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Teen Muslim convert defies atheist family

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Jenny, 20, leaves the Stockholm Mosque. Photo: Ann Törnkvist
07:20 CET+01:00
In the first of a series of interviews with religious converts in Sweden, The Local speaks with Jenny, 20, about choosing Islam, feeling like a coward, and why she didn't invite her parents to the most important event of her life.

Jenny's teacher went in for the hard sell. Why being Jewish was the best. Then, why being Christian was the best. And, why being Muslim was the best. The teacher also turned to her students in the upper middle-class Stockholm suburb and said:

"I know you all have prejudices. So what've you got? Bring it!"

It was a different approach to teaching Swedish teenagers about the world religions that sparked something in then 16-year-old Jenny's mind. Born and raised in a party-loving, affluent, and atheist family, Jenny had not been interested in Islam before then. Indeed, she says she was prejudiced against it.

"Everyone knows someone whose friend's friend's neighbour's daughter was kidnapped in Morocco," she jokes. "Muslims were terrorists who abused women."

Three years later, a black hijab covered in white dots covers her hair and neck. She will take it off later, as she journeys back home to her parents, for many different reasons, none of which make her proud.

"I feel like a coward," she says as she walks over to the central Stockholm mosque.

There are two main reasons why she cannot face coming out as a convert every day. A particularly venomous encounter with two men on the commuter train just a week ago when the duo stared at her - "as though they wanted me to die" - left her shaken. She believes she gets the roughest end of the deal as a white convert.

"People in general - both Average Svenssons and non-religious immigrants - show more understanding for Muslims who look foreign," theorizes Jenny, who has porcelain skin and blue eyes. When she does not wear the hijab, her light locks are striking. "I think they think foreign-born Muslims didn't have a choice, that they were raised to be religious by their parents."

She also used to think that many religious people were only religious because it was expected of them by family and society, at times law. Jenny has also bumped up against expectations to keep her family's atheism alive. She does not wear the hijab in front of her parents. There have been fights - "I've never seen my mother so angry" - and tears - "I told my father he could not treat me this way any longer, I can't take it any more". But Jenny converted in April 2013.

She tries not to feel sorry for herself, and while nurturing hurt feelings, she says it is a Muslim duty to respect your parents, and your elders in general. Earlier, on the women's balcony at the central Stockholm mosque, a man burst in through the door. The scattering of women reacted but did not move, except for Jenny, who quickly but calmly rose to her feet.

"Can I help you?" she queried. The man said he was looking for extra chairs. Jenny inflected her body gently in a way that discretely but firmly signalled "Get out". The man left.

"He's not supposed to be here, but you have to be kind to people," said Jenny as she sunk back down on the green carpet. 

Back to her parents. She understands their concern.

"Before I converted, I thought aspects of Islam were repugnant, they infuriated and provoked me," she says. "There are values that are very different to traditional Swedish values, or the values we have had in Sweden since the 1970s."

The let-women-be-women culture she has encountered appears to be one lure of Islam for Jenny, who had grown weary of virtues traditionally associated with women losing status in Swedish society. The truth, she argues, is that women have been and are treated badly in countries across the world.

"My personal analysis is that our rejection of ideas of what is appropriate for men and what is appropriate for me, which is part of Islam, comes from our own history, how women have been treated in Sweden," Jenny says. "We couldn't vote, we were either our father's or our husband's property. Of course, this is true in many Arab countries', but it has nothing to do with Islam."

She jokes that converts often know Islam more intimately than people who grew up in Muslim families. While she didn't shop around, as such, for a religion, she put thought into many of the world's bigger religions. Hinduism got a failing grade from a justice point of view.

"Karma, the caste system, that you pay for sins in a previous life, that didn't seem very fair to me," Jenny says. Her attraction to monotheistic religion was also clear quite early on, but any interest in Judaism dwindled when she came to feel that the religion had more to do with history and tradition than divine instruction.

That left Islam, but why the need in the first place for spirituality? 

Jenny, usually well-spoken and to the point, let's her explanation peter out into an unusual silence. "How should I explain this. Our lives are superficial, society is very capitalist. We are the MTV generation without the music, you know, it's not about the music anymore it's about sex and nudity. It's superficial...."

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Silence.

"I felt that this cannot be all there is, because if it is, I will be disappointed."

As a first-year student of Middle Eastern studies at a local university, Jenny's long-term plan is to become an English and French teacher. She posted her teacher-training admissions slip to a Facebook page where she shares stories and queries with other converts. It provoked an avalanche of sisterly praise.

At 20, Jenny is the first to admit that she is young. Her relationship with a man ten years her senior  - "not the reason I converted" - from the Magreb has also met with her parents' disapproval. Her father has refused to meet Amora. She wanted to invite her parents to her wedding, but the bare mention of it sent her mother into a rage.

Jenny and Amora married in front of friends at an older convert's home. Doves chirped from a birdcage. Jenny wore a cream, pleated dress reminiscent of a vintage Halston gown from the 1970s. Gold thread ran through the linen weave of her hijab

"Our marriage is between Amora and me, and God."

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