Edlyn Sammanasu, 34, is very clear that she didn’t convert to Islam as some sort of precondition for getting married. She fell in love with a man and also discovered an affinity for his religion.
“My husband didn’t say that I had to become Muslim for us to be together; I wanted to be Muslim," she says. Edlyn is one of a group of American women who are converting to their partners’ religions when they get married, but not — as you might assume — because a rigid doctrine or dogmatic parents demand it. They're doing it because they want to.
Religion in America is losing its rigidity. More of us than ever have no affiliation at all, and those who do are more likely to change. A recent Pew study found nearly half of adults now change religions in their lifetimes. The vast majority of those who switch are young adults, growing up into an increasingly secularized world and leaving their parents' beliefs behind.
That leaves a cohort who grew up religious, but have no contemporary religious practice. As they fall in love and get married, many are re-introduced to religion via the faith of their partners — and some end up converting.
“In the previous generations, the majority of conversions were for the sake of the parents,” says Mayan Sands, a rabbi and religious scholar. “But now, fewer people are marrying young, and people in their 30s are less likely to be influenced by their parents — at that point, they’re more concerned with general human compatibility.”
We talked to five such women, all of whom, in one way or another, adopted the faith of their husbands as part of getting married. Their stories are different, but they share strains in common: Each talked about missing the religion they'd had as a child, and all described feeling connected to the teachings of their new faiths — of falling in love with a person and with a practice.
My fiance and I have been dating for four and a half years. He was born Jewish. I was not, but I’d become really interested in Judaism for a couple reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by things that are different than me, and also communities that are very tight and insular, people who have a strong sense of religious and cultural identity. I think I was a little bit jealous of that.
My parents are secular; I’m not sure they would go so far as to say they are atheists, but they certainly don’t have a great attraction to faith. They didn’t raise us in a very secular way; we just thought we were really low-grade Christians.
My fiance and I met in Miami, we were both living there temporarily for work, and we started dating really quickly. He comes from a Reform background. Reform is not the most liberal kind of Judaism, but it’s on the left end on the spectrum. They are very active in social justice, but tend to be less observant in other ways, like keeping Sabbath or keeping kosher.
When I first started to consider the idea of converting, I didn’t want to tell my fiance — I wanted him to think it was a decision I came to on my own, not to feel like I had an ulterior motive. He never would have said, “I need you to do this; I want you to do this.”
I went to see a million rabbis all over New York. I knew I didn’t want to convert Reform, so I saw mostly Conservative rabbis, none of whom I liked that much. It became clear that I felt like I wanted to do an Orthodox conversion — because of my nature, that was the only way I was going to feel good about it. When I told him this, we got in a big fight.
A lot of people think it’s a big deal for me to convert — but it’s really a huge jump for him. He essentially grew up in a completely different religion; there are so many day-to-day activities that the Reform tradition doesn’t do.
After a while, I found a rabbi to do the conversion. Now, it’s just timing: The rabbi would prefer that we don’t live together for too long in between my conversion and our marriage. It sounds old school, but I see where they are coming from.
Being a good Jew means you’re really supposed to be scholarly, to advance your knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, and some of it can be very overwhelming, but there’s also a lot of stuff that seems so logical — the idea of taking a day off and spending it with your family. Now, the weekend isn’t the weekend anymore, and I think it’s really smart that we have this thing built in that says you have to slow down, not worry so much about your phone.
Judaism understands that it is difficult and complicated to be a human being. It’s a really earth-based religion that is about what you do when you’re alive as opposed to what happens to you after you die.
There are a lot of mitzvahs that are really concrete — you have to give to charity, you don’t eat meat and milk together — and, even though cheeseburgers are very good, that one's easier to do than learning to love people who are different from you, to treat people kindly even if it makes you uncomfortable. Being in a position that other people think is strange has actually given me a lot more respect for people who make weird decisions.
I grew up Methodist in Tennessee. My family was very involved in the church, but it was a social community. Now, you think of churches as evangelical, but it was more of a social service community: We fixed houses in the Appalachian Mountains, did projects with inner-city kids.
When I was thinking of getting married to my then-boyfriend who was Muslim, I learned that Islam is very social-service and community oriented and less about proselytizing. That’s what made me say I can convert to Islam — I saw my service background in Islam. I educated myself; I read the entire Quran. I had several friends who were Muslim. It’s not that we talked about religion all the time, but I liked how they lived and I respected how they lived. This was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Iran and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was going on. There were starting to be some stereotypes out in the world about Muslims, but I didn’t see any of those stereotypes. The people I knew were just nice, normal people.
We lived in Dubai for the first five years that we were married; Islam was much more a part of our lives there. There, the holidays are major holidays. His family is there, and they observed the major holidays, went to prayers every Friday, and fasted for Ramadan. Fasting was kind of fun, actually. It was difficult sometimes, but everyone else was doing it; I’d go to work and half the workplace was fasting.
