“I had never really had anything to do with Muslims because where I come from there aren’t very many and I didn’t know about Islam, I was a little bit ignorant and a little bit, probably afraid, as well until I went over to Egypt and I met Muslims for the first time.”
Ruth’s holiday didn’t go according to plan, and she found herself sick in hospital for most of the time. The people who took care of her made a real impression on her.
“They just seemed to have a real inner peace within them and a happiness, and a willingness to share and care about people.”
Ruth – who has always believed in God and was brought up an Anglican – was tempted to stay on in Egypt but had to come home. She tried to put her experience to the back of her mind but years later, decided to quench her curiosity and look deeper into Islam.
Connecting through the internet
She says she found the internet – including Facebook groups for people interested in converting – a helpful source of information and assistance and she actually ending up converting to Islam over Skype.
“I made a friend who was from Algeria and he was teaching me a little bit of Arabic and teaching me more about Islam over the internet.
“One evening when we were chatting he was saying, ‘well, come on come on, do you want to be a Muslim? Let’s do it now, don’t wait, so just repeat after me’. I repeated the words of the shahadah (declaration of faith) in Arabic back to him, which felt very uncomfortable to me and awkward.
“At the end of that he said, ‘now you’re a Muslim’, and he was very happy for me. I felt very daunted, also glad but I didn’t know really what was going to happen from there.”
Ruth made her declaration again in a more formal environment in front of a sheikh and other witnesses about a year ago.
She says despite the common Western perception that Islam is disrespectful towards women, most of the other converts she’s met in Melbourne are women.
“When you look into it and find out from the actual sources of the Qur’an and the words of the prophet Mohammed – peace be upon him – you realise that it’s actually quite the opposite.
“In general, it’s very empowering and very respectful, women are held up in high esteem and really valued.”
Since her conversion to Islam, Ruth has had to make some practical changes. For example, she’s had to take down all photos and images of people and animals in her home.
But the most visible change was in the way she dressed.
“When I first started to wear the hijab (headscarf), and more modest clothing, going out like that was quite nerve-wracking. I was really worried that I was going to be hassled and abused and things like that.
“But actually I was quite pleasantly surprised that most people are pretty good about it. You might get the occasional odd look or a bit of a glare but normally people don’t even blink, they just look at you and you are who you are. That’s been really good.”
Ruth says while her parents and siblings have accepted her conversion – or reversion as it’s considered in Islam – her teenage son has found it more difficult to deal with.
“He’s very worried about how people are going to see him, which is natural. So I don’t dress the same when I’m with him, I cover my hair but with a hat or something like that because he doesn’t want attention drawn to himself, and he feels that people are going to feel negatively towards him because he’s with me.
“So that’s something that I don’t know how long it will take him to get used to, but it’s something that we’re working on.”
Ruth says giving up alcohol has been slightly more difficult.
“In a way it was very easy to stop but then, especially in summer, there’d be some days when I’d walk into the supermarket past the bottleshop and I’d think, ‘oh I really feel like just one drink’, forgetting that I don’t drink anymore.”
One year on
A year after her conversion, Ruth says she feels good about her decision.
“I still feel that I have very much to learn, I would never say that I’m an expert. I think I’ll always be a beginner, especially when it comes to the Arabic language.
“I think I’m a lot closer to having that special peace and happiness that I saw in them (the women in Egypt) than what I was before.”