Sonia Leota

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Introduction

Asalamu Alaykum

Ko Ruapehu te Maunga,

Ruapehu is my moutain.

Ko Whanganui te Awa,

Whanganui is my river.

Ko Aotea te Waka,

Aotea is my canoe.

Ko Āti Haunui-a-Paparangi te Iwi,

Āti Haunui-a-Paparangi is my tribe.

Ko Nga Paerangi te Hapu, -subtribe.

Ko Kaiwhaiki raua ko "Otoko"nga marae,

-my marae.

Ko Sonia Leota ahau.

I am Sonia Leota

Tena koutou katoa. Greetings to you all.

I am Maori from my mother and Samoan from my father.

My family consists of 11 siblings plus myself, makes 12 of us in total.

My husband Emre is Turkish and we have one son named Hasan.

I am currently studying diplomas in Community Service and Justice, and a certificate in Allied Health Assistance.

Life before Islam.

I qualified as a chef in NZ. I worked a number of years at a RNZAF Base where I grew accustomed to an environment of alcohol in excess.

In my childhood, there were instances where a combination of irrational moral values and past abuses led me to being surrounded by violence.

As a child, we went to Sunday school for bible studies, more likely to give my solo parent mum a break rather than for religious reasons.

I moved out of home at 14 and throughout my college years, I paid for my own accommodation and living costs in various boarding situations.

My mum passed away when I was 16 years old.

First encounter with a Muslim

In 2011, I moved across the ditch to Melbourne and made friends with a Muslim, the first that I know of anyway.

My friend’s dedication and commitment to their daily prayers made an impression on me and combined with their good manners and behaviour, I became curious about this religion

I had never heard of before.

By request, in 2012, my friend introduced me to the wider Muslim community which enabled me to volunteer my cooking skills at a youth camp and a weekend Islamic school.

From here, I really began my search to learn more about Islam.

Conversion.

After the camp, I made the decision that Islam was for me.

I practised wearing a headscarf and fasting during Ramadan because I mistakenly thought back then that if I couldn’t do these small things, I wouldn’t make a very good Muslim.

Some sisters I met at camp invited me for afternoon tea which to my surprise, ended up being in honour of my conversion.

These sisters congratulated me and shared their sisterhood, their experiences and their advice, all of which I will cherish forever.

After saying my shahada, I felt free and as if I was finally, exactly where I was meant to be.

What I love about Islam.

I love that Islam makes me WANT to be a better person. It helps me to be mindful of others as well as being mindful of what I say and do myself.

I remember my first trip back home to NZ after converting to Islam.

I didn’t warn my family beforehand of my conversion, so I am waiting at the airport, standing right in front of my eldest brother wearing hijab, he didn’t recognise me at all.

He looked past me and to the sides of me as if to say, “Why is this person standing in my way?”

When he finally looked in my eyes, he grabbed me and hugged me really tight.

All the way to the car, he kept me glued to his side like something precious that needed to be protected.

Though my brother may not even recall this incident, it reminds me that in Islam, women are to be cherished and are held in high regard.

Does my family like the changes in me?

My family has never said outright that they DON’T like the changes in me.

I feel that I have always been the ‘black sheep’ or the odd one out in my family so doing things differently and off the beaten track is kinda ‘my thing’.

In relation to my family and my conversion to Islam, even today, I’m not sure that I would have had the courage and confidence to convert had I not come to Australia or at least moved away from what had always been familiar.

My family still asks me questions about Islam, the whole four wives thing pops up every now and again and a few years ago, one nephew actually asked me what was on my head in reference to my headscarf and if a headscarf was what terrorists wore? my brothers reaction, his father was priceless, he explained it perfectly when he said, “Terrorists don’t come from one particular country or one particular religion and don’t ever speak to your aunty like that again!”

Some of my friends still wonder how I gave up what were my two favourite things, alcohol and pork.

One even suggested it was definitely a miracle for that to happen so therein lies a peek into what was important in my life before Islam.

As a Maori Samoan Muslim, what challenges have I faced?

A big challenge has been the feelings of not being worthy or good enough in the eyes of born Muslims because of my family dynamics amongst the seven kids my mum had, there are 5 different dads.

They don’t say anything mean or nasty, but I can see the look in their eyes and feel their pity with the uncomfortable silence.

Once, it was even suggested to me that this would be a hindrance in marriage because my family was considered a part of who I was, where my morals or (lack of them) came from and how I would in turn, bring up and educate my own children.

Finding other NZ Muslim converts, who I didn’t have to explain this to or make excuses for was a relief, it made me remember that Allah swt is the best of planners and all of what’s happened before, has been his plan for me.

Another challenge has been the belief of many people I’ve met who have instantly (and incorrectly) assumed that I converted to Islam because of or for my husband.

They don’t know that I met my husband more than two and a half years after my conversion to Islam.

Yes, he’s Turkish and yes, he was born Muslim and highly likely to have only have married a Muslim woman. But no, no, no, I did not come to accept Islam just to be with him.

In my opinion, this theory sees me as a person who can’t think for themselves or as a mindless follower so my struggle here is to be considerate with my words in response to them in the face of such ignorance.

Do I feel oppressed in the religion and in the wearing of hijab?

Being a Kiwi Maori Samoan convert, though I often feel misunderstood, I have never felt oppressed in Islam.

When wearing hijab, I’m often asked if I’m from different Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon or Palestine but then I speak and the people who don’t know me, are confused.

It’s as if they have an impression or idea of what a person from NZ is like, but as a Muslim I supposedly no longer fit the profile.

Eight years after converting to Islam, I still have internal battles with hijab.

When it’s hot, I don’t want to be covered from head to toe.

I want to wear a t-shirt outdoors, and sometimes I do and I want to not worry about covering my hair before leaving the house or a stray hair peeking out from under my headscarf.

Thankfully I’m at a place now, where I worry less about other people’s ideas, perceptions and opinions of how I as a Muslim woman ‘should’ present myself in the eyes of others and I go back to the questions of, “What is MY intention?” and “What is MY understanding of what’s appropriate attire?

I believe that Islam as a religion is meant to be easy to follow so with that knowledge, whatever I wear, whatever I do, whatever I say, think or feel is between only God and I.

I will stand alone before him and be judged based on my "actions or inactions", not by what other people thought of me.

This also frees me to be a Maori Samoan Muslim in my own right.