Lisa Vogl, founder of Verona Collection and international photographer, converted to Islam six years ago. I knew Lisa long before she became Muslim – we actually grew up in the same town and I’ve been friends with her older sister since middle school. I recently reconnected with Lisa, and after reminiscing about our days growing up in Michigan and our internships with the Walt Disney World College Program, we chatted about her conversion to Islam. Hearing about Lisa’s journey was beyond inspiring – she’s a proud Muslim who attributes Islam to her success and being able to stay grounded. She’s a #BossLady with fierce convictions who truly embodies patience, faith, and optimism. I was lucky enough to get an interview with her for you all here at MissMuslim.
“It is a hijabi Muslim-run, women-run business. This is front in-your-face that we are exactly not who you think we are. We are strong, independent, business educated women.”
Verona Collection is an affordable and trendy online boutique that designs and sells hijabs, modest clothing (up to plus size), burkinis (halal swimwear), and sportswear. Since debuting in early 2015, Verona Collection prides itself as one of the most sought after modest fashion brands for Muslim women. Verona strives to appeal to women looking for classic, everyday wear who want to look stylish and be in accordance with their religion. In May 2016, Lisa and her partners made groundbreaking history as one of the first Islamic fashion stores to open in a mainstream mall. Lisa says, “Being integrated into a major mall like this with people constantly being exposed to the true face of Muslim women, not the negativity they see in the news, helps narrow the gap between the Muslim community and others”. In addition to their location at the Fashion Square Mall in Orlando, Florida, Lisa and her team are set to launch a second retail store in London in the very near future, InshAllah.
“In the midst of Islamophobia and the recent rhetoric towards Muslims, I’m proud to run a Western Islamic fashion company. To see it grow and become more mainstream, I find relief in that it helps to bring a humanizing clarity to Muslim women. I am both a proud American and a proud Muslim. My choice to wear the hijab is a symbol of what freedom really means, and Verona shoppers value this, Muslim or not. And that is what underlines the true American attitude.
What religion, if any, did you practice prior to converting to Islam in 2011?
Although my father was raised Catholic and my mother had a very conservative Christian Baptist upbringing, they did not enforce religion upon me growing up. Despite the lack of religious direction, my natural disposition began guiding me closer to God. From a young age, I became very attached to Christianity on my own. Nobody pushed me. So, at around 14 years old, without my parents and siblings, I started to attend church regularly with my grandmother. I also participated in weekly Bible study groups, Young Life (Christian ministry), and went to church camps during the summer.
What inspired you to convert to Islam?
Becoming a Muslim seemed like the natural progression of my growing spiritual awareness. It was a culmination of experiences and encounters including intelligent reasoning, reflection, and critical thinking that eventually led me to Islam.
I was blessed to live and work in Tangier, Morocco, where I taught English at The American Language Center. It was during my three month stay in Morocco, which was the most amazing and humbling experience of my life, by the way, that I was first introduced to Islam. Although this Moroccan adventure was more of a cultural experience, I ended up gaining an appreciation of the religion. Despite wearing the hijab every day in Morocco to follow a cultural norm and blend in with the locals, I must confess that even though I lived in a Muslim country for three months, I had no idea about Islam or the true meaning of the hijab.
The Bible had always left me with many questions…
After living in Morocco, I moved to Florida to pursue my dream of becoming a photographer. While in photography school, I met at a Muslim woman named Nadine (now my business partner) while feeding the homeless at an Orlando mosque. Shortly after our initial meeting, I was assigned a documentary project of my choice for a videography class. Because of my experience wearing the hijab in Morocco, I decided to interview Nadine about the meaning behind the head scarf. I was deeply moved by the way Nadine perceived the hijab and how she expressed her faith. When she started speaking to me, she really opened my eyes.
The Bible had always left me with many questions, so the interview with Nadine inspired me to dig deeper into Islam. I couldn’t get my hands off learning about Islam. I met with scholars, watched YouTube videos, and read more into the Qur’an. Many of the teachings resonated with me and I finally found all the answers that I was looking for about this life and the hereafter. Soon enough, Islam captured my heart and approximately nine months after that extraordinary conversation about the hijab, I took my Shahada (testimony of faith) the Friday before Ramadan on July 29, 2011.
My decision to convert, which I have kept a secret from my elderly grandmother because it would break her heart to know that I have left Christianity, has been life changing. I am beyond grateful that Allah guided me to Islam.
