Aliyah is 21 and lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire with her son Yasser, who is 20 months old. “Whenever I start to get depressed about it all, I just look at my baby and I remember that at least I’ve got him” she smiles, nursing him on her lap.
Yasser’s father, who Aliyah married when she was just 18, returned to his native Yemen shortly after the birth of their son. She has a fractured relationship with her mother, but it’s a work in progress. “We were extremely close while I was growing up,” Aliyah recalls. “Losing my relationship with my mum was the worst thing of all, but we are trying really hard to get things back on track. She wants to be a grandmother to my baby. She has suggested we all take a family holiday, but I’m too scared to get a passport for Yasser in case his father’s family try to kidnap him and take him to Asia.”
Aliyah – who used to be called Alexandra – met Yasser’s father, Nadheer*, online when she was 17. She was completing her A-Levels and had been conditionally offered a position studying pharmaceuticals at the University of Nottingham. Despite coming from a white, Christian, middle-class family, Bradford’s high Asian population provided her with a rich understanding of other religions and cultures. “Out of the eight of us in my friendship group, only two of us were from white, British families,” she explains.
When Nadheer sent her a private message on Facebook, he was open and passionate about his Yemeni heritage. “He was born in the capital, Sana’a, but his whole family uprooted to Bradford when he was four years old. The subject of religion didn’t come up for quite a while – I knew that he was Muslim, but nothing about his lifestyle suggested he was extremely devout. He drank alcohol on nights out with his mates and he wasn’t concerned about eating non-Halal meat. He was older than me and he seemed so cultured and mature. He was really romantic and I was very much under his spell within a few weeks, so what happened next came as quite a blow.”
On her 18th birthday in March 2013, Aliyah had arranged to meet Nadheer for the first time at a Nando’s in Bradford. Her mother was thrilled about her daughter’s first real date, and the pair spent hours choosing an outfit, curling Aliyah’s hair and learning how to stick on false eyelashes. “I was a late developer and I didn’t really pay much attention to boys and make-up as a teenager, so the date with Nadheer was a pretty big deal to me. My mum insisted on waiting outside the restaurant for him to arrive to reassure herself that I was safe, and seeing her face when she had to admit to me that he clearly wasn’t going to turn up after an hour and a half of waiting was probably the most heart-breaking and humiliating aspect of the whole thing. For the entire journey home I stared out of the window with tears burning down my cheeks.”
For weeks, Aliyah heard nothing from Nadheer, and threw herself into her studying as an attempt at distracting herself. However, as spring turned to summer, he suddenly got back in touch.
“For weeks, every time I received a text message I would close my eyes before checking who the sender was in the hope that his name would be on the screen. It was so childish, but I was transfixed by the idea of him. When he finally did ring me, he couldn’t apologise enough. He told me that his brother had read messages between him and me on their shared computer and had informed his parents that Nadheer was dating a white girl. They insisted on arranging a marriage for him the same week. I was devastated at the thought of losing him. With hindsight, it was ridiculous to feel this way about someone I had never met, but I was immature and desperately wanted this relationship. I hastily blurted out something incredibly misguided – that I would marry him if it meant we could be together.”
Watching her juggle her toddler on her lap, Aliyah seems like the epitome of maturity and responsibility. It was hard to imagine that a matter of years ago this highly intelligent woman was prepared to launch into a marriage with a man she had never met. But her excessive eagerness to enter into this relationship wasn’t the most controversial aspect.
“He replied that marrying me would make him the happiest man in the world, but his family would ostracise him if he married a ‘non-believer’, and a white one at that. I told him that I would do anything, even it meant converting to Islam.”
What it’s like to convert to Islam for the man you love
“Islam is a truly beautiful religion. There are aspects of it that I wholeheartedly believe, hold onto, and am determined to instil in my child. Any religion, however, is not something that you can go into on a whim. You cannot promise to believe another religion, because it isn’t that simple. You can carry out all of the practices, implement all of the policies, and still not truly, unreservedly believe in what you are doing.”
