Conversion Problems
June 14, 2011 7:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop feeling guilty for not wanting my boyfriend to convert to Islam?

I was raised Muslim, but no longer consider myself to be religious. My boyfriend of nearly 5 years is firmly agnostic.

Despite the length of our relationship, my parents only found out about it a few months ago. The bf and I live together in a different country from my parents, and I hid the relationship because my dad made it clear to me many years ago that if I did not marry a Muslim, I would be disowned.

But of course the guilt and worry took its toll. I became extremely anxious and depressed and went into therapy. Through therapy I found the courage to tell my parents the truth. Their first reaction was "why are you telling us this? what we don't know won't hurt us!" which shocked me to say the least. My dad told me he never wanted to see me again and almost booked me an early flight back, but my mum stepped in and asked him to wait and see if my boyfriend would consider converting to Islam.

I agreed that we would think about it (during the conversation it came out that I'm not too sure about many aspects of Islam myself, though I didn't go into it much) but that I couldn't make any guarantees.

Since then, the pressure has been building to make a decision. My mum emailed me the other day saying that nothing in our lives needs to change, my boyfriend just needs to accept Islam and everything will be fine. We don't even need to change anything about the way we live now. She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing, and that I'm choosing to reject my family and culture for him. She says that if we just said yes to this she could stop feeling the ongoing pain that she has failed as a mother. I have yet to reply.

To be honest, the decision has already been made: I have absolutely no desire to call myself a Muslim, or to ask my boyfriend to convert. He is also very unwilling, and I know that to ask him to do this for me could potentially cause problems between us down the road. And then it feels like converting would mean accepting the way my dad has been acting, accepting that it's okay to disown your child because of who they choose to marry, that it's somehow MY mistake I have to correct to please him. The thought of that makes me so angry. And another big point is that I would just feel really uncomfortable calling myself a Muslim, having to fake it, when there is so much about Islam that does not sit well with me. In my parents' part of the world, religion is often used an excuse for terrible treatment of women and the oppression of their rights. So many girls in my family were denied an education, were married off to men they barely knew at the age of sixteen. So many of them are wearing headscarves so they can leave the house on their own, rather than dressing as they want and being shut up at home.

I want to stand up for the things I believe in, like same sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, gender equality, sex before marriage, separation of church and state etc., plus the right to eat and drink and wear what I want. To call myself Muslim seems to be a denial of so many things I love and which make up who I am. And somehow I feel a responsibility, to my kid sister, my younger cousins, generations of Muslim-but-not-really girls to come, to show that it can be done. I know so many girls who feel oppressed by the system, but feel powerless to do anything about it - I want to show that you can strike out on your own, make choices for yourself and not compromise on the type of life you want for yourself, and it'll be okay.

But I feel guilty, because to my mum my decision would seem so self-centred. Like I would rather lose my immediate family than go through with a name-only conversion to keep the aunties and uncles happy. Reading through other threads here, some comments make religious conversion sound like no big deal, maybe even a noble way to keep the peace. I just can't go through with it. But I'm so miserable at the thought of not having my parents in my life, too.

So to my question: How do I come to terms with my decision and not feel guilty about it?
posted by guessthis to Human Relations (64 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing.

I just want to say, if it's such a small thing, why does she make a huge deal about it?
And no, it's anything but small.
posted by Tarumba at 7:59 AM on June 14, 2011 [26 favorites]

It sounds like you fully comprehend the consequences of both options. It's probably not much help, but I think the only thing to help the pain and guilt will be time.

It also may help to write a longer version of your reasoning and to send it to your parents. Probably won't convince them, but you'll feel better for having done it.
posted by hamandcheese at 8:00 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing

This is absolutely a huge thing. If she calls it small, maybe she is just going through the motions, too? Maybe she feels the way you feel, but has been trained as a girl/woman to fall into the accepted cultural norm and just go along with it as countless generations before her...
posted by TinWhistle at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

How involved is converting to Islam in your family's traditions? Is it the kind of thing where you take a couple of classes, then go through a ceremony? If so, one option is to say to your boyfriend, hey, I'm not asking you to really convert, and you don't have to do this. But, we could have a little peace for my parents, who I like overall despite being unreasonable about stuff like this, if you just go through the ceremony and then send them a copy of the certificate.

I know someone who did this so that her husband's Jewish parents would accept her. It didn't change the way she lived at all.

If your boyfriend feels strongly about converting to Islam in name, then, well, your parents will have to live with it, and you'll have tried everything you reasonably could have to make peace with them.
posted by ignignokt at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2011

aLso, this si adoor you want to keep closed. If he converts into Islam, then (if you have any) it will be "Why aren't your children Muslim?" and other million "small things"

I come from a catholic family and even though my parents weren't as strict about it as yours sound, I had to put my foot down when it comes to my husband's atheism. You have a right to be self centered when it comes to life choices. It's your life.
posted by Tarumba at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2011 [33 favorites]

Well, one way to reframe this is to realize that this is a choice your parents would be making, not one you and your boyfriend are making. You two are making decisions about your own life, and those decisions in no way preclude a relationship with your parents. Your parents appear to be preparing to make a decision about their lives that would preclude a relationship with you. That's on them. In other words, there is nothing that prevents them from loving their non-Muslim daughter except their decision not to do so.
posted by OmieWise at 8:02 AM on June 14, 2011 [37 favorites]

