By Fatima- Minna
Becoming Muslim has many implications, both internally and externally. While the heart may find peace in taking the shahada, re-establishing a sense of identity with wider society can feel anything but peaceful.
Mostly when we think of major life changes, we think of those which are out of our control, such as illness or bereavement. Psychologists have termed such events as ‘biographical disruptions’, things that force us to rewrite the story of our lives that we carry with us. But what about when we change our life dramatically, by becoming Muslim, which is entirely our own choice? I suggest that this no less of a challenge to our identity, but being ‘self-inflicted’ we are less likely to encounter understanding and sympathy during this process.
Moreover, there may be few or no people we can share these feelings with, as we may feel afraid of showing weakness in our belief to cynical friends and family, and cautious of revealing doubts and negative feelings about our new found faith towards the wider Muslim community.
I converted to Islam in my mid-twenties. I had a good job, my own home, and felt confident in who I was and what I was doing. Life was fine. And then I found something I sincerely believed to be better – Islam. I knew early on that Islam was the truth – it was really just a case of gathering the courage I needed to cross that bridge between my old life, and a new life which I would feel was worthy of someone who wanted to call themselves a Muslim (the journey is still in progress!).
Inside I felt like the same person I always was, in fact, somehow more authentically ‘me’. But my appearance and the way I interacted with the world was undergoing significant changes, that would affect my relationships with people and the roles I had within my world. They were struggles that I found hard to put into words, but a tangible example comes in the form of the hijab.
I desperately wanted to wear hijab. I believed I should, and completely understood its purpose and how it would benefit me. So after 1 year of being Muslim I decided to put it on and never take it off (well, except at home of course). I HATED wearing it. It was uncomfortable because I hadn’t worked out how to put it on so it would stay on, I was always fiddling with it. I couldn’t work out which colours suited me, which fabric would be most comfortable, which shape would cover up the bits I wanted. But most of all, I had always had a distinctive style, and I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate the hijab into that. It was a struggle, and at one point I nearly gave up.
But who could I talk to about this? My non-Muslim friends and family who would take my struggle as evidence that hijab is indeed oppressive and uncomfortable for women? My new Muslim friends who were so positive and encouraging about me wearing hijab? How to explain to these lovely sisters that I knew hijab was important but I just didn’t feel like me anymore?
So mostly, I kept my struggles to myself, and over time (and with a bit of experimentation), the hijab has become part of my identity – it makes me feel confident and protected, as it should. Sometimes, the only solution is time and persistence. The hijab is an easy example to give of the identity struggle I am trying to explain, but there were many less tangible elements to this struggle.
Looking back to before I was Muslim, my identity was constructed via aspects of popular culture, clothes, music , the places I went. These things seemed less and less relevant, as more ephemeral constructs started to feel more significant. But this was something I found hard to explain to others. A wonderful old friend who maintained our friendship throughout my conversion was worried and sad when I offered to give my extensive music collection to her husband (who was a big music lover). She just couldn’t understand how I could say goodbye to something which had been such a big part of my life. I couldn’t think of how to explain it in a way she could understand, other than to say that it just now seemed quite peripheral to who I was. It was like the outward aspects of my identity were crumbling as the inward aspects were being constructed, but not many people can see those inward things. Perhaps that is why, despite having supportive non-Muslim friends at the time of my conversion, 15 years later my closest friendships are with other Muslim sisters.
That said, I am very thankful to have friendships from ‘before’, as those years are a huge part of who I am, and I am fortunate to have friends who have made the effort to see that I am still the same person (hopefully better in some ways) despite my life and appearance having undergone major changes.
At this point in time I can look back at my conversion to Islam, and the following years, and see how this experience has become woven into my identity. It was not the only identity challenge to be overcome – it was followed by marriage to someone from a different culture, then motherhood, which both presented their own challenges as well as being a huge blessing. Each of these big transitions, and many small ones, has been accompanied by feelings of discomfort around how this new change fits in with my idea of who I am, until the challenges themselves form part of the very fabric of ‘me’.
As converts to Islam, I feel it is very important we don’t lose our identity, but at the same time it is natural and to be expected that the experience in itself will change us. The experience of discomfort in being misunderstood, and potentially rejected, by people and situations we used to comfortably be a part of is something which can challenge our reliance on Allah’s creation and strengthen our reliance on Allah.
About the author:
Fatima-Minna lives with her husband and two lively little boys, and has a full time that she enjoys. That doesn’t leave room for much else, but she continues to strive to be close to Allah and help her children to have a deep understanding of Islam.