But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while Aliyah doesn’t regret her decision – saying she “cannot be ashamed of it” because she has her son as a result – she is remorseful of how quickly it all happened. It was approaching Ramadan when Aliyah became officially engaged to Nadheer. “We wanted to change my name immediately, but decided to wait until I was married and change my entire name altogether. At first it was really exciting. It felt so exotic and almost like we were playing make believe. My friend took me to her uncle’s Asian apparel store to get my first hijab and I felt incredibly cultivated. I hadn’t told my family yet, but naively I believed they would be elated.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite the case. Aliyah’s parents at first found her decision humorous and paid little attention to it until she began wearing her headscarf. “My father made it explicitly clear that he thought I was being ridiculous. In some ways he was right – he said that I couldn’t just become a Muslim overnight, and told me that if this was something that I had put a lot of thought into then he would have supported me, however he couldn’t support such an abrupt change into something that would change my life dramatically.
“In my head, I had completely romanticised the idea of meeting Nadheer’s family. I had presumed that they would welcome me with open arms, wholly appreciating the lifestyle changes that I had made in the name of love. I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Aliyah recalls.
Before the sun went down on the first day of Ramadan, Aliyah was invited to Mosque with the female members of Nadheer’s family and their community. “The older women were nice, with the exception of Nadheer’s mother. She seemed to think I was only interested in money – something I’ve always been confused by because, to put it bluntly, my family have a lot more money than theirs.
“The younger girls, including Nadheer’s sisters, were very cliquey and cast patently obvious bitchy glances towards me at all times. The Imam was a very friendly lady, she spoke to me very openly about the struggles she had faced becoming a female Imam, and said that I was always welcome to contact her if I needed advice or guidance. If it wasn’t for her, I would have found my first experience at the Mosque unbearable. I hadn’t rehearsed the prayers enough to know them off-by-heart. Nadheer’s sister gave me a Quran to read from, but it was in Arabic. This set the tone for my entire experience with his family – they saw me merely as an imposter trying to invade their safely guarded team.”
In an attempt to get both sides of her family to take her seriously, Aliyah and Nadheer sped up their engagement and got married as soon as possible. Both families refused to financially contribute to the ceremony, so eventually they had a very small service at their local Mosque in Bradford, attended by Nadheer’s immediate family (albeit begrudgingly) and two of Aliyah’s school friends. “I refused to believe that my mother wouldn’t come to my wedding, right up until the very last second. Everyone had arrived and she clearly wasn’t going to make it but I kept telling Nadheer we had to wait five more minutes, just in case she arrived.”
“I was terrified of living with strangers who deliberately communicated in a language I didn’t understand”
And things didn’t improve much after the wedding, either. “You hear of the ‘honeymoon period’, I had none of that. We moved in with his parents temporarily and Nadheer wanted me to stay at home and get pregnant straight away. He thought a baby would be the ultimate confirmation to his family that this relationship was sincere.
“I lost my virginity to him a week after our wedding – I was too overwhelmed at first to even think about sex and regardless, I didn’t feel comfortable around Nadheer for a while. He was incredibly patient and considerate and my discomposure was in no way as a result of his behaviour, I was just simply terrified of living in a house full of strangers who deliberately communicated in a language that I didn’t understand, estranged from my parents and most of my friends, with my future suddenly planned out for me according to the expected criteria of a culture that I was being relentlessly shunned from.”
Although Nadheer’s family were deliberately unaccommodating, Aliyah believes “that isn’t representative of Islam on a whole. I’m sure my spontaneity was insulting to them; they had devoted themselves to this religion for their entire lives and there I was capriciously turning up and deciding that I was going to do the same. Obviously, I didn’t see it this way at the time.”
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Starting a family
Tensions did thaw slightly when Aliyah found out she was pregnant exactly four weeks after her wedding. Nadheer’s family still didn’t warm to her but they were enthusiastic about the baby, which at least gave them some common ground. Aliyah was beginning to understand basic Arabic and made an effort to converse in the language where she could, even if it was merely saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Nadheer’s sister had fallen pregnant at the same time and started to include Aliyah in baby name conversations. It was her that suggested the name Yasser, as it was their grandfather’s name.
