This month, Bustle's #blessed series will explore how young women are searching for meaning, finding connections to a higher power and navigating spirituality in 2017.
Life as a member of an underrepresented group is always complicated. And for Latinx Muslim women today, life as part of a group so underrepresented that many of your fellow Americans don't even know it exists is a particular kind of balancing act. These women exist at the intersection of multiple identities, all of which are under fire by the Trump administration — and they must navigate that intersection with very little support or notice.
Typically converts to Islam, these women take on an additional marginalized in search of a deeper connection to God, and often wind up redefining their communities in the process. Bustle spoke with four Latinx Muslim women about how they came to Islam, how their faith informs their culture, and how they negotiate these identities in an America that is increasingly hostile to every part of them.
"When I was researching different faiths, Islam kept popping up, but I refused to look into it."
Mariana Aguilera, 38, was raised Catholic, but lost her faith after her mom, a devout believer, passed away when she was 16. “Between 16 and 22, I was actually more angry than anything at God,” she tells Bustle. Years later, she made a New Year's resolution with a cousin to return to faith, but wasn’t sure if Catholicism was still right for her. “When I was researching different faiths, Islam kept popping up, but I refused to look into it because in my head, at that time,” she tells Bustle, "es cosa del diablo,” it’s evil. “That was the only thing that I knew.” But after coming back time and again to Islam in her research, and identifying with it more than any other faith practice (especially with the way the Quran talks about women), she ultimately ended up taking her shahada, or declaration of faith, when she was 27.
Ivana Daher, 28, went through a similar process following the death of her grandfather, to whom she was quite close. Daher tried to get back into Catholicism, which was practiced by the Dominican side of her family, but found she was left with too many questions. Though her family in Lebanon practiced Islam, she didn't have much of a relationship with them, and had no ties to the religion — but found herself interested in it after a summer trip to Lebanon. She tried out some of the practices, like fasting during Ramadan and wearing hijab, and realized it worked for her.
“What drew me to Islam was simple; it made sense to me,” she tells Bustle. “I may not have understood or knew every single facet of the religion ( I still don’t!), [but] there were reasons for why things were the way they were,” she says.
Like many who convert to Islam, Azmia Magane, 32, found the tenet of tahwid, or pure monotheism, appealing. “I didn't understand why I needed to access God through a priest, or why people believed they could do whatever they wanted as long as they went to confession and said some 'Hail Marys' after,” Magane tells Bustle. Though Islam does make use of an imam, or a religious leader akin to a priest or rabbi, the imam’s role (at least in Sunni Islam, which most Muslims and converts practice) is mostly to offer spiritual guidance, and not to directly interpret the religion. Many of the women Bustle spoke to cited this as an aspect of the religion that resonates with them.
“I just felt like, why is there a middle man?" Vivian Billings, 41, told Bustle. "Why can't I just go directly to God?”
Though the Latinx Muslim community is small, it's growing steadily — especially in visibility, with the internet allowing people to connect and share stories of converting. Over the past two decades, numerous articles have noted the increasing visibility of Latinx people converting to Islam in the United States, even going as far as to say that Latinxs are "the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. Muslim population," as Remezcla wrote earlier this year. Currently, various estimates place the number of Latinx Muslims in the United States at anywhere between 50,000 people to 265,000 people, out of 3.3 million Muslims in America; women make up more than half of them. A Pew Center report from 2017 noted that 8 percent of Muslims in the U.S. identified as Hispanic, double the number they found in 2007.
"When we make decisions, they’re not based just on a man."
But these numbers don’t exactly create the trend people often think it does. According to Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center specializing in minority religions, the margin of error on these studies is such that there’s “no measurable difference” between the two numbers. “The fact is, [Latinx Muslims are] too small a group to speak confidently on its rate of growth relative to other groups,” Mohamed tells Bustle.
That being said, the presence and visibility of Latinx Muslim hybrid culture is undeniably growing. “[Over] the last 10 years, there's been a visible Hispanic Muslim community that just didn't exist” before, says Mohamed. Online groups like LADO (Latino American Dawah Organization) or LALMA (La Asociación Latino Musulmana de America, or American Latino Muslim Association) began as web forums to provide Spanish-language resources on Islam, like Spanish translations of the Quran or stories of Latinx people’s experiences coming to Islam. These groups help make information about Islam accessible to a Spanish-speaking population, building a body of literature representative of Latinx Muslim culture.
While some sociologists had posited in the past that most converts came to Islam through marriage — "Islam allows Muslim men to marry Christian women," but not the other way around, says Professor Gastón Espinosa, the lead author on the only large-scale study of Latinx Muslims in the U.S. — or exposure to the religion through a friend or other relationship, more and more research, including Espinosa's, is showing that people are embracing Islam because of the values of the faith itself. In fact, Espinosa's study, which was published in June 2017, found that 94 percent of respondents said that “the desire for a more direct personal experience of God” was “very or somewhat influential” in their decision to convert, while only 16 percent said marriage was.
Marriage was, until recently, seen as a major factor in the gender dynamics of conversion, accounting for why Latinx Muslims are disproportionately women — but as scholarship grows, this belief is coming to be seen as an inaccurate stereotype. In fact, this pervasive belief strikes Aguilera as an extension of the machismo and patriarchal values that she found present in her family’s culture, which she experiences less of as a Muslim woman. “People feel like we just convert to Islam for a man. Está convirtiendose por su novio,” she says, quoting her family saying, "She’s just converting for her boyfriend." "On top of these other stigmas [about] Latina women, I’ve had to stop and explain that when we make decisions, they’re not based just on a man. We make decisions following what we’ve studied.”
