Latina Muslims Face Ridicule, Find Peace

By Cristina Loboguerrero
El Diario-La Prensa
July 9, 2013

In December, Norwood News did an article on Latino Muslims in the Bronx, whose small numbers in the area make it a struggle to bring them together under one umbrella to share their experiences as a fragmented group, cultural and linguistic differences from other Muslim contingents. Reporter Cristina Loboguerrero of El Diario-La Prensa brings another angle to the story of Latino Muslims – the growing number of Latinas converting to Islam, who face scorn and rejection from some other Hispanics. The story is translated below, courtesy of the publication.

An increasing number of Latinas are converting to the Muslim religion. At the same time, they face growing rejection from members of the Hispanic community.

Because of the way they dress, some of the names that Vanessa Rivera-Abusaker, Sussie Lozada and Sadia Irfan have been called in public are ninjas, Arabs, “Talibanas” and even “bomb planters.”

“A little girl called me a terrorist,” said Rivera-Abusaker, 37, a Puerto Rican who converted six and a half years ago. “We’re human beings and feel offended” when becoming the target of ignorant attacks.

According to an annual report by Why Islam – a project dedicated to spreading the Muslim religion – almost 19 percent of the 3,000 people who converted to Islam in 2011 were Latinos. Out of this group, 55 percent were Hispanic women.

Since 2000, the number of women who converted to Islam increased 8 percent, according to a 2011 survey of 524 mosques.

Although Rivera-Abusaker -formerly an Evangelical- married a Muslim seven years ago, she decided to study Islam on her own initiative.

“My husband never pressured me into it. I became curious, began learning and liked it,” said the Bronx elementary school teacher.

On a daily basis, Hispanics question why she follows a religion that is not part of her culture. “That’s why I must learn more about the Koran to explain it to people,” she said.

Wearing a fuchsia-colored hijab that covers her head and a tunic that covers her skin, Rivera-Abusaker doesn’t mind how she dresses.

“Before I became a Muslim, in my block they’d say ‘hey mami,’ [sexually harassing me]. Now they greet me in Arabic,” she said. “I feel respected and treated like a human being.”

Lozada, a 52-year-old Dominican, converted to Islam three years ago, attracted by the spiritual peace of mind the religion offered her.

“I was never religious and sent my three children to a Catholic school,” Lozada said. “Before converting, I used to come to the mosque. I realized Muslims were completely different from how people perceive them.”

A renowned community and union leader, Lozada was the first non-Muslim woman to work in campaigns in support of the Islamic community. “I worked on getting the public school system to recognize Muslim holidays.”

Samuel Cruz, an assistant professor of Church and Society at the Union Theological Seminary of Columbia University, mentioned two basic reasons why Latinas convert to Islam.

“The Islamic tradition is much more concrete and deals with everyday situations a lot more,” he said.

Another aspect is respect. “It limits the way women dress, and although this can be seen as oppression, they feel respected.”

Curiosity inspired Irfan, 31, of Mexican ancestry, to study Islam for seven years – before she decided to leave Catholicism and become a Muslim about 18 months ago.

“I wanted to be sure of what I was doing and became convinced that there is only one God,” said Irfan, who married a Muslim two months ago.

Her conversion cost her most of her friends, who broke away because they thought she felt forced to convert.

The mother of four (from a previous relationship), who is studying to become a nurse’s aide, said that walking around wearing a hijab is an adventure, because people discriminate against her in public places.

“Hispanics say things thinking I don’t understand them. I just look at them and think that God sees everything,” she said.

The three women, who formed the group “Reborn in Islam,” get together to pray at least once a week in a Bronx mosque with about a dozen other Latinas.

Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, attorney for the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), explained that the reason more Latinos are converting is intellectual curiosity.

“After what happened on September 11 and thanks to the media’s bombardment, people want to know more about Muslims. Some like it and join,” said Amr Ruiz, a Puerto Rican who has been a Muslim since 2003.

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