Some S. Florida Latinas converting to Islam for emphasis on family, women's roles



By Tal Abbady
Staff Writer
January 3, 2006

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/southflorida/sfl-pconverts03jan03,0,7380692.story

Melissa Matos slips into an easy communion with her
newest circle of friends.

At regular meetings, they invoke their families'
native towns in Cuba or the Dominican Republic, or
recipes for arroz con pollo. English is interspersed
with Spanish. And, posing no incongruity to the women,
hijabs, or Muslim head scarves, frame their faces.

When she converted to Islam in May, Matos, a
Dominican-American raised as a Seventh-day Adventist,
expected the passage to be lonely.

"I said to myself, `Great, I'm going to be the only
Muslim Latina in the whole world,'" said Matos, 20, a
student at Florida International University who
recently joined a group of Latina converts to Islam.

Scholars say Matos is part of a growing number of
Latin women converting to Islam for its emphasis on
family, piety and clearly defined women's roles,
values converts say were once integral to Hispanic
culture but have waned after years of assimilation.

The women are among 40,000 Hispanic converts to Islam
in the United States, according to the Islamic Society
of North America. About a decade ago, Latino converts
began forming Internet groups such as the Latino
American Dawah Organization and the women's group
Piedad that trace Hispanics' ties to Islam back to the
Spanish Moors.

Grass-roots leaders say the number of converts grew
sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bucking a
trend of thought among Americans that links Islam to
terrorism.

Sofian Abelaziz, president of the Miami-based American
Muslim Association of North America, said one
indication of the conversions is the demand for
Spanish-language copies of the Koran, which spiked
after Sept. 11. In the past two years, the group has
filled orders for 5,500 Spanish-language Korans for
schools, cultural institutes and prisons around the
country, out of 12,000 orders total.

Matos and other converts say the recent media
spotlight on Islam was their first exposure to the
faith and spurred further learning.

"[Before] I picked up the Koran, my attitude was,
`There's something wrong with this religion,'" said
Matos, 20, of Miramar. A friend gave her a copy of the
Koran. "But then I saw it was filled discussions of
grace from God, of the protection of things we talk
about as human rights, of a universal brotherhood. ...
This is a religion that encourages thinking and
contemplation," she said. In May, Matos converted by
reciting the shahada, a prayer in which converts
attest to their belief in Allah and Mohammed in front
of Muslim witnesses. Islam now circumscribes her life.
She is studying Arabic, prays five times a day, wears
a hijab and follows Islamic dietary laws.

"There is no conflict between my Dominican heritage
and Islam. I grew up in a culture where you have a
family you love and you take care of one another, and
Islam complements those values," Matos said.

Matos' conversion rattled friends and family members
who linked Islam with Taliban-style oppression, but
scholars say Latina converts are practicing a
confessional Islam that offers strong moral
guidelines.

"People might ask, `Why would women convert to a
religion that is so traditional in its gender roles?'
But that's part of the appeal. There's a recovery of
dignity," said Manuel Vasquez, religion professor at
the University of Florida. "Second-generation Latinas
are caught between the morality of their parents and
the morality of the larger mainstream society. Islam
offers a clear code. Women ... know they are
respected, taken care and protected from the negative
influences of secular society. It's a kind of
empowerment they don't experience in a culture that is
constantly sexualizing them, and Latinas are
particularly sexualized."

The converts may be fashioning a form of Islam that
meets their needs in a country that allows them to do
so.

"It's a comment on our society, on the fragmentation
of American family life," said Leila Ahmed, a Harvard
University professor who has written extensively on
gender in Islam. "We have to bear that this is
happening in America, where there is freedom of
choice. These women are not converting in order to go
and live in Saudi Arabia. We also don't know how
permanent these conversions are in a country where
people convert two or three times in their lives."

Like many converts, Matos calls herself a "revert," a
reference to the Muslim belief that everyone is born
in a state of submission to Allah. Being Hispanic and
following Islam now are inextricable.

