By Sara Bokker
I grew up near a small town in South Dakota. The only religions I was exposed to were various denominations of Christianity. My family and I occasionally attended a Lutheran church, encouraged by my mother, and I was eventually confirmed Lutheran. I did believe in God, but did not believe in all that "church stuff": singing, worshiping pictures of crosses and Jesus, and eating "the body and blood of Christ." It just did not make any sense to me.
For as long as I can remember, something was always missing. There was this hole in my heart, this great sadness and dark loneliness penetrating every cell of my body, mind, and soul. Nothing could fill that hole, and the pain would not go away. I turned to alcohol at a very early age to numb that deep, agonizing pain, but it was only temporary, and it always made me feel even worse after the numbness wore off.
My distance from my family and everyone else around me only increased as I grew older. I had so much disgust and hatred for myself, which caused me to be absolutely horrible to my parents. All I remember wanting was to escape — escape where I was and who I was. However, I found that no matter how hard I tried, I could not escape who I was. Therefore, I was determined to do what I could to escape where I was before I literally destroyed myself.
I became a slave to my looks. I was consumed by it all.
I dropped out of college and left South Dakota for Florida by myself when I was 19. Able to make a fresh start in an exciting new environment, I found a bit of happiness for a brief period of time. But it was only superficial. That pain and sadness, that hole in my heart, was still there.
I spent many years searching for something to heal myself. I turned to psychology, self-help books and tapes and exercise, all of which really did help me a great deal. I was able to gain some strength in order to go on with my life. I did get caught up in the Florida lifestyle though. My various jobs enabled me to gain some easy cash, so it left as fast as it came, thanks to a lot of shopping and partying. In order to keep up with everyone else, I got credit cards — a lot of credit cards — and found myself sinking deeper and deeper in debt, but not even caring since I was just living for the day. I was also caught up in my looks. It cost a lot of time and money to look good. I became a slave to my looks. I was consumed by it all: hairdresser, manicurist, gym, mall, etc. After all, I was how I looked, or so I thought. And I just knew I would be happy if everyone was looking at me, if I got a lot of attention. And I did get attention, but I hated it. It made me miserable. So what would make me happy? I was still searching.
I found love, and that made me happy for a little while. Then I began looking into religions, all types and kinds of religions. Interestingly enough, I discovered there to be some "universal truths" in many religions. It seemed the rest was different, but the essence was the same. My love for all of humanity and the peace in my heart increased greatly with my spiritual search and growth. I came to be most interested in "metaphysical studies," and some sort of Eastern-type meditation and yoga. I adhered mostly to these. However, I wanted more. I wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do and how to do it. I needed rules and structure. And I just could not get that as this particular field is very liberal, abstract, and free.
Eventually I went back to college, and that made me feel much better about myself. I developed a passion for international relations and after I learned the ugly truth about "American History" and "US Foreign Policy," I was horrified with all the injustice, racism, and oppression. It broke my heart. I was so saddened by the suffering in the world. I decided I must do something about it.
I was just too strong-headed to submit the way one must in order to be a Muslim.
I began networking with and educating local high school and college students about the injustice in the Middle East, and eventually I began organizing local activists to travel to Washington, DC, to protest the upcoming war in Iraq. During this process, I met an amazing man — a Muslim — who was doing this very same kind of work. I had never seen someone who had dedicated his life to the causes I cared so much for — justice and human rights. He had started his own organization, which I volunteered for so that I could learn from him and help in the struggle. As we worked together, he shared with me the stories of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the Companions, and the amazing civilization of Islam — the only instance of a just society on this planet. I was shocked to hear these stories, as I knew nothing about this history. I became enchanted with Islam and read all I could about it, eventually reading the Qur'an.
I found in Islam the truth I was searching for. Finally it all made sense. However, I realized I had so many misconceptions and stereotypes I was not even aware of. First of all, I was not keen on the women issue and did not yet understand why they dressed so differently. I said resolutely, "I could never dress like that," as I still had the mindset that "how I look is who I am." So if people could not see how I looked, then I would not even exist. Also, what about "the woman stays at home and just takes care of the kids and the household and listens to her husband"? This was too much for me! There was just no way that I could understand why a woman would stay at home. Who is she if she is not "out there" climbing her way to that glass ceiling? And why should she be so obedient to her husband?
I did find the beautiful answers to these questions, which are very logical and amazingly functional. You see, Islam is not just a religion. It is a complete way of life. In it, you have the guidance and the answers to even the smallest of details, like how to eat and sleep. It is amazing!
However, I still was not willing to commit to Islam. It seemed too tough for me; it was too much responsibility and I was just too strong-headed to submit the way one must in order to be a Muslim. Then one cool January night in 2003, I was on the bus ride back from another antiwar rally in Washington, DC, I was at a crossroads in my life. I hated my job and had recently left my husband as we had grown apart. I had had enough of organizing the antiwar people. I was 29 years old and had no idea what I would do with my life. I broke down and started crying. I said to myself, "What can I do? What can I do? I just want to be a good person and make the world a better place. But how? What should I do?" All of a sudden, the answer came to me: Be a Muslim. That's it! A blanket of comforting peace embraced me. I felt so calm and sure and full of joy. All of a sudden I had a purpose in life, a reason to exist.
Life is still life: It's not easy, but now I have a guidebook.
One week later, I said my Shahadah (testimony of faith) at a public groundbreaking for a new mosque. As soon as I said it, two rainbows appeared in the sky! Everyone who witnessed it was very touched and all the Muslim sisters came up to me afterwards hugging me. I was crying from so much joy, as were most of the people there, happy to have me in the Ummah (community of Muslims).
The next day, eager to show the world I was a Muslim, I went to a local Middle Eastern store where they sold beautiful hijabs (headscarves) and dresses appropriate for the required Muslim dress. I bought many dresses and scarves, and from that day forward, I dressed properly. Ahhhhh … free at last! I had broken the chains of fashion and physical enslavement enforced by a superficial society. Honestly, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I no longer felt the pressure to dress and look better than everyone else. I finally respected myself and no longer based my self-worth on the reactions and attention of others. While many looked at me strangely — some with pity, some with anger, and some with curiosity — I really did get so much respect like never before.
Al-hamdu lillah (all praise be to Allah), the wonderful man who introduced me to Islam married me exactly one month after I became Muslim. Since then we have continued our work together against injustice throughout the world. We have traveled throughout the Middle East and moved from America to Egypt to be with my husband's mother and to live in an "Islamic" environment. Al-hamdu lillah, I am blessed with a beautiful family, in addition to the larger family — the Ummah — I gained when I became a Muslim.
Life is still life: It's not easy, but now I have a guidebook, a structure, a foundation. My heart is complete. The sadness and loneliness are gone. I now feel I belong. I am somebody. And I am home, at least for now, in this millisecond we call dunya (worldly life), until I am in my final, eternal home, in the akhira (afterlife), in sha' Allah (if Allah wills), near to my beloved, the Creator and Lord of the Worlds, Allah, Glorified and Exalted is He.
About Sara Bokker
Sara Bokker is a former actress, model, fitness instructor, and activist. Currently, Sara is director of communications at The March for Justice, a co-founder of The Global Sisters Network, and producer of the infamous Shock & Awe Gallery©. Sara may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.