Saturday, 15 December 2012

My Conversion Story

Okay, so I've had a few people both IRL and through e-mail asking me what "my story" is.  I often wonder if my kids, being white, will get the same question - "so how'd you become Muslim?"  I'm hoping that, inshaAllah, as they get older, it'll become more "normal" to be white and Muslim.  But obviously not at the moment.

So.  I was raised Christian.  Presbyterian, to be specific.  I don't remember a time when church was anything more than a social thing.  Sunday school was to see my friends, not to learn anything.  Even though we learned things.  It was a social thing because I don't ever really remember believing in the doctrine that was being taught.  I never undersood how 1 + 1 + 1 = 3.  I never understood how suicide could be wrong, but if God was Jesus and Jesus was God, then wasn't that suicide by default if God could stop anything?  But I did believe that God sent Jesus with a message.

As I got older I started doing my own research.  I never didn't believe in God.  I never didn't believe that Jesus wasn't a prophet.  I never didn't believe that Jesus wasn't born of the Virgin Mary.  But beyond that, in Christianity, I couldn't believe.

The first time I heard about Islam I was 11.  I got a penpal from Guyana with whom I'm still in touch with.  She would tell me about Ramadan and Eid, and about grade 9 I would look up things in the school library.  And then I learned more. And more. By the time I was 16, I knew that I believed in Islam.  But I also know that the worst thing I could do at that point in time was to tell anyone.  I was the minister's daughter.  I already created enough issues with some of the little old ladies in the fact that I was not the stereotypical minister's daughter that they wanted - I dressed the way I wanted (even to church), I spoke up if I didn't agree with something.  I wasn't docile and compliant, sitting in the front pew with my hands in my lap wearing my Sunday best every week.  I did my utmost to actually skip church.  I'm pretty sure that didn't go unnoticed either.

As I got older, I continued to fake it for the sake of everyone else.  At 27, I got married in the church because that was what was expected of me.  At 28 and again at 29 I had my boys baptised in the church.  Because that was what was expected of me as well.  And every time I did something in the church because it was expected of me, made promises to God even though both He and I knew that I wasn't going to do anything of the sort, I hated myself.  How do you look yourself in the mirror and not hate yourself when you're getting up in front of a few hundred people and pledging to raise your children in the church?

So finally I said to my husband, I don't believe in this.  I don't want to go to church.  I didn't mean it when I baptised the boys.  But I do believe in Islam, and I'm a closeted Muslim.  He and I agreed that he was okay with my taking shahadah and raising the boys with Islam, but that he wasn't interested.  I had already  been in an online Muslim women's community.  I became good friends with a couple of sisters on that group.  One, Tahira, was instrumental in my conversion.  She answered so many questions for me, and those that she couldn't answer her husband answered.

I took my shahadah, got connected online with the Muslim community in London, Ontario.  He said I relaxed so much after that.  Well yeah - I wasn't lying to everyone.  I still didn't tell my family, beyond my youngest brother and sister in law.  And then my mom found my Islamic books.  We won't get into how that went, but suffice it to say, it didn't go well.

It also does not go well trying to raise your children with two different faiths.  Not so much the faith but the practices of such.  I was cutting pork and alcohol completely out of my diet and wanted to do the same with the boys.  He refused.  I didn't want to do Christmas or Easter with them anymore.  Easter he agreed with, Christmas for him was non-negotiable.  I think that religion was part of the reasons for the original separation.

After the boys and I moved to a village 15 minutes away (a village of 800 people), I made the concious decision to start wearing hijab.  I knew I wouldn't get much support, but did from my then estranged husband.  We did discuss it long before i started wearing it.  I did modified at first.  Wore it more like Orthodox Jewish or Christian women wear it.  And then I didn't wear it at work.  I wasn't sure how it would work there.  And then, in April of 2008 I did decide to wear it to work.  I talked to one of the upper security guys to see how it would work when I'd go into the station as there are signs saying all headwear must be removed.  What I found out was that you don't have to remove religious headwear.  So I've been wearing hijab full time since April 2008.  I didn't get around to changing my security badge until December of 2011 though.  Oops.

And then the husband was arrested.

