COPENHAGEN, Denmark ―Annette Bellaoui remembers the moment well. She was meeting a leading politician in the Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric. He stared at her, “seriously contemplating” Bellaoui in a way that seemed as though he was asking himself, “‘does this woman have hand grenades in her pockets?’”
“There was fear and anger and everything in his face,” she recalled. “And, do you know what I did? I smiled at him, my sweetest smile.” And then she blew a kiss.
Bellaoui, a 58-year-old Dane who converted to Islam nearly two decades ago, giggles when she tells this story. She’s wholeheartedly aware that the reaction to a likely incident of Islamophobia is an unorthodox one, especially for a woman in a hijab who also goes by the name Fatima Zahra. But that’s precisely why she did it.
He stared at her as though he was asking himself, 'does this woman have hand grenades in her pockets?'
For as long as she can remember, Bellaoui has never quite fit in. As a child, her family was so irreligious that it bothered her. When she became a Muslim, they couldn’t quite understand why. Neither could a lot of Danes. To some, she was a “traitor,” giving up the freedoms of Danish culture for a submissive entity bereft of brain or opinion. Others, perhaps like the politician, inaccurately assumed a woman in a hijab, or any Muslim for that matter, must be a terrorist. Muslims, too, saw her as not authentic enough ― as though not being born Muslim or of a dominant ethnicity associated with Muslims meant she was an imposter, a “pretend Muslim.”
But Bellaoui doesn’t let reactions like these bother her, rather the opposite. She thrives in confronting the status quo, isn’t afraid to face the controversial head-on and “was raised not to mince words.” Her goal is to change the narrative about Muslims with humor and emotion rather than hostility and fear. She’s channeling the negativity and the outsider identity she embraces each day to make people reassess their opinions of what it means to be a Muslim ― especially a Muslim woman ― by amplifying our commonalities as humans. She fights misconceptions about Muslim women through music, and she uses her approachability as a Dane to educate non-Muslim Danes about a faith they often misunderstand because they’re too afraid to ask questions.
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To understand her somewhat counterintuitive approach though, you have to look back at her journey to Islam and the experiences that shaped her worldview.
Growing up, Bellaoui described her family as “militant atheist,” and what she called “the atheist’s version of the Taliban.”
“I often compare it to shoes,” she said. “You know if you have shoes that are one size too small, you can wear them, you can walk around, but there’s something bothering you constantly.”
So she started to look for a new sense of belonging ― one she would eventually find in Islam. Her exposure began in part from the growing number of refugees coming into Denmark at the time and her days as a chef working with Muslims. But she didn’t really know she wanted to convert until she was in Morocco.
Bellaoui described her family as 'militant atheists' and ‘the atheist's version of the Taliban.'
Accustomed to waking up early for her job, she arose just as dawn was breaking her first morning in the country.
“I can still remember it,” she said. “It smelled [like] a freshly baked croissant and of earth just sort of a warming up because I could just see sort of a tiny sliver of sunrise.”
The call to prayer reverberated from a mosque about 100 meters away. It was the first time she’d heard it.
“I always describe it as a cartoon figure ― you know, one of these cartoon figures when somebody drops an anvil on their head?” Bellaoui said. “I just stood there like ‘what happened?’ And in that moment, I said to myself, ‘one day, I will be Muslim.’ It took another three years, but the decision was made then and there. And, until the end of my days, I will swear I heard Allah call me.”
After her conversion, her family reluctantly accepted her new identity because, as her mother would say, “since the time she was born, Annette always knew what she wanted and could never be swayed by anyone.” But even now, almost 20 years after her conversion, they still give her a hard time. Her mother asks “why [she covers her] pretty hair.” And her brother teases her for wearing the headscarf, too.
She’s at peace with the reaction, saying “they just think I’m a bit weird, but that’s okay” and playfully reminds her brother that, “when I was a year and a half old, mother could not tell me what to wear. Do you seriously think that anybody can tell me what to wear now?”
I'm very often asked the question ‘where are you from’ because [of] my physical appearance … When I answer ‘I'm Danish,’ [Muslims often say], ‘Then why are you wearing hijab?’Annette Bellaoui
The hijab is crucial to her new identity, and Bellaoui isn’t willing to abandon that connection to faith even if it means having to learn to cope with uncomfortable situations.
“I’m very often asked the question ‘where are you from’ because [of] my physical appearance … When I answer, ‘I’m Danish,’ [Muslims often say], ‘Then why are you wearing hijab?’ ‘Because I’m Muslim.’ ‘But, you just said you’re Danish.’ ‘Excuse me, is it not possible to be Danish and Muslim?’
The thought that her decision to become a Muslim conflicts with her Danish roots frustrates Bellaoui, who said, if anything, “My Danish identity makes me a strong believer in ‘I can do what I want if I put my mind to it.’”
Those roots also make her more approachable to those who may otherwise not seek to educate themselves about Muslims.
