Islam's Female Converts
By Priya Malhotra
ALLAHU AKBAR [God is great], Allahu akbar! called Muhammad Hannini as about 15 worshipers gathered Sunday in a mosque in the basement of a home in Richmond Hill, Queens. Instantly, they knelt and touched their heads to the floor, a gesture symbolizing submission to God in Islam.
The eight women bent in prayer a few feet behind the men were dressed in scarves and long dresses or ankle-length skirts. "You should see my humanity, my compassion, my devotion to God coming through the surface, not my body, said Sunni Rumsey Amatullah, who became Muslim a quarter century ago.
The women say they consider the veil and modest dress symbols not of oppression but of liberation. They say the emphasis on the female body in the Western world, with all its manifestations in popular culture, has led to the sexual objectification of women. And, despite their own often problematic relationships with men, they say their religion treats each gender equally, though not identically.
Like Amatullah -- who was born Cheryl Rumsey in Jamaica, Queens, and raised Episcopalian -- these women are among the estimated 20,000 Americans a year who since the mid-'90s have adopted Islam, a religion that has been receiving much attention since the Sept.11 terrorist attacks.
Despite the persistent image of the oppressed Muslim woman, about 7,000 of those converts each year are women, according to the report of a study led by Ihsan Bagby, a professor of international studies at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. The study was financed in part by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington. About 14,000 of the total number of converts in 2000, the report found, were African-American, 4,000 were white and 1,200 were of Hispanic descent. (Members of the Nation of Islam were not included in the study.)
What is the religion's draw for women? "The .tightly structured way of life, the regular set of responsibilities, where you know what you believe and you know what you do, attracts some women, said Jane I. Smith, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and author of "Islam in America (Columbia University Press).
With laws for almost every aspect of life, Islam represents a faith-based order that women may see as crucial to creating healthy families and communities, and correcting the damage done by the popular secular humanism of the past 30 or so years, several experts said. In addition, women from broken homes may be especially attracted to the religion because of the value it places on family, said Marcia Herman.sen, a professor of Islamic studies at Loyola Univer.sity in Chicago and an American who also converted to Islam.
Next Saturday, the women, along with Muslims around the world, will celebrate the festival of Eid ul-Adha marking the end of hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. They "don't see the structures as repressive, Hermansen said. "They see them as comforting and supportive.
Choosing Islam can also be a type of "cultural critique of Western materialism, she said. "Islam represents the beautiful, traditional, grounded and .authentic.
"It is Allah talking to you directly, said Amatullah, 50, the director of an HIV prevention program at Iris House, a health-care organization in Harlem. She said she converted after leading a wildly hedonistic lifestyle for several years. "It's a spiritual awakening. What happens is you're in a fog and you don't know you are in a fog, and when it clears up you say, Hey, I thought it was clear back there,' she said. "My friend's husband gave me the Quran in my early 20s, because he thought I was too wild.
At first, Amatullah said, she paid little attention, but she was profoundly affected when she .started delving into the book. Still, it took about five years and a great deal of contemplation, she said, before she became truly interested in Islam and came to believe the Quran was the divine truth. She said she also was impressed by the rights women had under Islam in .seventh-century Arabia, a time when women in most other cultures had virtually no power over their lives.
"Islamic law embodies a number of Quranic reforms that significantly enhanced the status of women, according to John Esposito, a professor and director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and author of "Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford University Press). "Contrary to pre-Islamic Arab customs, the Quran recognized a woman's right to contract her own marriage.
"In addition, she, not her father or male relatives, as had been the custom, was to receive the dowry from her husband. She became a party to the contract rather than an object for sale, Esposito wrote. "The right to keep and maintain her dowry was a source of self-esteem and wealth in an otherwise male-dominated society. Women's right to own and manage their own property was further enhanced and acknowledged by Quranic verses of inheritance which granted inheritance rights to wives, daughters, sisters and grandmothers of the deceased in a patriarchal society where all rights were tradition.ally vested solely in male heirs. Similar legal rights would not occur in the West until the 19th century.
Esther Bourne, a 46-year-old accountant in Manhattan, was raised Catholic by her American mother after her British father died when she was 6. Spiritually inclined from a young age, she said she first read the Quran in her mid-20s, because her former husband, a Muslim, owned a copy. "I would go in and out of it, she said.
By her mid-30s, after ending an abusive relationship and enduring the tragic death of a man she loved dearly, Bourne said she began a spiritual quest that included classes on Islam at a mosque on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "When the teachers would explain, my heart just accepted it, she said. "The heart believed it.
In 1992, at the age of 36, Bourne took her sha.hada, the profession of faith that is the first of the five pillars of Islam. "I don't have panic anymore, and if some misfortune happens, I just accept the decree from Allah, Bourne said.
"You slowly adjust yourself to an Islamic way of life, thinking about God, doing good deeds, Amatullah said. "Some days I do it better than others.
Amina Mohammed, a 58-year-old dental assistant at the Veterans Administration hospital in St. Albans, has been a Muslim for more than 20 years. She was born Doris Gregory, the daughter of an American Indian .mother and a .Jamaican father, and was raised as a .Lutheran. She said she stopped going to church when she was 16.
Two years later, she began an active spiritual quest by reading about Buddhism, Hinduism and American Indian religions, but, she said, none of them was what she was looking for -- a way to pray to one God in one form. "I was so disappointed, she said. "I knew that there was a correct religion, but I just hadn't found it. But I believed in God -- I was no atheist.
In her mid-30s, after two failed marriages and two daughters -- who are now 27 and 33 -- she said she felt a desperate need for spiritual direction and coincidentally was exposed for the first time to Islam. "This is what I had always felt in my heart, she said.
For about three years she studied the religion; she began to cut down on dating and to cover her head occasionally. Then she went to a mosque in Manhattan and "saw women from different countries and from different races praying together, she said. "I thought this is how it should be on earth.
Amatullah, who lives in St. Albans, has been married and divorced three times since she converted to Islam. Her first husband was from Sudan, the second was from Egypt and the third was Italian-American; all were Muslim. Allah gives both men and women the right to divorce, she said, and she ini.tiated each split.
Although the Quran does not prohibit women from gaining an education or having a career, the converts said, it is a woman's primary responsibility to take care of her children.
"Look at the Western society of today with the breakdown of family, the mother being out of the home and the children being alone, said Bourne, who is single and has a 28-year-old son. "I had problems because I practically had to raise my son alone.
Their faith, the three converts said, has not been shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by men who said they were acting as Muslims. The distortion of Islam by extremists and terrorists, the women stressed, should not lead to the condemnation of a great religion.
"To kill innocent lives, Amatullah said, "is anti- Islamic.