He was arrested and ended up coming to live with me.  He had to follow what was going on because he was the one moving into the home I was living in that he'd chosen not to move with us.  And now he was.  By that point, he was no longer practicing Christianity either, something he'd picked up from me when we'd gotten together.  By the time he went to prison, he wasn't practicing anything, but still wasn't helpful in the whole alcohol and pork aspect.

After he left, it became easier.  I was the only parent in the boys' lives.  All the decisions were mine to make. When I'd converted, our town had a very small number of Muslims - all Pakistani immigrants who many in town, myself included, actually thought were Indian Hindus, as we knew there were some of them.  But there were more and more Muslims being hired at work all the time.  When I went into the administration building most of the time, wearing hijab, I was noticeable.  It created some small controversy at first.  There were some bizarre questions.  Someone wondered if "I'd become Mormon."  A friend of mine laughed hysterically at that.  A Mormon friend replied to me that she'd been Mormon her whole life and only wore scarves when she was cold.  Someone else asked me if I was cold all the time.  But most people wouldn't ask me.  They'd ask my co-workers.  One of them finally snapped at me that I should tell people myself - dude, I would except for the fact they're not asking me!  I actually, just last year, had an interesting conversation while serving in which they asked me which dish was better.  I told them that I'd have to pick one over the other because the other I didn't eat pork.  He asked why.  I looked at him funny and said "Because I'm Muslim?"  He replied with "Oh, I didn't know."  And before i could think I said "why'd you think I wore the scarf?"  His answer? "I thought you had some sort of weird skin condition."  Oooookay then.

By now, of course, everyone knows I'm Muslim. I'm sure that it wasn't more than a few hours after I took shahadah that most people knew.  And if they didn't, those that read the letters to the editor in the paper found out because I wrote a letter correcting the editor's column when he used the word "iman" for "imam" and said I knew this as I was Muslim.  As I became more comfortable I became more vocal.  I met more people at work and eventually became involved with our small growing community.

I have gone from someone who was in hiding for many years to now I am part of the tiny committee that does organizing for our community.  I helped two brothers approach a local church and drafted a letter to them, as well as attending the meeting in which we are now able to meet two nights a week in their church.  I send my kids to our local one a week madrassa where they are learning Arabic, Quran and Islamic studies.  I work as a liaison between the Muslim community and other organizations, including the local schools.

I am a Muslim woman who wears hijab but rarely wears abaya. I work out of the home.  I was the first Muslim many people around here met.  I know that I'm the first person almost all of them know who they knew both before and after conversion.  There are people that won't talk to me now, but those people I don't have time for.  I was saddened by a local church book group that decided to do their book club one month on Islam and instead of actually using books that actually taught about Islam, they chose books that skew it so horribly that it would have left nothing but a bitter, anti-western, anti-woman, Muslims are backward and violent, taste in their mouths ("Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a book which is nothing more than a self-hatred testiment which doesn't actually talk about Islam but about Somali culture.  She, however, says that it is all Islam and refuses to see that what she lived was 99.9% culture; "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini, which is 100% fiction, and takes place involving Afghani culture.  There was another one, another book that also was not Islamic but cultural.)  What saddened me the most is that the person running the group is a retired high school history teacher and someone that I thought was well-educated.  In choosing those books, what I learned was that she wasn't as educated as I thought, and not someone who I would want teaching my children in the future.

My husband is now out of prison, and while we're not living together, we are in a better place than we were, working towards possible reconciliation.  What the best thing was that prison did is that it gave him lots of time to read.  I asked him to do one thing for me - learn about what I believe.  In learning, he eventually took shahadah as well.

Our children our proud Muslims.  They love learning about Islam and "being a Muslim."  And I am more comfortable in my own skin, in my religious beliefs, things I actually believe in now, than I ever have been in my life.  

1 comment:

  1. Asalaamu Alaikum

    so lovely to finally read your story. I met another convert who was the pastor's daughter. I forgot her name but she was the wife of the imam in London quite a few years ago. It must be extremely hard to be in that position. May Allah continue to guide your family and put love and mercy between the hearts of you and your husband and continue to grow your community there. Amin.