“People, they often say to me that, ‘it’s so nice to meet someone like me’ because of the fact that I’m also ethnically Danish. They’re not so afraid of asking me questions, and they can ask me all the difficult questions ― things that they would never dare to ask for example … an Arabic woman with hijab … Let’s say if my mother sat next to an Arabic woman in hijab on the bus, she wouldn’t even dare to speak to her, even if she wanted to, because she would be afraid to say something that would offend her. And this is something very important in the Danish character: We usually don’t want to offend unless we’re drunk.”
That nuance also applies to how her Danish Muslim identity is received in general. Sometimes it’s a “win-win” on both sides, she said.
“As a convert to Islam, I have a highly respected standing in the Muslim community ― and in my Danish community ― because of the things I do, because I make no bones about anything. I also am highly respected and recognized as an authority on many issues.”
If my mother sat next to an Arabic woman in hijab on the bus, she wouldn't even dare to speak to her, even if she wanted to, because she would be afraid to say something that would offend her.Annette Bellaoui
Other times, the prejudice prevails and both sides view her as a “traitor.”
When this happens on the Danish side, oftentimes, the negative actions and rhetoric of violent extremists tend to dominate the conversation, Bellaoui said, so people think the worst.
“We have allowed a small minority to take the floor, to speak for all of us. And they scare the bejesus out of everybody ― you know, that’s the guys with the long beards and the ones that like to cut people’s heads off. They make everyone afraid. ... A lot of people are afraid of Muslims because they think that we want to kill everybody else.”
Bellaoui said the only thing that she can do in response to these violent Muslim “freaks of nature” is to “disagree with everything [they] say from a European view,” and say in the manner of a famous quote believed to be attributed to Voltaire: “‘Monsieur, I vehemently disagree with everything you’re saying, but until the last drop of blood in my body, I will fight for your right to say it.’”
But even these conversations aren’t quite enough to turn the tide
The only thing that she can do in response to these violent Muslim ‘freaks of nature’ is to ‘disagree with everything [they] say from a European view.'
As a woman wearing a headscarf, she often feels talked down to and isn’t always regarded with respect.
“[Some Danes] don’t quite take me seriously,” Bellaoui said. “[They think that] as a Muslim woman, I cannot be well-educated or intelligent or anything like this. ... I find sometimes people they would sort of go out of their way to be extra nice to me ― almost like they pity me a little, because I’m a Muslim woman, I wear hijab, so I must be a ‘little slow.’”
Yet that makes her want to fight the stereotypes even more.
“I think it’s up to me to prove them wrong by showing that I’m very capable and even if they say something stupid, I’m quite able to answer back. I sometimes have felt inclined to bring all my diplomas … just to show that I am educated and I am intelligent. But I haven’t done it yet. I usually prefer to let my work speak for itself.”
Her work now as founder and director of Missing Voices, a consortium of women that empowers female artists ― especially Muslims ― through music, challenges the perception of a culture often considered by the West to underestimate female power. In particular, Bellaoui aims to confront the “media-enhanced idea” of Muslim women as “poor benighted creatures who sit at home shrouded in black.”
“We’re positive,” she said. “Unfortunately, the negative sells better.”
It’s been tough, but Bellaoui has seen her music change the narrative.
She recalls one moment when a young British-Pakistani singer named Sarah moved the audience to tears.
“She was singing a Bosnian song in a small town … And I’m willing to take a bet that nobody in the audience understood a word of the song. But, quite a few of them, they were actually listening with tears rolling down their faces because the show is so beautiful and so full of feeling,” she said.
For Bellaoui, this moment solidified her belief that music builds bonds much deeper and more meaningful than the walls created by false perceptions in media or by terrorists. She even had Palestinian Muslim and Jewish girls sing of peace together when the situation was heating up in Gaza. When the girls got cold feet, Bellaoui roused them, saying: “This is the time when you really have to stand up together and show what you’re made of. ... Address the audience directly and say: ‘This is what we do, and this is why we do it.’” That concert struck a chord with hundreds.
“If you can touch people’s feelings that way with music,” she said, “it’s like a hand extended in friendship.”
If Allah gave you the opportunity to do something good, you have to do your best ― and if you don’t, it will come back and bite you on your hiney.Annette Bellaoui
Ultimately, Bellaoui wants Muslims to be able to convey to non-Muslims “that it’s perfectly okay to approach us and to ask us questions about Islam ― [that] ... we will be happy to share our faith, we will be happy to invite them into the mosque, to share a meal or whatever.”
These little things are important for her, the things that make people feel a little bit more connected and a lot more human. And for someone who has often felt like she’s between worlds, these actions make all the difference.
“We have to do what we can. I think if Allah gave you the opportunity to do something good, you have to do your best ― and if you don’t, it will come back and bite you on your hiney.”
This piece is part of a series on Western Muslim converts releasing throughout the month of Ramadan. The people profiled appear in the documentary film “Journey into Europe” and will be featured in the forthcoming book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.