Aguilera’s observation points to the broader stereotypes and stigmas that Latina Muslims face, from both sides of their communities. “When I step foot outside my of my home, I have to prove I'm a ‘normal, non-threatening American,’” says Daher. “As a hijabi, I have to prove I'm Dominican enough to my peers, Lebanese enough to my family, yet also [prove that] I'm Muslim enough, and not let cultural influences override my Islamic core. It's exhausting.” Magane, whose background is Native and Cuban, says, “A lot of people have this bizarre idea that you can't be a Muslim and be an American — including some folks in my family.” At the same time, she notes, “[Converts] are isolated within our community, without the added attention of being singled out or scrutinized to see if they're ‘Muslim enough.’”
“I'd be lying if I said life before Islam wasn't easier, but my newfound faith didn't make it harder, the media & government [did]"
Billings, who is Puerto Rican and Egyptian, recently relocated to Charlotte, NC, from New York City, and has found that being a Latina Muslim in the South can be a uniquely isolating experience, Trump’s influence notwithstanding. “When I do put on a hijab, being Latina is the furthest thing from somebody's mind. They think I'm Arabic or from Egypt. Some people approach me and act as if I don't even know English,” she tells Bustle. But even at her new mosque, she hasn’t gotten quite the welcome that her sisters in New York gave her. “Out here, it's like as-salaam-alaikum, and that’s it,” she says. “I just go to say my prayer because I know I'm going to get a better blessing when I do it [at the mosque], but I just don't feel the warmth. I don't know if it's because I'm new to Charlotte and I don't know anybody, or if that's the way it is.”
Daher, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, has found that her faith community divides up by ethnicity, leaving her, the sole Latina, off to the side. “The Arabs were in one corner, the Desi folks were in another corner, the African-Americans were in another, and everyone else was wherever,” she says, adding that the exclusion was disheartening for her as a new Muslim. But, she acknowledges, “at the end of the day, [Muslims] are just people — flawed, regular people like everyone else.”
“I'm a Muslim — I don't need a qualifier on my Islam.”
The same, of course, can be said for the Latinx community that these women are still very much a part of, even though their faith may seem to be at odds with what is typically thought of as the ‘Latinx experience.’
Aguilera says that her family members had varied reactions when she first converted. Her dad at first didn’t react, “then he started saying, ‘eso es cosa del diablo,’ especially when I started covering,” she says. During Ramadan, one of her aunts in particular wouldn’t drop the subject, asking why Aguilera wasn’t eating. “She would say this in front of my dad, and my dad would be like, you see, this thing is destroying you!” Aguilera adds, laughing, that this same aunt always tries to sneak her pork, which she doesn’t eat.
Though these micro-aggressions were definitely insensitive, if not malicious, they weren’t as intentionally hurtful as when a different aunt chose not to attend Aguilera’s wedding because of Islamophobic prejudice. “She was like, 'why are you going to get married to a man who’s gonna beat you?' I’m like, tia, ¿te gusta ir? Vaya. Si no te gustaría ir — it’s okay.”
Even though her family, through her father’s side, had some experience with Islam, Daher faced similar challenges telling her family about her conversion. When she first started covering, “My mom took one look at me and stomped away. She didn't speak to me for about two weeks,” she says. “My father simply made comments like, ‘Just take that thing off,’” referring to her hijab. “‘Why are you doing this? Why are you making your life harder?’ It's still an issue till this day, but it's a little less intense than it was back then.”
Magane says that one of her best friends wasn’t able to handle her conversion. “Maybe six months after I started wearing hijab, we were getting ready for her wedding and I was supposed to be a bridesmaid. We went to fit me for my dress, and she kept complaining about how hard it was to find a dress that was modest enough for me. I never saw her again after that fitting. She just stopped talking to me.” Her friend never even sent her a wedding invitation.
"My newfound faith didn't make it harder, the media and government [did].”
Islamophobia in the Latinx community draws from Islamophobia present in American culture at large, which has become especially visible in the wake of the election, though it existed long before that. “Is it getting worse? Yes. But was it bad before? Yes. [Trump]'s definitely not making life better,” says Aguilera.
“I'd be lying if I said life before Islam wasn't easier as an American, but my newfound faith didn't make it harder, the media and government [did],” Daher says. “I can get a grip on people I know, and not let their perceptions of how I should act [get to] me because I can put people [I know] in check. But when you're dealing with the public at large, it can be daunting. This administration is 100% making that harder.” Support from other Latinx Muslims who face similar kinds of multifaceted xenophobia is hard to come by, because there simply aren’t that many Latinx Muslims.
As each women’s stories above show, becoming Muslim as a Latina can be a lonely experience, despite the growth of internet-based Latinx Muslim communities, because there just aren’t that many in any one geographic area. “Latinx Muslims are like mythical creatures to me,” Daher says. “I’ve literally met enough of them that I could count with one hand.” Likewise, Billings affirmed that there weren’t a lot of Latinx folks in her area, let alone Latinx Muslims.
In Aguilera’s faith community in Chicago, she met a few Latinx Muslims from across America, which was an eye-opening experience. “There were Puerto Rican Muslims, Colombians, people from Guatemala, mujeres from Ecuador — it was amazing.” But, she says, what was so amazing about it was not that they all related to each other because of their culture, but rather because of their faith. “At the gatherings now that I have with Latina Muslim sisters, it's not so much the language that [connects us]. Hablamos español, yeah. But it's a connectivity to our creator, is what makes us more proud to be connecting with each other,” she says.
Just as there is no one right way to be a woman, the diverse experiences of these women show that there’s no one way to be a Muslim, nor one way to be Latinx. “Islam is for anyone and everyone, irrespective of color, ethnicity, language, gender, or whatever other categorical identifier,” says Magane. “I'm a Muslim — I don't need a qualifier on my Islam.”