As a Muslim woman living in Trinidad and Tobago, I’m used to standing out. At school, I was amongst a handful of students who wore the hijab (headcovering) and yet, I never felt insecure about my appearance. I took dance classes, played the steel pan, participated in debates, and played cricket, all in the hijab. I was comfortable in my own skin.
The opposite was true of my experience at the University of Cambridge. I was thrilled to attend one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, but I constantly felt like a square peg in a round hole. I was a minority on so many levels. Not only was I one of two Black students in my matriculating class at Emmanuel College, I was the only one with a lilting Caribbean accent and a hijab wrapped around my head. I took refuge in the student Islamic society, rarely venturing out of my circle of Muslims friends.
My semester abroad forced me out of the Muslim comfort zone I had carefully cultivated at Cambridge. I was on a European voluntary programme in a village in southern France, with neither a mosque nor Muslim in sight. I must admit I had my reservations about coming to France. The hijab had been banned in public schools a few years prior and I had an irrational fear of my hijab being ripped off of my head.
Thankfully, my fears were abated by the hospitality of the villagers and the openness of my fellow volunteers. My hijab was not a source of tension, as I had imagined, but an avenue for stimulating dialogue with the other volunteers. Deprived of television and internet, conversation was our greatest diversion. We soon developed a special bond that overcame religious and cultural boundaries.
I was having a great time in France, but I felt something was missing. Although I still performed the daily prayers and occasionally read the Qur’an, I missed the sense of community that came with the Friday congregational prayers. I yearned for that sublime feeling of unity when the call to prayer is being recited and Muslims are hurrying into the hall, their faces still damp from the water used in ablution. I realised that my spiritual battery was running low, and was in desperate need of charging.
One Saturday, I accompanied the other volunteers to a village a few miles away from our camp. Our task was to assist the village committee in setting up for a music festival, and the evening promised to be much fun. At around four in the afternoon, I heard the bells ring from the small church on the hill overlooking the festival venue. I looked up to see some elderly women trudging up the hill for the afternoon mass.
Without even a second thought, I dropped the bundle of string lights I was about to disentangle and followed the ladies up the hill to the church. It was as if my soul was compelling me to go, to revive it with the remembrance of God. As I neared the entrance, however, my resolve faltered. What would these people think of a Muslim in their church? Would they feel threatened by my presence?
The smile on the priest’s face as I walked through the door calmed my nerves. I will never forget the words of his sermon that afternoon. In elegantly coiffed French, he spoke of freedom and choice. He stated that God had made us free—the choice was essentially ours to reject or accept Him. The concept was simple enough, but it touched me deeply. It reminded me of one of my favorite verses in the Qur’an:
“There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaytan [Satan] and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.” (Qur’an, 2:256)
The priest may never know how his words inspired a young Muslim woman who sat in his church that afternoon. It dawned on me how incredibly blessed I was. Born and raised a Muslim, Islam had been chosen for me. Yet there I was, thousands of miles away from the watchful eye of my parents, free to make whatever choice I wanted. As I left the church that afternoon, I never felt more liberated in my entire life. I chose Islam.