‘Narratives of Conversion to Islam: Female Perspectives’(Part-2)
Becoming Muslim is perceived by converts to be a building-upon over the best aspects of their original culture and values, not a rejection of them and, hence, it cannot be shrugged off as if it had no value to them. The cultural alienation creates problems in being accepted as a spouse for men belonging to heritage families, writes PROF. YASIR SULEIMAN.
The etiquettes and responsibilities of marriage combined with the position of a wife in Islam have become one of the most alluring reasons for conversion amongst Western women. Islam credits a marriage to complete half the faith of an individual, the other half being piety. While in fundamentals, Islam places a Muslim woman, married or otherwise, on a pedestal uncommon to other religions, present day Muslim societies rarely make it a realization.
As expressed by unmarried Muslim converts, an unmarried woman in a Muslim society is usually considered an embarrassment and sidelined during important discussions. Hence, such converts are pressurized into finding partners from the community in search of acceptance.
While single converts face the problem of finding a partner, married ones have to deal with questions regarding the validity of their conversion. As is commonly observed, romantic relationships have served as the most frequented channel into Islam, owing to the orthodox view that, for a Muslim man, it is permissible to marry a woman from Ahl-e-Kitab (Jews and Christians), without actually initiating the conversion of the woman.
Such marriages usually result in the conversion of the woman before or during the marriage. However, the criticism that is hurled at their conversion is that it was one of convenience rather than conviction because there is relatively little or no change in their behaviour post conversion, as compared to those converts who actively choose Islam based on their spiritual conviction. It can be argued that even women who convert in such a manner find themselves attracted to Islam and soon change their ways just like the ‘converts of conviction,’ as has been seen in cases where women ditched the man they married, because they perceived his faith to be too weak, but clung on to Islam because of their religious connection to it.
While marriage is one route into Islam, practicing Muslim societies serve as another. Observing and subsequently being impressed by the treatment of spouses in Islamic societies resulted in pronouncing the Shahadah for some Western converts. For some other converts, the behavior of Muslim men resulted in antagonizing them and becoming a test of their new-found faith. Regardless of the route that led to Islam, these conversions cannot be categorized as ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy,’ because Allah (swt) chooses whom He wills, and the vehicle that He provides to facilitate this guidance is His choice alone and, hence, cannot be classified.
In Britain, the troubles faced by the African-Caribbean converts are unique to their societies alone and cannot be classified with the problems faced by any of the other converts. Traditionally, the African-Caribbean are a matriarchal society, where the male members are free of most of the responsibilities. Understandably, marriage,in the Islamic way, is a welcome relief to most African-Caribbean women who hope to gladly rid themselves of their overburdened responsibilities. Regrettably, African-Caribbean men fail to make the necessary changes in their personalities post conversion and do not meet the expectations of a good husband.Ironically, the African-Caribbean women handle the same responsibilities as before, additionally with being an obedient and dutiful wife.
Nearly all converts from African-Caribbean descent encounter similar challenges where, they previously witnessed ‘respectful and loving’ fathers and husbands in non-Islamic societies, but had to deal with unsupportive and irresponsible Muslim husbands which made it difficult for them to project a positive image of Islam to their children and non-Muslim families.
One instance that comes to notice is that of a woman raising five children on her own, without the support of either her husband or the heritage Muslim community. Of her five children, one is not a Muslim and cannot understand why his mother invites other members of her community to accept Islam and condemn them, too, to a fraught life such as hers.One reason for this behavior of the African-Caribbean could be that, adopting Islam is considered within these communities to be fashionable for men.There is, therefore, a rush to adopt Islam without understanding the responsibilities that it entails.
The dwindling pool of prospective partners amongst the African-Caribbean female converts becomes another matter of concern. These female converts are not always the first choice of a spouse amongst other ethnicities, primarily due to racism and the need to find partners amongst their own ethnic group. As men from this descent marry women from other ethnicities, they leave little, or no, choice for their female counterparts.
Considering these problems amongst this community, it becomes increasingly important for heritage Muslim communities to come forward and assist them in a smooth transition into Islam and to enable them to find appropriate spouses and settle down as balanced Muslim families. Although there is a lack of such assistance from the heritage Muslim community due to the low profile of African-Caribbean converts, an African-American Islamic organization, by the name of ‘The Nation of Islam,’ has been remarkably effective in addressing the impact of racism, oppression and inequality, affecting sectors of the African-Caribbean communities, and has served the needs of the African-Caribbean heritage converts in Britain than any other UK organization.
