As 22-year-old Aisha Uddin recites Surah Al-Fatiha – the first chapter of the Koran – at home with close friend Sameeah Karim, she may stumble over one word but otherwise the text is perfectly recounted.
Aisha Uddin: ‘It’s a change I’m happy I’ve made’
But unlike Sameeah, 35, who has Pakistani heritage and grew up reading the holy book, Aisha is newer to it: she used to be called Laura and only converted to Islam two years ago.
She is pale and has bright blue eyes; originally from Birmingham, until recently she dressed like many other young white British women.
“Before it was the jeans, the hoodies, loads of make-up,” she says.
Now Aisha wears a long black jilbab (a long flowing over-garment) and a cream-coloured hijab (headscarf).
“For me now, obviously it’s a dramatic change, but it’s a change I’m happy I’ve made, because now I don’t have to prove myself to anybody out there.”
Aisha took an interest in religion at school – and started quietly visiting her local mosque to find out more.
“Islam caught my eye and I wanted to look further into it – the people, the culture – and I carried on studying it and studying it, even after school. Living in Birmingham, I was surrounded by the religion.”
She says she spent years finding out more about Islam before fully committing to the religion, changing her appearance and starting to pray five times a day.
“Life’s changed dramatically, I was a rebel before, I was always getting into trouble at home, going out and staying out – not trying hard enough at school.
“Then when I became Muslim, I sort of calmed down. I wanted to stay at home studying on the internet or reading books. And I’m more happy than I was – I’m proud of who I am, I’ve got a certain identity.”
Aisha is one of a growing number of white converts according to a new study by Swansea University for the charity Faith Matters.
Using a number of sources, including a survey of more than 250 British mosques, census data from 2001 and conversion figures in Europe, the researchers estimate that there could be as many as 100,000 converts – of all ethnic backgrounds – in the UK. This represents an increase on an estimated 60,000 converts in 2001.
For an insight into the experiences of Muslim converts, the researchers spoke to 120 – mainly young, white women.
Many converts – like Aisha – reported experiencing hostility from their families. She says her parents thought her conversion represented a rejection of her upbringing.
“My family they weren’t too happy about it, [saying] why change your identity? Why cover your hair? Why dress the way you dress?” says Aisha.