The Chosen One

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Deedra remained a devout Christian from her senior year at Little Rock's Central High School until she went away to college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the early 1990s.

There, she came across Muslim students attempting to spread the word of Islam by passing out pamphlets to fellow students going to class. From what Deedra knew of Islam, the religion kept women sheathed in black and "two steps behind men."

"I used to yell at them that they were going to Hell," Abboud says, laughing. "I think I just got a charge out of arguing with them."

Her love of conflict prompted Abboud to then seek out a copy of the Koran, "just so I could argue better," she says. But after searching throughout Little Rock and coming up empty, she says she drove six hours to Houston, Texas, to find it.

"That's when I sort of became enlightened," she says. "A lot of the things that didn't make sense to me in Christianity were starting to make sense to me through Islam."

Such as the story of Adam and Eve, in which "Eve was supposedly the source of all evil," Abboud says. "Yeah, I had a big problem with that. I learned that, in Islam, [Adam and Eve] were equally responsible and they were equally punished."

In Christian teachings, she never understood how Jesus could be the son of God.

"God doesn't have a gender, so therefore, he cannot be a father," she says. Nor did she comprehend "why Jesus would've died for our sins," she says. "How can anybody take responsibility for someone else's sins?"

Islam was beginning to provide answers to her questions.

"But," she adds, "I still argued!"

Abboud's older sister, Sharm Baker, who lives in Houston and works as a project manager for an engineering firm, remembers discussing what she calls "DeeDee's confusion" about Islam before Abboud converted.

"I think all of us, my mother and my sisters, were a little concerned for her," says Baker, a churchgoing Christian. "Personally, I was surprised, maybe bewildered. I didn't know a lot about [Islam] myself, but I grew to understand how the clarity of Islam drove her.

"We're all looking for direction, a path," Baker says. "Religion helps stabilize us."

The deep South was no place for Deedra Abboud to contemplate a conversion to Islam.

"Bible belt? Arkansas? Come on," she says.

After graduating from college with a degree in business, Abboud took a trip to Phoenix with her mother in 1998. She fell in love with the desert, and moved here.

Shortly after arriving in the Valley, she heard about an open house at the Tempe Islamic Cultural Center, the mosque near Arizona State University.

There, she met Yuko Davis, a Japanese-American Muslim who, like Abboud, was raised in the South. Davis was married to Ahmad Al-Akoum. Al-Akoum, along with the Muslim American Society, was hosting the event. Al-Akoum was a board member with MAS and later became the chairman of the board of the Islamic Cultural Center.

"My wife was in the back of the mosque with the ladies," says Al-Akoum, who is Lebanese. "She was answering questions for non-Muslim people, and she introduced me to Deedra.

"Deedra asked the basic questions about what Islam meant, what were the tenets of the religion. We talked for maybe an hour or so, and not long after the open house, she came to us and said she wanted to convert."

But, as he finds is often the case with new converts, Al-Akoum had to restrain Deedra from strutting her new beliefs too fast.

He warned her, as her spiritual adviser, that maybe she should wait to wear the hijab.

"I think she, like many others, was very excited to begin her new life," Al-Akoum says.

Abboud was so excited that she flew home to Arkansas to tell her mother about her conversion. She chose not to wear the hijab.

"In Islam, you don't shock your family," Abboud says. "And I knew if I walked off the plane wearing the headscarf, well, that would really shock my mother."

So she took it slow.

"I sat down at the table with my mother and explained to her that I had become a Muslim," she recalls. "And then I brought out the headscarf slowly."

Her mother recoiled.

"She said, 'After 50 years of women fighting for our equality, you're going to hide your beauty?'" Abboud says. "I said, 'After 50 years, don't you think we earned the right to choose whether we wear short skirts and low-cut tops or if we're going to be judged on our intelligence?'

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Joe Watson