I met my boyfriend at a work event. I knew him by sight but not much more, so when we ended up leaving the party together, I didn't expect much to come of it. In fact, I spent the next few days congratulating myself on a successful one-night stand and trying to avoid him in office corridors.
Despite my best efforts, he caught up with me one day and asked if I wanted to go on a proper date. I capitulated, and we had our first date the following Wednesday. Our second date, that Friday, lasted for 40 hours. We spent the weekend making our way from pub to pub, talking, laughing and getting to know each other the best way I know how — getting drunk and talking nonsense.
I don't know when the subject of religion first came up; it's not something I pushed early on, but it was certainly me who brought it up first. I've always been an atheist, and I was curious about this charming, funny man with a traditionally Muslim name and a proclivity for Japanese whisky and cigarettes. When I asked if he was religious, he danced around the subject a bit, saying that he wasn't observant but still believed in something.
It was also around this time that I began to notice how little he spoke about his family. I am very close with my family and introduced him to them fairly early on. He, however, would never mention his family without prompting, and whenever he spoke to them on the phone, he would go outside on the pretense of smoking, leaving me alone at the table.
At about six months in, I asked what his family knew about me. He admitted that they did not know that he was dating anyone, and he occasionally had to dismiss his mother's offers to set him up with someone. I found this really upsetting and struggled with the worry that he hadn't told them because he didn't actually intend to keep me around for that long. Despite his reassurance that keeping them in the dark about our relationship was not reflective of his feelings for me, I couldn't get past feeling like a dirty secret. We often talked about emigrating, going somewhere without his parents' expectations (or my kind-of-racist grandparents), which makes it all sound like a poor man's Romeo and Juliet, but really, it would just have been a relief to argue about normal things without the undercurrent of instability our backgrounds create.
As it was, even the most innocuous of disagreements could turn on a dime into pursed lips and frosty silences. A badly chosen word would be a pebble kicked at the wall we had constructed around the issue of his parents, causing the whole thing to come tumbling down, and all at once we were back to the same old argument.
The rows we had around this time were frequent, repetitive, and often took place after a bottle of wine. As you can imagine, that didn't help. However, during the year that we spent rehashing this same argument roughly once a week, I gradually started to get a full understanding of the position he was in.
My boyfriend grew up in a religious household, raised by his first-generation parents and grandmother. He attended mosque regularly, didn't drink alcohol, and didn't eat pork. However, for many reasons, his childhood was not a particularly happy or peaceful one, and when he left home at 18, he consciously decided to leave it all behind him. At university, he was introduced to drinking and gradually began shedding his connection to his family and his religion.
Rather than strain his already politely distant relationship with his parents, he lived one life at university and another life at home. Dating me was one of the first times he had to consider allowing the twain to meet. Despite their differences, he loves his parents very much and desperately wants to maintain the relationship they have.
After a year and a half being together in a committed relationship, my boyfriend visited home and found the courage to tell his parents about me. Contrary to his expectations, they didn't shout, and they didn't throw him out of the house.
But they asked a question that made one expectation very clear: "When is she converting?"
This wasn't exactly a surprise; my boyfriend had said to me before that, if his parents were to ever accept the relationship, this was likely to be a condition. Still, I had been hoping that they would temporarily fail to care, or that they would remember that their son is a 30-year-old homeowner with a successful career and decide that maybe he had done enough to fulfill the role of Good Indian Son without me having to change my religious status. Unfortunately not.
I agreed to the idea in principle; I'm not religious, so I wouldn't be forsaking my own beliefs. It seemed to me to be a white lie that would enable us to live our lives without the constant friction and uncertainty that his parents' disapproval held over us. This was a few months ago, and since we live mercifully far away, the subject has not come up again. However, we go about our relationship day to day, knowing that every time we take a step forward in our relationship, conversion will rear its head again.
When I first began to think seriously about conversion, I discussed it with a few of my friends. Coincidentally, my two best friends are also in relationships with men who were raised Muslim, although they're from very different geographical and cultural backgrounds than my boyfriend. Both middle-class, atheist white women themselves, I'm conscious that every time we have this discussion, the three of us are doing so from exactly the same perspective. Although they have been invaluable in helping me to organize my thoughts, I might as well talk to myself (I do that, too).
For my boyfriend, my conversion is a logical step. He has no personal desire for me to convert, and because he does not have the same connection to his religion as his parents do, he sees it as a practicality. I wouldn't need to change my life, he says — just say a few words and put it down on paper, enough to placate his family and allow them to maintain a good relationship.
Either way, I respect his culture and will continue to learn more about it as we go through our lives. If we have children, his culture will become a part of their culture. We have discussed the ways we would compromise on our beliefs if we were to have children and, by and large, our views are compatible — we are always able to find a compromise.
The way I see it, there are four main things to consider:
1. I'm going to get "caught" eventually.
For me, this is the most obvious and least controversial issue. Will his family find out that I don't actually believe? Yes, of course they will. Lies always unravel.
2. At a time of such religious and political unrest, could there be a worse time to be a privileged white woman playing dress-up as a maligned, stigmatized group of people?
This is probably the one that makes me feel the most guilty about considering conversion. It feels like the most extreme version of a culturally appropriative Halloween costume, except I'm not doing it for one night because I'm a bro with only white friends. I'm doing it for life. To make my own life easier. And I should know better. Because I don't actually believe, would I be inclined to lie to protect myself, to take the Islam hat on and off depending on whom I'm talking to? Am I prepared to give up the privilege I have? I'm not sure that I am, and that makes me feel terrible.
3. Converting to a religion I don't believe in is an insult to everyone who does genuinely believe.
This is a tough one. I can't exactly ask my boyfriend's mother how she feels about this, but I imagine she would agree with me — that converting to a religion I don't believe in cheapens everything it stands for. It's insulting to everyone who has ever had to defend their religion against intolerance and insulting to anyone who has found genuine comfort in their faith during difficult times. The fact that religion means nothing to me doesn't lessen its value for anyone else. The fact that my boyfriend thinks this isn't a big deal doesn't mean it isn't.
4. Converting gives credence to the idea that I'm not good enough as I am.
At the end of all of this, what about me? I have done my very best to understand where his parents are coming from. I appreciate that they had a vision of their son and the life he would lead and that I throw a nice big spanner into that.
That said, I don't want to convert. I don't want to have to answer all of these questions. I don't think that converting would be "cool" or "edgy." This was not my idea. I have agreed to consider this because I love my boyfriend, and his happiness and his relationship with his parents is important to me. I don't feel comfortable making him choose just because they do. Do I risk my relationship with him and his relationship with his parents for the sake of respecting someone else's religion?
And what does this say about how much I value myself? What about my beliefs and my family? If I ever have a daughter, what message will I be sending her about maintaining her identity in a relationship? How do I explain that Mommy kept her surname for the sake of feminism but not such a fundamental part of her identity?
These are all very good, very difficult questions, and I don't have the answers.