To be honest, the decision has already been made: ... I want to stand up for the things I believe in

I have nothing to help you make your parents stop being this way, except to say that I can see you're strong and smart, and you'll be OK if they continue to withhold their approval of you and your choices.
posted by fritley at 8:02 AM on June 14, 2011 [13 favorites]

How involved is converting to Islam in your family's traditions? Is it the kind of thing where you take a couple of classes, then go through a ceremony? If so, one option is to say to your boyfriend, hey, I'm not asking you to really convert, and you don't have to do this.

sorry for the multiple posting, but this is not how things will likely happen! If he accepted to convert, your children are next, then a little ceremony here, a little rule there, and you will have sacrified your choices to keep third parties apeaced. Be loving but firm. Do not give in!
posted by Tarumba at 8:04 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I know that this CAN be a really big deal , but I wanted to provide an alternative perspective. My sister converted to Catholicism (from being basically agnostic) in large part to please her husband's family, and it hasn't been a big deal. It was a pain to go to class early on Sunday for 6 months, but now it's over and out of the way as an issue with the in-laws. (His extended family is pretty religious, so it has involved going to a lot of communions and baptisms, but those would have probably been mandatory anyway.)

Since the conversion, about a year ago, I think they've never gone to mass, and haven't gotten any guff about it.

Either way, just wanted to provide you with the alternative that if the converting person doesn't feel super-strongly about religion, the conversion can be an easy peacemaker.
posted by mercredi at 8:07 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the way you can stop feeling guilty is to stop looking at this like a choice you are making, and instead view it as a choice THEY are making.
posted by hermitosis at 8:08 AM on June 14, 2011 [13 favorites]

Sounds like your mother is anxious to keep the peace. Is there any way you can tell her what you have told us, so eloquently? Your parents, strict though they are, are human beings. I'm not clear as to whether you have explained your objections to them but perhaps you should try. They may surprise you. Who knows.

Re: the feeling guilty - I am familiar with feeling like you have to do something to make other people happy. But it seems to me that whether they "forgive" you (I put it in quotation marks because I don't think you have done anything that requires forgiveness) is in their hands, not yours.

You are obviously a strong and intelligent woman. This is just one of the things that will make you stronger. You have to bite the bullet and keep being brave, for your sisters and cousins and for yourself.

I'm Muslim myself (but from a less conservative background) - I understand some of the cultural things at stake here. Do not think it will stop at your boyfriend converting. Once you give in, you will be expected to keep giving in. Are you going to live your lives according to rules set by others?
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:09 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ultimately, the only thing you can control is your decision and how you choose to live your life. It's not totally clear from your answer, but have you discussed this with your boyfriend? He would need to decide if it was something he wanted to pursue or not; it's not fair to him to enter into a committed relationship if he does not have the full background about your family and what they are asking. Even if you both agree that you cannot in good conscience pursue his conversion, that decision will have big repercussions in terms of his and your relationship with your family in the future. It sounds like you have thought a lot about this and come to the decision that is best for you, and that is also a huge part of this process. He needs to know about that.

You cannot control what your parents' reactions will be, and I can absolutely understand your sadness and fear about losing your relationshihp with them. You can communicate to them that you love them and absolutely respect them and their culture. Let them know that you want to have a relationship with them, but that you are not able to make the choice they are asking you to because it does not mesh with your own morals. What is confusing to me is the fact that your mother is saying that nothing in your life would have to change, other than the conversion. It seems like this is not really in keeping with your faith and maybe suggests that they (or at least she) might come around in the future.
posted by goggie at 8:11 AM on June 14, 2011

My mum emailed me the other day saying that nothing in our lives needs to change, my boyfriend just needs to accept Islam and everything will be fine. We don't even need to change anything about the way we live now.

Right, after that you will never be pressured to do anything. Do you honestly believe that? If parents are controlling and force you to live the way they want you to live, there is never going to be a day where they say "Yes, everything is fine now. You can live your life without us interfering."

She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing, and that I'm choosing to reject my family and culture for him.

You're choosing to be with the person you love, and she is choosing to reject you because the person you love isn't in the same religion. Living your own life is not rejecting your family, and if your parents disagree with that you are better off doing what you think is right rather than feeling bad about not complying with their demands.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:11 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

You said it yourself: "He is also very unwilling, and I know that to ask him to do this for me could potentially cause problems between us down the road." If your boyfriend has no wish to convert, the decision is made. And not by you, and not by your parents - by the only person who has the right to make this decidion: Your boyfriend.

Seriously. It makes sense to feel some guilt about letting your parents down - all parents have dreams for their children, and not all of them can be fulfilled. And maybe talking with a therapist could be helpful to help you determine the source of the guilt - are there other things you've actively done that went against your parents, that you're subconsciously using this as a cover for? Are you an only child, dealing with the sense that if you don't toe the line then there's no one who will, so you're bearing the extra burden of the missing children? In any case, as far as this matter goes, if your boyfriend isn't interested, then this is off the table, period, and "your decision" in the matter is irrelevant. You can tell your mother that he isn't interested, and while that won't solve anything as far as her irritating you about it, it will at least make it clear that it's not up to you.

