Some S. Florida Latinas
Converting to Islam for Emphasis on Family, Women's Roles
By Tal Abbady Melissa Matos slips into
an easy communion with her newest circle of friends.
At regular meetings, they invoke their families' native
towns in Cuba or the Dominican Republic, or recipes for
arroz con pollo. English is interspersed with Spanish. And,
posing no incongruity to the women, hijabs, or Muslim head
scarves, frame their faces.
When she converted to Islam in May, Matos, a Dominican-American
raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, expected the passage
to be lonely.
"I said to myself, `Great, I'm going to be the only
Muslim Latina in the whole world,'" said Matos, 20,
a student at Florida International University who recently
joined a group of Latina converts to Islam.
Scholars say Matos is part of a growing number of Latin
women converting to Islam for its emphasis on family, piety
and clearly defined women's roles, values converts say were
once integral to Hispanic culture but have waned after years
The women are among 40,000 Hispanic converts to Islam in
the United States, according to the Islamic Society of North
America. About a decade ago, Latino converts began forming
Internet groups such as the Latino American Dawah Organization
and the women's group Piedad that trace Hispanics' ties
to Islam back to the Spanish Moors.
Grassroots leaders say the number of converts grew sharply
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, bucking a trend of thought
among Americans that links Islam to terrorism.
Sofian Abelaziz, president of the Miami-based American Muslim
Association of North America, said one indication of the
conversions is the demand for Spanish-language copies of
the Koran, which spiked after Sept. 11. In the past two
years, the group has filled orders for 5,500 Spanish-language
Korans for schools, cultural institutes and prisons around
the country, out of 12,000 orders total.
Matos and other converts say the recent media spotlight
on Islam was their first exposure to the faith and spurred
"[Before] I picked up the Koran, my attitude was, `There's
something wrong with this religion,'" said Matos, 20,
of Miramar. A friend gave her a copy of the Koran. "But
then I saw it was filled discussions of grace from God,
of the protection of things we talk about as human rights,
of a universal brotherhood. ... This is a religion that
encourages thinking and contemplation," she said. In
May, Matos converted by reciting the shahada, a prayer in
which converts attest to their belief in Allah and Mohammed
in front of Muslim witnesses. Islam now circumscribes her
life. She is studying Arabic, prays five times a day, wears
a hijab and follows Islamic dietary laws.
"There is no conflict between my Dominican heritage
and Islam. I grew up in a culture where you have a family
you love and you take care of one another, and Islam complements
those values," Matos said.
Matos' conversion rattled friends and family members who
linked Islam with Taliban-style oppression, but scholars
say Latina converts are practicing a confessional Islam
that offers strong moral guidelines.
"People might ask, `Why would women convert to a religion
that is so traditional in its gender roles?' But that's
part of the appeal. There's a recovery of dignity,"
said Manuel Vasquez, religion professor at the University
of Florida. "Second-generation Latinas are caught between
the morality of their parents and the morality of the larger
mainstream society. Islam offers a clear code. Women ...
know they are respected, taken care and protected from the
negative influences of secular society. It's a kind of empowerment
they don't experience in a culture that is constantly sexualizing
them, and Latinas are particularly sexualized."
The converts may be fashioning a form of Islam that meets
their needs in a country that allows them to do so.
"It's a comment on our society, on the fragmentation
of American family life," said Leila Ahmed, a Harvard
University professor who has written extensively on gender
in Islam. "We have to bear that this is happening in
America, where there is freedom of choice. These women are
not converting in order to go and live in Saudi Arabia.
We also don't know how permanent these conversions are in
a country where people convert two or three times in their
Like many converts, Matos calls herself a "revert,"
a reference to the Muslim belief that everyone is born in
a state of submission to Allah. Being Hispanic and following
Islam now are inextricable.
"When I meet with [my group] we speak in Spanish,"
she said. "We'll talk about what it was like back in
Cuba or the Dominican Republic. And yet we're all wearing
hijabs. It reminds me of the universality of Islam."
Religious leaders say the Latina converts assimilate easily
"What they see in Islam is what their parents used
to practice: that respect for elders, the care and protection
that husbands are obligated to give their wives," said
Maulana Shafayat Mohamed, director of the Darul Uloom Islamic
Institute in Pembroke Pines. "Many converts tell me,
`This is how my parents grew up.'"
When a Hispanic Muslim friend slipped a copy of the Koran
into her hands, Marie Hernandez found "a total way
of life." (Courtesy Sun Sentinel)