvonne Ridley confounded many observers. Here was a woman who had been held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan embracing their religion. From captive to convert? It sounds like a Hollywood film.
But Ridley is just one of millions of women who convert to Islam each year. In fact, conversions to Islam are growing faster than the global population: 2.9 per cent as opposed to 2.3 per cent.
Ridley, 51, was released from her Taliban captors in 2001 on the undertaking that she would study Islam and read the Quran. Over the following 30 months she did. She told an interviewer for the website www.turntoislam.com that on first opening the Quran “I looked for the chapter on how to beat your wife”.
Like many western women, Ridley thought the Quran was little more than an instruction manual on how to oppress women.
“I was stunned by what I read,” she says. “I discovered that the Quran clearly states that women are equal in spirituality, education and worth. Women are equal in all respects. In Islam, women have equal rights and they have had equal rights for 1,400 years.”
“The Quran tells you that as a woman you have a duty to get yourself educated,” says Sara Hamoodi, who is originally from Washington DC, but has lived in the UAE with her Emirati husband since 1987. “And if you can’t do that at home, you need to go out and get an education. The abuses of women we see are not dictated by religion but by culture.”
Hamoodi feels that she found her path when she found Islam. “There is this western cliché of women having to find themselves,” she says. “I found myself in Islam. In our culture you are a wife and a mother when you marry and have children. In Islam, you automatically have your rights to an opinion, to an education, to working, to vote. It is much more progressive than our system and it has always been that way. I found I was a woman in my own right and at the young age of 24, most women have to wait until they are well into their 30s to really know themselves.”
Hamoodi met her husband when he was studying in the US and she was still in high school. “When I met my husband I didn’t imagine that I would be a Muslim or that my children would be,” she says. “he never criticised my point of view but I suspect he was secretly hoping I would change my mind.”
They were married a year and a half after they met and moved to the UAE when their first son was six months old. They now have seven children aged between 10 and 20.
Hamoodi describes her eventual conversion as a gradual and smooth process which began with her covering her head out of respect to her in-laws with whom they were living.
“I remember sitting outside the mosque almost like it called me,” she says. “We arrived in July and I would sit outside in the heat just listening to the sounds. It was strangely attractive. I loved the sound of the voices, the whole rhythm of it, the flow of the Arabic.”
She started studying Islam and also wearing an abya.
“I found all my questions were answered in Islam,” she says. “Catholicism was always a big question for me. And because I had already started covering it all slid into place. It wasn’t a huge step for me at all, it all eased into place. It just felt so right.”
Her family back home is Catholic and they were strongly against her conversion to begin with. But they have since softened. “They have seen that I have become a better person and that I am more at peace with myself,” she says. “Nobody forced me. I have a very strong personality and that sits well with being a Muslim woman. I firmly believe Islamic women are stronger because everything we have in terms of rights we have from birth. They are automatically given to us.”
Hamoodi says that most of her friends, here and back in the US, are dynamic ladies with strong personalities. So how does that sit with verses in the Quran such as the following one: “And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them.”
“Look, it was written a very long time ago, and sure you can interpret it any way you like but in my view this is just telling a man he should take steps to correct behaviour. But in my view it does not encourage beating or sanction just any kind of behaviour,” she says.
According to Hamoodi and others like her, the image the West is given of Islam is more often than not sullied by extremism. For example, reports about girls who have had acid thrown in their faces as they walk to school in Afghanistan because the Taliban don’t believe they should be educated. But when you read the Quran it is a different story. Women have to be treated with respect.
This was one of the things that first attracted Jennifer Brooks, a music teacher, to Islam.
“I remember when I first covered [started wearing an abaya and a hijab] I was shown an enormous amount of respect by men, especially Arab men,” says Brooks, who comes from the US state of Iowa but has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2000. “You are looked upon as a sister of Islam and, as such, treated with reverence.”
Brooks, 34, met her husband – originally from Yemen but brought up in Abu Dhabi – shortly after moving here. They were married in 2002, but Jennifer didn’t convert straight away. “We had a civil ceremony in the US,” she explains. “At the time I just didn’t feel ready to revert [Muslims refer to conversion as reversion, the idea being that one reverts to Islam]. I needed to follow my own path.”
In 2005, she gave birth to their daughter, Aisa, and it was while she was in hospital that she had the epiphany that led to her conversion.
“I was sharing a room with a woman who had just woken up for prayer,” Brooks remembers. “The sunlight was shining on her and the whole thing just overcame me. I realised I needed to be part of this religion, it was like something hit my soul. I knew I had to do it not just for my own personal growth but for my daughter. She was born an Emirati so to raise her in another faith would be a sin.”
Since her conversion her marriage has sadly broken down. In fact, rather than help her marriage she thinks her conversion was the beginning of the end for them. “He was angry,” she tells me. “It was the beginning of my marriage really falling apart; this was when the emotional and physical abuse began. He was angry because I was going to change, he was afraid of losing the individual that I was, he was afraid he would lose control. A woman who is a Muslim here has a lot more power.”
