She remembers very clearly the life-changing moment she literally walked out of one religion and into another.
Ruth Stapley had grown up a Christian. She went to a church school in Stocksbridge and her family were devout members of the local congregation.
But one humid evening in the Malaysian town of Teluk Intan, at the age of 35, she found herself walking out on her church.
The religion she had been brought up with no longer seemed right for her.
She started walking towards a mosque – and realised that the words of its Imam, being projected via loudspeaker, were exactly how she felt about faith.
“In that first instant, I felt very scared,” confesses Amal, the name she adopted when she took her Shahadah vow a day later.
“I actually thought: ‘Oh dear. I think I’m a Muslim and I don’t feel comfortable about it.’ I imagined lots of hours of praying and fasting – and wondered what my Church of England parents would say back home in Sheffield,” says the divorced former nurse.
“I also knew that if I joined the Islamic faith, there was a rule book I would have to take heed of. But what was being said at that mosque that day was most definitely the way I felt.”
She met with the Imam and converted the next day. That may seem like a snap decision, but says Amal: “I had been in Malaysia, a Muslim country, for three years with Voluntary Services Overseas. I worked with people with learning difficulties at a special school and I needed to understand their culture and beliefs to be able to assist them.”
It was a year before she came home to tell her parents. “Their faces dropped a bit,” she recalls. “There’s this perception that Muslim women are going to be downtrodden. I explained that does not have to be the case.”
She ended up staying in Malaysia for 10 years, studying for a BA in Islamic studies, spending a year in Jordan to learn Arabic and then working for Islamic organisations in the US and Egypt.
But during her time in Cairo Amal hit a low. She says: “I felt like an alien there – like the proverbial square peg in a round hole. I was getting no pleasure from my job and I lost my self-confidence. The thought of living the rest of my life like that was scary.”
She found a Muslim coach who helped her find a new perspective on life – and also, inadvertently, a new path. She decided to train as a coach herself and fill what she saw as a gap in support for Muslim women.
“Imams aren’t always accessible to Muslim women who want to be more devout. Some women live very sheltered lives and, if they want to go into work or further education, need a confidence-boost,” says Amal, who trained in Canada, returned to Sheffield and set up her business in 2009.
CoachAmal: SuperMuslimah Project, is one of only seven in the world specialising in life and confidence coaching for Muslima – the term for women of the Islamic faith. Women in Nigeria, Kenya, America, Saudi Arabia , Bosnia, India and Pakistan have found a new direction thanks to the white Muslim convert talking to them from a little room in her childhood home in Crosspool.
She prefers to use only voice as the means of communication; she believes that tiny inflections and pauses say almost as much as a client’s words about their state of inner conflict.
She has found the fact that she is a convert a major asset. “Because I don’t come from a Muslim culture I am seen as more impartial,” she explains.
“Many of the women I work with are facing exactly the same life issues as non-Muslim women. Others are dealing with things that are very specific to their culture and their religion,” she says.
“But all of them have come to a point where they feel unable to move forward. They want the support of someone who understands where they’re coming from.
“And I feel honoured to have helped so many amazing women to blossom. Within a short time I see them grow in self-esteem and confidence and make amazing changes to the way they live.”
Amal’s fees are around £97 a month, with reductions for those on lower incomes. Go to www.coachamal.com or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
‘I was feeling like a failure’ - Fatin um Ahmad
A mother of six in America found herself consulting a woman thousands of miles away when she realised her inner struggle to be the perfect wife, mother and teacher was making her feel like a failure.
Fatin um Ahmad, a 37-year-old living in Virginia, contacted Sheffield lifecoach Amal Stapley for help.
“I thought that, as a Muslim woman, Amal would understand my struggle,” says Fatin, who married in Lebanon at the age of 15 and moved to America months later.
“I had started feeling less passionate about things at home and at work and feeling more stressed out with everything,” says Fatin, who has been married for 21 years, works as a part time Qur’an teacher at a local Arabic/Islamic school and has children aged five to 20.
“Without realising it, I was setting higher aims than my capabilities and seeking perfection in all aspects of my life and getting frustrated and stressed out if I didn’t achieve it.
“I feel society plays a major role in pushing the idea that only perfection will do, which dumps stress on individuals.
“I felt empty.
“I wanted to be the passionate believer, wife and mother I used to be.
“From Amal I learned how to see things from different perspectives and how to work out solutions to problems.
“Amal reminded me nothing in life is perfect and that while God wants me to strive to perform my best, if I fall short I shouldn’t stress about it and beat myself up over it.”
‘A conflict of values’ - Dita Sardjono
When Dita Sardjono decided to set up in the property business, she found herself in worrying territory.
Dita, pictured below, discovered that getting heavily into debt – something Islam forbids – was a way of life for many with property portfolios.
“Many business people amass unsustainable debt to buy businesses or assets, then live off the day-to-day cashflow without caring how the debt is to be paid off. This may be good for tax purposes from that person’s perspective, but it is in conflict to Islamic values,” explains the 40-year-old Indonesian mother of two, a software engineer who moved to Sheffield with her husband 11 years ago to study her PhD.
“Debt is highly discouraged. A Muslim is only allowed to have debt if it can be repaid. Certainly, it is expected for a Muslim to die without leaving any debt at all.”
Dita also found herself meeting people whose business practise she disapproved of. “Some took money from investors and then either went on the run or out of business,” she says. It made me question whether going into business was a good move.”
She sought help from Amal after meeting her through Sheffield’s Professional Muslim Women Network last year.
“She challenged my thinking. I realised going into business itself is good and empowering especially for women, as even the prophet’s wife herself was an example of a successful businesswoman,” she says.
“I saw that I could run a business in a way that is congruent with my values. As a result I did start to build a property portfolio; it is very small but I feel very successful - because it enables me to be with my children and provide them with a better space to grow.”