I took my Shahadah in a small student apartment of my university friends Lamya from Yemen and Amal from Iran, during my doctoral studies in Minneapolis, USA. Lamya explained to me the basics of Islam, and Amal guided me word by word through the Arabic phrase of the testimony. Very modest and simple, because Islam is not difficult – it is a religion of ease.
No doubt, myriads of inner changes lead a person to conversion and the transformation continues after the Shahadah. By learning about Islam and aligning one’s thinking and actions to its principles, a convert grows in the new faith. However, I experienced that for me the changes did not happen just within – surprisingly, it was as if the entire world around me changed as well and I came to see it with new eyes.
In public, the hallmark of a Muslim woman is her Hijab. Who could have thought that just by putting on this one simple piece of cloth I will discover an entirely new Minneapolis than I used to live in before? As a major university city, Minneapolis buzzed with thousands of students just like me – I was part of the busy crowd riding the busses, walking the streets, cycling with backpack over my shoulders. Before Hijab, I blended in so smoothly, so easily. Even though I converted back in pre-9/11 world, I was naturally anxious that, as a public announcement of faith, my Hijab would set me apart. How will people look at me on the street? Will my professors react to this change? What will my fellow students say? How will I stand as a teacher in front of my own students in this new attire?
Stepping out of home for the first time with Hijab on, I knew I was doing the right thing and that there would be no way back. Yet, it was not easy. I was self-conscious at the bus stop, but when I stepped onto the bus, I was greeted by smiles. Smiles? Who would have expected that? Actually, Minneapolis served as a settlement place for many Somali refugees due to its favourable job market situation. I had seen Somali women in their traditional Muslim clothing on the buses before – it was a usual sight. However, that day, they were not just refugees any more, as they had turned into my sisters in faith. Seeing my Hijab, they acknowledged it with a welcoming smile, as if to say “welcome to the Ummah, sister”. And this felt so reassuring and heart-warming!
As I reached the university for attending lectures, I realized that in such a multicultural country as the USA, your personal choices are just that – your personal business. Even though I myself was hyper aware of my Hijab, others took it naturally without giving me any hard time. In fact, quite the opposite was true – I receive compliments from my female professor on the beautiful designs of my Hijab, which she said suited me well. My fellow teaching assistant and friend looked at me and said: “Looking great! I like people, who make big choices.” With this simple sentence, she positively acknowledged the big change that had taken place in my life – no judgement, no scorn, Alhumdulillah.
Yet another test was to stand for the first time in classroom in front of my own students. I was worried how they will perceive me in the new look. However, once again they took it as completely normal – no questions asked. Only one of my female students came up to me after the class and asked: “Are you dressed like this because you are getting married?” I explained to her that actually I had already got married a while ago, and that this change in appearance signified change of my religion.
On the way home, I stopped for some milk by the small shop around the corner of my home. The shop owner knew me very well, as I frequented the shop quite often. This time, as I was standing by the cash register, he kept looking at me. Then he asked: “It is not that cold outside, so why are you covering your head?” To this I replied that actually I am not covering because of weather but because of my new religion. His eyes grew wide and he said: “Alhumdulillah!” His toddler daughter was sitting on the counter next to him, so he asked her to say Salam to me and that from now on she should say Salam to me whenever I came into the shop. Now, this was totally unexpected, as it had never crossed my mind that he could be Muslim! Subhan’Allah, what new world opened up to me just because of putting on Hijab!
Leaving the shop with this new awareness, I saw a couple figures of the usual slim and tall Somali men disappear into the tiny eatery across the street. At that point it struck me that they probably also were Muslims and that this eatery could be serving Halal food. I felt like all new Minneapolis was opening up to me now that I was Muslim. I also got to know that there were quite a few mosques in the city and began frequenting one of them every Saturday for convert sisters Halaqa. I learned about the Muslim stores, where I could get Halal meat, Shwarma and Baklawa, which became my all-time favourite sweet after I first tasted it. Once, as I was about to sit in my car after leaving a Halal shop, a couple men approached me from across the parking lot: “Sister, are you married?” I could not help but smile, as I replied that I actually am. So… Hijab was also a way to scoop in marriage proposals!
That was not the only instance of being approached by strangers on the street. On an occasion, when I had stopped at gas station for self-help vacuuming of the car carpets, another Muslim man approached me saying: “Sister, you do not need to do this. Let me do it for you.” Surprised by his concern but quite disturbed by such an unexpected attention from a stranger, I politely declined. As I searched in my wallet for another quarter to put in the machine for re-starting the vacuum, the same man came up again and offered to pay for me. Now this felt like too much attention, so I once again politely declined. I could feel though that his concern was genuine and wish to help sincere – back in 2000 it was not such a common sight to see white convert women on the street.
Through all the little bits and pieces of my experiences, I felt welcomed by the Muslim Ummah. It seemed, as if Minneapolis had changed, although in reality it was still the same city – it was me, who saw it now through different eyes, and it was my Hijab, which helped me to become part of the Muslim sub-culture. Quran tells us that we should put on Hijab for being recognized as Muslim women (Al-Ahzab 33:5) – Allah (swt) truly knows what is best for us. Now looking back I realize that if I would not have put on my Hijab, I would have missed out on all these beautiful experiences, which brought so much reaffirmation and strength to my faith.