Susan Carland grew up in the Vermont area and has happy memories of her childhood. "It's funny how much I try and imitate my experience of childhood with my daughter. I even take her to the lakes my mother took me, to feed the ducks."
We are sitting in her home. She wears a denim skirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a blue headscarf. Until recently, she drove a bubblegum-pink VW Beetle called Gus. She has a bright, expressive energy and a sense of humour consistent with the fact that she lists Rik Mayall of The Young Ones among her formative influences. But she is also tired. Her 10-month-old daughter Aisha wakes often in the night.
Her parents divorced when she was seven; she went to live with her mother whom she describes as strong and loving, and the biggest influence on her life.
Her mother's religious ideas now are to be found in radical Christian thinkers such as American Bishop John Shelby Spong, but, when Susan was a child, her parents belonged to the Uniting Church. She started Sunday School but gave it away aged about 12 to watch Video Hits. "I always believed in God," she says. "I always felt a desire to know God."
Susan Carland, with daughter Aisha, isn't sure whether she found Islam, or it found her, but she discovered a gentleness she never expected.
Around 14 she joined a "funky, happy, clappy church" that was part of the charismatic movement. Around her, people were claiming to speak in tongues and announcing that God had spoken to them in the night. These experiences were alien to her. She found the confusion arising from this notion of knowing God "all-encompassing".
Otherwise, she pursued a normal adolescence, attending ballet classes, going to the Big Day Out. She topped the class in biology and English.
At the age of 17, one of her New Year's resolutions was "to investigate other religions". Islam was not high on her list. "It looked violent, sexist and foreign." All she knew about Islam was a sentence in a children's encyclopedia and the movie, Not Without My Daughter. Afterwards her mother said: "I don't care if you marry a drug dealer, but don't marry a Muslim."
She doesn't know whether she found Islam or Islam found her. She'd turn on the television and find herself watching a program on it. Newspaper and magazine articles caught her eye. Privately, she began studying the religion and came across "a gentleness I never expected to find". Importantly, Islam appealed to her intellectually. "It didn't have that intellectual divide between mind and body and soul that I had found in Christianity."
Having made her decision to convert, she steeled herself to tell friends and family, particularly her mother, putting off the moment. Fate intervened one night when her mother announced they were having pork chops for dinner. "My mother gave me a hug," she recalls, "but she was crying." A few days later, she began wearing a headscarf.
She says the importance of the headscarf is greatly exaggerated, but "Islam touches every aspect of your life. To me, it's a tangible reminder of being close to God." She says it also makes Muslim women flag-bearers, or ambassadors, for Islam.
She says she "met a lot of anger" becoming a Muslim. Some of her old friends disappeared. Now, five years later, aged 24, she has friends who are both Muslim and non-Muslim and an Australian-born Muslim husband who barracks for Richmond. She has degrees in arts and science from Monash University and would like to become a sociologist.
She believes it is her lot in life to never fit in. Her headscarf means she attracts occasional rude comments in the street and lots of stares. She's thinking of getting a T-shirt printed with the words: "If you keep staring I might do a trick." At the same time, she has found herself in disputes within the Muslim community on the role of women.
Her honors thesis is on women's access to the mosque. "There's been a gradual exclusion of female scholars in Islam. Originally, there were many, but that's been eroded. Islamic scholarship has become dominated by men from patriarchal cultures."
At times, she says she has been let down by certain attitudes within the Muslim community on issues of gender and race. She believes that what she and a growing number of Islamic feminists around the world are arguing for is the authentic Islam. "These are issues of justice. Men should be angry about them as well. What sort of a man places his security on the subjugation of women?"
She is active within the Muslim community, speaking on its behalf in churches and non-Muslim schools, and working with refugees.
When told she had won the Muslim of the Year title, a prize worth $2000 to be distributed to charities of her choice, she accepted on two conditions: that she would spend the money in Australia and give to non-Muslim as well as Muslim organisations.
Susan Carland's life hasn't been straightforward, but she says she has become used to not fitting in. She has never regretted converting to Islam
07 février 2006