This essay is the third in a series about religious conversion. Click here to read Alison’s first essay about leaving Catholicism for Islam. Alison’s second essay challenged Muslims and non-Muslims to better understand the faith she discovered. If you’d like to submit your story of religious conversion, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One day two years ago, an Egyptian woman at my kids’ preschool marched up to me with flashing eyes. “Why are you wearing this?” she demanded. “The headscarf?” I explained that I was Muslim. “So you don’t love Jesus,” she declared with anger. “Why don’t you love Jesus?” I responded that Muslims do love Jesus as a prophet, and that he is mentioned many times in the Quran. She was not convinced; I felt attacked; and she demonstrated the power of prejudice.
My personal progress within Islam has been slow during the last three years. Since the start I have been intellectually and spiritually convinced, but challenged by the specifics of outward practice. My recent first visit to a Muslim country demonstrated that daily practice of Islamic faith does not have to be cumbersome or a cause for social shyness, and further inspired me to challenge my own timidity about outwardly being Muslim.
The Quran instructed the Prophet Muhammad to “Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their garments [or veils, depending on the translation] close around them,” so as to be known as believers and not molested. The Quran does not expressly instruct women to cover their hair and necks, but Islamic culture and faith practice surrounding the Prophet Muhammad led to use of the headscarf. These are known as hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and sunnah (practices of the Prophet), and are central to Islamic practice.
After receiving such negative reactions and judgmental questions about my religious preference, I pulled back. I stopped covering my hair. I continued to read and pray on my own but returned to my ‘old’ ways of dressing and eating. Although faith is often a private matter, I grew fatigued of constantly fielding questions and doing things differently from everyone else. Yet I felt discouraged by taking the easy route. I prayed and hoped that outward manifestation of my beliefs would not always be so difficult.
My trip to Morocco in June transformed my perception of what a day should look like for a Muslim. I observed how many Moroccans incorporate prayer into their daily schedule, and how easily women moved about, dressed modestly in extreme heat, stylishly, and without baring lots of skin.
I have never been one to dress too provocatively but believed that in the D.C. heat, one must wear shorts or shorter skirts/dresses in order to be comfortable. The thought of wearing pants or longer lengths never crossed my mind. In Morocco, a predominantly Muslim country, albeit open-minded and Westernized, shorter and more revealing clothes are a minority. I chose to dress more modestly there not just to blend in, but also out of respect for my religion and other Muslims.
In a light bulb moment, I realized that I enjoyed dressing this way. I felt safe, I respected myself, and knew others respected me too. Young and/or attractive women know the discomfort of walking by a group of men outside and feeling the focus of their eyes. I have never liked that feeling of being exposed. In Morocco, I really liked the idea of dressing attractively without wearing tight clothing, and thought, if Moroccan women can do this in the heat, so can I.
I returned to D.C. with a renewed sense of confidence, some new pieces of clothing, and plans for the future. Since returning I have not missed a day of covering to my ankles, and most of the time, to my wrists, with the exception of when I exercise. I cannot afford to buy a whole new wardrobe so the progress will have to be piece by piece. I have been a little hot on the metro, yes, but during outdoor events for my kids, if I dress in light cotton layers, I feel as comfortable as I would in shorts and a t-shirt. That amazes me. I do not intend to look asexual or dowdy, and I do think it is possible to be feminine and attractive without wearing short skirts and tank tops.
The worry about what other people thought initially troubled me and challenged my outward practice for several years. Since then, I have become stronger in my conviction, and the change in wardrobe has empowered me overall in my faith. I have felt more motivated to pray on time and perhaps more bold to discuss my choices. In this small area of control over my daily existence, I am visibly declaring that I don’t need to be like everybody else, and that my faith in God is very important.
Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post and former editor of Islamic publications for a D.C.-area think tank.