Taking on a new faith As a minority religion with an image
problem, Islam doesn't attract many converts in Taiwan;
but the women who do embrace the faith often find it liberating.
Nadia and Selvi, shown from left to right, stand outside
the Taipei Grand Mosque after a noon prayer service
last week. All converts to Islam, they say their faith
has given them strength.
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
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 Koran, and now I feel very
peaceful," she said.
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 has increased.
"The news always highlights the bad things. About 90 percent
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.
reasons for converting to Islam vary, but these women
are finding freedom in Islam.
of those going to the mosque are women, he said. Whether
they were born into a non-practicing Muslim family, converted
for marriage, or, like Huda, are simply curious to learn
more about the religion, the women Ma meets want 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.
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.
to various statistics on religious practices in Taiwan,
most people consider themselves Taoist, Buddhist, or followers
of Confucius, and in many cases a combination of all three.
Christianity is also a significant religion in Taiwan, with
nearly 1 million declared Christians.
has an estimated 130,000 Muslims, less than half
of which are Chinese-Muslims. "I am Chinese and I am Muslim.
I respect both cultures," Sana said giving the example of
wearing a white headscarf (a color often associated with
death in Taiwan).
Sana and Huda describe wearing the hijab as an honor 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.
he criticized 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 practicing 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,
"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.
was born into a non-practicing 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.
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 Koran, 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).
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 Koran, 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.
of the women said Islam places a large emphasis on respect
and equality for women. One of the most debated gender issues
in the Koran 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 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, 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. According to the Koran, the first wife
must agree to any additional marriage[s] and he must treat
each of his wives equally, both financially and intimately.
"I don't think most men, Muslim and non-Muslim, are able
to treat four all women equally," Sana said.
Most women who convert to Islam take a religious name. The
women interviewed for this article chose to use their Muslim
names and are referred to by them throughout the article.
Their Chinese names appear in parentheses.