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Not 'brainwashed': American women who converted to Islam speak out

1:33 PM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
  • Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., converted to Islam five years ago. (NBC)
  • Lauren Schreiber, 26, converted to Islam in 2010 after a study-abroad trip. (NBC)
  • Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., converted to Islam four years ago. (NBC)
    
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(NBC) -- When an American convert to Islam was revealed as the wife of the dead Boston bombing suspect, Lauren Schreiber wasn't surprised at what came next.

Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor's daughter, must have been coerced and controlled by her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week in a firefight with police.

"She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him," reported the Associated Press, quoting Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., woman who said she knew Russell and her 3-year-old daughter.

That kind of assumption isn't new to Schreiber, 26, a Greenbelt, Md., woman who became a Muslim in 2010.

"The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you've forfeited your free will," says Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress.

The Boston terror attack and the questions about whether Russell knew about her husband's deadly plans have renewed stereotypes and misconceptions that U.S. women who have chosen that faith say they want to dispel.

"It's not because somebody made me do this," explains Schreiber, who converted after a college study-abroad trip to West Africa. "It's what I choose to do and I'm happy."

Her view is echoed by Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago. When her students, ages 5 to 8, ask why she wears a headscarf, she always says the same thing: "It's something that's important to me and it reminds me to be a good person," says Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.

Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2011, about 1.8 million U.S. adults were Muslim, and about 20 percent had converted to the faith, Pew researchers say. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women. About 1 in 5 converts mentioned family factors, including marrying a Muslim, as a reason for adopting the faith.

Accusations are 'harsh'
Women convert for a wide range of reasons -- spiritual, intellectual and romantic -- says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

"Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind," says Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, "Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today."

Women like Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., say that wearing a headscarf and other traditional Islamic garb in public often leads people to assume she sacrificed her American life to please a man.

"'You must have converted in order to marry him,' I hear it all the time," says Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband, Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago.

She's also heard people say that her husband is allowed to beat her, that she's not free to get a divorce, that she and her two children, ages 4 months and 2, are subservient to the man. Such concepts are untrue, of course, she says.

"In the beginning, it did offend me a lot," says Faraj, who grew up in a Christian family in Florida. "But now as my sense of my new self has grown, I don't feel offended."

She's able to joke, for instance, about the woman who screamed insults from a passing car.

"They screamed: 'Go back to your own country' and I thought, 'It doesn't get more white than this, girl,'" says Faraj, indicating her fair features.

Like all stereotypes, such views are steeped in fear, says Haddad.

"Accusations of brainwashing are harsh," she says. "They cover up the fact that we don't comprehend why people like 'us' want to change and be like 'them.'"

All three women say they came to Islam after much thought and spiritual searching.

Islam 'entered my heart'
Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to the religion after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary's College of Maryland in 2009.

She grew up in an agnostic family where she was encouraged to discover her own faith.

"It was, whatever you decide to do -- temple, church, mosque -- I support you finding yourself," says Schreiber. She's now married to a Muslim man, Muhammad Oda, 27, whose parents were both converts to Islam. She said came to the faith before the relationship.

Faraj, a stay-at-home mom, says she never saw herself "as a religious person, in the least," but became enthralled after trying to learn more about Islam before a visit to see her husband's family.

"The concept of Islam hit me," Faraj recalls. "It was just something that entered my heart."

Minor, who is single, says she was intrigued by Islam in college, when she was close friends with a deployed American Marine but had Muslim friends at school.

"I saw a huge discrepancy in the negative things I heard coming from my (friend) and the actions I could see in my co-workers," she recalls. After spending 18 months learning about Islam, she decided to convert.

The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly supportive, Minor says.

"The more you can do to educate people about Islam, not by preaching, but by actions, the better," she says.

Reports that Katherine Russell might have been embroiled in an abusive relationship, or that her husband intimidated her aren't an indictment of Islam, Haddad says.

"Abusive men come in all colors, nationalities, ethnicities and from all religions," she says. "No one says that Christianity teaches abuse of women because some Christian men are abusive."

Schreiber says she frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf. She says she appreciates it when people actually ask questions instead of making assumptions.

"I just want people to know that there are American Muslim women who wear hijab by choice because they believe in it and it feels right to them, not because anyone tells them to."

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