She also maintains that if her husband had behaved like a proper Muslim should, they might still be speaking to each other. He is refusing to grant her a divorce.
“He is not following his religion,” says Brooks. “If a Muslim woman wants a divorce then a good Muslim man should grant her one. When I am in court, their hands are tied because of the law, but they shake their heads and give him an Islamic lecture about treating women with respect.”
Brooks and her husband are now estranged but she has hung on to her religion.
“Because of the issues with my husband, my daughter is banned from leaving the country and he can take custody of her at any time,” she says. “I am, of course, praying that he won’t do that. But I would rather she grew up here in this religion and this culture than my own culture. On the one hand, that makes me desperately sad because I miss my family so much and her relationship with them is no more than virtual. On the other hand, I have such a strong support network of sisters in Islam and that has really helped me. As a former Catholic, I also have a strong Christian network. The fact is good people will rise to help you whatever religion they are.”
Despite her failed marriage, Brooks has no regrets. “I will keep practising but in my own way,” she says. “I will raise my daughter as a Muslim as well and, when she’s an adult, she will find her own path.”
Karen Clarke, a 38-year-old originally from Newcastle, England, who has lived in Dubai with her Muslim husband for three years, agrees with Hamoodi’s views. “For me the turning point, or rather my reversion point, came when I realised that under Islam there are actually more rights for women,” she says. “Having said that, in many countries the men in power try to curtail these rights and freedoms. What a lot of them forget is that women under Islam are supposed to be protected by their fathers, brothers and husbands. But this is sometimes misconstrued. The idea behind it is sound. In England, if your father leaves then you may or may not ever see him again or get any child support from him. Under Islam there is recourse, because if he doesn’t provide, his brothers will have to. Westerners seem to have this unshakable view of Islam that it is purely negative when it comes to women.”
In her book The Hidden Face of Eve – Women in the Arab World, the Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi says we have to understand that “the most important struggle that faces women in Arab Islamic countries is not that of ‘free thought’ versus ‘belief in religion’, nor ‘feminist rights’ in opposition to ‘male chauvinism’ … [but] to ensure that the Arab peoples take possession of their economic and political resource, and of their scientific and cultural heritage so that they can develop whatever they have to the maximum and rid themselves once and for all of the control and domination exercised by foreign capital interests”.
What many western women may see as a tool of oppression, the abaya, Muslim women will often describe as something positive.
“Wearing an abaya is not a display of religion but rather something we do out of respect for ourselves and those around us,” says Clarke.
“I feel a lot more sure of myself in my abaya and I wear it out of respect. I am so used to it now that to go out without it would feel like leaving the house wearing nothing. It makes me feel secure.”
Brooks, though, has stopped wearing hers. “I felt I was losing a sense of myself,” she explains. “And I didn’t want that to cloud my experience of this beautiful religion. I made this decision and I stick to it. It was necessary for me to do so if I was to be a good Muslim as well as a woman and an American. I didn’t want my reversion to be clouded by the loss of who I really was.”
Do the converts have any advice for women thinking of following their example and choosing Islam?
“I would say do your research, study, take your time,” says Hamoodi. “This is not something you can rush into. It is a way of life, Islam tells you how to live, how to eat, what to drink and wear. It is not something you can pick up and put down. Do your best… believe it is better to be a bad or mediocre Muslim than not to be a Muslim at all.”
Adds Clarke: “Make sure you and your husband keep the balance of religion on the same level. You do not want to end up with a man who starts out where you are but then turns extremist, especially if you live in a Muslim country. If you do that, you could end up like one of the horror stories we hear so much about.”
10 famous female converts to Islam
AMINAH ASSILMI US broadcast journalist; was director of the International Union of Muslim Women
DIVYA BHARTI Indian actress who converted on marriage to the producer Sajid Nadiadwala
LAUREN BOOTH Broadcaster, journalist, human rights activist and sister-in-law of the former British prime minister Tony Blair
JEMIMA GOLDSMITH Socialite, charity fundraiser and writer who married the retired Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan in 1995
SILMA IHRAM Australian author, campaigner for racial tolerance and pioneer of Muslim education in the West
MARYAM JAMEELAH Formerly Margret Marcus; author of many books covering several subjects, including modernism, sociology, history, jihad, theology and technology
ELSA KAZI German writer of one-act plays, short stories, novels, history and poetry
INGRID MATTSON Canadian scholar and president of the Islamic Society of North America
QUEEN NOOR American by birth, the former Lisa Najeeb Halaby is the last wife and widow of King Hussein of Jordan
PAMELA TAYLOR Science fiction author, publications officer of the Islamic Writers Alliance, co-chairwoman of the Progressive Muslim Union
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Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018