Latina converts look for answers in Islam

By Pilar Conci
Columbia News Service
May 27, 2008

Increasing numbers of Latinas are converting to Islam, for love, faith and, some say, a sense of respect. But some find acceptance from family and friends is harder to come by.

When Beatriz Kehdy was growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, she felt uncomfortable with the standards of beauty that she says were a part of the culture in which she was raised.

An emphasis on external beauty and the body, she says, became increasingly foreign to her own personal values.

Kehdy moved to New York City almost 10 years ago and eventually discovered a sense of place in Islam and in the hijab, or headscarf worn by women in the faith.

“When I wear the hijab, I feel more respected, people talk to me with respect,” she said.

The now 27-year-old architect converted from Catholicism to Islam four years ago, but didn’t tell her family until a few years later, in a letter.

“When I started wearing the hijab, there was a problem,” she said.

“My father didn’t want me to wear it in public in Brazil.”

Kehdy is one of many Latin American women in the US who have embraced the Islamic faith.

The American Muslim Council, based in Chicago, estimates that there are more than 200,000 Latino Muslims in the United States.

Women make up 60 percent of conversions to Islam, according to experts.

Mosques around the country have begun to offer special classes where women converts can learn about Islam.

The North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, in Union City, N.J., offers both English and Spanish Language classes.

Mariam Abassi, vice president of the Da’wah (outreach) program at the center, said about 500 members of the center are Latino converts.

There are between 4,000 and 5,000 members in total.

Many Latinas choose to accept Islam because they marry Muslims.

Others convert when they’re single, often because they feel unfulfilled by the religion in which they were raised.

For a large number of Latinas, that faith is Catholicism.

“Some of them really have doubt about the Trinity,” a central belief in Catholicism that says God exists in three beings, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; said Chernor Sa’ad Jallah, assistant Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center, in East Harlem, the largest mosque in New York City.

“They find it really confusing,” In his community of about 1,500 people, between 10 and 15 percent are Latinos.

Some said they were uncomfortable making confessions to a priest and feeling as though they had no direct relationship with God.

“I was raised as a Catholic but I didn’t like it.

I felt this emptiness,” said Mayeline Turbides, a 21-year-old Dominican student who lives in West New York, N.J.” I was never convinced.” She took the name Leila after she became a Muslim.

Before discovering Islam, Turbides had explored evangelical Christianity and Mormonism, which failed to draw her in.

About two years ago, her Muslim boss started talking to her about Islam.

“I used to go out, to drink.

I got drunk 500 times,” Turbides said in Spanish.

“But nothing made sense.

I wanted rules.”

When it comes to assimilating to a new faith, Islam appeals to Catholic Latinas for several reasons.

“There are many similarities between Catholicism and Islam,” said Ibrahim Hooper, Communications Director and spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C.

“Both have principles that need to be followed, regarding how you conduct yourself as person, how you operate in a community.”

Others find a new religion to be an escape from the confines of machismo, or chauvinism.

“I feel more protected,” Turbides said.

“Men used to shout things at me when I was walking down the street.

They would honk their horns.

When I wear the hijab, nobody says anything.”

For New Yorker Yuri Lara, the 23-year-old daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, understanding the role of women in Islam, and dispelling what she considers to be stereotypes, was one of her biggest concerns when she was studying the religion.

“We have rights, we have a voice, it’s all in the Quran,” said Lara, who studied psychology at SUNY Albany.

But for many Latina converts to Islam, conversion brings with it the challenge of gaining acceptance from their own families and other non-Muslims, a process that takes time.

“At first my family was unhappy,” said Demaris Tapanes, 32, who was born and raised in Union City, N.J., to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father.

“’Why do you have to cover?'” she said of her family’s objection to the hijab.

“One of my brothers told me he didn’t want me to cover because after 9/11, people resented Muslims,” she said “He was concerned for my security.”

Wearing the hijab presents other challenges, as Turbides found out when she wore the head covering to the grocery store where she works.

“People would ignore me,” Turbides said.

“My boss is a Muslim, but they’re nice to him because he is an Arab.

Since I am Latina, they tell me that I’m pulling away from my religion.

I felt very bad that day.”

Despite the obstacles they face to practice their adopted faith, many women converts say Islam changed their lives.

“I’m a better version of myself now,” said Lara.

“I’m closer to my family than I ever was.

I think more about others, as opposed to me, me, me.

I think about what I’m going to eat before I take the last bite left.”

Estela Ramon, who attends the class at the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, in Union City, became interested in Islam after her husband, Delfino, who was born in Mexico, converted to Islam four years ago.

“At first I asked him if he was crazy,” said Ramon, who is also from Mexico and was raised a Catholic.

Ramon, 34, says that her husband changed for the better when he turned to Islam.

“He used to drink and get angry,” she said.

“Now he is more confident in himself, he is more responsible.

And he doesn’t drink anymore.”

Ramon is reading a Spanish translation of the Quran and is thinking of converting too.

Although she says she is drawn to the lifestyle that Islam proscribes, Ramon says she is not ready to accept the faith.

“My time to say yes has not come,” she said.

“When God wants me to, I will accept it.”

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