It is a phenomenon that has made the headlines in “The Times” newspaper of London and stirred public conversation from Helsinki to Halifax to Hawaii. It is a bit baffling to most Westerners, but nonetheless a reality that they are coming face-to-face with: Western women, with all their freedoms and of their right minds, are choosing to follow the religion of Islam, and they are flocking to the religion at a much faster rate than their Western male counterparts.
Western women on a journey of faith
Every day in America and across Europe, female voices are, for the first time, breathing the words known as “The Shahaadah,” or the Muslim’s basic declaration of faith.
Although the exact ratio of women converts to men converts is unknown, a poll conducted in the U.S. in the late last decade suggested that the number of American women coming to Islam outnumbers that of American men by as much as 4 to 1. Strolling through some Islamic Centers in North America and Europe gives one the impression that the gap could be even greater.
Whatever the exact statistics, it is no longer debatable; women in the West, (many of them single) are becoming Muslims in unprecedented numbers.
The irony of the phenomenon
One of the largest erroneous stereotypes about Islam is that it is a religion which treats women unfairly and disrespectfully. Many who are ignorant on the issue believe Islam teaches that women are worth less than men, and that it strips them of their rights.
At this point, however, a thinking person must ask, “If it is so bad, would not women turn and run from it; particularly those women who are well-educated? Would not the vast majority of reverts be men?” Obviously, women are finding in Islam something beautiful, something unique. There must be something there that not only attracts them as human beings, but also as women.
The “why” factor
When women and men are asked why they accepted Islam, they often give similar answers: they were attracted to the logic within the religion, the emphasis on family and societal values or the fact that the Quran and Hadeeth have been preserved accurately. But many times, the women give an answer for reverting that men do not, and the reason they give are: for the rights and status of women in Islam. (It is not often, it should be noted, that one hears a reverted brother say he came to Islam “because of the rights and status of men in Islam.”)
Dina Wallis, a British revert from Roman Catholicism who frequently writes on women’s issues and has contributed in translating the Holy Quran, pointed out that a Western woman coming to Islam has a bit of a different journey than that of a Western man. “In many ways, a woman who becomes a Muslim has more to gain than man,” she said. “Of course from the spiritual side, there is no difference – they both discover Allaah’s true religion and gain their true selves spiritually. But a woman coming to Islam, in addition to gaining the spiritual truth has a double advantage because she is also re-gaining her true self as a woman.”
Women discover, in becoming Muslims, that they should have been able to exercise their God-given rights: the rights to be respected, to be able to stay home with their families, to be able to be valued for more than a physical appearance as well as political and economical rights. “Also, a woman’s role changes more drastically than a man’s,” said Wallis.
“As for men coming from the western culture to the Islamic culture, their role is basically by the same in society: they are considered the main `breadwinner,’ the head of family, et cetera. But in Islam, women can be women, and enjoy their soft, natural femininity, as well as being fully provided for. They do this without losing their rights to vote, work, be treated kindly, and get an education.” she said.
Also, the worth of the woman in Islam is much more noticeable than in the West. Women begin to dress modestly and feel liberated by the ability to go out without showing off their bodies or making up their faces. In Islam, they are valued simply for being a wonderfully special thing: a woman.
Halimah Stevens was raised a Southern Baptist in Columbia, South Carolina. She has been a Muslim for nearly two decades and is now married with five children. But she can still recall the pressures she underwent as a young, non-Muslim woman living in the West. The most obvious of them was the attempt to get attention through physical means. “When I was growing up, I remember, `what can I wear to get attention? How tight will this be?’ That is how regular teenage girls are. They want to be seen as impressive, get a boyfriend and get someone to look at them,” she said. “It was all about your appearance. When you become Muslim, you are taught to be modest. You keep your dignity and you character becomes honorable, you begin to like yourself again for who you are inside. You can look yourself in the mirror with satisfaction and know that your being goes much deeper than flesh and size.”
She says her value as a Muslim woman is not even comparable to that when she was a Christian woman living in the West. “It is just like black and white. There is a big difference. I feel totally valued as a Muslim woman. I am so loved and so respected for my mind and my heart now. When I look back at my life before I embraced Islam, I see how important my body and clothes were to everyone; including me.”
