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Converting to Islam in America: How a Research Class Enhanced My Understanding of Feminism in the United States

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Hannah Feldman, SIS/BA '16

This article by Hannah Feldman, SIS/BA ’16, first appeared in Pakistan Link. Throughout Ambassador Akbar Ahmed’s “Researching Islam” spring 2015 undergraduate course, Feldman conducted fieldwork on the experience of Muslim converts in the United States. Here, she reflects on how this research course enhanced her understanding of both Islam and feminism.

Over the last decade, the American news media have unceremoniously granted the title of terrorist to all Muslims throughout the world. Without a clear understanding of the Islamic faith and with total disregard to the Muslim population in the United States, the media have time-and time-again tainted Islam and its teachings. Since Islam has been in the forefront of the news throughout most of my life (as I was only nine years old when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred), I sought to learn more about the faith, more about the people and understand what it means to be a true Muslim. As someone with my own personalized belief system, I constantly seek for knowledge about other faiths as a way of redefining my own.

Therefore, I decided to enroll in a class called “Researching Islam” at American University, taught by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed. Having already written his book, Journey into America: The Power of Islam—which analyzes the main divisions of Muslims in the United States—a few years prior, I am sure he could see that undergraduate students learning to do fieldwork would be a demanding undertaking. But he was truly ambitious for us and had faith in us by wanting us sophomores and juniors to perform research in the field, interviewing everyday Muslims in America. Journey into America is divided into an analysis of three major divisions of Islam in America: African-American Muslims, Immigrant Muslims, and Muslim converts.

Having been placed in the Muslim converts group, I found it extremely difficult to hone in on a specific point of research regarding converts. Why does anyone convert to a religion? There must be some sort of draw towards a faith, and I wanted to uncover that draw to Islam. From my preliminary research, I learned that four out of five converts in America are women. But the news media had taught me that Islam oppresses women. How, then, could a woman convert to Islam? Did she know what she was getting into? Did she know she had to be subservient to men and never have a career? These were the questions and thoughts that whirled around in my mind as I sought to unveil the mystery behind conversion. As you may guess, the American media have a keen way of making you terrified over absolutely nothing.

As a glorified feminist, entranced with the notions of gender equality and empowerment, I was keenly aware of the dichotomy behind converting to Islam in America and the Westernized views of femininity and feminism. So I began to wonder if a woman’s feminine identity had shifted following her conversion to Islam. By feminine identity, I used Asifa Siraj’s definition found in her work on femininity in Muslim women, which included: stereotypical feminine attributes, physical appearance, childbearing, and motherhood. And with that, I was ready to begin my fieldwork.

Prior to my fieldwork, I was nervous that I would come off as rude or ignorant towards the women. As someone with a mixed faith background, I was keenly aware of my bias going into this research. My family, a mix of Jews and Catholics, generally supportive of my academic and personal interests, was aghast to my interest in Islamic teachings and principles. For fear I would join a jihadist organization (or so my grandmother foresaw), they remained wary throughout this process.

I had the honor of speaking with five extraordinary women ranging from all ages and backgrounds who had converted to Islam. They were some of the strongest women I had ever met, who carried themselves with such grace, poise and with an abundance of self-love. When I spoke to each woman about Islam, she explained to me that Islam teaches radical gender equality, that a woman can determine her own path in life while still maintaining an active faith in Islam. In these semi-formal interview settings, I was able to gain a greater understanding of Islam and the role the faith plays in each woman’s life. Their identity as American women had shifted following their conversion. No longer was it necessary to prescribe to American consumerism and excess. No longer was it necessary to wear revealing clothing to be considered a strong woman; instead, dressing and acting modestly enabled each woman to enhance her self-confidence.

The women I interviewed embraced their femininity because they do not feel judged by others, in particular with men. According to each woman, Islam provides an equality of the sexes not seen in the United States. While most noted that Islam is not necessarily practiced this way around the world, they are grateful to be a Muslim in America because they are afforded the same rights as everyone else, and are allowed to practice their religion as they see fit. According to the women I had the pleasure of interviewing, there are natural differences between men and women, but they are all equal in the eyes of Allah. To them, gender does not matter.

Not only has talking to these wonderfully strong women allowed me to gain some more self-confidence, but it has also harbored my own spiritual growth. Their strength and personal connection to a faith that works is beautiful to observe. This experience has further shifted my secular feminism beliefs. I used to view feminism as women solely focusing on their careers, not worried about familial life and being able to wear revealing clothing to show strength. However, now, I see feminism as being able to manage a career and a family, feeling empowered, and being true to oneself at all times. I plan to use my personal experience in this research as a way to educate others about different ‘kinds of feminism’ and gain more solace as a young, career- and family-driven woman. I am truly indebted to Ambassador Ahmed for guiding me towards the real truth about Islam in America and around the globe.

The original version of this article appeared in Pakistan Link on May 29, 2015: