When Zeinab Nesterova and her husband travelled around Asia, she came back with something more than a tan, photographs and fridge magnets. The trip opened her eyes to the Muslim world, their unique culture and way of life.
It was the first time this Russian national was exposed to the religion. It sparked a personal examination into her life and faith. One year later, she completed her conversion to Islam.
Now donning the hijab, she recounts how her teenaged children accepted her conversion with delight, calling it “cool”. Her mother however, showed a hostile side of herself that Zeinab had never seen.
“You are ugly in this scarf and you look like a very old woman.”
These biting words were piled on with harsher accusations of betraying her Orthodox Christian roots — a religion, her mother insists, is native to all Russians.
Zeinab recounts this story to a crew of documentary-makers led by Iranian filmmaker, Komeil Soheili. They’re putting the spotlight on Muslim converts in Russia to examine society’s tolerance levels towards a minority religion.
They all have preconceived notions about Muslims and Muslim converts, which they state upfront as the documentary begins.
Also interviewed is Ruslan Vasiljev, a lawyer and convert. His decision was met with similar dissent from his parents. That a personal journey of faith becomes a reason for a family’s dissolution is tragic, but just another way Islamophobia is so entrenched in society.
On the streets, the crew posed leading questions to the public if the two mosques were sufficient to serve the worshippers. The discussion that came out of that was varied, though mostly negative.
But many had the same reply — they didn’t understand the faith — and as we know, it’s easy to fear what you don’t understand.
The interview process changed Yulia’s view of the religion and made her want to be more involved.
She decided to quit the crew and be the subject, to live like a Muslim for a day by wearing the hijab and seeking out halal meals in the city. It’s a small change in her regular life, but the results are drastic, opening her eyes to the subtle discrimination faced by Muslim women daily.
Yulia goes so far as to investigate a news report of a police raid on a secret mosque that made headlines in St Petersburg. In her hunt for the secret mosque’s location, Yulia meets a dead end, unable to verify its truth.
But the chase opens doors to more questions about what it takes to understand Islam, converted Muslims, and what she knows.