Western “Women’s Liberation” movement: Why it did not satisfy:
The 1960’s and 70’s brought about a sort-of revolution for women, in which various organizations and ideals comprised what came to be known as the “Women’s Liberation Movement.” Women were fed up with being treated as second-class citizens. They were not receiving equal pay in the workplace, nor equal education and job opportunities. In 1970, for example, women were earning an average of just 54.5% of a man’s salary. Also, they felt tired of being seen just as “sex symbols”, mothers and being paraded around in beauty pageants.
Many of their complaints were valid, as seen from an Islamic viewpoint. They should have had equal pay for an equal job done, as well as the right to education and to work. Also, women should be valued for the amazing people they are, not just for physical characteristics.
But other complaints suggested they should have to spend time or effort on their children, certainly no more than their husbands were spending. In fact, child-rearing became perceived as an obstacle to true achievement. Success was measured only by how far one got in a job or how impressive a woman’s resume was, not by how great of a family she could inspire and raise.
The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of Great Britain fought for free contraception and abortion on demand, and pushed for free 24-hour nurseries, run by public workers, so that they would be freed from the “burden” of watching their kids. Being “just” a devoted mother and housewife—two of the most important jobs within a healthy society—became occupations they were ashamed of.
They began to deny, and place shame upon, the concept of womanhood and femininity itself. Many groups made headlines after publicly burning symbols identified with womanhood, the most famous incident being the burning bras. They cursed their own reproductive systems and pushed to be seen as identical to men.
“I was really looking on the `liberation’ movement from the outside,” said Wallis, who was just a young lady living in southern England at the time. “I was not really part of it myself – I did not participate in the events, which seemed a bit lunatic. However, I try to place myself in their position.” “It was a new thing, and women were tired of being deprived of certain things like working, and getting equal pay for it,” she continues. “I think that women have since realized, it has really brought them nothing positive. Women now are going back and valuing their prime role in life. Even western women are realizing that it is a great benefit to be able to stay at home with the kids and put the family as the top priority. This is something Islam has always given them, without depriving them of going out to work if it is the right environment,” she said.
Some radical groups even called for the total separation of males and females, saying women will never have any need of men. The radical feminist group “SCUM” (Society for Cutting up Men) called for the ultimate destruction of the male gender (they claimed men were just genetically incomplete females), and claimed women could learn to reproduce on their own.
Although most groups were not so radical, they did start with the basic premise that if a husband could have a full-time successful career, then a woman should, too. In the end, they got their careers, but at a costly price.
When Halimah Stevens went to visit her family in Georgia, her Aunt Betty confided in her something that broke Halimah’s heart. “She told me, `My life is ruined by this women’s lib thing.’ She was working so hard to keep up with everything, because the men in the family were saying, `You have got to work, too.’ She told me, `All I want to do is stay home and take care of my house, and paint more. I never had kids and I wonder was it because I worked so hard all my life? Now I am asking myself: was it really worth it?’”
In Islam, a husband cannot ask a woman to go out and “pitch in” with family expenses. He bears the full financial responsibility of providing for the family. If the wife wants to contribute, then that is her decision. But she has the freedom of deciding how much she gives, and when enough is enough.
Women did eventually gain the rights to get into the workplace and start climbing the corporate ladder, but had to take on manly attributes in order to get anywhere – in their clothes, behavior, and even manner of speaking.
They achieved some things, but again, at the expense of the family, and of their own identities.
Islam gives sweeping rights to women: economic, political, and social, but without depriving them of their natural femininity. Muslim women are not ashamed of softness, of being a caring and devoted wife or mother, of reclaiming their true femininity. Nor are they threatened by a man making a major decision or taking charge in certain matters. Why? Because a Muslim woman knows for sure that she has rights over her husband, and that there are certain boundaries which he can never cross.
