I’m not sure why, but statistics about American Muslims are hard to come by. Estimates run from a little over 1 million to 7 million. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the confusion over how to define Muslim. Are we counting only practicing Muslims? What about those who are born Muslim, but no longer observe Islamic rituals? And an even bigger mystery is the rate of conversion or number of converts in the U.S. Some sources put the number of converts at 17% of the American Muslim population. Others claim that approximately 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year.
But whatever the number, most agree that there are more women converting to Islam than men. This puzzles non-Muslims who see Islam as a sexist religion that robs women of their autonomy. They tend to assume that the only reason a woman converts to Islam is because she is marrying a Muslim. While this is true in some cases, it doesn’t mean that the conversion is meaningless. And in my own experience, most of the women converts I’ve met converted on their own, for their own personal reasons.
Take for example a woman I know whom I’ll call Renee. She converted eight years ago when she was 24. She only recently became engaged to a Muslim. Her decision to convert had nothing to do with marriage to a Muslim. She is the only Muslim in her family. She wears the hijab and is active in mosque activities, particularly in the New Muslim Support Group. Most of the members of that group are women.
I’m another example. I converted two years ago at the age of 57. My husband is not a Muslim, nor is he interested in converting (although he completely supports my decision to do so). None of my children are Muslim. I had been a life-long Christian, even at one time the wife of a minister. And to top it off, I’m a feminist. Yet somehow Islam spoke to me and I found that I couldn’t ignore its call.
So why do women convert to Islam, if it’s such a sexist religion? I don’t know about all women, but here are my reasons, based on how I see Islam and what I’ve read in the Qur’an:
Islam actually accords women a higher status than most other religions, including Christianity. Women are not blamed for the introduction of evil into the world (the Fall). Men and women are held equally responsible before Allah and are seen as equal by Him. Islam also reveres the role of women in society, particularly as mothers. Muslim men are taught to treasure the women in their lives.
Islam has a healthier attitude toward sex than Christianity does. Women are not seen as temptresses or whores. Islam teaches that both men and women have a right to sexual pleasure.
I actually like Islam’s call for modesty. I didn’t realize until I started dressing hijab (Islamically) how uncomfortable I’d been exposing my cleavage, for instance. Somehow it just didn’t seem right. I don’t excuse men for having “unclean” thoughts about women, but I do believe that a woman has a responsibility to not do anything to undermine the respect society should accord her. Please don’t take this to mean that I think a woman who dresses provocatively is a slut or deserves to be raped. I don’t. But I personally feel more comfortable being private about what I expose to just anyone.
This brings me to the hijab itself, or headscarf. I don’t wear the hijab because I think a woman’s uncovered hair is enticing to men. I wear it because it helps me to be less preoccupied about my appearance. I confess, however, that I still like to look attractive. I match my hijabs to my outfits and arrange them in ways that I think are flattering. But still, just the act of wearing a hijab reminds me of my commitment to Allah. It’s a little bit like being a nun who wears the habit. It’s an outward sign of an inner conviction.
Finally, I don’t see Islam as sexist. Yes, some Muslim men are controlling, arrogant and abusive. But you know what? So are some non-Muslim men. How a man treats the women in his life has more to do with his cultural attitudes and traditions than with what he has learned from the Qur’an and the example of Mohammad (pbuh). I’m deeply disturbed when I hear non-Muslims saying that honor killings and female genital mutilation are part of Islam. They most emphatically are not.
Men who keep their women sequestered away in their homes are not following Islamic principles. Women are encouraged to be fully involved in life, and especially in the pursuit of knowledge, in order to contribute more to society, no matter what they do.
There is a pragmatic side to Islam that makes me feel more connected to the world. Christianity has its missionary work, but the average Christian is more concerned about his personal spirituality than with the needs of society. It comforts me to know that Allah has a special burden for the poor, the orphaned and the widowed. Women are especially vulnerable in any society, and it’s important to me that the Qur’an mandates Muslims to take care of those less fortunate than themselves.
If you have any questions about this post, feel free to ask them either in a comment or by contacting me at ellen [at] femagination [dot] com. I’d love to hear what you think!
My next post is going to be about the special needs of women converts.