Susan Carland grew up in the Vermont area and
has happy memories of her childhood. "It's funny how much I
try and imitate my experience of childhood with my daughter.
I even take her to the lakes my mother took me, to feed the
We are sitting in her home. She wears a denim
skirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a blue headscarf. Until
recently, she drove a bubblegum-pink VW Beetle called Gus.
She has a bright, expressive energy and a sense of humour
consistent with the fact that she lists Rik Mayall of The
Young Ones among her formative influences. But she is also
tired. Her 10-month-old daughter Aisha wakes often in the
Her parents divorced when she was seven; she
went to live with her mother whom she describes as strong
and loving, and the biggest influence on her life.
Her mother's religious ideas now are to be
found in radical Christian thinkers such as American Bishop
John Shelby Spong, but, when Susan was a child, her parents
belonged to the Uniting Church. She started Sunday School
but gave it away aged about 12 to watch Video Hits.
"I always believed in God,"
she says. "I always felt a desire to know God."
Susan Carland, with daughter Aisha,
isn't sure whether she found Islam, or it found her,
but she discovered a gentleness she never expected.
Picture: Joe Armao
Around 14 she joined a "funky, happy, clappy
church" that was part of the charismatic movement. Around
her, people were claiming to speak in tongues and announcing
that God had spoken to them in the night. These experiences
were alien to her. She found the confusion arising from this
notion of knowing God "all-encompassing".
Otherwise, she pursued a normal adolescence, attending
ballet classes, going to the Big Day Out. She topped the
class in biology and English.
At the age of 17, one of her New Year's resolutions was "to
investigate other religions". Islam was not high on her
list. "It looked violent, sexist and foreign." All she knew
about Islam was a sentence in a children's encyclopedia and
the movie, Not Without My Daughter. Afterwards her
mother said: "I don't care if you marry a drug dealer, but
don't marry a Muslim."
She doesn't know whether she found Islam or
Islam found her.
She'd turn on the television and find herself watching a
program on it. Newspaper and magazine articles caught her
eye. Privately, she began studying the religion and came
across "a gentleness I never expected to find". Importantly,
Islam appealed to her intellectually. "It didn't have that
intellectual divide between mind and body and soul that I
had found in Christianity."
Having made her decision to convert, she steeled herself to
tell friends and family, particularly her mother, putting
off the moment. Fate intervened one night when her mother
announced they were having pork chops for dinner. "My mother
gave me a hug," she recalls, "but she was crying." A few
days later, she began wearing a headscarf.
She says the importance of the headscarf is greatly
exaggerated, but "Islam touches every aspect of your life.
To me, it's a tangible reminder of being close to God." She
says it also makes Muslim women flag-bearers, or
ambassadors, for Islam.
She says she "met a lot of anger" becoming a
Muslim. Some of her old friends disappeared. Now, five years
later, aged 24, she has friends who are both Muslim and
non-Muslim and an Australian-born Muslim husband who
barracks for Richmond. She has degrees in arts and science
from Monash University and would like to become a
She believes it is her lot in life to never fit in. Her
headscarf means she attracts occasional rude comments in the
street and lots of stares. She's thinking of getting a
T-shirt printed with the words: "If you keep staring I might
do a trick." At the same time, she has found herself in
disputes within the Muslim community on the role of women.
Her honors thesis is on women's access to the mosque.
"There's been a gradual exclusion of female scholars in
Islam. Originally, there were many, but that's been eroded.
Islamic scholarship has become dominated by men from
At times, she says she has been let down by certain
attitudes within the Muslim community on issues of gender
and race. She believes that what she and a growing number of
Islamic feminists around the world are arguing for is the
authentic Islam. "These are issues of justice. Men should be
angry about them as well. What sort of a man places his
security on the subjugation of women?"
She is active within the Muslim community, speaking on its
behalf in churches and non-Muslim schools, and working with
When told she had won the Muslim of the Year title, a prize
worth $2000 to be distributed to charities of her choice,
she accepted on two conditions: that she would spend the
money in Australia and give to non-Muslim as well as Muslim
Susan Carland's life hasn't been straightforward, but she
says she has become used to not fitting in.
She has never regretted converting to Islam.