Finding a Suitable Husband
Converts, catapulted into a pristine way of life, find the shift slightly difficult to make and could easily use the help of someone who could stand by with them as they make this transition. Due to the gender segregation adhered to at most Islamic gatherings, it is difficult for female converts to acquaint themselves with prospective Muslim suitors on their own leaving them no choice but to resort to the assistance of the heritage Muslim community to initiate the introductions or to provide help in finding partners.
In their fervor and loyalty for the new community that they’re now a part of, converts place their trust blindly in the Muslim community to provide them with nothing but the best. Disappointingly, the Muslim heritage community, lacking the necessary concern for the well-being and security of a convert, arrange for them marriages with unsuitable partners such as political refugees or foreigners seeking British passports.
In order to take personal charge of this task, most convert women choose to get to know their partners before the marriage in order to avoid any untoward circumstances. This method resembles dating men, found with the help of marriage agencies or acquaintances, but simultaneously keeping in mind the Islamic etiquette of being around non-Mehram men.
The difficulty in finding a partner for a convert extends to generations as converts are not considered ‘Muslim enough’ for marriage within the heritage Muslim community. A dichotomy seen in contemporary Muslim societies is between the image of an ideal husband as portrayed by Islamic teachings and that of the prevalent scenario of the behavior of Muslim men. As such, convert women impressed by Islam because of the personality and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (Sallahu Alayhiwa-Sallam) are left questioning themselves about how much deviation to accept in their husbands from the portrayal of an ideal man as shown by the Prophet (Sallahu Alayhiwa-Sallam), owing to present political, economic and social conditions.
Problems Commonly Faced by Converts in a Marriage
One critical issue faced by converts in Britain, is that the marriage is conducted privately without conducting a civil marriage. A civil marriage could actively curb the chances of abuse within the marriage, certify that the man isn’t already married and if the marriage was to fail, go on to provide recompense for the woman. Ideas like prenuptial agreements and civil marriage, though alien amongst heritage Muslims, are necessary to safeguard the interests of British converts and protect them from being victims to men in search of a hideaway from their past or to gain easy access to British passports. Without the protection of their own families, converts depend entirely on the existing Muslim community and, hence, it is important that the Muslim community actively help the converts to conduct a thorough scrutiny of the men they’re about to marry and to warn, if necessary.
What is often seen is that these women are hastily married off to poverty-stricken men who cannot afford a decent Mahr, or much younger men fleeing their own war-torn countries and eyeing the safe haven that a British passport would provide. As pointed out by one convert woman, “This was not the way of the Prophet (Sallahu Alayhiwa-Sallam).”
Cultural differences stand as another barrier for convert Muslims looking out to settle down in a marriage with a heritage Muslim man. Regardless of what her indigenous culture was, a convert wife is expected to be Muslim – stripped off her previous identity. Becoming Muslim is perceived by converts to be a building-upon over the best aspects of their original culture and values, not a rejection of them and, hence, it cannot be shrugged off as if it had no value to them. The cultural alienation creates problems in being accepted as a spouse for men belonging to heritage families.
While there is a growing number of professional cross-cultural marriages, there are also instances of the abuse of the privilege of being a heritage Muslim, by rejecting and disregarding the faith of a convert as not being ‘worthy’ of marriage to a heritage Muslim.
Though a convert within the community is considered a ‘trophy,’ accepting her within the folds of the family is unspeakable and simply won’t be considered by the heritage Muslim community, leaving the converts at the mercy of fate. Specifically, white converts are seen as ‘dirty,’ ‘evil’ and ‘Kaafir’ by traditionally South-East Asian communities of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where a white convert is accepted but kept at arm’s length. For instance, one convert who married a Pakistani man had to do so without the presence of her family because ‘Goras’ were forbidden to attend the ceremony.
(To be Continued)
[i] ‘NARRATIVES of CONVERSION TO ISLAM: Female Perspectives’ by Professor Yasir Suleiman, published by the University of Cambridge, March 2013, UK, Chapter 2: Marriage- 38-48
Summarized by: Zainab Aliyah