Saturday, November 1, 1997
Former Baptist explains why she is now a Muslim
By REBECCA SIMMONS
Scripps Howard News Service
She used to be a Southern Baptist, a radical feminist and a
broadcast journalist. Now Aminah Assilmi is an ambassador of Islam.
The director of the International Union of Muslim Women, Assilmi
calls Fairfield, Ohio, home. She travels the country speaking
on college campuses, increasing public awareness and understanding
of the faith.
She wears the traditional Islamic hijab, which includes a head
scarf, covering her hair and neck and modest clothing with long
Last week at the University of Tennessee, Assilmi spoke to
a near-full audience on the status of women in Islam in her lecture,
"A Muslim woman speaks from behind the veil."
Assilmi cautions critics who say that women are oppressed in
some predominately Muslim countries. She says their practices
are cultural, not Islamic.
"People who are held down, are held down by ignorance,"
she said. "They follow cultural practices. Do not judge Islam
by these individuals who have only practiced like the people in
But, Assilmi told audiences, she hasn't always been a Muslim
and a proponent of Islam.
Meeting her first "real life Muslims" when she took
a college theater class some years ago, Assilmi said she almost
dropped the class when she walked into the room and saw some Arab
students in traditional hijab.
In the handbook she authored, "Choosing Islam," Assilmi
writes, "There was no way I was going to sit in a room with
dirty heathens. .. I shut the door and went home."
After her husband encouraged her to go back to the theater
class, Assilmi said she felt it her duty to "convert the
poor, ignorant Muslims."
Hoping to convert the students to Christianity, Assilmi began
to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, in a quest to prove
that Mohammed was a false prophet and that Islam was not a valid
But the more she read, the more she became interested in Islam.
She was particularly interested in what the Koran had to say about
men and women.
Islamic women, she thought, "were freely beaten by their
husbands and tossed aside."
Assilmi says she had based her opinion on stereotypes; and
soon found out those ideas were not in keeping with the Koran.
Through intense study, she said she learned that Islamic women
are equal to men and are paid according to the job they do regardless
of their gender. Both men and women have equal rights to education.
Islamic women have had the right to own property for more than
1,400 years. And when a woman marries, she does not change her
last name, but keeps her father's last name.
Thus, Assilmi told her college audience, "We remain our
own distinct individual."
"For two years I studied in order to convert Muslims to
Christianity," she said.
But during that time Assilmi said she started to change. Her
husband began to notice that she no longer had an interest in
going to bars or parties. She was content to stay home and study
"I was quiet and more distant," Assilmi writes in
Her husband attributed the changes in her to another man and
the couple separated.
After she moved out with their three children, Assilmi was
visited by a Muslim holy leader who answered her questions about
the faith. He asked her if she believed in only one God and Assilmi
said yes. He asked her if she believed Mohammed was His messenger.
Again she said yes.
"He told me I was already a Muslim. I argued that I was
a Christian, I was just trying to understand Islam. I couldn't
be a Muslim! I was an American and white!
"We continued talking. Later he explained that attaining
knowledge and understanding of spirituality was a little like
climbing a ladder."
The first rung on the ladder was the Shahadah, a statement
of belief that there is no God but the one God and Mohammed was
his messenger. The Shahadah, done before witnesses, is in the
Islamic faith, the Christian equivalent of a statement of belief
in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
For Assilmi, taking Shahadah in 1977 was the first step toward
a a deeper understanding of Islam.
But she still had a few hang-ups -- like hijab. Hijab is the
modest dress worn by both Muslim men and women; however its most
recognizable feature is the head scarf worn by women.
"I agreed with modesty, but I was vain about my hair,"
Assilmi said. "The Koran tells us to cover ourselves to be
identified as Muslims. I am a Muslim and I know what my God-given
rights are. Hijab is not a requirement or restriction, but a right
and a privilege. I would fight to the death to wear it."
"I gave up being a women's liberationist -- it wasn't
fulfilling -- I became a Muslim ... Liberation, yeah, that's Islam,"
said Assilmi who adopted her name during the Iranian hostage crisis
She adopted the new name "to protect my family from ignorance."
She no longer uses her given name.
Assilmi said Islamic women are not limited in professional
fields by their religion. However, "The most powerful profession
is being a mother. Because we form the mind of the next generation."
Muslim women, she said, are often discriminated against because
of the hijab.
"In this country it's extremely difficult for Muslim women."
That is why some Muslim women wear varying degrees of hijab.
For example, some women might wear loose-fitting modest clothing,
others may wear the head scarf, covering the hair and neck, and
still others may have the courage to wear the face veil where
only the eyes are visible.
An award-winning broadcaster in the Denver market, Assilmi
lost her job when she began wearing Islamic dress.
She says the persecution is intense.
"I've been forced off the road before -- beaten up --
and I've never lifted a hand against anyone," Assilmi said.
She even tried to wear the face veil, but said, "I could
not handle the experience."
The defining moment came when she tried to cash a check at
her bank wearing the face veil. A bank security guard drew his
gun preparing to shoot if she made any questionable moves.
For Assilmi, her job as a broadcaster was not the only thing
she lost when she first chose Islam.
Her marriage over, she also lost custody of her children because
the court decided that the "unorthodox religion" would
be detrimental to them.
But since then, Assilmi says her children have converted to
Islam and so have her parents and her ex-husband.
"Relatives of mine are still becoming Muslim right and
left," she said.
Now at "well over half a century" and having survived
bone cancer, Assilmi has made two pilgrimages to Mecca, a holy
trip that Muslims are instructed to take in their lifetime. The
cancer weakened her bones and now she uses a wheelchair as a "mobility
"God decided that I would continue to live," she
And, "I ceased to be afraid of anything. It became very
important that I would speak the truth everywhere. I would have
to answer to God for everything I do and say.
"I love sharing Islam."
(Rebecca Simmons writes for The Knoxville News-Sentinel in
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