Women, through the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, were also taught it was beneficial to be masculine, and that it was detrimental to be modest. It is a rare day a business woman wears a long, flowery skirt to work; trousers and suit jackets are the norm. Television broadcasters only hire women with low, “authoritative” voices. Very short, masculine hair styles are more common in the workplace than longer hair-according to one fashion magazine; a very short hairdo tells others you are “assertive” and “an achiever.”
“Sadly their abilities to act masculine in dress and ethic or look physically attractive are what they valued for these days. Women take on masculinity as a means of achieving, as a way of being valued. That sends out the message that femininity, womanhood, is worthless; women in Islam have that value without having to masquerade and act manly, and also without losing their guaranteed rights. It is only because women are undervalued as women that they resort to all that,” said Wallis.
Many women who come to Islam discover how wonderful it is to grasp true femininity, and to live like a woman for the first time in their lives. That includes anything from dressing, speaking to behaving in a feminine way.
Muslims believe that for a woman to strive for masculine behavior, or vice versa, goes against Allaah’s natural plan and His perfect creation.
The U.S. chapter of the WLM (Women’s Liberation Movement) protested outside the 1968 Miss America contest, hoping to put an end to the competition. They considered it to be degrading to the women involved, and humiliating to suggest that the ideal American woman should be the one who looks best in a swimsuit or an evening gown.
However, instead of pushing for more modesty in their own dress codes, many women began to wear less and less clothing as a symbol of their “freedom” to go against society. The results have been devastating: a society saturated with women being used as food for the hungry, in advertising, entertainment, and in a woman’s everyday act of deciding what she has to wear or how she should look.
“Primarily they found it degrading in the end,” said Wallis. “It degraded their womanhood and themselves as human beings. They were turned into objects that were sold on billboards, and gawked at in beauty pageants. Most women now turn their backs on these things, like the Miss Universe Pageant.
Most women see them as a way in which women are paraded and not something that elevates them as human beings. I think it ran its course and came to a natural end.”
Myth: They only convert for their husbands…
One “excuse” non-Muslims like to give for the mass numbers of women reverting is that they do it because they are brainwashed by a Muslim man whom they hope to marry. Needless to say, a conversion done for the sake of another human being or for anything other than their Creator would not be a true conversion. That person would, sadly, be submitting to an individual rather than to Allaah. But a good look at the knowledge and devotion of women converts today indicates that, for several reasons, this simply is not the case.
20-year-old Emilee Rauschenberger is known by her friends and colleagues at New York University for her intelligence, her sense of humor, and her headscarf. An American of German descent, she has a ready answer for anyone who approaches her and asked her if she changed her faith for a Muslim man.
“Definitely not. I learned about Islam only through female Muslims. I converted because I studied Islam and Christianity, and found Islam to be the most amazing religion. Comparing the two, I found more validity in Islam, and so I knew I could be nothing else but a Muslim.”
And she’s not alone. When asked if she knows of others who came to Islam as single women, she starts a lengthy list. “There’s Jill, Paula, Johnni, Joie, a Colombian sister named Jovanna, a girl from Denmark named Mariam …”
And then there’s ‘Aa’ishah Al-Ansary, from New Jersey, who converted while still in grade school.
“Someone in my house must have been reading a pamphlet or booklet on Islam, and they accidentally left the information by mistake in my room. I just read it, and it made more sense to me than any other religious lessons I had before. So I went back to school, and I said: `I am a Muslim, and my name is ‘Aa’ishah,’ which I knew was a Muslim name.”
Responding to the stereotype that women revert for the sake of men, she says, “You have to live your life for yourself. In the same way you can only become Muslim for yourself.”
She can recall lots of women who meet men from Muslim cultures, but who are not practicing. Then, the woman gets interested in practicing Islam, and eventually leaves or divorces the man because of his negligence to adhere to the faith.
Also, she says there is nothing less amazing or impressive about those women who do first learn of Islam through their husbands. That is a beautiful way for Allaah to guide someone, she says, by allowing them to make such a remarkable journey with their lifelong companion. “Maybe some women do come to Islam by their husbands, if that is how Allaah chooses. That is certainly not something to be embarrassed about, or something to lessen the credibility of their journey to Islam. Allaah guides us all in different ways.” she said.
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