I admitted to them that I was learning about Islam – but thoroughly believed in it. I smiled and continued calmly answering the questions that I did know something about.
It was November of 2013. I had not taken the shahada yet, but I was wearing the hijab. My family did not have a clue about my new adventure. Now here I am, prepared for my bus ride home all covered up. For my journey, I intended to remain covered and when I see my family I would remove and hide my hijab. Easy as pie, right? Well, when I arrived it was too late. They were waiting and I had no choice but to keep the hijab on.
Let us pause for a moment.
When most people expound upon their spiritual journey, it usually begins with an intention to search for the truth or a dissatisfaction with current beliefs. Mine was quite different. I was not the girl searching for religion or on any type of spiritual journey. I was quite pleased and content: on the debate team, traveling with my colleagues, enjoying life, minding my own business. Then, by way of my advisor, a Tradition and Change within the Middle East course landed on my schedule in August of 2013. The curriculum required that I dig deep into the lifestyle, culture and religious views surrounding the Middle East.
Soon enough, I was studying the Qur’an and inquiring about Islam for myself. You could say I was walking deeper into a spiritual journey without my permission. After many months of speaking with an imam, in December of 2013 I made the decision to convert, but not before I fasted, went home and tested the waters during winter break.
I grew up in Cordova, Tennessee, which is in the southern USA. Where I am from, you know your neighbors and they become family. The children hang out until the street lights come on, and you have boyfriends at the tender age of 15 – it’s all completely normal. Like my father, I come from a family of four: there’s my father, mother, brother and me. My mother has eight siblings and so I have a host of aunts, uncles and cousins. In short, my family is large, forward and loud.
So walking off the bus last December and wearing a hijab is a huge change. In the car our conversation was casual: we discussed school and mishaps. With every word that fell from my lips I could feel the pressure from my hijab become heavier and heavier. I knew they saw it.
Suddenly, blaring at the top of my lungs, I said, “Does anybody notice anything different about me?” My father laughed inwardly and my brother burst into tears from amusement. My mother, ever so fancily, looked me straight in the eye and said, “What did you do with my daughter?”
All comedy! I quickly realized that they chose to be patient until I could directly converse with them about what was really going on with me.
Soon afterward, it was time to greet my extended family – at a cookout. The hijab was feeling heavier than ever. Before the door opened, I took one sharp breath, knowing I would enter a warzone. I was entering a house full of loud R&B music, line dancing, some adults with very adult drinks, and kids running around playing tag.
The initial shock was when everyone paused to stare at me. I felt poles apart and already misunderstood from my appearance.
Suddenly, I was on my aunt’s couch, trying to answer all the questions being thrown my way:
“What about four wives? …Submissiveness? …Covering up?…Jihad?”
I was feeling as if a fire was growing inside of me and was about to burst. Suddenly one of my aunts overpowered everyone.
“I do not understand choosing Islam, why do people need to choose an organised religion? Why cannot we just choose love, just love?”
My grandfather followed, saying to my brother, “Just take a picture with your sister and tell all your friends you just left the Middle East.” The entire room reacted in elation – except me.
Honestly, my family is hilarious. But the isolation was unreal. That day, I took off my debater’s hat. I admitted to them that I was learning about Islam – but thoroughly believed in it. I smiled and continued calmly answering the questions that I did know something about.
It was exhausting. I did not feel any sort of liberation until I was at home with my immediate family. They made jokes and were sincerely curious, but most importantly, very supportive. Whether they agreed with me or not, one thing is for sure: there was this billowing effect of care from them. That day I realized that that was all I truly needed.
The following month, on January 20, 2014, I took my shahada.
Although it has not been always easy, I am choosing to acknowledge and focus on the joy. The most important people to me are my immediate family – and there is no judgment from there. Instead, in hoping for acceptance we were a mirror for each other. Their reaction, love and support still surprises me almost a year later, especially because reactions from my extended family remains the same. It must be true that love does conquer all, and it is reassuring to confront the love within my family and stay grounded there. As my mum said, “Our relationship with God is not collective, it is individualised and personal. Love people through it.”