Religion is a deeply personal thing. And it's not a small thing, as others have pointed out. If your mother keeps insisting it's such a small thing, tell her "it's not small for us. If it's so small for you, then you can let it go."

If I can stir the pot a little, though, how much of this is about who you marry and how much of it is about the religion of your future children? If your mother's issue is that she won't have Muslim grandchildren, would you consider sending them to religious school, and let them be converted? And if not - and I'm guessing the answer is no - then there's another subject you may need to talk about with your parents when you're ready, because this issue will only get more pronounced when/if you decide to have kids.
posted by Mchelly at 8:12 AM on June 14, 2011 [11 favorites]

This is much more than just asking your bf to convert; it's about sticking to what you believe in. This can be interpreted as a self-centered decision, but let's face it: you are not cut out for what they are asking you to do.

You really don't have to do this. Be firm and honest with your parents, tell them this is making you depressed and hurt. Also be prepared for any consequences and, as titanium_geek says, be safe.

Good luck to you.
posted by heartofglass at 8:14 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not that it matters what anyone else thinks, but since you seem concerned... what kind of role model lives a lie? If you do want to be an admirable older sister and cousin, either commit to the religion and everything it entails, or tell your parents how you feel and stay true to yourself. They won't disown you forever if they're your parents who love you. Your father will come around, whether it be a year or five years from now.

But I feel guilty, because to my mum my decision would seem so self-centred. Your decision is not self-centred. It is one that you and you alone make. It's the rest of your life you're dealing with here.
posted by sunnychef88 at 8:14 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

go through with a name-only conversion to keep the aunties and uncles happy

"Name-only conversions" aren't really so "name-only." As I understand it, converting to Islam involves reciting the Shahdah and meaning it. Which really doesn't take all that much in terms of effort or difficulty. It's "just a few words," right?

In the same way that kissing the emperor's ring was a sort of once-and-done thing that would have enabled thousands of Christian martyrs to escape their fate. But because doing so entailed making a public statement about one's fundamental identity, many refused, to the point of death. The idea that one can engage in one of these sacramental-type activities "without really meaning it" denies the outward nature of these things. If your boyfriend converts, he will never again be simply "not a Muslim." He could be a "bad Muslim", a "lapsed Muslim", even an "apostate Muslim," and arguably an "ex-Muslim," (if that even means anything), but joining a religion is the kind of thing that changes you, for good or ill, in big ways or in small, permanently. You can't undo it.

This is why so many families who are outwardly religious, i.e. go to church/mass/prayer/whatever but don't really seem to believe all that much, care about these things so much. Religions are outward and social institutions, as much as we might like to think that they're all private and internal. Going through a conversion ritual permanently puts you "on their team," regardless of your stated beliefs or practices. A lot of Catholic parents don't care that their kids are sleeping around and not going to mass. The fact that they were baptized means they're "in the club," so to speak, and if your boyfriend converts, he will be too. No amount of protestation or denial will change that.

So I'm going to suggest a different approach. A lot of people are saying "Don't let them force you into doing something you don't want! It's your decision!" which is a pretty defiant and confrontational approach. Instead, how about this: "Mom, Dad, I know you think Islam is important. We respect that you take that seriously, and want to treat that appropriately. My boyfriend is not ready to convert yet, and we both respect you and your beliefs too much to lie to you and the rest of the world about him converting. So until he's ready to do that honestly and genuinely, he won't be doing it."

It may not work, but at least it pushes the conversation in a direction that emphasizes and reinforces filial piety rather than directly undermining it. That would seem to be a much more production foundation for this conversation.
posted by valkyryn at 8:17 AM on June 14, 2011 [23 favorites]

Your decision is not self-centered.

Actually it is self-centered - in a positive, almost necessary way. Then again, once I re-read the posting I realized I'd missed one key fact: your boyfriend doesn't want to convert...

Isn't that pretty much the end of the discussion? You're not seriously thinking of persuading or pressuring him to go against his own wishes and publicly embrace a lie, are you? Now that would be self-centered, and most definitely not in a positive way.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:18 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't want to re-hash points made above, but do remember that it is your parents that have thrown down the ultimatum of "Islam or disown." They forced you into this. Having the ultimatum means that you don't have to feel guilty.

Much of my extended family does not speak to me due to not being Catholic. I got the same treatment. Welcome to the world of the black sheep.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:20 AM on June 14, 2011

Your parents already made it clear that, "what we don't know won't hurt us!" Make peace within your own conscious that religion will not be part of your life if that is what suits you. If your parents press you on the issue, tell them you refuse to discuss it and leave it at that. You don't have to disown your past or your relatives but if they choose to make that distinction, it is their choice. In your circumstance I would plead with them not to make a choice in their actions which would block you from their life.
posted by JJ86 at 8:20 AM on June 14, 2011

guessthis: "She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing,"

If it's such a small thing, then why doesn't she let it go?

Better yet, if it's such a small thing, why doesn't she renounce her faith instead?
posted by notsnot at 8:25 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you parents say what we don't know won't hurt us, just tell them he is converting even if he isn't. If it ever comes up again, just tell them he changed his mind but you thought it best not to tell them as per their previous sentiments.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:27 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you need to accept that what your family is doing to you (threatening to disown you if you don't conform to their religion) represents EXACTLY what you are rejecting about their version of Islam: using religion as a way to repress women, and people in general.

