Young. British. Female. Muslim.

Thousands of young British women living in the UK decide to convert to Islam – here are some of their stories

                                  From left: Sukina Douglas, Catherine Heseltine, Aqeela Lindsay
                                             Wheeler, Catherine Huntley and Joanne Bailey
From Times Online

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
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.
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.
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.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Joanne Bailey
Solicitor, 30, Bradford
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.’
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.
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
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 faith.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 welfare.
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
Aqeela Lindsay Wheeler
Housewife and mother, 26, Leicester
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.
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?
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’.
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?
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 Islam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 drank.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 scarves.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.’
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.
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.

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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