Each year, about 20,000 people in the United States convert to Islam. Many find they must defend the decision, especially to their families.
The first time 21-year-old Rose Munoz deflates the Whoopie cushion, everyone jumps, then begins to giggle. Rolling her eyes at her vice president's antics, 19-year-old Amal Kurdi, the president, calls the members of the Sisters United Muslim Association back to attention.
It is just before noon on Friday, and the young women, most of whom wear hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, are simultaneously making their way through an extensive agenda (student-teacher dinner, poetry reading, highway cleanup, beauty tips) and a veritable feast of college student food (strawberries and Cool Whip, Keebler Chips Deluxe, carrots and ranch dressing).
One young woman, a recent convert, suggests that SUMA host a dinner for the parents of converts. Rose, who also is a convert, embraces any opportunity to spread awareness about Islam.
"We can have different people get up and talk about why we converted,and how we faced hardship with our parents," Rose says.
Every year, about 20,000 people in the United States convert to Islam, in addition to those who convert in prison, according to a study conducted last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Of these converts, there are more women than men, the majority of them young and unmarried, says Hodan Hassan, spokeswoman for CAIR. They come to Islam because they have Muslim co-workers and friends, because they have Muslim boyfriends, or because they start studying and find they agree with the tenets of a religion thate mphasizes modesty and community.
In the past year, Muslim women have frequently been called upon to defend their role in their faith. But young women who convert to Islam often face an additional challenge: persuading their families to accept their decisions. Islam insists that people maintain close family ties and show respect for their parents. For those who are going against their parents' wishes merely by practicing Islam, negotiating a balance can prove difficult.
The weekend she converted, Rose drove to her parents' home, turned off the television and announced, "I converted to Islam. This is how we pray."
"Who is Jesus to you now?" Rose's mother asked.
"He's a prophet, a great man, just not God."
Her parents, Colombian immigrants who had moved from New York City to St. Petersburg when Rose was 5, assumed it was a phase. They initially didn't mind, as long as she didn't wear hijab.
Rose did not intend to wear the scarf. But slowly, she started covering her hair with baseball caps. Then she moved on to bandanas. Her Muslim friends assured her that when she was ready to wear hijab, she would know. The day she put it on, Rose felt liberated.
"I used to dress very provocatively," she says. "People say, "Don't you miss it?' What do I miss? I gained something. I don't get gawked at by random men anymore."
Rose says her parents, however, were horrified by her decision to wear hijab.
"You chose your religion over us," she says they told her. "People will discriminate against you. You're making yourself a third-rate citizen." She says her father calls her every time he hears about an attack on a Muslim. By wearing hijab, he tells her, "You've basically painted a bull's-eye on you saying "shoot me.'"
Her younger sister, a 15-year-old high school sophomore who wants to be a movie star, asked her, "How are you going to heaven?"
Rose Munoz moves so naturally in her elegant peach-colored hijab and her matching loose-fitting julbab that it seems surprising her first exposure to Islam took place only three years ago. A friend lent her a copy of the Koran. Rose flipped through it a bit, read maybe five pages, then put it away.
Although she had been baptized twice -- by Roman Catholics in New York and Baptists in St. Petersburg -- Rose hadn't felt comfortable in either faith. She was scolded for asking too many questions and gossiped about for wearing tight clothes and partying.
By the time she started studying at USF, Rose had long since stopped attending church. She began seeing groups of young women, their hair covered with hijab, walking together around campus. She started looking for them at the library every Friday. On one of these Fridays, Sept. 3, 1999, a month into her freshman year, Rose approached them.
"I really want a "head thing' and to come to the mosque if you guys will take me," she blurted out. Amal, who remains one of Rose's best friends, was in that group. The girls brought Rose home, gave her appropriate clothing, and invited her to join them for Friday prayers at the mosque.
"It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Rose remembers. "It was so calming and so peaceful. Everybody was bowing down and praying. I'd always been at churches where the front pews were reserved for the people who gave the most money."
When the prayers were over, Rose looked at Amal. "I want to convert right now," she said. "Are you sure?" Amal asked.
"This is it," Rose answered. She could feel it.
Rose's struggle to defend her faith to her family was intensified by the climate of fear that many Muslims experienced in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Despite such difficulties, in the 13 months since Sept. 11, many Muslim groups have noticed an increase in new converts.
"We've seen a surge of interest in Islam," says Altaf Ali, director of CAIR Florida, "and as that surge increases, so does the conversion ratio." Britney Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Durant High School, is one of the new converts. Raised in a Baptist family, the fourth of seven children, she had the same initial reaction as many of her peers in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"I thought we should turn the Middle East into a parking lot," she remembers. But at that time, Britney's family lived next door to a Muslim family, and Britney was friendly with many of the neighbors' children. So she bought The Idiot's Guide to Islam, and started studying. That was in November 2001. After a few months, a friend gave her Amal's phone number. Britney started attending Sunday classes at the mosque. She converted this past August. "I was nervous, dizzy," she says. "This has been the most incredible month of my life."