You are right to stand up against this, because in fighting against your own repression you're also fighting against repression in general. But it's going to come with costs to you -- possible alienation from your family.

As for conversion, it's really only "no big deal" to do a fake conversion if you're a person who doesn't really care about religion either way. For people who DO care about religion (and paradoxically, this very much includes people who have left repressive religions), fake conversion is morally repugnant, because you understand what it means to really believe.

My personal guess is that after a while, your mom will probably want to continue in a relationship with you. It might have to be a secret from your dad, but from what you've described here, I don't think she'll completely check out.
posted by yarly at 8:28 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Tell them that your boyfriend will convert to Islam right after they renounce Islam and convert to Catholicism.

Otherwise you'll disown them as your parents (?!).

Seriously - they have not thought this through, and I guarantee they never will unless you shove the reality of what they're asking directly in front of their face.

Ok, I wouldn't actually suggest asking that, since it will probably escalate the situation. What I would actually suggest is that you say as carefully, firmly, and lovingly as possible that your boyfriend's religious beliefs are his own, and no one else's, to decide. Explain that you love them, and you want them to be involved in your life, but not if it they're going to dictate how you or your boyfriend lives their lives. Give them a choice, and don't make excuses. Just...if you give them a choice, you are going to have to be prepared that they'll choose to disown you. Right now they seem to be using disownment as a threat - it's not clear if they're serious about carrying through. I'm sure that would be devastating for you, but you sound financially independent, and as painful as separation from your family would be, I think staying true to yourself is worth it.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:29 AM on June 14, 2011

Oh, and you should realize that what they're also trying to do here is to get you chose between your boyfriend and them, not between Islam and them. Which do you chose?
posted by yarly at 8:33 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

You should not change your beliefs or behave as if you believe something just to make peace with someone. Your boyfriend should not either. Faith is an extremely personal decision and practice. I commend you for having the strength to express your beliefs when they differ from the way you were raised.

When I became engaged many years ago, I spoke with my Grandmother about the plans for my marriage. I spoke about my beliefs with her and how I saw my future with my fiance. I was raised Catholic and he was not. I was honest in telling her that I struggle with faith and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. I let her know that we were to be married by the minister of the church he grew up in because I didn't feel a tie to any one church. I thought the conversation went very well and that she understood. I was wrong.

Two weeks later, when family was visiting, she publicly disowned me. She declared me an apostate and said my marriage would be a sham in the eyes of God. She declared that I betrayed my family and my faith. I could only respond with "I'm sorry you feel that way." From that moment on, she never spoke to me again. I could visit her and she'd turn to the wall. I never understood her reaction. She didn't reject my Mother, a Catholic, when she married my father, a Muslim. She rejected me even though the man I married was Christian. I still struggle with the concept of faith. I do NOT, however, regret that conversation with my Grandma and I do NOT regret marrying my husband.

Being rejected by your family because you don't believe what they do is painful. However, you've got to be true to yourself and what you really do believe in or you will open your life to much greater pain and hypocrisy. You cannot change your boyfriend and what he believes. At best, your family can hope that they serve as good role models and that you'll come to their beliefs on your own. (Unlikely, but they can hope.) At worst, you can live an honest life even if they never speak to you again.

Good luck.
posted by onhazier at 8:37 AM on June 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm so sorry. Your parents have put you in an untenable position, and you have my deepest sympathies. It's okay to be sad about this. It's okay to be angry at them and any culture that would set up a false dichotomy like this. And it is okay to feel as though you have been forced to choose between your family and your future. But never feel guilty about choosing your future over your past. The popular campaign reaching out to bullied teens today tells them that "it gets better" - but this message applies to your situation as well. Hang in there. Choose the future, choose your own adventure, and draw inspiration from all the wonderful things that are going to come true for you. It gets better.
posted by jph at 8:37 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

To answer your question, therapy is often a good way of getting the tools to let go of an emotion such as guilt.

As for estrangement from your family, you may have to find a chosen family, like many gays, lesbians and transgendered have done in the past and continue to do. In personal relationships with our families fairness rarely comes into it. I'm so sorry.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:42 AM on June 14, 2011

I want to stand up for the things I believe in, like same sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, gender equality, sex before marriage, separation of church and state etc., plus the right to eat and drink and wear what I want. To call myself Muslim seems to be a denial of so many things I love and which make up who I am.

It doesn't have to be.

You shouldn't profess to be a Muslim if you aren't. You shouldn't convert if you don't want to. But being a Muslim does not mean that you have to be against same sex marriage. It really doesn't. There are Catholics who use birth control, Muslims who eat port and drink beer, and LDS who are totally in favor of gay marriage (and who are gay themselves).

I'm really not telling you to convert. Really (I'm an atheist and always have been). But Islam is a religion of over half a billion people. It's got room in it for someone who supports your positions.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have a good answer to the question of how you come to terms with it.

If I were in your shoes, my question to my parents would be something like this: "does your faith mean so little to you that you would demean it by having someone convert in name only, without honestly embracing it?"

