Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, has become the latest in a long line of Western Islamic converts. From Chris Eubank to Jermaine Jackson to Alexander Litvinenko, she joins an eclectic list, yet she is markedly different from most of its names, for one key reason – she is female.
Ms Booth, who works for the Iranian state news channel Press TV, said she decided to become a Muslim after being overwhelmed during a visit to a shrine in the city of Qom, Iran.
“I felt this shot of spiritual morphine: just absolute bliss and joy,” she said. When she returned to Britain six weeks ago, she decided to convert. “Now I don’t eat pork, and read the Koran every day,” she said.
She is now on page 60. Though women in the public eye are generally not shy of a religious conversion (Demi Moore, Kabbalah; Tina Turner, Buddhism), Islam is rarely their go-to faith. For Catherine Heseltine, CEO of MPACUK which was set up to address a perceived under-representation of Muslims in British politics, and herself a convert, this is not hugely surprising.
She said: “Islam requires women to cover their hair and hide the shape of the body. If you think of the areas where women typically achieve a high profile – singing, acting, modelling – these things tend not to be compatible with these requirements.
“Converting to Islam is a different proposition for women than from men. They are instantly asked: ‘Why do you want to be oppressed?’ There have been problems in the Muslim community with sexism, but these are attributable to culture, rather than religion itself and the two have become very mixed-up in the public’s perception.”
But the shortage of Islamic women converts in the public eye in fact conceals a trend in the public at large that is in the very opposite. Sheikh Imam Ibrahim Mogra from Leicester said: “I receive many more inquiries from women. It is quite surprising, given the negative publicity in terms of the mistreatment of women. But women say it was all the negative things that first stimulated their interest.”
Though the group she joins as woman convert is small, it is a vocal one. Ms Booth’s colleague at Press TV, former war correspondent Yvonne Ridley, converted to Islam in 2003 after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is of course one challenging liturgical requirement. Ms Booth said: “I haven’t had a drink in 45 days,” she said. “And I was someone who craved a glass of wine or two.”