In Dubai, everybody accepted me, I did not feel anybody questioning why I had converted, whether I was a real Muslim, or anything like that. In America, I feel people questioning. Not everybody — the imam I’m closest to is fully supportive of me — but I do feel like sometimes the average person is maybe judging me. That combined with the fact that I converted, and now I’m divorced — I think people are kind of confused about what I’m doing.
I’m continuing to practice — it’s been really interesting. I personally need a spiritual home, and since Islam is my spiritual home, it was pretty normal for me. For a while, after the divorce, I was actually going to the mosque more often than I did when I was married. After the divorce, my Muslim friends were the most supportive. A lot of my American friends dropped me. My Muslim friends were more open, they'd say things like, "Everyone goes through something."
The hijab part of it — I do not think the hijab is repressive. I think it’s a way women choose to express themselves religiously. I do agree with people who say that a woman covering her body gives her a lot of freedom that she doesn't have if she’s dressed in a more skimpy fashion. I’m not as strict of a practicing Muslim and that’s why I choose not to wear a hijab, but I think it’s actually a good thing.
My religious upbringing paved the way for my embrace of Hinduism. I was raised Mormon but my mom’s family was Jewish. Her Jewish heritage was very present in our upbringing, as well — we always did Hanukkah and Sukkot and Passover. There were just a lot of festivals and faith going on in our home.
Mormons have early morning scripture study, and during high school I had perfect attendance. I was pretty onboard, until I went to college. Then, I think it’s just what happens in college where you’re encouraged to start asking questions and really dig deeper into a whole range of topics. Faith and religion have always been some of the biggest things in my life.
In college, I started not just doing ritual (going to church and praying and reading my scripture) but trying to have some thought and purpose behind my actions. When I started thinking all of that through, I realized there were big pieces of it that I just didn’t believe. My husband was born in India. He’s very Western now, but his parents are pretty traditional. He was the first person of his family to date outside of his regional ethnicity — let alone contemplate marriage. He has younger cousins who have arranged marriages, and that was definitely along the lines of what his parents had envisioned for their oldest son.
The second year we dated, I read the Bhagavad Gita and learned how to cook Indian food. I realized there was already a significant amount of pushback when it came to our relationship from his family, and so I wanted to do what I could to move that process along.
I converted to make it clear that I wasn’t a total “other,” that we could move toward that common ground instead of focusing on the things that make us different. And, there were little things — I’ve been a vegetarian since I was four years old, which is very important to his family and to their culture. Little things like that really helped to make them see that this would not be such a huge change for them.
I had had a difficult time with my family around leaving the Mormon faith. I think “renounce” is too strong of a word; I’d had a “conscious uncoupling” with Mormonism many years prior. My mother’s hopes for me were for a white wedding tied to very specific rituals within the Mormon faith, and I’d already made the decision that I didn’t want them. And so, for my mother to see that I was embracing some sort of faith structure was encouraging and comforting.
My family is wonderful, and I think for them, this was just adding on to that patrimony that we had as a family of just embracing and bringing in more joy and fun and festivals. And, an Indian wedding — who can’t get behind that? My family were all thrilled to wear saris and eat really good Indian food. Even my brothers dressed up in Indian clothes.
We’re definitely going to have kids — we’ve settled on Hin-Jews. My grandparents were holocaust survivors, and I think Judaism and Hinduism mesh pretty easily. It’s all about the widening of the canopy and so we just want to make sure that both of our family traditions get play with our kids. And, I have a huge family that is very involved in Mormonism, so we know our kids will get a healthy dose of that without doing anything on our part.
I was born and raised Catholic, before I became Muslim. I was raised in a religious family and very active in the church. My dad is well-read, but he’d say weird things, like “If I ever had to change religions, Islam would be the last one I’d ever pick,” or something like that.
Growing up, I had questions about the Trinity or my faith, and I’d get answers from a priest or my parents that didn’t make sense. But, in my head, I had my own idea of God and religion. When I started to learn about Islam, it really started to come together.
I met my future husband one summer during a college internship. We ended up falling in love and around that time I started learning more about Islam. In college, they’d just started offering a few classes about Islam, and I took whatever classes were available. At some point during those classes, I felt like I was already Muslim. Of course, I don’t think I would have taken those classes if my boyfriend wasn’t in the picture, but it really felt like all of these puzzle pieces were just coming together.
I knew my parents would be against me having a future with my husband. I grew up in a pretty conservative household; I don’t think even the most religious Catholic boyfriend would have been welcomed, either. But, my parents knew I was going to visit this friend, and eventually my mom came out and asked if I was in love with this person. I started crying; there was a lot of drama.