Your parents are using an unfair negotiating tactic: they are the ones who want him to convert, but they want you to be the one to ask, and they're trying to use leverage against you to convince him (or to convince you to convince him). My first reaction was that if they want him to convert, that's a conversation they should have with him directly. But presumably they'd still be using their leverage against you to convince him. Still unfair.
posted by adamrice at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Religion is fundamental to who we are, and when your religious views change fundamentally, so do you. Perhaps you are no longer compatible with much of your family. It sucks, but it happens, especially when there is immigration involved, I've been through it myself. Family is a lot, but its not everything. I would sacrifice a lot to keep my family in tact, but I would not sacrifice my core beliefs or my identity.

You are sticking to your principles in the face of incredible pressure that most people would yield to. Take pride in this!
posted by tempythethird at 8:58 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi everyone, thanks for the many great responses thus far. I'm dropping back before I leave the office to say that it's just so damned nice to read some of the thoughts echoing around my head being written back to me - that in itself is a comfort.

A small point of clarification: my boyfriend knows every detail of what my parents think and have said. He offered to put conversion 'on the table' out of love for me despite what his conscience was telling him, but I've already told him I can't let him do that.
posted by guessthis at 9:24 AM on June 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm tempted to say you should just tell your parents he converted, since they seem to be happy living on a tissue of deceptions and lies - "what they don't know won't hurt them".

It sounds like this is important to you and respecting your own integrity and that of your relationship is the best investment you can make. You're not the first to go through a process of estrangement based on marrying out - maybe it would be helpful to find support from others (both Muslim and not) who have gone through this or are going through it.

"Disowning" is a red herring. It's the 21st century and you don't need your parents' inheritance. The real challenge is maintaining and nurturing relationships amidst change and tension. You might find Harriet Lerner's work, which is based on a family systems approach to psychology, really helpful on this.

Good luck!
posted by Salamandrous at 9:29 AM on June 14, 2011

You are right, your parents are wrong.

Being a former Catholic, I can also identify with you a bit.

One thing that helped me deal with this stuff with my parents is to understand that they see it as a rejection of their parenting and their attempts to impart you with a moral code, etc. They might also see it a bit as you feeling like you are too good for them now or looking down on them.

Make sure you tell them that it's not a rejection of Islam or all of the stuff they tried to teach you. Tell them that you still respect it, and their culture, and that you still believe in the good parts of Islam (whatever they are to you -- try to find them), and that when you have children, you'll make sure that they know and understand and respect where they came from. Tell them something like while you still respect it, you feel like it might not be the only way of relating to god, and that you and your future husband need to find your own way.

You can always just quote the Quran on forced conversion.

"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error."

It might be a shade dishonest, but imply that if they truly believe in Islam, and that Islam is correct, then your husband will eventually find his way there, even if you and he both think that will never happen...
posted by empath at 9:31 AM on June 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

He offered to put conversion 'on the table' out of love for me despite what his conscience was telling him, but I've already told him I can't let him do that.

If it were me, I would stand firm on not converting, but studying Islam can't hurt. If they can relate to him, and feel like he respects them, then I think it would be better for all of you, imo.
posted by empath at 9:34 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

A name-only religious conversion is essentially asking your boyfriend to lie - to a large number of people - to make your parents happy. Can you/he do that?

I assume the answer is no or you wouldn't be asking this question.

There's really no easy answer to this question, unfortunately, but I think you've already answered it for yourself. Best of luck telling your parents ...
posted by Xany at 9:35 AM on June 14, 2011

guessthis... just how strict is your father in the faith? And your other male relatives? It's only been obliquely alluded to above, but will you be safe once you publicly slam the door on your boyfriend converting?

I think valkyryn's idea of never officially taking it off the table might be the wisest.
posted by likeso at 9:36 AM on June 14, 2011

(Also, one last thing -- is part of this social pressure so that they will be looked down upon by neighbors for having a daughter who married a non-muslim?)
posted by empath at 9:38 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The reality here is, you can't let him. It's as simple as that. You can't start your life together on a lie so put that option out of your head. Your mother will try to shame you into it, your father will try to force you into it, but that doesn't matter. You have to be strong. The real question is, how do you make your parents and family understand?

Personally I say you and your fiance make a short film where you look at all the things in your life that give you joy, explaining why they do and why it is that you don't feel the need to believe in Islam in the same way they do. Explain what it is you love about each other and why it is that you not being together isn't an option.

Then let them try to understand you as who you are. If they don't, and let's be honest, they probably won't at the beginning, time will make it better. If it doesn't, live your life. That's really all you can do.
posted by rudhraigh at 9:45 AM on June 14, 2011

Your parents are the ones who are being self-centered.

If they think that converting to a religion is a small thing, then they are either demanding your boyfriend convert out of their own pride and/or they don't really believe, either. That's where it becomes ridiculous. How "small" can one's view of the divine (or lack thereof) really be in a person's life?!

Don't let your mother and father guilt trip you over this. If they aren't interested in your boyfriend's spiritual health, then this is all just a matter of pride and it's way more about them than it is about you or your boyfriend. And the other posters are absolutely right -- it won't end with your boyfriend simply accepting Islam in name.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2011

I absolutely agree with empath's suggestion, though. I would certainly want to understand the culture & religion my girlfriend comes from. Regardless of whether or not your parents would accept that as a gesture of good faith and understanding, it really couldn't hurt. (Although it wouldn't shock me if your boyfriend was already fairly well-informed given your relationship.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:51 AM on June 14, 2011

Conversion in names only depends entirely on the people involved. My brother did it to marry a Catholic. I married a Catholic and made it clear that I was not willing to do it because it was important to me not to. In particular, there were many social problems I had with Catholicism that I wasn't willing to endorse (similar to your issues with Islam). Now my husband was also falling out of Catholicism as well (much like you) and so he wasn't going to ask it of me. His mom was sad, and more upset when we didn't get married in a church at all, and still more bothered by our son being baptized in a different (but still Christian) faith. But I wasn't willing to do it and my husband understood and supported me. His mom got over it.

