Not ‘brainwashed’: American women who converted to Islam speak out

April 27, 2013 10:45 am 24 comments Views: 31249


When an American convert to Islam was revealed as the wife of the dead Boston bombing suspect, Lauren Schreiber wasn’t surprised at what came next.

Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, must have been coerced and controlled by her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week in a firefight with police.

“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.

That kind of assumption isn’t new to Schreiber, 26, a Greenbelt, Md., woman who became a Muslim in 2010.

“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” says Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress.

The Boston terror attack and the questions about whether Russell knew about her husband’s deadly plans have renewed stereotypes and misconceptions that U.S. women who have chosen that faith say they want to dispel.

“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

Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., converted to Islam five years ago. Wearing a hijab “reminds me to be a good person,” she said.

Her view is echoed by Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago. 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,” says Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.

Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2011, about 1.8 million U.S. adults were Muslim, and about 20 percent had converted to the faith, Pew researchers say. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women. About 1 in 5 converts mentioned family factors, including marrying a Muslim, as a reason for adopting the faith.

Accusations are ‘harsh’
Women convert for a wide range of reasons — spiritual, intellectual and romantic — says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” says Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”

Women like Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., say that wearing a headscarf and other traditional Islamic garb in public often leads people to assume she sacrificed her American life to please a man.

“’You must have converted in order to marry him,’ I hear it all the time,” says Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband, Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago.

She’s also 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. Such concepts are untrue, of course, she says.


Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., converted to Islam four years ago. She says it was thoughtful, heart-felt choice that changed her life.

“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.”

She’s able to joke, for instance, about the woman who screamed insults from a passing car.

“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.

Like all stereotypes, such views are steeped in fear, says Haddad.

“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” she says. “They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”

All three women say they came to Islam after much thought and spiritual searching.

Islam ‘entered my heart’
Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to the religion after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2009.

She grew up in an agnostic family where she was encouraged to discover her own faith.

“It was, whatever you decide to do — temple, church, mosque — I support you finding yourself,” says Schreiber. She’s now married to a Muslim man, Muhammad Oda, 27, whose parents were both converts to Islam. She said came to the faith before the relationship.

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.”

Minor, who is single, says she was intrigued by Islam in college, when she was close friends with a deployed American Marine but had Muslim friends at school.

“I saw a huge discrepancy in the negative things I heard coming from my (friend) and the actions I could see in my co-workers,” she recalls. After spending 18 months learning about Islam, she decided to convert.

The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly supportive, Minor says.

“The more you can do to educate people about Islam, not by preaching, but by actions, the better,” she says.

Reports that Katherine Russell might have been embroiled in an abusive relationship, or that her husband intimidated her aren’t an indictment of Islam, Haddad says.

“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 says she frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf. She says she appreciates it when people actually 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.”

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  • The Truth

    Nobody cares.

  • veegjay Bobino

    Some people are so weak minded they will say, wear & do anything to be part of something bigger, and belong to a group. Do they realize how stupid they look and sound?

    What sheeple. . .

  • daemon

    Nope, they are not brainwashed. Some people are born stupid. Simple as that…

    • Just Passing

      Your comment sound smart. Ouch my stomach XD

  • Ramon Casha

    “The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,”

    According to all the Muslim websites I can find, “Islam” means submission. That sounds a lot like “forfeited your free will”. Of course, they say it means submission to Allah – but it’s always men who tell everyone what the will of Allah is. And, by sheer coincidence I am sure, it happens to be the will of Allah that women are worth half as much as men (in inheritance, on the witness stand etc), that men can have 4 wives, that women can’t divorce their husband, etc.

    • DukeOfRecica .

      i’ll just do copy paste because it’s much easier for me.. O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of the dowry you have given them – except when they have become guilty of open lewdness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them, it may be that you dislike something and Allah will bring about through it a great deal of good.” [Noble Quran 4:19] So i want to know? where did you read that woman are not as equal as men ?

      • veegjay Bobino

        Why can Muzzie men have a harem of wives, but women in predominantly Muzzie countries are stoned to death if their ONE allowed husband even THINKS they are looking at another man??
        And didn’t women just get to vote recently for the FIRST TIME, in Muzzie based Saudi Arabia??

