The challenges faced by British women who have converted to Islam have been investigated in a study by the University of Cambridge Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) and the New Muslims Project.
Thousands of British women have converted to Islam but nobody has ever studied the difficulties they face in being accepted, says Shahla Suleiman, the project manager for the study for which 47 converts were interviewed.“Considering the stereotypical and largely negative picture Islam has in the media and society at large …we wanted to understand the seemingly paradoxical issue of why highly educated and professionally successful Western women convert to Islam.”
The report says more support is needed for converts, but also recognises the potential converts can have on the heritage Muslim community and British society as a whole.The Catholic child
Imelda Ryan, a charity sector worker from Oxfordshire tells the BBC, with a wry smile: “My conversion was about, 26/27 years ago. I still haven’t gone back to Catholicism yet .”
Ryan was brought up by her mother in an Irish Catholic single parent household in the UK. As a child she aspired to be a nun, but during her teenage years she broke away from the Catholic faith.
By her late twenties, with a successful career in the charity sector, financial security and many friends, Imelda felt something was lacking in her life. The mother of four said: “I joined the Samaritans as I wanted to do something, so called, meaningful with my life”.
She worked with Muslims, and fondly looks back on the time when they would try to convert her to Islam. Many of her colleagues suggested reading the Koran, but it was reading a book explaining Islam, that brought about her conversion.
Mrs Ryan said: “In that book it sort of gave an a-z of what a moral, ethical, spiritual, person should be. “It just knocked me over. This book is saying, what you would like to be is Islam.”
Mrs Ryan recalls her own conversion, and how telling friends of her new faith was relatively easy. However telling her family was more of a challenge.
“When I told my mum, understandably the question was, if you want to be religious, if you want to be spiritual, why don’t you come back to Catholicism? Why did you go to another religion? Why didn’t you come back to your own religion?”Everyone’s religion
Unlike some of the women taking part in the study, Imelda was able to maintain a close relationship with her mother. She told the BBC: “I had to explain to her, actually, Islam is everyone’s religion. If you read about Islam, it incorporates Christianity, Judaism, it’s a religion for all people, of all faiths.”
Mrs Ryan thinks the strength of her mother’s faith made it easier for her to understand her daughter’s conversion. She didn’t need to explain to her mother the need for spirituality in her life, as it was already an integral aspect of her mother’s life.
In fact Mrs Ryan thinks her religious and moral upbringing was the natural starting point for her journey to Islam. She recalls telling her mother:
“I’m coming from a place you began, it’s a continuance for me, and a fulfilment of the person, you wanted me to be.”
After her mother’s death Mrs Ryan found a letter she had written to her. It said ‘I know one day you will come back to Catholicism.’
“That made me very sad, it’s not that she didn’t accept me, we had a wonderful relationship, but there was a tiny bit of her that hoped I’d sort of made a mistake.”
Mrs Ryan is able to reflect on the changing perception of Islam over the last 26 years. She said:
“I think since I converted that so many more people know about Islam, the saddest aspect of that is they know about it through 9/11 and 7/7…We want to say this is not in our name.”Wearing a hijab
Mrs Ryan believes the decision to wear a head scarf is down to the individual. One of the reasons she has chosen to wear a hijab is to be recognised by other Muslim women.
“I’m proud to be Muslim I don’t shy away from it … but actually in terms of negativity and positivity I think there are many more positive things that have happened as a result of me wearing than not.”Mrs Ryan said.
The report found the experiences of women wearing headscarves varied depending on the environment they live in. Muslim women are often far more visible in British cities.
Mrs Ryan lives in a quite Oxfordshire village, and jokingly describes herself as ‘the only Muslim in the village’. She enjoys the conversations that start because she is wearing a hijab and answering questions for the curious. Ruqaiyah Hibell is the author of the report and a researcher for the New Muslims Project. From her own experiences converting to Islam, she can empathise with and help new Muslims. She told the BBC: “The basic set of challenges that they all face are, how to integrate into existing heritage communities. How to retain contact with their original heritage while moving on and being the person they want to be within a new environment as well.” New Muslims are often directed to Caring for Converts, who have a helpline as well as offering social, spiritual and educational services.
The report found many converts keep their faith a secret, afraid to share their spiritual journey with family and friends. Mary Batool Al-Toma, director of the New Muslims Project told the BBC:
“I think spirituality in itself draws from people around a variety of different responses. Some of them not so pleasant, some of them quite positive and wholesome.”
But there are problems facing all British Muslim women, whether recently converted or born into the faith, they all face a general lack of inclusion in mosques.
Mrs Al-Toma compares the situation, with her own experiences attending a Catholic church in Ireland as a child. She recalls how men and women were separated into two lines as they approached the priest. The report also highlights the need for sermons to be conducted in English, alongside other languages.
The research shows the huge variety of experience and challenges Muslim converts face, and some of these challenges are universal. Imelda Ryan worked hard to maintain the loving relationship she had with her late mother. She told the BBC:
“I hope she realised as a Muslim girl I was a better daughter, maybe a better mother, a better wife I don’t know.”