When Beatriz Kehdy was growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, she felt uncomfortable with the standards of beauty that she says were a part of the culture in which she was raised. An emphasis on external beauty and the body, she says, became increasingly foreign to her own personal values.
Kehdy moved to New York City almost 10 years ago and eventually discovered a sense of place in Islam and in the hijab, or headscarf worn by women in the faith.
"When I wear the hijab, I feel more respected, people talk to me with respect," she said. The now 27-year-old architect converted from Catholicism to Islam four years ago, but didn't tell her family until a few years later, in a letter.
"When I started wearing the hijab, there was a problem," she said. "My father didn't want me to wear it in public in Brazil."
Kehdy is one of many Latin American women in the U.S. who have embraced the Islamic faith. The American Muslim Council, based in Chicago, estimates that there are more than 200,000 Latino Muslims in the United States. Women make up 60 percent of conversions to Islam, according to experts.
Mosques around the country have begun to offer special classes where women converts can learn about Islam. The North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, in Union City, N.J., offers both English and Spanish Language classes. Mariam Abassi, vice president of the Da'wah (outreach) program at the center, said about 500 members of the center are Latino converts. There are between 4,000 and 5,000 members in total. . .
"I was raised as a Catholic but I didn't like it. I felt this emptiness," said Mayeline Turbides, a 21-year-old Dominican student who lives in West New York, N.J." I was never convinced." She took the name Leila after she became a Muslim.
Before discovering Islam, Turbides had explored evangelical Christianity and Mormonism, which failed to draw her in. About two years ago, her Muslim boss started talking to her about Islam. "I used to go out, to drink. I got drunk 500 times," Turbides said in Spanish. "But nothing made sense. I wanted rules."
When it comes to assimilating to a new faith, Islam appeals to Catholic Latinas for several reasons. "There are many similarities between Catholicism and Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, Communications Director and spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, D.C. "Both have principles that need to be followed, regarding how you conduct yourself as person, how you operate in a community."
Others find a new religion to be an escape from the confines of machismo, or chauvinism.
"I feel more protected," Turbides said. "Men used to shout things at me when I was walking down the street. They would honk their horns. When I wear the hijab, nobody says anything."