What it’s like to convert to Islam for the man you love
Aliyah’s pregnancy didn’t help her relationship with her own family, however. “I was desperately unhappy being away from my family. My mother was finding it hard too and would beg me to come home, but we were at loggerheads about my decision. She thought I was being reckless while I thought she was being unsupportive.”
As Christmas approached, Aliyah began to struggle with the cultural differences. “Nadheer’s family weren’t celebrating. I felt so internally conflicted – I was prepared to commit to Islam but seriously struggled giving up all of the things that I loved so much about my old life that were no longer applicable,” she recalled.
Over the ensuing months, the in-laws’ enthusiasm over the baby became overbearing. “They were excitedly making plans to shave my baby’s head and arranging his circumcision when I didn’t think I wanted any of these things to happen in the first place. I felt like I had no say over my own child, and Nadheer didn’t like to antagonise his mother so he tended to just keep out of the argument.”
“I rang my mother and asked her to pick me up… it was the first time I’d spoken to her that year”
Things reached boiling point when Aliyah was eight months pregnant. “It was an extremely hot day and I felt absolutely massive and too uncomfortable to wear my headscarf inside. I was pining for my mother and Yasser’s family were becoming more and more controlling. Nadheer was refusing to mediate and they weren’t prepared to compromise – they felt that if I was truly Muslim then these things would go without saying. In the end, I packed my bags and walked out. I rang my mother and asked her to pick me up from the petrol station at the top of the road – that was the first time I had spoken to her that year. She arrived within 20 minutes – at the exact same time Nadheer’s father came hurtling down the road. He was shouting to me in Arabic but I could understand what he was saying – that I was betraying his family and his faith and if I left I would never be able to return. I got in my mother’s car and told her to just drive.”
Arriving home was a weird feeling at first. Aliyah’s father hugged her when she arrived home but avoided looking at her pregnant stomach. The atmosphere was uncomfortable but it was calm, which at that moment was all Aliyah wanted. When her waters broke in her childhood bedroom ten days later, her mother drove her to the hospital where Nadheer met her – alongside his mother. “As soon as I saw her I started to really freak out. I was in so much pain and knowing that she was around was really aggravating me. I asked my mum to make her leave and they got into an argument; in the end a nurse had to intervene and tell Nadheer’s mum to go home and wait for us to call with news. I knew that I had disappointed Nadheer but right then I really didn’t care. All I wanted was for the pain to stop and to hold my baby in my arms.”
“I HAD PUT SO MUCH EFFORT INTO MAKING THIS RELATIONSHIP WORK, BUT THE WHOLE THING WAS A FARCE”
After an agonisingly long and complicated labour, Yasser was born, and for a few short hours, Aliyah felt like her family was complete and perfect. She knew in her heart that she didn’t love Nadheer as she should, but she was terrified of admitting it and looking like she had strung him along. “I had put so much effort into making this relationship work, but truth be told, the whole thing was a farce. You can’t dictate anyone’s religion, including your own. I admitted all of this to Nadheer as we were leaving the hospital.”
Fortunately for Aliyah, Nadheer was understanding, and in fact commended the sacrifices she had made to try and make him happy. When he was offered a job in his home country of Yemen, he decided to go. “He comes home to visit Yasser every six months, and we Skype often. I am sad that my child doesn’t get to see his father as much as he should, but it’s best for everyone.
I allow Nadheer’s mother to see Yasser on my terms, and I won’t let them spend time together unsupervised. She disapproves of how I am raising him and I’m scared that she would take him away from me. I want him to grow up and make his own decisions about his religion; I try my best to incorporate both Christian and Islamic practices into his day-to-day life and I speak to him in Arabic as much as I am able to. I am no longer a practicing Muslim, but I have kept my Muslim name. I feel like I owe everyone that.
“Islam has taught me a lot of important things; family is everything to them, and maybe that’s why they found it difficult to accept me so readily. The religion wholly encourages generosity, kindness and loyalty and for many, converting can be a beautiful process. But if my experience taught me anything, it’s that converting to please someone else is never the right reason.”