[Times photo: Ken Helle. Converts take classes and study books such as the Sahih Muslim, a collection of sayings and deeds by the Muslim prophet Mohammad.]
Britney says that if she could choose to clarify one misconception about Islam, she would explain that women are not oppressed. She says her family has accepted her conversion "pretty well." "It's so opposite from what we hear on the news," she says. "In my world religions class, people say, "Wow, I never knew Islam was so close to Judaism and Christianity.'"
Muslim leaders are also quick to dispel many of the myths surrounding the role women play in Islam. Hassan of CAIR says many of these stereotypes arise from the incorrect understanding "that we're voiceless, that it is mandated in Islam that we have no rights, that we're chattel."
Sofian Abdelaziz, director of the American Muslim Association of North America, says that Islam emphasizes the importance of women's education.
"In the mosque, women are supposed to be active, to teach," he says. "The daughter of the prophet used to teach Islam, even to men." Hassan says actions taken by specific governments, especially Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, have led many people in the West to believe Islam is a misogynistic faith, when in fact those governments are breaking Islamic law. Hassan notes that Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, has a female president, Egypt and Jordan have a higher percentage of female engineers and doctors than the United States, and a larger percentage of women sit in the Iranian parliament than in the U.S. Congress.
"There is no compulsion -- and this is in the Koran -- in faith," she says. "You give people the option to cover. If you force them, it goes against Islam."
For many young women, the emphasis on modesty is a crucial reason for their attraction to Islam. Just three weeks ago, Arrica Clark's life was, by her own estimation, a mess. "I used to be real boy crazy, wearing those little shorts," says the 27-year-old single mother, as she sits in McDonald's watching three of her four small children play with Happy Meal figurines. The father of 6-year-old Kashayla and 5-year-old Lonnie sends Arrica some child support. The father of 3-year-old Jamellah and 14-month-old Fatima does not. To make ends meet, Arrica works as a cashier at a local U-Save, leaving the children in government-subsidized day care.
Stressed from what she calls "living in the world," she says she used to "cuss like a sailor" at work and scream at her children at home. As a high school student, Arrica had known some Muslim girls and had once tried wearing hijab. She had taken it off after three days because she was confused. The father of Jamellah and Fatima is Muslim, and had encouraged Arrica to consider Islam. Arrica had only been with her most recent boyfriend for two months when she became pregnant with a fifth child, due in April. Her boyfriend hit her. She kicked him out. A few days later, she went to an open house at the mosque, and said shahada, the prayer for accepting Islam.
"I felt like a whole new person," she says. "I felt clean. Men can't holler at me," she adds. "I don't miss that part." Her father, who is Christian, doesn't know she converted. She doesn't think he'd approve.
[Times photo: Ken Helle. Amal Kurdi, center, in discussion with Taqwa Aquil, left, and Anna Harbaoui at the end of their Islamic conversion class.]
Rose still plays soccer with other SUMA members, still rides horseback, still visits Busch Gardens, still eats pizza and watches movies and dances when she is alone with her friends. What she misses most, she says, is a normal relationship with her family. She believes that, with time, such a relationship is possible. "My mom loves me so much she'll buy me scarves sometimes," Rose smiles. "My grandmother gave me a beautiful, velvet embroidered scarf. They'll respect my prayer, but at the same time ask, "Why are you so fanatical?"
In the shadowy side room of the al-Qassam mosque in north Tampa, 10 young women sit in a semi-circle on the beige and brown-striped carpet. A fan whirs overhead, gently stirring the flowing scarves -- ivory, violet, cobalt, sage -- that conceal heads of blond, brown and black hair. Loose dresses, worn for modesty, drape gracefully over bodies thick and thin.
It is Sunday, just after noon, and Amal and her friend Taqwa Aquil are leading a weekly class, with support from Rose and Jennifer Valko, a quiet 20-year-old who converted two years ago and is co-vice president of SUMA. The more recent converts, including Arrica and Britney, mostly listen and ask questions. "What if you haven't prayed and it's time to go to sleep?" asks Britney. "I've heard it's better not to pray tired," Rose says. "That's true, but you should take the necessary steps, set an alarm," Amal replies. They talk about the prayer for guidance. "This might sound silly, but I'm a dorky student and I do it before I take a test," Amal confesses. "If I'm all stressed out, I tell myself, I studied, I did what I can, and now I'm just leaving it to him to help me through."
"You know what's cool?" Rose says, looking up. "In the Koran, Allah's mercy is greater than his wrath. All these prayers are really long, but the one for forgiveness is really simple."
At 2 p.m., the imam chants the call to prayer. The young women stand in a row, their eyes closed, their heads bowed. Slowly, quiet sounds penetrate the silence of the mosque -- the whirring of the fan, the cries of children outside, the rustle of dresses as the young women kneel, bow, kneel, stand, and the sound of the imam's voice, calling the name of Allah.