What was the conversion process like for you?
The conversion process was gradual – I wore the hijab part-time and attended Jummah before taking my Shadaha. Thankfully, Nadine and another friend, Ilaff, took me under their wings and helped me learn the Islamic principles and practices. I will admit that praying and fasting on my own at first caused me to feel lonely and overwhelmed, but I realized I didn’t have to make a radical change in my lifestyle because I already held many of the same core tenants that Muslims have (I didn’t drink alcohol, party, or even eat pork).
Although I didn’t have to sacrifice my personality, American identity or culture to be a Muslim, gaining an understanding of the Arabic language has been my greatest challenge. Needless to say, it has not affected my ability to connect with Allah (God) or take heed of the Qur’an’s teachings. I aim to improve my ability to read and recite the daily prayers in Arabic. I have so much respect and love for the Qur’an, so I hope to read it the way it was intended by the end of this year, inshAllah.
How did your family and friends take your decision to convert to Islam?
My mother took the news the hardest – she felt as if she had “lost” her daughter when I began wearing the hijab; not only had I converted to Islam, but now it was evident everywhere I went. Out of respect for her, I would take off the hijab whenever I made trips back to Michigan. However, I battled with trying to be a Muslim, while trying to please my family. When I told my five siblings that I converted to Islam they were in denial and believed it was just a phase. Although they initially struggled to understand my decision, it didn’t come as a complete surprise because I always had an open mind when it came to religion and culture. After realizing that my decision was not just a short-term interest, my family is now very supportive and my mother even buys me head scarves!
My extended “politically conservative” family members were (and still are 6 years later) opposed to my decision and it brought out a lot of hidden prejudices and anti-Islamic sentiments from them. However, I am very confident with who I am as a person and the choice that I have made, so I don’t worry much about the opinions of others. Instead, I focus on pleasing Allah and being a better Muslim.
Does your family ever worry about your safety as a hijabi?
My family frequently checks in on me to make sure that I’m safe. They have become even more concerned about my safety ever since Donald Trump’s “Travel (Muslim) Ban” executive order was announced.
Have you ever contemplated taking off the hijab given the current political climate?
Although I worry about my safety at times, fear will never overpower my decision to wear the hijab.
Have you ever experienced Islamophobia?
Shortly after I converted, I experienced a violent situation in which the police had to be called. In addition to this incident, days before the grand opening of our Verona retail locations, a man screamed expletives at me while at a stoplight with my two young sons in the car.
How do you handle such hostility?
I credit Islam for giving me the strength not to be held hostage by the opinions or actions of others. I’m very big on staying true to who I am. I know that we’re good people. If we just cower and hide, if we’re constantly scared about putting ourselves out there, then they’re never going to learn that we’re really good people and what they see in the media is just not true. To me, it’s a way of combating Islamophobia.
What would you like to say to someone who’s struggling with wearing the hijab?
There are two things I would like to say. First, never be afraid of who you are. People will respect you more when you are true to yourself. Secondly, just remember that the hijab is a form of da’wah (preaching). Women have the opportunity – more so than men – to spread Islam because it shows on our faces that we’re Muslim, and we need to take that opportunity as a blessing and use it.
We have this stereotype that hijabis [women who wear the hijab] are oppressed, that they’re forced to wear it, and they’re uneducated. These things are everything that I am not and everything that my customers are not.
What are some of the best things that have resulted from opening the Verona retail store?
I take great pride in helping newly converted Muslim women build a modest, yet fashionable wardrobe. I have so much gratitude for the countless people who have come into Verona to ask questions about Islam/hijab and the ones who just pop in to show their support to the Muslim community.
One of these supporters is a very special 80-year-old woman named Loraine. After the presidential election, she came into Verona to voice her anger for how Donald Trump had been treating the Muslim community, African-American, Mexicans, and women. Loraine mentioned to me several times, “Donald Trump may belong to the Presbyterian Church, but he is not Christian. Christians love their neighbor”. This conversation led to Loraine inviting me to speak at her church so that her congregation could have the opportunity to get to know Muslims in the area and to learn more about Islam. That interfaith event was a wonderful da’wah opportunity that helped to educate and dispel stereotypes. Despite our 50 year age difference, we have become fast friends and I consider Loraine as one of my biggest blessing.