In one of the world’s most famously secular societies, Helena Benauoda goes against the flow. As chairwoman of the Swedish Muslim Council, she is Sweden’s most high-profile convert to Islam. But she is only one of thousands of ethnic Swedish women to have made the leap.
Now based at the Grand Mosque of Sweden, in the slightly incongruous location of Stockholm’s bohemian Södermalm district, Benauoda says mingling with Muslim teenagers at the age of 19 prompted her to look more closely at Islam, leading ultimately to her conversion:
“I read the Quran in Swedish, but it only offered the point of view of the translator. Nowadays, there are many different translations that offer different interpretations in Swedish, so you don’t have to speak Arabic to understand Islam, although it helps a lot.”
Benauoda says that in retrospect she started her journey towards Islam from a very young age.
“It started when I was 9 and wanted to perform evening prayers but did not know who to pray to, so I started looking for answers, and found all the logical answers in Islam.”
Benauoda reckons that there are more Swedish converts than the 5,000 accounted for by Statistics Sweden. Others keep their religion a personal matter, she says. There’s no doubt in her mind that the large number of Muslims who have moved to Sweden over the past few decades have been an influence on the Swedish converts.
Overall, of Sweden’s population of 9 million, 300,000 to 400,000 are at least nominally Muslim. The immigrants “opened eyes and minds towards religion in general, not only towards Islam,” Benauoda thinks.
“Many people here in Sweden are looking for a spiritual meaning of life. Even those who are against religion find themselves drawn towards it once they start studying it. But in general people here fear religion, because they fear death, and the fact that several religions deem people accountable for actions in the afterlife.”
Fearing religion is not a specifically Swedish thing, she says, but is something seen across Europe. Religion has come in many parts of the continent to be associated with “corruption, oppression, and manipulation of hearts and minds,” she says.
The history of Islam in Sweden goes back a lot further than the recent waves of immigration. It was likely first encountered by Swedes during Viking raids on the Middle East and North Africa, but the first accounts of Swedish Muslim converts can be tracked to the early 1900s. Most of them were diplomats or travellers.
Today’s conversions reflect a whole new set of influences. According to Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist, who wrote her doctoral thesis at Uppsala University on Swedish female converts to Islam, many women “make open and reflexive interpretations of what religious commitment means, at the same time as they are searching for the ‘right answers’; to pin down what gender, family, society and religion are.”
Imaan Granath, another Swedish woman who converted to Islam, says that people “have to look at Islam from a non-Arab perspective.”
Granath’s story started with her fascination with the tale of Aladdin:
“I’ve always been interested in different cultures, I loved travelling and loved learning languages. When I was a kid I used to dress up as an Arab princess – and I still do.
“But actually I think it all began with going to school with some Christian Arabs, who all were so proud of being believers. In the 1980s it was nerdy to be religious, but they were wearing clear symbols of faith such as big golden crosses around their necks.
“The most important reason, however, is how I was raised: to be honest, fair and caring. When I time started reading about Islam for real, I felt it was just as my parents raised me.”
Granath later studied Arabic at Stockholm University and a few years after converting at the age of 20, she married a Palestinian Muslim from Gaza. The couple lived between the two cities and she blogged about their experiences, good and bad. Her blog became famous in the Middle Eastern blogosphere.
“We have tons of differences, being married to a man of another culture than yours is hard and requires a lot. Of course we share some general ideas but what he values and likes is sometimes very different from what I value and like,” she adds.
Some converts feel their choice of religion is seen by other Swedes as an acceptance of sexual discrimination and inequality. But according to Madeleine Sultán Sjöqvist, the converts themselves are often deeply aware of equality issues:
“Equality and justice between the sexes are emphasised by converts, while at the same time they argue that women should obey their husbands and live properly according to Islam.”
“There’s a tension in the women between obedience and a religious involvement that gives expression to female liberation,” Sultán Sjöqvist says.
The converts “say they are liberated as women as they feel freed from society’s fixation on appearance, while at the same time this freedom for women can only be gained in the context of a patriarchal family model.”
In Sweden as elswhere, the most visible sign that Muslim converts have rejected society’s preoccupation with looks is their adoption of Islamic dress.
Like Benauoda, Granath wears the Hijab, and despite a recent study from Uppsala University which claimed that 50% of Swedes want to ban the headscarf in schools and workplaces, she insists she does not feel discriminated against. That is not to say that people don’t judge her based on her choice of clothing:
“Sometimes I feel people think I’m not smart just cause of they way I dress,” she says.
“My dress represents for them a backward approach to life, but for me it represents the choice of a healthier and more spiritual lifestyle, with awareness of myself and environment. I have had jobs in all-Muslim organizations since I converted, like the Pakistani embassy for example, and I’ve had no problem dealing with the Swedish customers”.
But things have not changed when it comes to family and friends:
“I have an open-minded family. They might think I’m a bit strange but they still treat me as they did before. I think it is also because I myself have a liberal and open-minded personality, I have made many compromises when visiting my family. For a period of time I used to refuse shaking hands with men, but in my family I hugged them, because that is how we do it here. But I don’t celebrate any traditional Swedish holidays anymore, like Christmas. That has made them very sad.”
Asked what else gave up when she became a Muslim, Imaan jokes: “I gave up a whole lot of good looking guys”.
“Seriously, though, I don’t think I gave up that much. Sure there had to be some lifestyle changes, but they were pretty minor. I gave up belly dancing though, but I was fed up with that anyway.”
Both Benauoda and Granath lament the fact that while their religion has become more high-profile in recent years, it has also taken on negative associations. Benaouda says the Swedish media too often associates Islam with war and violence. She insists that there is room for more tolerance and understanding.
Granath thinks that media, society and politicians will only achieve the sought-after tolerance when they come to realise that religion really is flexible enough to fit into the 21st century. Even converts themselves need to admit that the nature of their faith is not set in stone, she says:
“We as converts fall into this idea that who we were when we converted is who we should and shall be for the rest of our life. But we also change and develop like all others.
“I believe that we always have to evaluate our religion. It was interpreted in a certain time and place and will always need to be up to date.”