As the news revealed that Boston suspect widowed wife was an American convert to Islam, stereotypes and misconceptions have been reignited about US women who have chosen Islam, portraying them a…s brainwashed and submissive who sacrificed their American life to satisfy their husbands.
“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” Lauren Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress, told NBC News on Friday, April 26.
Schreiber, who became a Muslim in 2010, expected to hear comments being brainwashed after the media revealed that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, was married to Boston dead suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that Russell must have been coerced and controlled by her husband.
“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.
Expecting these false assumptions, Schreiber wanted to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions that US women who have chosen Islam.
“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.”
Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago, agreed.
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,” Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, said.
Though there are no official estimates, the US is home to from 7-8 million Muslims.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 20 percent of US Muslims are converts to the faith. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women.
An earlier Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.
Finding Islam, US Muslim converts usually face harsh accusations of being brainwashed women who sacrificed their American life to please a man.
“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, said.
“They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”
“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” added Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”
Chosng to wear a headscarf and traditional Islamic garb in public, Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., usually faces false assumptions that she has sacrificed her American life to please a man.
“’You must have converted in order to marry him,’ I hear it all the time,” said Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband.
Getting married to Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago, she 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.
“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.”
Her fair features, reflective a white American in hijab, did not ban others from screaming insults in her face.
“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.
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.”
Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to Islam after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2009.
Choosing Islam, she rejects accusations that Islam encourages men to abuse their wives.
“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, who frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf, said she appreciates it when people 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,” she said.