Kendyl Noor Aurora is a young female youtuber from America who converted to Islam in 2013. TOH spoke to her about being a female muslim with tattoos, and just how difficult it is to follow Islam in Trump's America.
I was wondering if to start with you could tell us a little about your conversion?
I converted to Islam in April of 2013, I was eighteen years old and had been studying the faith for about six month previous to taking my shahada. I was raised in a Roman Catholic household, going to church every Sunday and attending Sunday school classes. I was baptized, received my first communion, and was on my way to being confirmed in the church, but I wasn’t at all spiritually fulfilled. I never felt connected to the Catholic faith; I was just going through the motions. I had so many questions and disagreed with some of the core teachings of the faith. So when the teachers began talking about getting confirmed I told my mother the truth, that I didn’t believe in the Catholic faith, and I refused to lie and be confirmed into a church that I didn’t believe in. Thankfully my mother was an incredibly open minded woman, and she happily allowed me to pursue my own spiritual path. She raised me in the church that she was raised in, in the hopes of instilling good core principals and ethics in me, and to give me a foundation in faith, and for that intent, I’ll always be grateful. I went through a number of years where I did not actively pursue religious knowledge. I think I had been so overwhelmed with it as a child that I needed time to detox, and come to it on my own terms. I am a journalism and documentary film production student, so I have always had a passion for reading and film. As time went on I began to read and watch documentaries about various faith traditions around the world. I had been exposed to Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, and Native American beliefs through the extensive travelling I did with my family growing up, and none of those seemed to quite fit. I always found beautiful pieces in every faith I was exposed to, but never something that I deeply connected to. At about sixteen years old I fell seriously ill with a gastro-intestinal condition. I was forced to leave my job in the music industry, come home, and begin vigorous testing. I was stuck between doctor’s offices, hospitals, and my bed for a long time. During my down time I would aimlessly scroll through blogs on Tumblr, and of all places, that was where I first saw a line from the Quran. It was the line that read a rough translation of 2:286, Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear. I was immediately intrigued to find out how Islam viewed hardships such as the medical issues I was facing, and the rest is history. I went down a road to knowledge that I’m still on to this day Alhamdulillah.
As a Muslim woman with tattoos, how do people react when they notice two such seemingly opposing aesthetics?
Well to be honest, I think you have unintentionally shown a bit of the issue that I’m faced with daily in the wording of your question. We, as a muslim community, have somehow developed this tunnel vision of who is and is not a muslim. Often times we fall into this spiritual pot hole per say, stuck in the idea that someone who looks like me could not possibly be a dedicated, devout muslim woman. That the elements on the outside, my hijab, modest clothing, and heavily tattooed skin are inherently opposing forces, like two magnets repelling away from one another. This in and of itself is painfully ironic when we are living in a world that is stigmatizing our community, and painting us with a single brush. We are constantly speaking out to illustrate the diversity of our community to the greater public, but we still hold reservations within our own hearts.
Of course I understand that I’m a bit out of the ordinary, and that’s okay with me. It took me a few years, but I am grateful to say that I’m able to handle any reactions that may come my way, because I took the time to gain a solid religious foundation that gives me my iman and sabr. I’m happy to answer the funny, silly questions about what apiece means, or to calm a strong negative response with the understanding that I am being given an opportunity to humanize and give a voice to myself and other tattooed muslims. In those moments we have such an amazing opportunity to shatter a barrier and understand a brother or sister better subhanAllah. I used to see such negative reactions as a burden, one that made me feel uncomfortable at Islamic conferences where the aunties in the back would whisper and stare, but now I’m able to smile, give my Salaams to those aunties, and in the end walk out of the room with a better understanding of my sisters in Islam, and vise versa. Alhamdulillah.
Did you struggle with your own tattoos when you first started your journey into Islam?
I definitely had my struggles in the beginning. I remember constantly trying to pull my sleeves down the first time I went to a mosque. I tried to cover my hands, hoping that then people may not stare; looking confused, perplexed, or even disgruntled. I had found this incredible connection with Allah swt and all I wanted was to share that love for Islam with other muslims, to cultivate a sisterhood of strong muslim women around me to learn and grow with. I desperately wanted to feel accepted, and that was the crux of my issues in that first year or so. I placed far too much weight into the acceptance I desired from my peers. I began to feel like I spent more time trying to change myself to “fit in”, and when that didn’t work, to defend myself. It was then that I realized I was at a pretty crucial place in my journey and I needed to make a change. So I deleted all my social media, my instagram, youtube channel, tumblr, everything… and I focused on my connection with Allah swt. I spent at least a year off of most social media cultivating that connection with Allah swt and investing serious time into my Islamic education. I was able to move forward from that time with a completely new outlook on my journey as a convert. I no longer worried about the way other muslims viewed me, or whether or not they believed it was possible that someone who looked like me could be a muslim like them. I defined my Islam by my personal, private connection with Allah swt. I surrounded myself with a supportive community that encouraged my continued Islamic education, and began speaking out on behalf of other reverts. I’m grateful for all the struggles I faced in the beginning because in the end they not only fortified my faith, but inspired me to speak out on behalf of reverts and support other people who are starting out on this incredible journey, just as I did years ago. Now my tattoos serve as an amazing door to dawah. Many people see my tattoos and connect as a tattooed person themselves, and there begins a great conversation!
