Religious conversion is all fun and games unless you are a woman

For a majority of religious people, life’s ultimate goal is the reward they are promised in an afterlife. Heaven, Paradise, Nirvana are the rewards for good behaviour if you have been Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist in life. Unless you are a woman.

This is not about inequality in heavenly reward – even though that too is a conversation rooted in the theological facts of such religions like Islam, where a man gets a harem of virgins and women get the pleasure of seeing their husbands so blessed.

This is about the ways women are made to switch their religious identity because the autonomy of their being is never fully recognised in most of the world’s major religions. This is about religious conversion and how it affects women.

Shards of broken families everywhere

The first time religious conversion as a lived reality featured in my life, I was too young to understand the dark atmosphere of ethnoreligious tension that necessitated that conversation.

It was during the Miss World riots of 2002. My family was making a note of relations in the hot zones of that violence, Kaduna, and someone mentioned an aunt who stayed in Southern Kaduna, to which my father replied, “she will be fine, she is with that Christian husband of hers and is a Christian herself.” An uncle replied, “Yes, she was fine during the Maitatsine riots too, so Hadeeza is not our concern.”

I was instantly curious about ‘The aunt who converted to Christianity.’

Here is what you know at 9-years-old as a Muslim child; religious conversion must only happen one way – from any other religion or lack thereof to Islam. The other way around lies social ostracism at best and death – which is the punishment for Ridda Arabic for apostasy – at worst.

Another thing you know as a 9-year-old Muslim child is that inviting people to your religion is highly encouraged. The Christian equivalent is winning souls for Jesus. Yet, because the teaching and theology of Islam – like its cousins Christianity and Judaism – are rooted in patriarchy, this lofty task is mostly reserved for men for whom wives are like belongings that must take the shape and absorb the essence that best pleases their owner.

Women are discouraged from marrying men from other religions. The understanding is that women lack the strong social influence to make transitioning into a new human group easy for their husbands, who will be new to the wives’ religion if they manage to get them to convert to it. Additionally, because paternal parentage is what is most recognised, children are assumed to be better off following the religion of their father. Men, are thus more encouraged to bring women into their religions because at least if you never fully win the woman over, the children will be the boon to your religion that your God will bless you for.

Yet, the logic has been shown to fail over and over again. Shards of broken multi-religious families litter Nigeria from Benue to Edo. My Aunt was part of that statistic.

I would find out years later that she divorced her Christian husband after 4 kids together, remarried a Muslim man with whom she gave birth to 2 more Muslim children before yet another divorce, after which she reverted to Christianity for the rest of her days.

Her children remain strangers to each other who will be caught up on different sides of a religious conflict in Kaduna if it ever happens.

I think about a friend whose late Muslim father married his Christian mother who converted to Islam, and reverted mere months after he passed – the price she had to pay to have her family rally around her in her moment of grief.

My friend’s paternal relatives disowned him and denied him his inheritance – his punishment for his mother’s transgression. He remains a Muslim to honour his late father’s memory and is estranged from his mother for that reason and from his father’s relatives because of their unkindness to him.

I think about all these and what I see are the injuries that inequality inflicts on individuals and society – injuries we rarely stop to recognise as the result of gender inequality in faith as in everything else.

I wonder what the situation will be if women’s autonomy is as recognised as men’s in religion and in all spheres of life. It is an idea worth pondering by our collective consciousness as a society.

Will the world be a much better place if all of us – men, women, and every other iteration of a human being – are seen as fully human, our autonomy fully recognised, and our share of social regard not chipped away bit by bit with irrational gendered limitations? I will bet good money on yes.

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