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Not 'brainwashed': American women who converted to Islam speak out
April 26, 2013 at 12:30 PM

Not 'brainwashed': American women who converted to Islam speak out

S. Deneen Photography

Lauren Schreiber, 26, converted to Islam in 2010 after a study-abroad trip. She and others want to dispel stereotypes that have sprung up after news reports about Katherine Russell, 24, the U.S.-born wife of suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

When an American convert to Islam was revealed as the wife of the dead Boston bombing suspect, Lauren Schreiber wasn’t surprised at what came next.

Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, must have been coerced and controlled by her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week in a firefight with police.

“She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him,” reported the Associated Press, quoting Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., woman who said she knew Russell and her 3-year-old daughter.

That kind of assumption isn’t new to Schreiber, 26, a Greenbelt, Md., woman who became a Muslim in 2010.

“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” says Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress.  

The Boston terror attack and the questions about whether Russell knew about her husband’s deadly plans have renewed stereotypes and misconceptions that U.S. women who have chosen that faith say they want to dispel.

“It’s not because somebody made me do this,” explains Schreiber, who converted after a college study-abroad trip to West Africa. “It’s what I choose to do and I’m happy.”

Rebecca Minor

Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., converted to Islam five years ago. Wearing a hijab "reminds me to be a good person," she said.

Her view is echoed by Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago. When her students, ages 5 to 8, ask why she wears a headscarf, she always says the same thing: "It's something that's important to me and it reminds me to be a good person," says Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. 

Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2011, about 1.8 million U.S. adults were Muslim, and about 20 percent had converted to the faith, Pew researchers say. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women. About 1 in 5 converts mentioned family factors, including marrying a Muslim, as a reason for adopting the faith. 

Accusations are 'harsh'
Women convert for a wide range of reasons -- spiritual, intellectual and romantic -- says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” says Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”

Women like Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., say that wearing a headscarf and other traditional Islamic garb in public often leads people to assume she sacrificed her American life to please a man.

“'You must have converted in order to marry him,' I hear it all the time,” says Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband, Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago. 

She’s also heard people say that her husband is allowed to beat her, that she’s not free to get a divorce, that she and her two children, ages 4 months and 2, are subservient to the man. Such concepts are untrue, of course, she says.

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Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., converted to Islam four years ago. She says it was thoughtful, heart-felt choice that changed her life.

“In the beginning, it did offend me a lot,” says Faraj, who grew up in a Christian family in Florida. “But now as my sense of my new self has grown, I don’t feel offended.”

She’s able to joke, for instance, about the woman who screamed insults from a passing car.

“They screamed: ‘Go back to your own country’ and I thought, ‘It doesn’t get more white than this, girl,’” says Faraj, indicating her fair features. 

Like all stereotypes, such views are steeped in fear, says Haddad.

“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” she says. “They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”

All three women say they came to Islam after much thought and spiritual searching.

Islam 'entered my heart'
Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to the religion after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary's College of Maryland in 2009. 

She grew up in an agnostic family where she was encouraged to discover her own faith. 

"It was, whatever you decide to do -- temple, church, mosque -- I support you finding yourself," says Schreiber. She's now married to a Muslim man, Muhammad Oda, 27, whose parents were both converts to Islam. She said came to the faith before the relationship.  

Faraj, a stay-at-home mom, says she never saw herself "as a religious person, in the least," but became enthralled after trying to learn more about Islam before a visit to see her husband's family. 

“The concept of Islam hit me,” Faraj recalls. “It was just something that entered my heart.”

Minor, who is single, says she was intrigued by Islam in college, when she was close friends with a deployed American Marine but had Muslim friends at school.

"I saw a huge discrepancy in the negative things I heard coming from my (friend) and the actions I could see in my co-workers," she recalls. After spending 18 months learning about Islam, she decided to convert. 

The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly supportive, Minor says. 

"The more you can do to educate people about Islam, not by preaching, but by actions, the better," she says. 

Reports that Katherine Russell might have been embroiled in an abusive relationship, or that her husband intimidated her aren’t an indictment of Islam, Haddad says. 

"Abusive men come in all colors, nationalities, ethnicities and from all religions," she says. "No one says that Christianity teaches abuse of women because some Christian men are abusive."

Schreiber says she frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf. She says she appreciates it when people actually ask questions instead of making assumptions.