Who do you think has most of a problem with the combination of your tattoos and your faith? Is it your fellow Muslims or non-Muslims?
Definitely fellow muslims unfortunately. Non-Muslims don’t typically have any opinion on the combination, only the occasional question of if its okay to have them or if other muslims have tattoos too (hence that dawah opportunity I mentioned Alhamdulillah). On the other hand I’ve had muslims tell me that I can not be muslim and have tattoos, or that I personally offend them by wearing the hijab and having tattoos, all of which I attempt to create a constructive dialog from, but in the end sometimes all you can do is make duaa for people, that their hearts may be softened to their brothers and sisters in Islam who have come from different walks of life.
In a few of your videos you speak out about other women criticising your hijab and how you think it’s wrong for women to be so harsh in their judgement of others when it comes to hijab. Why do you think this is so important?
As someone who went through a tough journey with my hijab I know how heavy a fellow sisters words can be. When I first converted I was in awe of my Hijabi sisters. I admired their dedication, strength, and I wanted nothing more than to wear the hijab, but I wasn’t ready. I tried, in my excitement, to wear the hijab very early on, and I quickly failed, because I hadn’t taken proper time to acquire a strong foundation in religious knowledge and to understand myself as a muslim woman. Once I did this and felt ready I began to slowly wear the hijab, I tried different styles, fabrics, etc. I dealt with explaining my choice to all of my non-muslim family and friends and even lost a few people who no longer wished to associate with me because of this choice. As I was going through this deeply personal experience I would hear some of these kinds of comments from sisters, criticizing the way I styled my scarf, or the clothing I was wearing, none of which was done with good intentions but rather to point out a flaw or struggle I faced publicly. So at a time where I was preparing to make a serious commitment to Allah, in defiance of some of my friends and family, I felt as if I didn’t have the support of my (soon to be) fellow hijabis. That support, especially as a convert, is sometimes the only support a girl has during that process, and as hijabis we should never under estimate our ability to support or tear down a fellow sister with our words. I know its something so simple that we’re taught as kids, but words are powerful. In this day in age, among the millennial generation in particular, there has been a sever decline in empathy. We sit behind our phone and computer screens and make judgments of the things we see. It’s too easy for us to disconnect and forget that the person in that picture is a real human being, and that the comments you make to them will have an impact on them to some extent. So I adamantly stand up for muslim women no matter where they may be in their modesty journey. Whether they are in bikinis or burkinis, their hair down or up in a hijab, they are my sisters in Islam, and I will support them every step of the way, because I know how much that means. I’m incredibly grateful for Karsen Breanne, Chelsey Hijab Love, Fatima Kojima, Amal of Amalena Designs, and my mother for being that network of support as I made the commitment to wearing hijab.
Your Youtube channel has become wildly popular in such a short period time, it must be amazing for you as a Muslim woman to receive that kind of positive attention in the modern day political climate where you live in America?
Alhamdulillah I’m incredibly grateful that it has received attention due to the topic I was talking. It brought about an amazing dialog about tattooed muslims, converts, hijab, etc. I got so many messages of support from non-muslim women and was able to build strong interfaith connections that promoted opportunities for education. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to talk about creating inclusive, supportive environments for our brothers and sisters in which they can feel safe, and free to be themselves and learn about Islam.
What are your goals for 2017?
I’m working hard to finish my college degree in Journalism and Documentary Film Production, and I hope to expand on my career with projects I’m currently embarking on. I think it’s going to be an incredible year filled with new creative people coming together to enact some serious awareness and change inshaAllah.
Finally, it is a very difficult time to be a female Muslim in America at the moment. What advice would you give to your fellow sisters to help get them through it?
Allah swt has made you the woman that you are for a reason. He has made you a muslim woman living in America because your are strong enough to lead this life. Whatever trials may come our way in the future, we are ready for them, because we have Allah swt, and with that we can never ever loose.