By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
BOSTON (RNS) When Karen Hunt Ahmed and her Muslim husband divorced four years ago, many friends asked her, "Now you can stop this Islam stuff, right?"
Some friends, she thought.
"Like it was a hobby I took up when I got married and now I'm supposed to drop it," said Hunt Ahmed, president of the Chicago Islamic Microfinance Project, which she founded with two colleagues in 2009.
Hunt Ahmed, 45, is part of a growing sorority of female American converts to Islam, especially those who are or were married to Muslim men, who must deal with the perception that they converted to Islam because of domineering boyfriends or husbands.
The stereotype was revived in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, when news emerged that the wife of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Katherine Russell, converted to Islam after meeting Tsarnaev in 2009 or 2010 when she was about 21.
Tsarnaev, 26, was shot and killed during a standoff with Boston police while his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, was taken into custody and now faces a raft of terrorism charges.
"It's not just Fox. A lot of the media have portrayed her as someone who was brainwashed and who didn't know what she was doing," said Edlyn Sammanasu, who was born to Catholic parents and started studying Islam when she met her Muslim husband in college, and converted when she was 21.
"When I saw the coverage, I thought this was ridiculous," said Sammanasu, now 32, a technical writer in Fremont, Calif.
Seema Imam, an education professor at National Louis University in Lisle, Ill., has seen the same thing. She grew up as an observant Methodist but converted to Islam 40 years ago at age 17.
"Whenever someone talks about Muslim converts being involved in something negative, it's done in a way in which people say, 'Be careful, look what happens when you become Muslim,'" she said.
Converts to Islam are as diverse as the rest of America, racially and ethnically, as well as in their interpretations of the faith. Some female converts wear a headscarf, some don't. What they share is the perception from others that they are incapable of making their own choice in a decision that involved substantial spiritual wrestling.
It's as insulting as it is inaccurate, they say.
"These reports are misogynous in nature, reducing women to creatures who cannot think for themselves," said Malika MacDonald Rushdan, who converted in 1995 after divorcing her Christian husband. She made her "shahada," or declaration of faith, at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, which the Tsarnaev brothers occasionally attended.
"My faith, by definition, is for the Creator, not for my husband," wrote Ohio attorney Sarah Anjum, who converted almost 10 years ago, while she was in college studying Islamic political movements and Arabic, and four years before she met her husband.
While some American Muslim women converted while single, those who started reading about Islam after meeting future husbands are incredulous over the idea that they converted to please them.
When Kelly Wentworth, 35, told her Yemeni boyfriend that she was interested in learning about Islam, he pointed her to a Muslim professor who taught at Tennessee Tech, where the two were students at the time. When she later told him she wanted to convert, he didn't celebrate.
"He was worried people would think that I converted because of him, or that I was being forced to convert," said Wentworth, a software engineer in Atlanta and board member of Muslims for Progressive Values, a national advocacy group. "The stereotype is out there. That's something I fight with now."
Wentworth became so worried about how friends and family would judge her after the Katherine Russell stories that she couldn't sleep for several nights.
A 2011 study from the Pew Research Center found that about 20 percent of an estimated 1.8 million Muslims in America are converts, while a 2007 Pew study found that 49 percent of converts converted by the age of 21. The 2007 study also found that 58 percent of converts converted for religious reasons, and 18 percent for family and marriage reasons.
Female Muslim converts acknowledge that they have heard about Muslim women trapped in abusive relationships, but say that such relationships affect women of other faiths as well.
"That has nothing to do with religion," Wentworth said. "That's a problem with personality."
Katherine Wilson, a convert and Rhode Island resident who works with female victims of violence and sexual assault, said the media, by focusing on Russell's faith, missed a chance to speak about domestic violence. She believes Muslim women converts are perceived negatively because some people see their choice of faith as a knock against their own decisions.
"I believe this is partially due to white privilege in that there is not an understanding why an 'all-American girl' would give up her privilege-assumed, carefree lifestyle," said Wilson. "I think it bothers people that an 'all American woman' would walk away from what they think is a great life, which is a stereotype within itself."
