HOLIDAY WAS THE TURNING POINT THE CONVERT
"When I had my first baby people said I was tying myself down, but I didn't see it like that. For me it was liberating; one of the major life decisions was out of the way. Conversion was the same.
Emira (formerly Emma) Topham converted to Islam last month after being convinced by its emphasis on family values. Aged 26, she lives with her husband, three sons and five stepchildren in Swindon, Wiltshire. She was introduced to Islam in 1988 on a two-week trip to Morocco, at the end of the first year of a degree course in fine art.
Islamic art captivated her: "It was very strong and fresh, not just a superficial covering. She acquired some Muslim hosts and appreciated their tolerance, being bald and dressed in skimpy shorts.
The holiday was a turning point, academically and spiritually. Emira's first year at college had coincided with a personal crisis brought on by unsettled childhood, during which she was transferred between countries, parents and grandparents. She arrived at college unprepared for coping alone, consumed with anger and unable to paint.
At the end of the first year she had no money, nowhere to live and was about to be kicked off her course. "I decided my relationship with my boy friend was based purely on sex and ended it by shaving off my hair. I was quite suicidal. The only thing that kept the lid on that was a lot of hashish and alcohol. I was thinking, what is the meaning of my life, what is the point?
She returned to college from Morocco inspired by Islamic art and the following February she met her future husband, Rasjid Topham, a musician and artist. He was 41, divorced with five children and had converted to Islam in 1973. Emira became pregnant, started painting again and researched a thesis on North African pattern.
Her son Lieth was born in November and Emira took her degree the following summer. She and Rasjid married but he never suggested that she convert; his own faith had taken a battering during the breakdown of his first marriage.
Family life was the deciding factor for Emira, who welcomed the value that Islam places on motherhood. She formally converted last month at the mosque in Regents Park, London, a process that "married up the inside and outside" and also benefited her family. "It changed something very positively for me and Rasjid. It creates more of a unity and makes it easier to establish Islamic guidelines in the home."
Wearing the hijab (scarf) brought "tremendous freedom: she compares it to shaving off her hair. "When you're bald people who would have been interested in you will be interested anyway. You feel more vulnerable but more open, and nicer to people."
Emira had dabbled with Christianity. She attended a convent school---"I found its lack of warmth extraordinary"---and church with her Protestant grandparents. Neither enhanced her self-respect in the way that Islam has: "As a Muslim you stand before God rather than a priest. Everyone is equal."