This Muslim Convert Is Changing The Conversation About Women In Islam With Music And Humor

COPENHAGEN, Denmark ― Annette Bellaoui remembers the moment well. She was meeting a leading politician in the Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric. He stared at her, “seriously contemplating” Bellaoui in a way that seemed as though he was asking himself, “‘does this woman have hand grenades in her pockets?’”

“There was fear and anger and everything in his face,” she recalled. “And, do you know what I did? I smiled at him, my sweetest smile.” And then she blew a kiss.

Bellaoui, a 58-year-old Dane who converted to Islam nearly two decades ago, giggles when she tells this story. She’s wholeheartedly aware that the reaction to a likely incident of Islamophobia is an unorthodox one, especially for a woman in a hijab who also goes by the name Fatima Zahra. But that’s precisely why she did it.

He stared at her as though he was asking himself, 'does this woman have hand grenades in her pockets?'

For as long as she can remember, Bellaoui has never quite fit in. As a child, her family was so irreligious that it bothered her. When she became a Muslim, they couldn’t quite understand why. Neither could a lot of Danes. To some, she was a “traitor,” giving up the freedoms of Danish culture for a submissive entity bereft of brain or opinion. Others, perhaps like the politician, inaccurately assumed a woman in a hijab, or any Muslim for that matter, must be a terrorist. Muslims, too, saw her as not authentic enough ― as though not being born Muslim or of a dominant ethnicity associated with Muslims meant she was an imposter, a “pretend Muslim.”  

But Bellaoui doesn’t let reactions like these bother her, rather the opposite. She thrives in confronting the status quo, isn’t afraid to face the controversial head-on and “was raised not to mince words.” Her goal is to change the narrative about Muslims with humor and emotion rather than hostility and fear. She’s channeling the negativity and the outsider identity she embraces each day to make people reassess their opinions of what it means to be a Muslim ― especially a Muslim woman ― by amplifying our commonalities as humans. She fights misconceptions about Muslim women through music, and she uses her approachability as a Dane to educate non-Muslim Danes about a faith they often misunderstand because they’re too afraid to ask questions.

To understand her somewhat counterintuitive approach though, you have to look back at her journey to Islam and the experiences that shaped her worldview.

Growing up, Bellaoui described her family as “militant atheist,” and what she called “the atheist’s version of the Taliban.”

“I often compare it to shoes,” she said. “You know if you have shoes that are one size too small, you can wear them, you can walk around, but there’s something bothering you constantly.”

So she started to look for a new sense of belonging ― one she would eventually find in Islam. Her exposure began in part from the growing number of refugees coming into Denmark at the time and her days as a chef working with Muslims. But she didn’t really know she wanted to convert until she was in Morocco.

Bellaoui described her family as 'militant atheists' and ‘the atheist's version of the Taliban.'

Accustomed to waking up early for her job, she arose just as dawn was breaking her first morning in the country.

“I can still remember it,” she said. “It smelled [like] a freshly baked croissant and of earth just sort of a warming up because I could just see sort of a tiny sliver of sunrise.”

The call to prayer reverberated from a mosque about 100 meters away. It was the first time she’d heard it.

“I always describe it as a cartoon figure ― you know, one of these cartoon figures when somebody drops an anvil on their head?” Bellaoui said. “I just stood there like ‘what happened?’ And in that moment, I said to myself, ‘one day, I will be Muslim.’ It took another three years, but the decision was made then and there. And, until the end of my days, I will swear I heard Allah call me.”

After her conversion, her family reluctantly accepted her new identity because, as her mother would say, “since the time she was born, Annette always knew what she wanted and could never be swayed by anyone.” But even now, almost 20 years after her conversion, they still give her a hard time. Her mother asks “why [she covers her] pretty hair.” And her brother teases her for wearing the headscarf, too.

She’s at peace with the reaction, saying “they just think I’m a bit weird, but that’s okay” and playfully reminds her brother that, “when I was a year and a half old, mother could not tell me what to wear. Do you seriously think that anybody can tell me what to wear now?”

I'm very often asked the question ‘where are you from’ because [of] my physical appearance … When I answer ‘I'm Danish,’ [Muslims often say], ‘Then why are you wearing hijab?’

Annette Bellaoui

The hijab is crucial to her new identity, and Bellaoui isn’t willing to abandon that connection to faith even if it means having to learn to cope with uncomfortable situations.  

“I’m very often asked the question ‘where are you from’ because [of] my physical appearance … When I answer, ‘I’m Danish,’ [Muslims often say], ‘Then why are you wearing hijab?’ ‘Because I’m ...
4 Published By - The Huffington Post - 2017.06.16. 21:42
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