"When I meet with [my group] we speak in Spanish," she
said. "We'll talk about what it was like back in Cuba
or the Dominican Republic. And yet we're all wearing
hijabs. It reminds me of the universality of Islam."

Religious leaders say the Latina converts assimilate
easily into Islam.

"What they see in Islam is what their parents used to
practice: that respect for elders, the care and
protection that husbands are obligated to give their
wives," said Maulana Shafayat Mohamed, director of the
Darul Uloom Islamic Institute in Pembroke Pines. "Many
converts tell me, `This is how my parents grew up.'"

When a Hispanic Muslim friend slipped a copy of the
Koran into her hands, Marie Hernandez found "a total
way of life."

"I started reading about the life of the Prophet
Mohammed, and I was convinced that this is the true
prophet of God," said Hernandez, 22, of Boca Raton.
"This is the message I have to follow."

Islam also was a powerful antidote to a troubled
adolescence, during which Hernandez left home for two
years.

Conversion meant the end of partying, very little
television and waking up at 5 a.m. for her first
prayers. It also meant reconciling with her
Honduran-born Catholic parents and becoming a Muslim
wife. She met her husband, an Egyptian, through a
meeting arranged by her imam. They have a 20-month-old
toddler, Fatimah, named for the Prophet Mohammed's
iconic daughter.

"At first my parents thought it was weird, and they
were scared," Hernandez said. "They thought I might
get too extreme in my worship. But now we have a
beautiful relationship. Part of being a Muslim is to
honor your parents, and I started treating my dad the
way I should have."

A strong draw for Hernandez was the idea that for
Muslims, Islam is the culmination of all religions. In
the Koran, Jesus is venerated as a prophet, and entire
passages are devoted to the Virgin Mary -- a
ubiquitous figure in Latin American culture.

"It's important to know that Jesus and Mary play a
role in Islam. Most Latin Americans are Catholic
because that's all they know, that's what their
predecessors were," said Hernandez, who cooks tamales
to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Converts say they are evidence that Latino identity is
in flux.

"One reaction Latinos have with regard to Latinos who
come to Islam is, `You're leaving your religion!
You're leaving your culture!' But Latino culture is
evolving," said Juan Galvan, president of the Texas
chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization.

"It's quite possible that Islam will one day be
inseparable from Latino culture just as Christianity
is."

Roraima Aisha Kanar, 52, is from a family of Cuban
exiles who fled Cuba in 1959 and settled in Miami.
Dissatisfied with Catholicism, she converted to Islam
30 years ago.

"My mother was devastated. I couldn't go to the beach
and wear a bathing suit. I had to be covered and not
wear makeup. I couldn't wear low-cut dresses. I felt
like telling her, `Do you mean to tell me that's
what's important in life?'" she said. "I think Latinas
who convert are looking for a culture that we'd always
had and then lost: strictness in the family, respect
towards the elderly, moral and spiritual ties and the
importance of having God in your life. Our
grandparents had values similar to that. As converts
we're just coming back to our roots."

After her conversion, she grew apart from her
nightclub-hopping friends. She married a Turkish man
with whom she has three children.

For Kanar, wearing the hijab, which some see as a sign
of subjugation, is liberating.

"I lived through the '70s women's-lib movement," said
Kanar, who works in accounting and owns a real estate
business. "As a woman you wanted to be accepted as a
person with a brain and not just a sexual object that
had to be looking pretty to men all the time. I saw
covering as something that would give me a lot of
self-esteem. It did."

Kanar says she has straddled her Latino heritage and
Islam comfortably.

"As soon as you speak to me you forget I'm wearing a
hijab. I'm Cuban, and I speak with my hands. I love
Celia Cruz. We don't go to Calle Ocho and we don't
celebrate Christmas. We eat Spanish food, and though
we won't have pork, we can do a nice lamb. What does
it mean to be a Cuban, really? I feel Cuban, but I'm a
Muslim Cuban."

Tal Abbady can be reached at tabbady@sun-sentinel.com
or 561-243-6624.

Copyright  2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel





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