UNION CITY, N.J. – On a hot summer day, Stefani Perada left work for the day in West New York, N.J., and stepped outside in her long jilbab, the flowing clothes worn by many Muslim women.
Meanwhile, other Latinas in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood were taking advantage of the warm day, walking around in shorts and midriff-exposing halter tops.
Perada, 19, who converted to Islam just over a year ago, is still trying to become acclimated to certain customs, such as the jilbab and the hijab, which covers her head and hair.
“Mostly it’s because of how your friends and family are going to look at you,” she said. “They look at you like, ‘Why is she wearing that, it’s so hot.’”
But, she said, “I am doing this for God, and one day I will be rewarded for what I am doing.”
And there’s an immediate benefit: She’s not harassed as much by men when she walks down the street.
“You know how guys [say], ‘Hey Mami, come over here?’ I used to always hate that. I would cross the street just to get away. Now you still get some guys that are still curious, but it’s much less,” she explained.
“They are going to look at me for me, and not for my body.”
For women, particular challenges
Converting to Islam can be shocking for families who are largely Catholic and harbor stereotypes of Muslims, specifically concerning women.
Perada says her mother, who is Colombian, accepted her decision to convert because she never really pushed her into Catholicism. However, her father, who is of Italian origin, has had a tough time dealing with it.
“Sometimes he says things about the way I dress,” said Perada. “He’ll say, ‘Why do you have to dress that way. I’m Christian. I don’t walk around with a cross in my hand.’
“He always complains to my mom about it, but with me he just keeps it to himself. But I know for him it is very hard,” Perada added.
Growing number of converts?
Perada is not alone as a Hispanic women converting to Islam.
The exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information about religion. However, according to estimates conducted by national Islamic organizations such as the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) there are approximately 40,000 Latino Muslims in the United States.
Likewise, it is difficult to break-down the number of Latino converts to Islam into male versus female. But, according to anecdotal evidence and a survey conducted by the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), whose mission is to promote Islam within the Latino community in the United States, the number of Latinos converting to Islam tilts slightly in favor of women – with 60 percent women to 40 percent men.
Juan Galvan, the head of LADO in Texas and the co-author of a report “Latino Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America,” explained that those numbers are unscientific, but based on the results of a voluntary survey that has been conducted on the LADO website since 2001.
“From observation and experience those numbers are correct,” Galvan said. “From my personal experience, there are definitely more Latina Muslims than Latino men.” Galvan explained said that there “just seem to be more” Latina Muslims at the various events he attends through his work with LADO.
At the Islamic Education Center of North Hudson, 300 of the people who attend the mosque are converts, and 80 percent are Latino converts. In addition, out of the Latino converts, 60 percent are women, according to Nylka Vargas, who works at the mosque with the Educational Outreach Program.
Peter Awn, an Islamic studies professor at Columbia University, says there is no doubt that the number of Latinos converting to Islam is growing.
Louis Cristillo, an anthropologist who focuses on Islamic education at Columbia University, points out there are several indicators that reflect the growing trend of Latinos converting to Islam.
For example, there are a number of regional and national organizations that cater to Latino Muslims, and there are even support groups that can be found on-line specifically for Latino converts – in particular Hispanicmuslims.com, as well the LADO organization at latinodawah.org.
In fact, last weekend, Latino Muslims in this country celebrated the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day with different activities throughout the day.
Vargas, 30, from the Islamic Education Center, is of Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. She says her family is already accustomed to the idea of her being Muslim, since it has already been ten years since she converted. But she recalls the days in which her family was dealing with the initial shock of her new faith.
“When I started being more visible, that’s when things started getting weird. My sisters couldn’t understand why I would cover myself. They thought I was being oppressed or brainwashed,” said Vargas.
She admits it was difficult at first to adjust to certain customs, such as wearing the hijab or a headscarf and having to pray five times a day.
“First it felt kind of weird to be covered, but after a while it [the headscarf] becomes your hair. I refer to my hijab as my hair.”
‘A return to traditional values’
Like other ethnic groups, Latinos convert for a variety of reasons.
Some, says Cristillo, grew up in inner-city areas ravaged by poverty, drugs and prostitution, and were attracted in part by the fact that some Islamic communities were very active in cleaning up the neighborhoods.
Vargas, meanwhile, says she questioned many things about the Catholic faith in which she was raised and felt an emptiness in Christianity.
Galvan, from LADO, pointed out that many people come to Islam through people that they know, “friends, co-workers, classmates, boyfriends or husbands.”
Professor Awn said that many Latinas find there is a greater sense of economic and social stability in Islam and that it also represents “a return to traditional values.”
In that regard, Awn does not think Islam is any more patriarchal than other traditional religions, but recognized that “the younger generation is looking for a more progressive form of Islam.”
And Perada does not feel that her adherence to the Muslim faith restricts her freedoms as a woman.
“If I get married, I know I am going to work, but I am going to be there for my kids, too,” said Perada, dismissing any notions that Islam would prevent her from living the life of any other modern woman.
Carmen Sesin is an assignment editor on the NBC News Foreign Desk.