“I just want people to know that there are American Muslim women who wear hijab by choice because they believe in it and it feels right to them, not because anyone tells them to.”

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Replies

  • Sekirei
    by Sekirei
    April 26, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    I read some of the comments to this story on FB.. they were ignorant and frankly, quite disturbing. 


  • muslimahpj
    April 26, 2013 at 12:33 PM


    Quoting Sekirei:

    I read some of the comments to this story on FB.. they were ignorant and frankly, quite disturbing. 


    I never read the comments on these stories. It completely diminishes any hope for humanity when I do.

  • IhartU
    by IhartU
    April 26, 2013 at 12:40 PM

     I know this may sound strange but I can identify with this in a weird way. Being a christian and then converting to Atheism, I have been told I'm brainwashed by 'the liberal media' and have been told 'to leave the US' because I don't believe in god.

     I was lucky enough to grow up with a very diverse step family and in a town full of immigrants from all over- not to mention Amish and Mennonite, so seeing people of a variety of colors, religions and dress is not shocking to me. My husband on the other hand grew up in a tiny northern Michigan town and didn't even see a black person in real life until he was 13 when they moved to the DC area. He was thunderstruck and scared being thrown into a school with people of all races and religions and had to learn that stereotypes were not necessarily true.

     

  • Carpy
    by Carpy
    April 26, 2013 at 12:41 PM
    Were these women who chose to convert influenced by a bomber?
  • muslimahpj
    April 26, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    It's insane the things people try to come up with to justify what they dont understand. 

    My family has also accused me of being brainwashed since I converted. You might be shocked if I told you some of the things they did to me and kids after they found out. :/

    Quoting IhartU:

     I know this may sound strange but I can identify with this in a weird way. Being a christian and then converting to Atheism, I have been told I'm brainwashed by 'the liberal media' and have been told 'to leave the US' because I don't believe in god.

     I was lucky enough to grow up with a very diverse step family and in a town full of immigrants from all over- not to mention Amish and Mennonite, so seeing people of a variety of colors, religions and dress is not shocking to me. My husband on the other hand grew up in a tiny northern Michigan town and didn't even see a black person in real life until he was 13 when they moved to the DC area. He was thunderstruck and scared being thrown into a school with people of all races and religions and had to learn that stereotypes were not necessarily true.

     


  • OHgirlinCA
    April 26, 2013 at 12:44 PM

     Not every woman who converts is brainwashed by her husband or someone else.  Sure, there are those that do convert and happen to be in abusive relationships, but that's not about the religion.  That's about the abusive man himself.

  • blondekosmic15
    April 26, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    Freedom of Religion here in America. In various regions of the world, women are not blessed with this freedom nor privilege~

  • muslimahpj
    April 26, 2013 at 12:47 PM


    Quoting blondekosmic15:

    Freedom of Religion here in America. In various regions of the world, women are not blessed with this freedom nor privilege~

    Many muslim women in America are forced to NOT wear hijab by their families because of the way people like you react to women in hijab.  This happens in other countries too, not just America.

    Being forced to either wear it or not wear it goes completely against the religion.

    How are your muslim neighbors, bloko? Have you had them for dinner yet?

  • Generica
    April 26, 2013 at 12:47 PM


    Quoting muslimahpj:

    It's insane the things people try to come up with to justify what they dont understand. 

    My family has also accused me of being brainwashed since I converted. You might be shocked if I told you some of the things they did to me and kids after they found out. :/

    Quoting IhartU:

     I know this may sound strange but I can identify with this in a weird way. Being a christian and then converting to Atheism, I have been told I'm brainwashed by 'the liberal media' and have been told 'to leave the US' because I don't believe in god.

     I was lucky enough to grow up with a very diverse step family and in a town full of immigrants from all over- not to mention Amish and Mennonite, so seeing people of a variety of colors, religions and dress is not shocking to me. My husband on the other hand grew up in a tiny northern Michigan town and didn't even see a black person in real life until he was 13 when they moved to the DC area. He was thunderstruck and scared being thrown into a school with people of all races and religions and had to learn that stereotypes were not necessarily true.

     


    I grew up Seventh Day Adventist, but later became just a non denominational Christian, some folks in my family said I needed to get "Back to the Lord" ...Ugh really? 

    I kind of understand this too.

  • AlekD
    by AlekD
    April 26, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    As a Catholic convert from paganism I've been told I've been brainwashed too. xD I know that feel, bro.

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