By Diana Freundl
Huda, Nadia and Selvi-all converts to Islam, standing outside the Taipei Grand Mosque in Taiwan, after a noon prayer service, said their faith had given them strength. It was a list of questions that brought Huda to the Taipei Grand Mosque. "Why can't they eat pork? Why must women cover up? And why, if men can take four wives, can't women take four husbands?"
After enrolling in a six-week course on the fundamentals of Islam, she found her answers, and she found religion. "When I first heard about the course, I told myself, 'This is your time to learn something new.' I discovered how to live my life according to the Qur’an, and now I feel very peaceful," she said.
While stories of suicide attacks and beheadings permeate news coverage from Afghanistan and the Middle East, Taipei Grand Mosque Imam Ma Shiao-chi said the number of people visiting the mosque with questions about Islam had increased.
"The news always highlights the bad things. About 90 per cent of the news is negative. They hear stories about people getting their heads cut off and think Islam is a bad religion. They know very few things about Islam. They want to know what makes people do these things," he said.
Their reasons for converting to Islam vary, but these women are finding freedom in Islam.
Most of those going to the mosque are women, he said. Whether they were born into a non-practising Muslim family, converted for marriage, or, like Huda, are simply curious to learn more about the religion, the women Ma meets wanted to better understand the role of women in Islam.
Perhaps they have no intentions of converting, Ma said, but at least they take the time to dispel a few stereotypes about the religion.
Some, however, do convert. As a teenager, Sana researched various religions and recalls visiting several temples, but it was Islam that appealed most to her. "So many things led me to feel Islam was the right religion. Even, when I was a child, I never liked to eat pork," she said.
After living in Pakistan with her husband and children for eight years, Sana said she is now re-adjusting to being part of a minority religion in Taiwan.
Taiwan has an estimated 130,000 Muslims, less than half of which are Chinese-Muslims.
"I am Chinese and I am Muslim," said Sana giving the example of wearing a white headscarf, a colour often associated with death in Taiwan.
Sana and Huda describe wearing the hijab as an honour and affirmation of their faith. They agreed, however, that while its purpose is to prevent unwanted attention to their bodies, it in fact often draws more attention. This they said is part of learning to live in a non-Muslim society.
Likewise, Huda, who works in an international trading company, was originally told she could not wear her hijab to work, as it might make clients uncomfortable. "Eventually my colleagues and boss accepted it. It took time, but they know being Muslim is an important part of my life," she said.
While he criticised the unfair portrayal of Islam in the media, Ma said Muslim practitioners in Taiwan experience little persecution from the public. One reason, he said, might have to do with the small number of followers. "We are very few, so we are not really a risk to them," he said.
The majority of Chinese practising Islam are second-and third-generation Muslims, whose families came to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 1949. As years passed, people started to relax their religious observations, Ma said.
"A lot of Muslims in Taiwan were born Muslim, but not all of them pray every day. But Islam is a lifestyle. You need to do the Muslim practices [the Five Pillars of Islam] or else it is easy to lose the religion," he said.
Nadia was born into a non-practising Chinese-Muslim household. Following in her sister's footsteps, she made the transition to a more pious observance during college. As she learned more about the religion, she began to dress more conservatively, covering all but her face and hands. "It was just an outfit on the outside, but it changed my life on the inside. I felt more confident," she said.
In addition to Muslims rediscovering their lost faith, Ma said most women embracing Islam in Taiwan do so for marriage. Of the 20 new converts last year 12 were for marriage, he said.
According to the Qur’an, a Muslim man can marry a woman from a monotheistic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), but he is prohibited from marrying a woman from a polytheistic religion (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc.).
Marriage is how Aisha entered Islam 20 years ago. "In the beginning it was just for marriage. I could accept that there is only one god and not eat pork. I couldn't wear the hijab," she said.
A decade later she started reading the Qur’an, attending classes and wearing the headscarf and feels her relationship with her husband is better for it. "Now we have the same way of looking at things. I can communicate better with my husband," she said.
Each of the women said Islam places a large emphasis on respect and equality for women. One of the most debated gender issues in the Qur’an is the tradition that allows Muslim men to take four wives.
Sana said she would find it difficult to share her husband with another woman, but noted the practice is not exclusive to Islam.
"My (non-Muslim) father had three wives, but not the legal way. This hurt my mother and me a lot. He never asked my mother and he never treated all of his children the same," she said.
"Even if I agreed to a second marriage (of my husband), there are many rights to protect me and my property. He must still provide for me and our children," Sana said.
The women and the Imam said the conditions under which a man is permitted to take four wives make it virtually impossible for him to do so. As it is necessary that the husband must treat each of his wives equally; both financially and intimately.
By Diana Freundl