I've had several friends in similar situations, and for most of them, there parents took their time adjusting, but they all adjusted. Only you know your parents, but it may be over time they will soften (in particular it sounds like your mom doesn't want to disown you). Given the strength of your bf's convictions and your own lack of enthusiasm for Islam, I'd give it time. Make it clear to your parents that you want them in your life, but they have to choose to accept your choices.
posted by katers890 at 9:54 AM on June 14, 2011

I like this recent "Ask Richard" posting, on a similar topic: "Ask Richard: Should I Feign Converting to Judaism to Keep Peace in the Family?"
posted by pw201 at 10:41 AM on June 14, 2011

In a very real sense you will be making a choice between your boyfriend and family/community.

I know tons of people who have had their prospective spouse convert and no one does any checking up to see if they are praying and aren't drinking. But none of these people are going to Muslim weddings and drinking wine there either. If you and your boyfriend can live with this then a name-only conversion would make things easy for everyone but you'll all be participating in a fiction.

I don't know any Muslim woman who married a non-Muslim male (the rules being different for men of course). This could be either because it doesn't happen or because I never see them anymore. It's hard to say because people disappear socially for all kinds of reasons. They could not be getting invitations to gatherings or they could be avoiding them to save themselves the grief.

Your family may come around at some point. It doesn't seem like you care much about the community back home anyway so don't worry about them. You're making an honest, principled decision. If your family wants to cut you out of their lives because of it that shows you what they value more, you don't need to feel guilty as a result.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:54 AM on June 14, 2011

Converting to a religion you don't believe in is dishonest, and disrespectful to the genuine believers. Maybe frame it that way to your parents? (If you wanted to get your point across in a more blunt way you could always tell them "well, instead I've decided to convert to because Boyfriend's grandparents want us to get married at the .")
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:20 AM on June 14, 2011

"live a lie to prove you love me" = emotional blackmail. Nothing more.
It's abuse.
posted by BrooksCooper at 11:28 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

My mum emailed me the other day saying that nothing in our lives needs to change, my boyfriend just needs to accept Islam and everything will be fine. We don't even need to change anything about the way we live now. She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing, and that I'm choosing to reject my family and culture for him.

This person is either not being truthful, or she doesn't take her religion seriously at all.
posted by goethean at 11:52 AM on June 14, 2011

As someone who disdains religion, my gut emotional reaction makes me ask how a family could claim to love their daughter, but threaten to disown her based on religion? Even if your fiance does convert, you will always know that if you convert, your parents' love is conditional on your husband's religion. When I've discussed hypothetical realities with my family/friends, asking, "Would you still love your child even if he/she murdered someone in cold blood?" nearly everyone answers that they would hate the crime, but would not stop loving their child nor would they completely abandon their child. In an ideal world, parents should love their kids unconditionally. It's up to you whether you want to continue to have a relationship with parents who do not love you unconditionally.

On the other hand, my dad converted to Judaism just to make my grandparents happy. He didn't care about the conversation or religion. My parents were barely in their early 20s. My mom thought of my dad converting as an annoyance and my dad just thought it was silly. Neither of my parents were religious and came from relatively mild religious backgrounds, so converting didn't have the baggage it sounds like it would have for you. There was never talk of disowning my mom, but it made my grandparents feel more comfortable with marriage (especially given the young age of my parents). I would not convert for anyone, but I detest religion.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:03 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

She says she can't believe I can't allow her this one small thing, and that I'm choosing to reject my family and culture for him. She says that if we just said yes to this she could stop feeling the ongoing pain that she has failed as a mother.

If it's really a matter of faith, she shouldn't be asking you or your husband to be doing this for her. Isn't one of the core teachings that there is no compulsion in faith?

There's not anything you can really do to not feel bad about this situation. But it might make it easier to understand if you reframe it:

You're not rejecting your family or your culture- your parents are considering rejecting you - their precious child whom they raised and loved, not because they've been ordered so by God, but because they cannot imagine you living outside the way they live. This isn't you failing your family, this is them failing to step up to the challenges that come in faith - what is the right path that fits the principles of your way? I recall a lot about the Prophet taking in orphans - not casting out children.

You are doing what is right by your heart. They need to examine their own.
posted by yeloson at 12:41 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is up to your boyfriend to be what he wants to be and believe what he wants to believe. Your parents have no right to tell either him or you that he has to convert. They deeply desire it-and there are deep cultural reasons for this, but if you do what they want you are lying to yourself about who you are and forcing the bf to be what he is not. That is wrong.

They very well may reject you, and I am sorry for that. But it seems too high a price to pay for approval, in my view.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:53 PM on June 14, 2011

but joining a religion is the kind of thing that changes you, for good or ill, in big ways or in small, permanently. You can't undo it.

