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.

 Malika MacDonald Rushdan, who converted in 1995 after divorcing her Christian husband, made her “shahada,” or declaration of faith, at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge. Photo courtesy Malika MacDonald

Malika MacDonald Rushdan, who converted in 1995 after divorcing her Christian husband, made her “shahada,” or declaration of faith, at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge. Photo courtesy Malika MacDonald


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“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. Photo courtesy Kelly Wentworth

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. Photo courtesy Kelly Wentworth


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.”

29 Comments

  1. Carl Ungerhaus

    Female American converts to Judaism have faced this scrutiny too, but the perception has been that they converted because of domineering mothers-in-law. [rimshot]

  2. Many times non-Muslim women who marry Muslim men in a muslim ceremony are converted to Islam in the course of the ceremony without their even being aware of it. It is the duty of Christians to make this very clear to their sons and daughters.

    • Guess you’ve figured out that stealth jihad – marry the women and convert them so even they don’t know!!! Where did you hear/read about this??

      What a great Muslim someone would make if they didn’t even know they were Muslim. I didn’t even know it was possible for someone to convert to a religion without even knowing it! Guess it’s like those Mormons with folks that have long been buried.

    • What? Where ever did you hear that??

      Besides, it is IMPOSSIBLE to convert without knowing it — to any religion. If you don’t hold the beliefs and make a conscious effort to identify yourself with the religion, then you have not converted. Plain and simple. No matter what it may say on a piece of paper.

    • Allan you speak out of ignorance of Islam no Christian woman automatically becomes a Muslim when she marries him– She has to take the shahdah in order to convert to Islam which is her conscious decision

    • Greetings Brother Allen. I’ve been a Muslim for 43 years. I’ve never heard, read, nor witnessed such a ceremony. By it’s very nature, both the wedding ceremony and the declaration of faith (which is entirely different) is predicated on the person doing so under no duress and by their free will. I don’t know where you got this information my brother in humanity, but it is tragically untrue.

    • That is ridiculous. You cannot be converted to Islam without your knowledge. Conversion involves actually submitting to God’s laws willingly. You can’t do that by mistake.

    • Um. No you are greatly mistaken. Someone can not be unaware of their conversion. Are you insane? You are only a Muslim, or a Christian or whatever, if you believe in the teachings of the faith. Stop being a bigot and spreading lies. Maybe the duty of Christians should be to teach their children to have faith in their own religion?

      But thanks for the laughs moron.

    • Allan, that’s not true at all.. Besides islam allows for muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women.. We all worship the same God and believe in the same prophets..what purpose would a forced conversion serve, if that person doesn’t even practise the faith?

    • With absolutely no means to offend, only educate I share this with you my dear friend:

      There is no such thing as conversion to Islam without knowledge because in the Quran it says: 2:256: “there is no compulsion in religion”. Nobody can oblige you to be a muslim…even if you pronounce (or somebody asks you to pronounce) the words of declaration of faith (There is no God but The God(Allah in arabic) and Muhammed is his prophet and messenger)you are simply somebody who uttered some words… You don’t convert when you say words in Arabic, you convert when your soul starts believing in the only true God. The one that was worshiped by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and all the other prophets…
      Surah 29- Al Ankaboot (chapter 29 in the Quran) says…
      “Do people think that they will be left (at ease) only on their saying, “We believe” and will not be put to any test? ”
      “Indeed We have tested those who were before them. So Allah will surely know the ones who are truthful, and He will surely know the liars. ”

      Beautiful chapter, I encourage you to read it, it can’t hurt! ^^

      God bless and may He forgive the one who wronged any of your brothers/sisters by doing something that might have offended them/you. Maybe they did it without knowledge and they meant good even if the outcome wasn’t great.

  3. Islam is a way of life whose belief is based on reasoning and intellectual conviction. So contrary to the fiction of being ‘brainwashed’ a revert actually has to exert a monumental amount of thought before they accept Islam especially considering the backlash they will face from their ‘civilised’ and ‘extremely judgemental’ family, friends, work colleagues, media and community. Reverts are unlike millions of people who have accepted their faith blindly from their fathers and forefathers. May God give them guidance and keep them on the straight path and elevate their status.

    • Jazaak Allahu Khieron Brother in today’s Society Islam is forever Under scrutiny and so many Double Standards but By The will Of Allah SWT and his Many blessings We Will All Over Come Some Day Inshallah Praise The Almighty The Most Gracious Most Merciful Most Forgiving creator Allah!Ameen!

  4. I found this interesting…

    “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.”

    That statement could have been made by any woman following a God based faith. And yet people of all faiths are ridiculed and demeaned by many. It’s sad, really.

  5. islam is a complete way of life.it is not limited to prayer at a particular time or place the qur’an governs every aspect of life including the manner of dress diet education earning a living and politics broadly speaking islam deals with our duties and obligation to the Almighty and our duties and obligation to fellow man and our duties and obligations to animals our duties and obligations toward the environment

  6. Islam is a monotheistic religion that is revealed by Allah the only GOD for the whole universe and the creation through the selected prophet like Adam, Ibrahim(Abraham),Moosa(Moses),Isha (Zizes-Christ)(May peace be on all them) and Mohammad(Sallalahuwalihawassallam) and many more.Religion is a thought based action oriented phenomenon.So nobody can argue that he/she do believe a religion without having any idea about it or without taking any action on it.Conversion without idea or action is a irresponsible or insane comment, you need to face a doctor.

  7. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

    Atiq ur rahman khan

    Mrs,Morrow, asslam aleikum,warematullah barkatuhoo,
    I feel after having gone through the subject” Female converts to Islam are facing
    growing scrutiny” that you are being pressurized by group of powerful people to get you revert back to Christianity, so you are under tension. So you come to Saudi-Arabia to get peace of your mind and release mental tension, perform
    Omera or Hajj. This is a peaceful country in the world. I wish if I can be of any help to you. Feel free to inquire any question regarding the subject matter,Sincerely yours one muslim brother-Atiq.

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