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US Latinas seek answers in Islam

It surprises many of their friends and family, but some young US Latinas say Islam offers women more respect.

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Jasmine Pinet sits on the steps outside a mosque here, tucking in strands of her burgundy hair beneath a white head scarf, and explaining why she, a young Latina, feels that she has found greater respect as a woman by converting to Islam.

"They're not gonna say, 'Hey mami, how are you?' " Ms. Pinet says of Muslim men. "Usually they say, 'Hello, sister.' And they don't look at you like a sex object."

While some Latinas her age try to emulate the tight clothes and wiggling hips of stars like Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera, Ms. Pinet and others are adopting a more conservative lifestyle and converting to Islam. At this Union City, N.J., mosque, women account for more than half of the Latino Muslims who attend services here. Nationwide, there are about 40,000 Latino Muslims in the United States, according to the Islamic Society of North America.

Many of the Latina converts say that their belief that women are treated better in Islam was a significant factor in converting. Critics may protest that wearing the veil marks a woman as property, but some Latina converts say they welcome the fact that they are no longer whistled at walking down a street. "People have an innate response that I'm a religious person, and they give [me] more respect," says Jenny Yanez, another Latina Muslim. "You're not judged if you're in fashion or out of fashion."

Other Latina Muslims say they also like the religion's emphasis on fidelity to one's spouse and family.

But for many family members and friends, these conversions come as a surprise - often an unwelcome one. They may know little of Islam other than what they have heard of the Taliban and other extremist groups.

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