If your boyfriend is an atheist to begin with, joining a religion in name only does not change the fact of his atheism. It is a ceremony of no meaning to him. Its symbolism will wash over him like water off a duck’s back.

Clearly, the conversion would be mostly meaningless to your mother as well, as she has admitted openly.

The way I read it, for your parents this is 100% about saving face in front of friends and family.

I would do it, and forget about it. The lesser deal you make of it, the sooner you can forget it ever happened.

You’ll be happy, the family will be happy, and your boyfriend can resume being an atheist who did a kinda wacky thing for love. No biggie.
posted by Dragonness at 12:55 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

My Indian cousin dated and eventually married an older white woman. This was a huge deal to his parents, for reasons passing understanding. While they were living together before marriage (which was for about three to four years), she had to leave the apartment for days when they came to visit and pretend to be living somewhere else, she had to be very, very quiet when he talked to them on the phone, they refused to acknowledge her existence or admit that the relationship was anything serious. It was a tremendously stressful and guilt-inducing experience, as my cousin and his girlfriend tried to live their individual lives while putting up the lie his parents expected, indeed insisted upon.

Then they got engaged, finally, and all of a sudden she was welcome around the house, it was ok that they were together, his mom started hugging her when they saw each other. It's all very strange and goes to my main point, which is that families are just weird.

So I have some idea of what you're going through, albeit by proxy, and I'm very sorry you're going through it. Only you can say whether your parents' threats are as empty as my aunt and uncle's turned out to be or if they're not the bluffing type. What I can tell you is that your decisions are not self-centered. You're not the one threatening to disown or abandon your family; your family is attempting to coerce you via emotional force into doing something you don't want to do.

I know from what you've written here that you do not like how your culture uses Islam to browbeat, corral, and impose upon women and their rights. This is part of that same pattern, make no mistake about it: it is different in degree but not in kind. You do not feel guilty about opposing mainstream culturally-Islamic stances on same-sex marriage and gender equality; perhaps it will help to think of this as your taking a stand against forcible conversion. Because that's what's going on here, and just because it is emotional violence does not make it any less threatening or painful.
posted by Errant at 1:28 PM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I understand your problem. I was in a similar situation with my husband. But really, do you want to make your boyfriend live a lie to make your mother happy? If so, your relationship is doomed with both your mother and boyfriend. It would be different it he wanted to convert, then I would say to go ahead and do it, make mom happy. But to force him to do something is wrong, especially something so fraught with emotional issues like religion.

You need to choose your boyfriend or your mother (and perhaps family). Don't make it his choice, it is your choice.
posted by fifilaru at 2:17 PM on June 14, 2011

DO NOT lie to your parents, stage a sham conversion or apologize for your behavior and decisions. Your parents are abusing you emotionally. Likely they have always used such tactics to alter your behavior. (This stuff does not come out of thin air.) If you try to mollify them in any way over this issue it will be reinforcing their abusive behavior.

Your parents are hypocrites and they are willing to put you through an emotional roller coaster and/or to erase you from their lives (if they are to be believed) if they cannot convert you and your boyfriend to their hypocrisy.

You need to establish your personal boundaries with your parents with no hint of regret, shame, or guilt. I would do that by pointing out who in this equation is being disrespectful of Islam, who is being pathologically self-centered, and that their current behavior is a perfect example of many of the things about Islam that trouble you deeply.

Either they can take it or they can't. If not, it's just one more family fractured by irrational beliefs. If they can take it (and I suspect they can) you all will have grown personally and as a family.

Good luck.
posted by txmon at 2:19 PM on June 14, 2011

I don't have any real advice for you, OP, only a lot of sympathy for your position.

In my parents' part of the world, religion is often used an excuse for terrible treatment of women and the oppression of their rights.

Statements like these, though, coupled with your mother's insistence that this is a small thing, a vitally important lie, make me think that this is her way of not controlling you, but staying in touch with you. How likely is it that you will be disowned if your boyfriend does not comply? And in that case, how likely is it that your mother will be forbidden from talking to you or seeing you or attending your wedding and meeting her grandchildren?

I only say this because my father played similar games with my mother (not to these extremes, and not about religion) and it put her in the terrifying position of having to publicly agree with him in his berating of me and privately apologizing to me for having done it. So it could be that your mother feels the same pressure and the same fear for you and your relationship.

If this is true, however, it is still her choice to make. Just like it is your choice to not practice Islam and to not accept or encourage a sham conversion on your boyfriend's part. Talk to her alone, if you can, and see if you can figure out what her fears actually are, if she's concerned about saving face in front of her relatives and peers, or if she's genuinely afraid you will not be welcome in the family anymore.

Good luck.
posted by lydhre at 3:01 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I generally feel that when someone threatens to disown you, you should let them.
posted by spaltavian at 3:38 PM on June 14, 2011 [9 favorites]

I think a lot of 'book' (bible, koran, etc) religion is about culture and honour rather than simply choosing a personal faith. ie it's about functioning for others, not for yourself. What your parents are doing is asking you and your partner to do is to function for them. I think you should maintain your position.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:13 PM on June 14, 2011

Just weighing in with a slightly different angle: remember that your parents always need you more than you need them. They try to trick you into believing the opposite from when you are a child, but when the chips are down, I've hardly seen any parents cut off their children for a long period of time. They always come back; they can't help themselves, they love you, and your place in their lives is literally irreplaceable.

