For many people in the West, Islam appears at odds with the idea of equal rights for men and women. So when a woman willingly converts to Islam it raises a few eyebrows. Why, people ask, would an educated, liberated woman choose a religion that in some interpretations permits polygamy and imposes the veil? Yet Islam continues to attract female converts in Western European countries. For many, the trigger is marriage to a Muslim man.
Prague, 18 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "I was brought up in Ireland in a very aware Catholic family with good morals and ethics,” says Batool al-Toma. “I was a practicing Catholic myself until probably my late teens and early 20s, when I began to have some difficulties with some of the theological issues relating to Christianity. I met some Muslims and they introduced me to Islam. I met them on a purely social basis. The fact that they introduced me to Islam was more [because of] my own questioning and my own enquiries into their particular attitudes and behaviors and perspectives on things, and then I became completely absorbed in it."
Al-Toma converted to Islam 25 years ago. Now she runs a project in England that gives advice to a steady stream of converts.
She says they come from all sorts of social backgrounds -- many of them, like her, drawn by what she calls the logic of Islam.
"I think it was the fact that I could actually argue out, in a rational manner, all the beliefs and understandings and religious concepts -- rituals and everything to do with the faith itself. And of course then I was able to accept Jesus, peace be upon him, as a prophet of God and was able to come to a [more] rational understanding of his role," Al-Toma said.
Nicole Bourque is an expert on conversion to Islam at Glasgow University in Scotland. She says statistics are inexact, but that in her city at least, female converts appear to outnumber the male.
She says for many, the trigger is marriage. "When I mention this to my students in class there's a common misapprehension that, 'Oh, these women must be forced to convert to Islam to marry their husbands.' And this is definitely not the case. One of the key factors is that if you're dissatisfied with the religion you were born with, and you're living with someone who's got an alternative form of religion, you're more likely to come in contact with that and to learn about it. I know some women who [were] more religious than their husbands, but they decided to learn a bit about Islam because it would help to deal with the in-laws and then liked what they learned and decided to go for it," Bourque said.
As the reaction of Bourque's students shows, many in the West are skeptical. Why would an educated woman raised in a liberal society choose to adopt a religion that is seen by many as discriminatory toward women?
Al-Toma argues against such stereotypes. She says she feels the teachings of Islam are in no way hard on women.
Take polygamy, which Islam allows under certain strict conditions. That's the exception to the rule, al-Toma says, and arguably may be beneficial to any society at certain times, such as after a war, when adult women may far outnumber men. As for the headscarf, she notes that it has a long tradition in other faiths as well.
Bourque says converts often talk about Islam's respect for women. "One thing these women say they like about Islam is that they say it is much more respectful to women than modern [Western] culture. One woman said that, 'I never realized until I became Muslim that Muslim women's bodies are respected -- men are not supposed to stare at other women.' Yet in the West women are used as sex objects. If you sell a car, you put a naked woman on top," Bourque said.
But conversion is not always easy.
Many parents are upset to discover their daughter is adopting another religion, though Bourque says they usually accept it in the end -- especially if the daughter shows a newfound respect for her parents, an important value in Islam.
Wider society, however, is sometimes less accepting.
Anne-Sofie Roald has researched conversion to Islam in Scandinavia, where she says there are also more female than male converts.
Roald says many people regard such women as "traitors" for choosing a religion that is perceived as repressive to women.
But there's an added twist.
Roald says most of the women converts are married to first-generation immigrants, a situation that puts them in a more socially prominent role than that of their husbands.
"The first generation very often speaks the language not very well. And also, when it comes to social codes, they don't always know how to express themselves in a way that Scandinavians will understand and be supportive or sympathetic towards them. So that means that the converts have taken the role of spokeswomen. There are some Scandinavian males also, but mostly it's women who go out in the media, radio, TV and give lectures about Islam and Muslims," Roald said.
One example is Lena Larsen, a convert who for a time headed Norway's Islamic Council. Larsen faced so much public hostility she once said she had been branded an "anti-hero."
Al-Toma says many people would be more understanding of women like Larsen if they learned more about Islam.
If people read about it with an open mind, she says, "they would probably see the attraction that's there for women."