So, this week I am trying something a little different.
If you have been reading my few posts so far, you have probably found that a lot of what I want to talk about has to do with the more negative side of things that I have experienced as an American convert to Islam (an alternative title idea for this blog was “The Grumpy Muslimah”). You probably think that I am some sort of revolutionary, out to take over the world and change the way Muslim converts are treated in society…
Well, that is kind of true-I would love to start a revolution to change the way converts are seen and treated in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. I am highly passionate about raising awareness of many of the negative experiences I go through as a convert and I hope that in doing so I can open up a space of discussion for Muslims, convert and not, and non-Muslims alike.
But as to the rest, there are also so many amazing parts to the story that I feel like I am not telling.
So, this post is going to be the first of three posts where I tell my story, from the time between discovering Islam to my actual shahada, and then how I transitioned into wearing and practising the hijab. In this little trilogy, I want to highlight all of the positive aspects of my journey (don’t worry, if you liked the grumpy Muslimah, I have plenty more issues that I will share in good time!).
This isn’t the watered down, memorised version of my story that you will get if you ask me about it in the grocery store aisle or in the hall between classes; what I am sharing today is the very personal bits of my story that most people haven’t really had access to yet.
So without further ado…
My convert story:
I studied abroad in London, UK in the Spring semester of my third year at university. And yes, I lead a very typical “20 something year old living in a foreign country for the first time” kind of life.
I spent the first three months of my time in London completely alone and friendless. This gave me plenty of time to explore the city I was living in, and I would often go out walking in parks, museums, new parts of town, or just sit in a cafe somewhere to feel close to other people. In these three months I found out a lot about myself and my independence, but let me tell you, it was lonely.
Enter Shirin (whose name has been changed for her privacy). She was another international student, from Iran, living in the same apartment as me. Because I was, and still am, painfully awkward, I never had much interaction with my flatmates until one night, about three months after I moved in, she took pity on me and invited me to a dinner she was having that night. I agreed and like the metaphorical butterfly spreading its wings, from then on I ended up being good friends with all of my housemates.
Shirin introduced me, a small-town girl, to the world of city nightlife. For the next three months I began to spend my weekends in pubs and bars, nightclubs and getting into all manner of shenanigans. To the outside observer I was “living the life.” Blonde, fit American girl living in London, partying it up and chasing my desires into the wind.
But I only got lonelier. So I went out more and stayed out later to fill the hole, and in turn I felt like I was becoming more and more empty.
Around this same time Shirin and I had been having many a long discussion over tea in the kitchen about life, love and the universe. We were both disillusioned with the religions we had come from, and we used to sit for hours and talk about all of the stupid things in the doctrines of our respective religions.
One day, during one of these talks, it hit me. I don’t actually know the first thing about life outside of my white Christian American perspective. I have always considered myself well educated and well informed, but I suddenly realised that my education had failed me in a huge way.
So I went to my favourite Waterstones, headed to the religion section, and bought a couple of “introduction to Islam” kinds of books.
As the time neared for me to leave, I packed up my books and said my goodbyes. Back in the United States, I kept in touch with all of my international friends an continued to read the news more often. In the name of being “informed” I continued to buy more books on Islam as well.
What began as a simple need to educate myself about something outside of my own personal background became an obsession. And then, it became something more.
I kept reading buying and reading books; as soon as I finished one I had to rush to the bookstore to get something else. It was like an addiction. And then the bookstore didn’t have anything new for me to read.
It was like those romantic comedies, where the main character has a friend that is super cool and interesting and they spend a ton of time together, and it is basically the most awesome friendship. But then one day the main character wakes up and realises that actually she wants to spend the rest of her life with this friend.
And so, as I began to realise that I was in love with Islam, that I couldn’t live my life in any other way even if I tried, that the huge hole that had been forming in my heart was all of the sudden full again when I read stories of other women who had embarked on this wonderful journey, I began to make some changes.
I gave up pork (which I didn’t really like to begin with anyhow). On my 21st birthday, I had my last drink of alcohol. I never touched a cigarette (a bad habit I picked up in London as well) again. I began to buy maxi dresses and long cardigans whenever I went out shopping with my sister, in my secret desire to wear hijab.
All of this happened within the confines of my own bedroom. All my family knew was that I was interested in learning about the “East;” it was just one of those geeky things I did. I was terrified of what they might say, especially my mom and my friends, when I told them that actually I was seriously considering Islam. I had been an “atheist” for so long, I didn’t know how to crack that rough exterior that I had grown around myself, and show people the emotion that came with this religion.
When I got back to university in the fall, I felt like I had a little more breathing room. There were still friends and acquaintances that I had to keep face in front of, but at least my family wouldn’t know what I was up to. So I joined the Muslim Students Association.
But more on that next week.