I became Muslim in the fall of 1998. Though I had been interested in Islam for many years, it was not until I moved to Arizona, from Arkansas, that I converted.
But I had not told my mom.
But I had not told my mom.
I was very blessed to have mentors who truly understood the essence of Islam in addition to the teachings. I was never told I had to wear the scarf. I was taught to study Islam first - to understand the teachings and essence of Islam – the reasons for everything, including the scarf.
This fit into my personality perfectly. I asked a lot of questions. I always ask a lot of questions. I need to understand things, the reason behind things. Even my mother will tell you I loved the question "why" and always had a problem with “because I said so.”
In December 1998, I decided to go back to Arkansas to visit her for Christmas. I was worried about how she would react. What would I say to my mom when I got off the plane and she saw me in the scarf?
So I spoke to a very knowledgeable friend about my concerns.
He told me that it would be absolutely disrespectful to my mother if I were to walk off the plane wearing a scarf. He said, “She is your mother. How could you treat her that way? She needs to know that you are still the daughter she knows and loves.”
He told me to wear the scarf, but before getting off the plane to remove it; to greet my mother as her daughter; to spend the afternoon with her and enjoy dinner together. Then after we have relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company, to sit her down for a talk. Explain to her, not that I have become Muslim, but why I made the decision. Try to help her see it from my perspective. Not what the teachings are, but what they mean to me.
He told me then to show her the scarf. Let her touch the scarf. Let her see it is only a piece of cloth. Explain to her the reasons I chose to wear the scarf. Only after that, let her see me put the scarf on. Let her see I am still the daughter she knows and loves, just with an extra piece of fabric.
I did exactly as he told me.
My mother knew of my interest in Islam - we had discussed the ideas of Islam many times during the 10 years I had casually studied it before moving to Arizona. But studying something, philosophizing about it, is very different than embracing it.
Despite my attempts to ease her into it, she was understandably shocked.
Her first response was, “Why do you have to cover your beauty?”
“I am not covering my beauty. My family sees all of me. Why do others need to? Why is modesty not beautiful?” I responded.
“We fought 50 years in this country so women could walk down the street naked. You are taking us back to the days when women were oppressed. You are choosing to cover your body, your hair, like women used to be forced to,” she said.
I responded, “No mom, you did not fight 50 years in this country so women could walk down the street naked. You fought 50 years in this country so women could walk down the street any way they want – and that has to include both covered and naked.”
I then went on to further explain how I felt about wearing the scarf, that it was my choice, that no one told me to, and that I did not see it as a symbol of oppression - or I would not wear it. I further reminded her that she knows I am a very strong and independent woman who is passionate about women’s rights. How could I not be? I am her daughter. I learned about the oppression and injustices done to women through her, not just books.
She next asked, “Who are you gonna marry, a foreigner?” I said, “I do not know. The Muslim community in Arizona is different. It is larger, people actually live there, they even have a cemetery, it’s not just foreign exchange students planning to move back to their home country.” [The movie, NotWithout My Daughter made quite an impact on a lot of people.]
“You know if you marry a foreigner people will think you married a black guy?” she said. I replied, “That does not bother me.”
“So you would marry a black guy?”
“I do not know.” I replied. “I will marry a man who treats me very well. I am less concerned with what race he is.”
She then asked, “Why don’t you marry Joe down the street?”
[Joe was a boy I went to high school with. Joe was an unemployed alcoholic – though white.]
I replied, “Mom, you would rather me marry an unemployed alcoholic than a black man who treats me well?”
I knew that was not what she wanted. I knew the things coming out of her mouth were not what she really thought or believed.
We continued to talk and I reassured her the best I could. She was scared. Scared for her baby girl. She was just repeating things she had heard while she was trying to process – trying to, from her perspective, save her child from all the horrors she had seen in movies and heard as stories.
My mom is an intelligent woman, but once a person is coming from a place of fear, no amount of logic will help - you cannot logic them out of their fear. Only real human interaction, emotion, caring, can change fear into curiosity - which is why I advocate getting out and interacting with more people.
Though she remained worried for several years, eventually she saw that, even after I married an Arab, I was anything but oppressed. She also saw that my choice of religion did not change my character. I would like to think she saw my character improve, but that is a question for her.
But none of this would have been possible had I not approached her with kindness and understanding.
And it would have been an even more difficult conversation, maybe even a complete disaster, had I got off that plane looking completely foreign to her.
She needed time to see I was still her precious baby girl; she needed time to see that I was still the strong independent woman she had raised; and I needed to have compassion for her struggle – not arrogantly slap her in the face with the “new me.”
Have you ever converted from one faith to another, even a sect within the same larger faith? How did your family react?
Are you part of an interfaith or inter-racial marriage? Was talking to your family about it difficult?
Have your children ever had the conversation with you? Do you have suggestions on how they could have approached you better?
Do you have any suggestions on more ways to better approach such topics with family members?