While such stereotypes still annoy these women, many say they have grown tired of having to explain their decisions to convert. Which doesn't mean they aren't trying to change minds.
"There will always be those who judge based upon ignorance. They are of no concern to me," said MacDonald Rushdan. "I will keep on doing what I've always done. I will not apologize for being a God-fearing woman whose faith provides her with inner peace and contentment."
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Rab'ia was an eighth century Sufi saint who set forth the doctrine of "Divine Love." Rab'ia was born into a poor family, orphaned at a young age and was eventually sold into slavery. One night, while her owner witnessed her bowing in prayer, a lamp hung above her head without support, so he freed her. When asked why she walked down the street with a bucket of water in one hand and a lit candle in the other, she replied, "I want to set fire to heaven with this flame and put out the fire of hell with this water so that people will cease to worship GOD for fear of hell or for temptation of heaven. One must love GOD as GOD is Love." She is widely considered to be the most important of the early Sufi poets.
Fatima was the founder of the oldest degree-granting university in the world (pictured). After inheriting a large fortune, she wanted to devote her money to pious work that would benefit the community. Thus, with her wealth she built the Al Qarawiyyin mosque. From the 10th to 12th century, the mosque developed into a university -- Al Qarawiyyin University. Today, the Guinness Book of World Records and UNESCO recognize this university to be the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education in the world.
Sultan Raziyya was the Sultan of Delhi from 1236 to 1240. She refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant "wife or mistress of a sultan" and only answered to the title "Sultan." As she solidified her power, she believed that appropriating a masculine image would help her maintain control. So she dressed like a man and wore a turban, trousers, coat and sword. Contrary to custom, she appeared unveiled in public. Sultan Raziyya was known for her belief that the spirit of religion is more important than its parts. She established schools, academies, centers for research and public libraries. (Photo: Grave of Razia Sultan in Bulbul-i-Khan near Turkoman Gate, Delhi)
Nana was a princess, poet and teacher. She was fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq and well versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin classics. In 1830, she formed a group of female teachers who journeyed throughout the region to educate women in poor and rural regions. With the republication of her works, that underscore women's education, she has become a rallying point for African women. Today, in northern Nigeria, Islamic women's organizations, schools and meeting halls are frequently named in her honor. (Photo: Fula women.)
Laleh's Quran translation, "The Sublime Quran" (2007), is the first translation of the Quran into English by an American woman. Her translation incorporates alternative meanings to Arabic terms that are ambiguous or whose meaning scholars have had to guess due to the antiquity of the language. Notably, her translation of Chapter 4, Verse 34 has gained a lot of attention. She translates the Arabic word daraba as "go away" instead of the common "beat" or "hit." Her Quran translation is used in many mosques and universities and has been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.
In 2003, Shirin became the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As a judge in Iran, she was the first woman to achieve Chief Justice status. However, she was dismissed from this position after the 1979 Revolution. As a lawyer, Shirin has taken on many controversial cases and in result, has been arrested numerous times. Her activism has been predicated on her view that, "An interpretation of Islam that is in harmony with equality and democracy is an authentic expression of faith. It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered."
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In 2005, Daisy founded the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), the only cohesive, global movement of Muslim women around the world that works to reclaim women's rights in Islam using a human rights and social-justice based framework. Further, in 2008, Daisy spearheaded the creation of the Global Muslim Women's Shura Council, which is comprised of eminent Muslim women scholars, activists and lawyers from 26 countries. The Council's statements have informed numerous university curriculums and legal opinions. Daisy is viewed as a credible, humane and equitable voice within the global Muslim community.
In 2006, Anousheh became the first Muslim woman in space. When asked about what she hoped to achieve on her spaceflight, she said, "I hope to inspire everyone -- especially young people, women and young girls all over the world and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men -- to not give up their dreams and to pursue them. ... It may seem impossible to them at times. But I believe they can realize their dreams if they keep it in their hearts, nurture it, and look for opportunities and make those opportunities happen."