    • DukeOfRecica .

      Before you want to contradict someones religion or whatever it is in life, make sure you study your own religion first and then you at least try to read open heart-ed about the religion you are about to contradict, and the finally when you think you know something, you come here and post your statement.

      • I don’t have a religion but that would be irrelevant; and I know Islam quite well.

        • DukeOfRecica .

          I guess quite well is not enough.

  • Heather Hardin

    so that’s the problem with ISIS, if they put on a hajib they would be reminded to be a good person right? this article proves how brainwashed they really are!

    • veegjay Bobino

      no- their brains are the result of centuries of indiscriminate inbreeding, and an inability to think or act in a socially respectable or civilized way. They are not normal in any way, and cannot process rational thoughts or understand normal behaviour

  • Vishu

    Without brain washing it is impossible to convert to Muslim

    • Grocer

      Yes, I do agree. Without brain washing is is really impossible.

      • Agus Setiyawan

        brain washing here has mean perfectly convinced not like illogical trinity

  • Unknown

    Why don’t you all people study for yourself to check whats the truth? Islam good or bad? As compared to ISIS and Osama and others, if Adolf Hitler killed 60 million Jews doesn’t mean Christianity is bad. There are black sheep in every community. No religion is bad. Bad are the mischievous people who have very little or no knowledge of their own religion. No religion teaches violence. Its the mischievous people who quote other religion scriptures OUT OF CONTEXT for their political profits. So its better we study in detail by our self. Why do we all believe in what others say without checking whats the truth? What I have found is even mass media these days are big liars just for a sake of Channel Ratings, money involved and vote banks. After all, who has the time to search for truth? Let it go. When we die, then we will know. LOL.

    • bernardg

      See where you are mistaken. Hitler never been associated with Christianity. If anything, he only brought up just for propaganda value, to gain his own end. He is more interested with Aryan/Germanic/Nordic paganism/mysticism. That’s why he set up special department to deal with occultism, with his own right hand man Himmler as the head of research.
      The truth is, plenty of German pastors, archbishops, those been thrown into the concentration camp since they wont adhered to Nazi value. Not to mention plenty of “Good Germans” who stood up against Nazism because it is against their own value.

  • Carlos Dangerfield

    I guess my question would be, if you are a good person and you have read and understand the words of the Koran. . . and you see the atrocities carried out by thousands in the name of Allah (your god), then how do you arrive at the conclusion that this religion (not a religion but really a political movement) is right for you?

  • IndigoRage .

    “No religion is bad.”
    Gonna have to sound the BS alarm. Clearly you never heard of the Reverend Jim Jones or The Peoples’ Temple? Or how in November of 1978 909 of their members drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana and died?
    How about the more contemporary Movement to Restore the Ten Commandments of God? When the world failed to end on 1 Jan 2000, their leaders blew up their building, killing them all.
    How about The Manson Family? Or Heaven’s Gate?
    There ARE bad religions – ones founded on things like Greed, Fear, Lust, or Conquest.
    Then there’s Islam… a stone-age cult founded by a so-called prophet who amounts to little more than a tribal warlord and pedophile.
    With the possible exception of the Manson Family, no other cult in the world conjures images of brutality, murder, and the degradation of women faster than Islam.
    Nothing good for humanity has ever come out of the middle east… not oil and certainly not religions.

    • DukeOfRecica .

      You are so mistaken and so brainwashed by media and everything that you read online, but that’s not the worst thing about you.. The worst thing is that you think you are smart.

      • Indigo

        I don’t claim to be smart. Educated, opinionated and usually right, sure, but smart? Nah.

      • veegjay Bobino

        When all else fails, start the name calling…how mature and classic.

  • Jonny Ray

    Religion = brainwash, PERIOD!

  • Tony Cortes-Barocio

    Id rather my son tell me he is a Homosexual, than tell me he converted to christianity or Islam, i would literally cry, i raised him in a atheist home on all sides, we just celebrated the fun holidays.