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Wednesday, November 21, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Muslim converts try to dispel myths

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the coming weeks, The Seattle Times will explore Arab culture and the Muslim community. This is one of several stories.

Sarah Fox is 33, a junior at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, manager at a department store, world traveler and forthright student of gender issues.

She is not, as she readily will tell you, what most Americans think of when they think of Muslim women.

And yet there she was the other day, celebrating her month-old conversion to Islam with her Muslim women's study group in Bellevue. Many in the group are converts, or women who like Fox, had been considering converting for many months now.

The group was honoring three women who, in recent weeks, had taken shahadah — a profession of faith whereby one converts to Islam by saying, "I testify that there is only one God and that Mohammed is the messenger of God."

As Ramadan begins its second week, Fox and many other Muslim converts find the Islamic holy month a welcome opportunity to reflect on their faith and their roles as women in the faith — issues they've thought about often since Sept. 11. And they also find themselves trying to explain or defend their religion to others who are curious, skeptical — or downright hostile.

American female converts, in particular, are finding themselves sources of curiosity to fellow citizens who see the head-to-toe burqas of Afghan women as symbols of female oppression.

"I've had strangers come up to me and ask: 'What nationality are you?' 'Why do you wear a head scarf?' " said Molly Hayden, a 21-year-old recent convert and member of Fox's study group.

Though American Muslims may feel embattled, their numbers are growing. Islam is said to be the fastest-growing religion in this country, with 6 million to 7 million adherents. Since Sept. 11, some mosques, especially on the East Coast, report up to four times the average number of converts. And many of them are women.

Even before Sept. 11, women were converting to Islam for a variety of reasons. Some did so after marrying Muslim men or were drawn by the theology, the clear road map on how to live life, or the closeness of the Muslim community. Others were drawn after learning more about the religion after the terrorist attacks.

"Since Sept. 11, a lot of people have gone out and started reading about Islam," said Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the North American Council for Muslim Women in Great Falls, Va. "(And) quite a lot of women ... reached out to Muslims just as concerned citizens. I think these events made them feel more closeness toward Muslim women."

Local mosques don't keep records on numbers of converts, and members say they haven't noticed a surge since Sept. 11. But they say there's been a steady increase in the past few years, including women such as Fox.

Fox says she was raised in a "very religious" Roman Catholic family and attended Sunday school regularly. She agreed with most of her Catholic teachings but never could get her mind around the concept of the Trinity.

Search for 'Islamic feminism'

She traveled the world for eight years. When she returned to college at Evergreen, she took classes on the history, politics, culture and religions of the Middle East and South Asia, with a focus on gender issues. One of her research papers was titled "In Search of Islamic Feminism."

"I was convinced that there were no feminists" in Egypt and Turkey, Fox said of her mindset before traveling to those countries. What she found, she said, were intelligent women taking part in raising families, running businesses, engaging in civic life.

Indeed, the Koran granted certain rights to women years — sometimes centuries — ahead of other religions and cultures. Women had the right to inherit and own property and businesses. Before Islam, women in the Arabian Peninsula could be bought and sold. The Koran put an end to that and granted women marital rights — rights that were progressive at the time but may not seem so now, said Eugene Webb, professor emeritus of comparative religion at the University of Washington.

The Koran, for instance, limited the number of wives a man could have to four — but specified that all four women be treated equally. Many Muslims consider that impossible and thus the same as a virtual ban on polygamy, Webb said.

There is no doubt that the practice of Islam in some parts of the world is extremely oppressive, said Paula Holmes-Eber, a UW anthropology professor who specializes in Islam and gender. "But if you look at the fundamental religion, the base of the religion, the text, it could be a very fair religion to women."

Essential to understanding the role of women in Islam is understanding the concept of umma — the community of Muslims.

In this ideal Islamic community, "if everyone recognized God and did the job God gave them, you would have a society where everyone was helping each other out and working together in perfection," Holmes-Eber said.

