The largest demographic of people converting to Islam in the UK are 27 year old white women, I met some to see if I could find out why. (Appeared on Grazia)
‘I used to do MDMA and go raving at Fabric. I remember going out, dressing up, short skirts, boobs up high. Getting attention from men, dancing and getting free drinks. And then I was like - what am I doing?’ Hana*
I’m hungover and sitting in a mosque. I’ve already text a friend worrying about last night’s vodka breath, and she replies telling me I’d make a terrible Muslim. I've also started a group whatsapp titled ‘are ankles appropriate?’ and subsequently borrowed a pair of long socks last minute. And I have one head scarf on and two more options in my backpack - I had to run to mum’s to find something appropriate, the only one I had at home was pink and leopard print.
Why am I here? Well, multi-faith group Faith Matters said there’s over 100,000 Muslim converts living in Britain (though they prefer the term ‘reverts’) and the average UK candidates converting are 27-year-old girls so I’ve come to a popular London Mosque find more out.
I can understand wanting to shirk the pressures of 2015. I’ve experienced feeling like my body doesn’t meet to a certain standard, felt uncomfortable with unwanted attention from guys, and wondered if there’s an alternative to having to be hangover if I want to hang out with pals… But turning to a new religion seems a bit extreme right?
I meet Holly*, 27, a make-up artist from Brixton, in a meeting for new female converts. Perfect eyeliner peeps out from under her Abaya (a loose dress with a hijab attached essentially), accessorised with a statement crystal necklace; she has some serious sass.
‘Want a Munchie?’ offers Holly. We’re sitting on a green carpet in a non-descript room overlooking the men's prayer hall. Everyone is chatty, interested and the atmosphere is pretty amazing. ‘You don’t have to wear that scarf you know, it’s only for when you’re ready’ she says. I look around, and she's right - there's no dress code here, I even spy a pair of skinny jeans.
It took me a while to get permission to join the meeting through the official channels, but it feels like I could’ve walked in from the street and been embraced. ‘I remember before I converted to Islam I was out with my friends drinking, everyone was having so much fun around me, and I just felt really sad’ Holly tells me. ‘Am I really here just to do this, work all week and go out on the weekend? It was weird, I just felt like there was a light on me and everyone else was in slow motion.’
Holly introduces me to her mate Hana*, 26, who’s a nurse in Croydon. She’s wearing a long black dress with a lace collar, and tells me she met her Pakistani husband on a dating site that wasn’t religiously exclusive, and in his culture it’s not imperative that wives convert for the marriage to be accepted.
So why did she convert anyway? 'I’d been reading about Islam prior to that, and I felt like it was right to convert for me, not because of a guy it was about positive changes, trying to be better and looking inside yourself,' Hana says. 'Sometimes in the back of your mind, you do think yeah I’d love to go for a drink but you just have to remind yourself why you’re not.'
The third girl I talk to is Fiona*, 26, who works at the mosque. She reverted at 19 after becoming disillusioned with RE at Catholic school in Ireland, and finding Islam on study abroad trip to Spain; ‘I’ve always got someone to turn to. That being Allah… There’s five times in a day when I bow my head down to him. I know whatever's happening in life at least I have that time to detach. If you take five minutes for each prayer that’s 25 mins out of 24 hours its not that long. It keeps me happy and sane.'
Fiona’s words strike me as paralleling the modern trend towards mindfulness… Everyone from Oprah to Millie Mackintosh and apps like Headspace successfully target a plethora of media types (waves to the internet), on a quest for a bit of zen between juices. When you swap the word ‘praying’ for ‘meditating’ some time out from the stresses of the day sounds quite great.
I feel almost jealous of the girls clarity and spiritual ecstasy. Have they really found a remedy from the nagging consumer pressures that’s made me visit the same pair of £250 leather trousers on Asos every day last week?
Of course converting to Islam means a sartorial overhaul as well as a spiritual one. News last week hit headlines after 19 year old Muslim convert Sarah Willis was cleared of charges of stabbing her boyfriend to death after rows about her ‘tight and short’ clothing. And in Iraq, Afghanistan and some other places under Muslim law covering your head with a hijab isn’t exactly a choice. So is wearing it in the West a reminder of when women were property of men, or a middle finger to pop stars penchant for getting in their birthday suit?
‘I feel like I’m more in control of my body,’ Holly tells me when I'd asked ‘Especially as everyone seems to be wearing less and less clothes! But sometimes it is hard to dress without feeling frumpy...’ She then shows me INAHAC’s instagram - which is basically the COS of Islam and I think I quite fancy one of their long-sleeved jumper dresses.
‘When I think of how I was before, I felt judged on my appearance in my career, people thought: "she’s a bimbo because she’s blonde” and wouldn’t take me seriously. I don’t have that problem now because they don’t know what I look like,’ Fiona adds.
Huge challenges come with being a revert, and all the girls I speak to have had friendships that have broken down and shocked family members. 'I don’t really get asked to come out that much with my old friends anymore. That's the hardest bit,' Hana tells me.
It’s tough to work out how to sculpt their new identities, having not grown up in an Islamic culture with Muslim norms, and decipher the difference between culture and religion. Although she’s keen to stress their inclusion of her, Fiona tells me she has felt ostracised at times by the Muslim community; ‘Sometimes people can be quite judgemental and their words can hurt; "you haven’t reached our level yet, or you don’t understand" that kind of thing'. But there are many people born Muslim who don’t understand their religion. I take it on the chin, Allah is the ultimate judge.’
During the meeting there's a lot I can reason with too; we learn about the prophet Mohammed’s first wife, who was 15 years his senior and took the initiative in their relationship, and had the balls to propose to him. We talk about why it’s so important to forgive, and be the best person on this earth - so you can be rewarded in the next. I ponder privately if there may be other reasons - apart from Allah’s judgement - to be kind to others, and wonder what they’d think of my gay friends here?
My brief flirtation with Islam makes the absence of culture and tradition in my life wildly apparent. As I leave I talk to Holly about pirate radio stations and clubbing options in London, 'I really like house music. I’d love to organise a girls-only sober rave!'. And with that she may have just converted me to the guest list.