If they do any crazy shit when you stick to your guns (as I think you're going to, you go girl!), just remind them that the door is open, but only for non-crazy shit. You'll be amazed at how rapidly and far they adjust their expectations and behaviour when it's clear you will only accept a certain standard.
posted by smoke at 5:16 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. I'm going to suggest a different tack: If you don't want to call yourself a Muslim, how about an Islamic feminist? I hope it won't descend into an argument of "The Islam you believe is not the Islam that WE [i.e. the parents] believe." I know almost next to nothing about Islam, and being religious in general, but it doesn't seem like being feminist and Muslim is completely irreconcilable. Maybe it's something you want to explore at some point... Like, if you can't be Muslim in a similar vein as your parents, be Muslim in the way that you see fit - a compromise of sorts.
posted by foxjacket at 6:50 PM on June 14, 2011

I understand a bit of where you're coming from. I come from a Muslim family and was raised practicing (though not super conservative), and I've since followed my own convictions. I also have no desire to be called Muslim. In a cultural sense, sure, I value parts of my Muslim upbringing and roots, but I do not consider myself Muslim. Hard to do so when you don't believe in god(s). And I refuse to lie about it. I don't hate Islam or religion, but I just don't believe in any of it. And while I'm very open about my skepticism, I'm certainly not "in your face" about it. But if it comes up, I will not pretend to be something I'm not.

I do have the benefit of coming from a mixed family, where my mom converted to Islam (very sincerely, not as a formality), and did not have the support of her Catholic family. So while it was surprising when I told my family 6 years ago that I'm an atheist, there was no mention of disowning. Atheists being "bad" and "selfish" were definitely mentioned, but so was "I love you." Seeing the pain my mom went through, opened the doors for us to disagree and butt heads, but always with unconditional love. But it still took me YEARS to get the courage to tell them. I totally get the "guilt" thing. In terms of "the community," as well as family. You just feel like a major sell out.

There are almost always challenges and pains when generations make the first in a long line, to break with tradition. I very much hope that any talk of "disowning" from your father are more from the shock, than a sincere follow-through. Hopefully it's just something he talked himself into thinking is what's best, but isn't really committed to once reality (that you and your boyfriend believe otherwise) sets in. But it is an unknown territory, and sometimes it takes an extremely bright, strong-willed, badass and compassionate person committed to the autonomy of themselves and others, to be the first to make it ok to not wear the mask of expectation. And then it makes it so, so much easier for others to follow suit.

With regards to your question, I'm not sure how to get rid of the guilt completely. Catering to your parents' wishes won't make you feel less guilty, it'll just shuffle the guilt around in other ways and other relationships. But I strongly believe the more you live with integrity, the more the guilt will fade.
posted by raztaj at 6:54 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Stick to your guns and remember this: they'll come around when you have a baby (if not before.) Access to the grandkid is the only leverage you need. All this garbage will just fade away.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:03 PM on June 14, 2011

Wow, thank you guys, there are some truly wise and insightful responses here and I am already feeling so much better and stronger than I was yesterday.

Those who mentioned that my mum could be asking me/us to convert to save face in the community - I think you're absolutely right. For my dad to agree to me being with a non-Muslim would ruin his social standing. I know this will be hard, but I'm hoping that the prospect of losing his daughter will seem worse than losing the sort of friends who judge you for things like this. Maybe it will also hamper my kid sister's chances of being married off to a respectable Muslim guy, but I'm pretty sure she'll be delighted about that anyway.

As others have pointed out, this kind of thing is exactly what I'm not happy with about Islam/my parents' culture. The thought of living a lie just to keep conservative feathers from being ruffled makes my blood boil, and this anger is a great motivator for staying strong about this. Of course the sadness at the thought of losing my parents is hard to ignore, but I'm trying to keep hope alive that maybe my actions will help them break free of the cultural pressure THEY also feel. If not, at least I can live truthfully myself - after nearly 10 years of lying and anxiety, I'm still relishing the joy of that.
posted by guessthis at 2:52 AM on June 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

"Maybe it will also hamper my kid sister's chances of being married off to a respectable Muslim guy, but I'm pretty sure she'll be delighted about that anyway."

This might be something to discuss as frankly as possible with your kid sister, that way you at least know explicitly how she feels.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:25 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I had a similar experience (feel free to send me a private message if you'd like to chat). I disagree with those who say the problems will go away if your boyfriend converts. I agree with parakeetdog's point that, conversion or no conversion, you will still know that your parents were basing their love for you on a condition. In fact, I think you have a better chance of coming out of this happy if your boyfriend *doesn't* convert, because at least that will give your parents a chance to show you that they'll love you no matter what. If he converts, I suspect the conditional love thing will always eat at you the way it does me.

re: how to stop feeling guilty - that's tough to answer, but I think the best strategy is constantly reminding yourself that both you and your boyfriend are making decisions that are best for you both, respectively, regarding religion, and that you have the integrity not to pretend religious devotion you don't believe in. And you definitely shouldn't feel guilty about any disownment that may occur, because that's your parents' decision, not yours.
posted by whitelily at 6:41 PM on June 15, 2011

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