The rules and structure of this society are spelled out clearly. The first responsibility of a wife with children is to nurture and educate the family. A husband's first responsibility is to provide for and protect that family.

Similarly, rules regarding modesty and segregation — men and women remain separate during prayers and at social events, and many Muslims do not date — are intended, in part, to preserve the integrity of the family unit.

Islam expects sexual desire to be part of the human experience, but sexuality outside marriage is considered bad. "Instead of having everybody repress their sexual desires and hoping everyone will control them appropriately (as in Western societies), in Islam, you basically pre-empt it," Holmes-Eber said.

In this ideal Muslim society, both men's and women's roles are valued equally and do not limit either gender to following only those roles. Indeed, there's a school of thought in Islam that extends women's roles to nurturers of the entire umma — as doctors, teachers, lawyers.

Challenge to 'misconceptions'

Seeing the strong Muslim women in Turkey and Egypt really "challenged my misconceptions," Fox said.

Fox also found in Islam a theology that "makes the most sense to me" and a way of life that she connected with. "When I found out that Muslims totally revere Jesus, that he's one of the most important prophets in their religion, I thought: Everything I believe about this man was from a Muslim perspective. I just didn't know it."

Muslims believe that that is true for everyone — that people are born Muslim. Thus they refer to "conversion" as "reversion."

When Fox returned from the Middle East last spring, she joined a study group at Bellevue's Islamic Center of Eastside, learning more about the Koran and the integration of Islam into every facet of her life. Like all Muslims, she is obligated to follow the five pillars of Islam: testifying her faith, saying five prayers a day facing Mecca, giving alms, fasting from dawn to sunset during Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in her lifetime.

She now wears a hijab, a change she considers "an external expression of my internal faith," especially in America where wearing the head scarf isn't required, as it is in some countries.

The hijab has become something of a lightning rod in America, where some view it as a symbol of female oppression, others as a symbol of the enemy. But Hayden, a fellow member of Fox's study group, considers wearing a hijab liberating.

"Since I adopted hijab, my sense of self-esteem and self-worth has gone through the roof, even though I've sometimes gotten harassed. Young girls here feel their bodies need to be exposed — that's how this culture values them. ... I feel I'm truly living by my values and don't need to sell myself to the world."

Indeed, the Koran specifies only that women and men both should "lower their gaze and guard their modesty," and that women should "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their adornment except to their husbands." That's interpreted differently in different countries. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are required not only to cover their hair but also to wear full-body cloaks. Most Middle Eastern countries have no laws requiring veiling, and in fact, in Tunisia, veiling is illegal.

Attraction of a strict code

Hayden, an Evergreen State student who used to be a high-school cheerleader and hairdresser, said she was drawn to the clarity of Islam. Brought up as a Congregational Christian, she likes that in Islam, the most important relationship is with God, not with a prophet, which she considers Jesus to be. She likes that there's a strict moral code laying out how a Muslim should live to keep that relationship with God in the forefront.

Hayden studied Islam for about a year but didn't feel connected to it until she spent time with a Muslim Bedouin tribe in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this year.

When she came back to the U.S., she threw out her tight clothes and recordings with objectionable lyrics — detritus of what she calls her former wild life. Hayden admits that some friendships are different now that she's refraining from drinking alcohol, dating, and watching television or movies. But she says her family is supportive.

Kate Lechner, 20, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in September and lives in Bellevue with her parents. She says her family was surprised at first but is getting used to her conversion. She was initially captivated by the five daily prayers required of Muslims.

"Every Muslim prays in the same way, facing the same way, in the same language, at the same time of day. It connects everyone. That's pretty amazing," she said.

Fox says her family still is struggling to understand her conversion but is accommodating it — for instance, pushing back until evening their Thanksgiving dinner, which they traditionally have had in the afternoon. Thanksgiving occurs during the daytime-fasting month of Ramadan.

"They understand the religious commitment," Fox said. "We have a mutual respect."

Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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