Fourteen years ago, Mimi Ma became an American religious pioneer of sorts: At age 18, the former Indiana boarding school student converted to Islam.
Now a West Palm Beach resident, Ma says the decision wasn't difficult, but her life since has not been easy.
For starters, her faith cost her her family. Born in Vietnam to Buddhist parents and raised as a Christian in Africa by her eldest sister and American brother-in-law, she has had no contact with her relatives since her conversion.
She also lost a part of her identity. When she swapped blue jeans and T-shirts for head scarves and long skirts, some people suddenly couldn't see past the clothes. And since Sept. 11, few people see her as Asian anymore; they think she's Arab.
It is an experience more and more young American women can relate to, as growing numbers join Islam, the faith's leaders say, although they don't have statistics available.
"In the past there were more African-Americans coming into Islam," says Altaf Ali, director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Now I'm seeing an influx of white, Caucasian females. This is a very strange phenomenon. It's not anything negative, but it's something that's very unusual, something that's new to our religion."
Today, many of those converts will begin their first Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that calls on believers to fast from sunrise to sunset every day in an attempt to learn discipline, self-restraint and generosity. Ma and Ali know it will be a tough test for new believers, but they also think they know why many of them have converted: women's rights.
Despite stereotypes that portray Muslim women as subservient and silent, many women convert because of the freedom they find in Islam. For years, women converted only for marriage and for their husbands, Ali says. But today many single and married women convert based on their own convictions, especially those teachings about equality.
"It's common across the board," Ali says. "They always say they enjoy the respect that is given to them by members of the opposite sex."
Comfort in the Quran
Islamic teachings don't dictate subservience for women, Ma says, although some Islamic societies do. Ma found more in the Quran to ease her concerns about equality than she ever found in the Bible. She likes being able to challenge Muslim men, including her husband, whom she married after converting, when they tell her something about women's rights.
"I can say, 'Open it up. Prove it to me,' " she says of the Quran. And if they're trying to show that women shouldn't own property, be educated, take leadership in government, vote, control their own finances or do anything else that men do, they won't find the proof in the Quran, she says.
The Quran does speak about dress for women, but Ali hasn't found many converts who balk at wearing a scarf to cover their hair and long clothes to cover their arms and legs. Many embrace the idea, he says.
"It's easier to undress in our society than to dress," Ali says, laughing.
Ma agrees that many find relief in covering themselves.
"Women wear the scarves out of modesty, so people see us for who we are and what we do, not as sex objects," she says. "You can have an Islamic society where women are covered and have rights. And you can have a society where women who are very scantily clad don't have those rights."
Women's rights was the primary reason Ma herself converted to Islam.
Born during the Vietnam War, Mimi left the country at age 4 with her oldest sister and her sister's American husband, who worked for the Foreign Service.
Her brother-in-law was sent to Africa to work, moving over the years from Chad to Cameroon to Mali to Mauritania. The family practiced Christianity in the primarily Muslim countries and, according to Ma, held a low opinion of non-Christians.
An observant Presbyterian, Ma started studying the Quran and other Islamic teachings at the Midwestern boarding school. She thought it would be simply an intellectual experience, but almost immediately she found something in the faith of the Prophet Mohammed that filled her spiritual needs. As a devout teenager, the Bible's teachings on women and their roles had started to disturb her. She found nothing but equality for women in the Quran.
Family rejected her
After just a month of study, as an undergraduate at George Mason University in Virginia, she made the short profession of faith required to convert, immersed herself in Islam -- and was immediately rejected by her family.
"That's one of the most difficult aspects of converting," Ma says. "That didn't stop me. My concept of God can't be dictated by them."
After Sept. 11, she feared for her life and did not leave her Washington, D.C., apartment alone for months. Since she and her husband, Mohammad, moved to West Palm Beach in March, they have encountered a broader range of reactions, Ma says. More intolerance and yet more kindness, too. They considered returning to the nation's capital but have decided to build a home in St. Lucie County instead. They work together as project management consultants.
Until the house is finished, they're living at CityPlace, where Ma loves being so close to the bookstore. And as Ramadan begins, they look forward to getting to know the Muslim community here. Ma expects to break the fast on some nights at a local mosque. She also plans to start a Quran study this month.
"It's like a self-reformation time, like a boot camp," she says. "It's very rewarding and comforting feeling to know that Muslims all over the world are doing this together: abstaining from these things during the day and then breaking the fast at night."
Muslims also try to read the entire Quran during Ramadan -- Ma didn't make it her first year -- and to be kinder to each other. They become more focused on the important things in life. They often give money to the poor.
Concentrating at work is the hardest thing to do during Ramadan. But she insists fasting isn't so difficult. It's really just skipping lunch after a pre-dawn breakfast. The reason makes it worth every midday craving, she says.
"It's different when you're doing it for God," Ma says. "You're not thinking about food as much. Of course, you do. I fantasize about a chocolate mousse or a bag of chips. But thoughts of a Snickers bar, that leads to God and why you're doing this."