Eventually, they met my boyfriend and told him that he needed to convert. In the most respectful way possible, my boyfriend said, "Heck no, that’s not going to happen. It’s not negotiable for me." So, my parents commanded us to stop seeing each other. We tried it — we broke up for a couple of months, but we were just too heartbroken and started seeing each other again in secret.
Fast-forward to after I graduated from college and was living back at home with my parents. I hated having to hide my relationship from them and I didn’t want to convert until I could practice freely. At some point that summer I told my boyfriend that we had to tell my parents what was going on and that we wanted to get married eventually. I knew it wouldn’t go over lightly.
I grabbed all the things I thought I’d need if my parents weren’t happy — my contacts, glasses, passport — and packed it up and went to talk to my parents.
They called 911 and said a guy was trying to kidnap their daughter. The police asked how old I was, and when they heard, they said they couldn’t do anything — but they came anyway and just stood outside. That was a Friday. I spent the night at a friend’s place and two days later we arranged to get married at a mosque. I had converted five minutes before we got married.
The marriage process is just signing papers with representatives of both parties. My parents definitely did not come, but I didn't exactly tell them. The whole marriage-in-48-hours-thing was out of necessity.
Now, 12 years later, things are a lot better. They still do not acknowledge the fact that I am Muslim. They’ll send my husband emails that say “Eid Mubarak!” and I’ll be cc’d on the email, but they won’t say it to me. I wear a hijab now, but I don’t wear it with them. They might know that I wear it; my mom saw me once at a park with it and my dad has seen my work ID card with it.
I’m trying my best to practice Islam, but I’m also trying my best to keep my relationship with my parents. It’s important that my husband didn’t say that I had to become Muslim for us to be together; I wanted to be Muslim.
I grew up in a very Christian, mostly white community in Washington State, where I wasn’t really exposed to other religions. Then, I moved to L.A. to go to grad school, where I ended up meeting my now-husband.
He’s Reform Jewish, not very religious, but as we started to date, the conversation definitely came up pretty early. “Hey, I’m Jewish; you’re not. This could work, but you gotta convert.” It’s a huge thing to say to someone. It was extremely uncomfortable. You could say something like, “My Judaism is really important to me. I’d love for you to learn about it; will you come to temple with me?” But no, that wasn’t the conversation.
He got very lucky, though: I’m really open, and I didn’t grow up in a religious household. We had values and traditions, but we weren’t religious, so, in my eyes, I wasn’t making a huge sacrifice. I thought: I’m bringing something new into my life, instead of giving something up. But, when you’re imagining marrying someone after two months, it’s all kind of hypothetical.
The awkward piece came when his mother sat me down. We’d been dating six months. His dad took him in his office, and his mom took me in the breakfast room, and she sat me down and said, “You have to convert; it’s not an option. We want the grandchildren to be Jewish.” We had the full sit-down. Apparently, his last girlfriend was also not Jewish and they told him, “If you marry her, we’re not going to give you the family business.”
So, I did an introduction to Judaism class at the temple, and he did it with me, and he ended up proposing to me after that.
My family is very understanding and welcoming. They didn’t know anything about it. But, when we got married, my mom and my grandma educated themselves. It was never an issue with my family — my mom was mostly concerned about what the right thing to do at Christmas was. (“Can I still get the kids stockings, can I use Christmas paper?”)
Currently, I’m actually going through a divorce. When that all went down, I started to explore. How does Judaism stay in my life or not stay in my life? I felt like I was never fully accepted. Like, they didn’t care if I embraced it or accepted it, just that I did it.
And, I understand, it’s not their job to teach me about their religion. Here I was walking in as a 32-year-old woman, and playing catch-up. Now it’s really hard and I’m in a funky place. It’s not that I disliked it or like I’m glad that over. But to be honest with you, because I wasn’t exposed to it, I don’t really understand it.
There’s this family feel to Judaism, togetherness. I liked all that. And, I absolutely 100% love and adore the temple that we belong to. When you talk about family feel, these are the people who have embraced me from the very beginning, not judgmental. They know a lot about my current situation and have become my family. My son will stay in this preschool and my kids will go to Hebrew school and they’ll be bar and bat-mitzvahed. They are Jewish. Do I see myself increasing my participation? No. I don’t see myself in temple every night.
There are definitely certain aspects that I love. There’s a piece of it. There were a lot of sacrifices in my life, but things I wanted to do. I was in love. But it’s not — I think when you deal with divorce, there’s a lot of ugliness and bitterness, so there’s a piece that’s like "screw them," but it’s important to my children and ultimately I know it’s important to him and I’m not a vindictive person.
I have a lot of Jewish friends and community, people that I enjoy being with. It is something that’s very present in my life. The driving force will be the kids.