As a young girl from Michigan, Lisa felt attached to Christianity. Her father’s family was Catholic while her mother’s side was conservative Christian Baptist. However, Lisa’s mother never really embraced Christianity and held rather negative views about religion. “She raised me to be very open-minded, very liberal, politically and religiously,” Lisa recalls. Hence, the decision to choose Christianity was Lisa’s own.
Yet, despite attending Christian camps and getting involved in their activities, Lisa could not be at ease with certain aspects of the Christian doctrine. As her mother would question, “How can anybody just tell a random person that they’re going to Hell?” And so Lisa, being a Christian, never really faced that question.
While in college, Lisa describes herself as a feminist. She was also passionate about photography and travel. And so when she got the opportunity through a Moroccan friend to teach English for a few months in Tangier, she gladly accepted it. There, in North Africa, she lived with a local family that knew very little English which limited her opportunity to learn about their Islamic beliefs.
However, Lisa noticed that the women of the household would wear the hijab – covering all their body parts except the face and hands – when leaving home. Feeling the desire to blend in, Lisa also decided to do the same. First, she put on the scarf, and later, the abaya – an outer garment that covers much of the body – when going out of the house during her several months’ stay in Morocco.
After returning to the US, Lisa started working at a bank, dealing with interest on a day-to-day basis. However, she instinctively decided against doing an interest-based job. As she recalls, “Something within me was like, ‘This is not right; I’m not supposed to be doing this.’” Instead, she decided to choose a more creative field and pursue her passion: she moved to Florida and joined a photography school.
At the same time, she started volunteering at Project Downtown, an initiative to help the homeless and the impoverished people in the local community. There, she met and befriended several Muslim volunteers. As part of her photography school assignment, Lisa decided to make a documentary on hijab, and interviewed a Muslim friend at Project Downtown who observed hijab. This interview was to change her life forever.
During the interview, Lisa asked generic questions like why her friend wore the hijab, whether it was difficult for her, and if people judged her because of it. Lisa was utterly surprised to learn from her Muslim friend that even the Bible (Corinthians 11:6) mentions that women were supposed to observe hijab.
Thus, Lisa discovered the “other” point of view about Islam that she had never really thought of. She found out that Islam was “a feminist religion” – one that gave rights to women rather than subjugate them. She soon realized that stereotypes such as Muslim women not being allowed to pursue any careers or living only for their husbands were incorrect.
Her attention was also drawn to an unfortunate reality of the modern era. “Just look around and look at the magazine aisle,” her friend said. “Nothing is sold without a woman’s body being put next to it. You can’t even sell a bag of chips without having a naked woman next to it.”
This discourse really set Lisa thinking. She felt like she had lived in an oppressive society without even realizing it. She thought, “Why do we have to feel so self-conscious about our bodies all the time?” The hijab is not just a symbol of modesty and piety but also an expression of freedom from how the society has come to use women, she thought.
Soon after this interview, Lisa decided to look up the verse from the Bible her friend had referred to. It states:
For if a woman does not cover her head [while praying or prophesying], she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. (Corinthians 11:6)
She also referred to a verse of the Quran on the subject:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what [ordinarily] appears thereof… (Quran 24:31)
Lisa found the Biblical command of “shaving the head in shame” rather demeaning for women. “But yet, the Quran talks how beautiful the woman is that I should be covered. And that’s when I started just looking at things differently,” she says. This verse of the Quran made her interested in finding out more about Islam.
Hence, she started reading a translation of the Quran, studying books on Islam, and watching YouTube videos by Islamic scholars. At the same time, she started observing the hijab as that was one decision she felt sure about. “So, I actually put the hijab on before I took my Shahada [i.e. embrace Islam],” she says.
Wearing the hijab to her photography class for the first time was particularly challenging for Lisa. “I remember going to class and I remember just being so nervous,” she tearfully recalls. “You have to answer to everybody why are you wearing that.”
She kept researching Islam, and the greater she learned, the more she felt like it was the religion for her. A few months later, she took her Shahadah and formally embraced Islam, experiencing a sense of tranquility as she did so. Since then, she has encountered many challenges, not the least of which has been the reaction of others to her conversion.
“My mom took it pretty hard, which was actually kind of the irony of it. She had taught me my whole life to be open-minded and accept everybody, and it was so hard for her to accept this,” she says. Her mother would comment, “Why do you have to wear the hijab? Can’t you just take that off?”
And so Lisa would take off the hijab when visiting her mother in Michigan, being in a constant struggle between following her values and staying connected with her family. “But, Alhamdulillah, my family now accepts everything and I believe I’m on the right path,” she says.
Lisa’s story is a reminder of the courage and determination required for standing up for the truth and upholding your values in a world that imposes its own behavioral norms and set of beliefs. In particular, for young Muslim converts like Lisa, it is often an uphill task to not compromise on their faith and, at the same time, not become estranged from family and friends.
“I’m so proud to wear my hijab now but, at the time, it’s so hard. You know, you have to explain to everybody and I did it, but it took so much strength,” Lisa concludes.
You can watch the complete YouTube video of Lisa narrating her story of conversion here.