Western women are turning to Islam in rapidly increasing numbers. KAY JARDINE discovers why they are so keen to become Muslims
Bullying, depression, and insomnia made Kimberley McCrindle's teenage years particularly difficult. Taunts from classmates about her weight and how she looked left the 19-year-old student feeling like she didn't really fit in, and always searching for something that would make her feel happy, that would make her feel she belonged.
McCrindle, from a family of atheists, did not encounter religion until she began religious studies at high school in Penicuik, when her new interest prompted her to start going to her local church on Sundays. But the peace and happiness McCrindle was looking for eluded her until she started college in Edinburgh, where she made friends with some Muslim people and discovered Islam.
"I was looking for peace," she says. "I'd had a rough past. My teenage years weren't great: I was bullied at school, people called me fat and ugly, and I was looking for something to make me happy. I tried to go to church once a week but I wouldn't class myself a Christian; I was just interested. But it wasn't for me, I didn't feel in place there.
"When you walk into a mosque you feel really peaceful. Praying five times a day is really focused. It gives you a purpose in your life. The Koran is like a guide to help you: when you read it, it makes you feel better."
McCrindle became a Muslim three years ago and is now known by her married Arabic name, Tasnim Salih. She is one of a rapidly increasing number of British women turning to Islam, thought to be the fastest growing religion in the world. Although there are no official figures on the subject, there is no doubt that the number of converts is on the rise and the majority are women, according to Nicole Bourque, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at Glasgow University and an expert in conversion to Islam in Britain.
"There are people converting all the time," she says. "I would estimate that there are probably around 200 converts to Islam in Glasgow alone, but that's just a rough estimate. The data is difficult to acquire." Other estimates put the Glasgow figure closer to 500.
Mohammad Faroghul-Quadri, imam at the Khazra mosque in Glasgow, says that whichever religion people choose to reach God, whether it's Christianity or Islam or something else, the important thing is that they are getting peace of mind and heart, and proper guidance from God.
The appeal of Islam to liberated western women is difficult for many to understand, largely because of the widespread perception in the west that it treats women badly. A forthcoming documentary, Mum I'm a Muslim, addresses this very issue by talking to converts in Sheffield about their experiences. At a preview in Glasgow, I asked a group of converts from Glasgow and Edinburgh what motivated them to change every aspect of their lives, including their names, to become Muslim.
For 27-year-old Bahiya Malik, or Lucy Norris to her parents, it's difficult to explain. Bahiya, who lives in Edinburgh, her twin sister, Victoria, and their brother, Matthew, grew up as practising Christians in a rural area in the West Midlands, where they attended Sunday school in the little church at the top of their road. As they got older, the three stopped going to church and seven years ago, at the age of 20, both Bahiya and her sister converted to Islam - six months after their brother.
"Maybe all through our teenage years we hadn't been that happy. I can't really say what it was. I don't know if we felt there was something missing or that we didn't fit in. We were a little bit shy and we weren't really outgoing sort of people," she says. At the time, Bahiya was two years into a media and television course in Edinburgh but was feeling uninspired. After around six months of learning about Islam, Bahiya realised that living her life according to the rules of Islam was what would make her happy and, during an emotional visit to a mosque in London, made her declaration of faith.
"I think it's something you feel in your heart, this pull," she says. "You can't really put it into words. It's like your heart speaking, something you feel inside and you know it's for you. Allah has chosen this for you, it's out of your power."
Women who turn to Islam are aware of the widespread western perception that they are oppressed and discriminated against, but insist that the depiction is a false image. For many it is a spiritual journey, which, far from repressing them, improves their social status and gives them new rights.
"You seem to be really looked after," says Tasnim. "As a Muslim woman, Muslim men really respect you; they do everything for you. You're highly thought of and protected." Bahiya says: "I feel that because you cover yourself up you're not seen as a sex symbol, and because people can't judge you on your appearance, they have to judge you as a human being. That's quite liberating."
As an act of modesty, many Muslim women don't wear make up outside the home and it is often a part of their old life that new female converts are happy to discard because of the liberating feeling that comes from knowing their appearance doesn't matter. They resist being shown as they were before their conversion.
Hafsa Hashmi, who lives in Glasgow, converted to Islam 24 years ago and felt life outside Islam was like having to "keep up with the Joneses". Under Islam, however, she says: "Your aim is not for this life, your aim is for the afterlife. To some people that sounds pretty horrific: they can't think about death, but in Islam belief in the afterlife is one of its main features, because you know if you're doing the right thing you've got a better life to come. So why go for all the material things?"
Converting to Islam usually means a complete change of lifestyle for those who take the plunge, including a different diet, often a new Arabic name, and your time revolving around the five daily Islamic prayers. In the workplace, some people organise with their employer a room where they can have some peace and quiet to pray. Wherever they are in the world, all Muslims face in the direction of the Kab'aa, or the Holy House in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during prayer.
For female converts, the experience can also involve a quite dramatic change in appearance. Muslim law provides that women must dress modestly. The hijab, or the head scarf, is a particular focal point and can be a tricky area for new Muslim women to deal with. Dr Bourque suggests this is because it is such a visible symbol of the faith. Tasnim wore the hijab straight away, although she found wearing it in public scary at first because she felt people were looking at her. She was then forced to take it off when she was out because of some of the comments directed at her.
"People would shout, 'Go back home to your own country'. I had someone spit at me once when I was standing at the bus stop at college."
Now, though, she wears it all the time and says: "People don't say anything to me now and I feel more confident about wearing it." Bahiya was happy wearing the hijab from the beginning, but her parents found it quite difficult. She says her sister, her brother, and herself were lucky because their parents were "quite good" about their conversion. For others, however, families are not always so accepting, often because they know little about the religion and why their loved ones want to follow it. For Tasnim, telling her parents, who are atheist, was nerve-wracking. "They thought I was going through a phase at first but they realised when I started wearing the hijab that I was serious. They started getting angry when I began to talk about getting married. They weren't too pleased that I'd met someone older than me, who was Muslim as well, and a different nationality."
While Tasnim and her mother are still close and enjoy a good relationship, they tend not to talk about her faith much. She and her father no longer speak. For Hafsa, telling her parents 24 years ago was perhaps even more difficult because converting to Islam then was anything but a common occurrence. The reactions of her parents were totally opposite. "I think my mother felt that I was only becoming a Muslim because of who I was marrying, but that wasn't the case because I had been introduced to Islam about four years previously although I didn't convert until I got married. It took her practically her whole life to get over it. When we got married, my mum said, 'If you're happy, I'm happy', but obviously she wasn't. My dad said it and he meant it, that was the difference between them."
Tasnim has been married to Sabir, who is Sudanese, for two years, and says she has never been happier. "I met my husband at college and it seemed like the right thing to do. I was teaching him English and he was talking to me about Islam, and we just fell in love," she says. Bahiya's husband, Sharafuddin, is also is also a convert, formerly known as Cameron. They have two children, aged two and four.
For Tasnim, Bahiya, and Hafsa, life revolves around the five daily prayers, they cannot eat certain foods, or drink alcohol. But the women say they miss nothing from the days before they converted to Islam. "Islam is enough for me," says Bahiya. "You don't need anything else once you've found it."
Becoming Muslim has provided Tasnim with the happiness and belonging she was looking for. "It's a complete change in your attitude, behaviour, and the way you think," she says. "I'm now more confident, happy and satisfied. I've achieved the fulfilment I was looking for."
Mum, I'm a Muslim can be seen on Channel Four on Sunday at 8pm.