Narratives of Conversion

27 January 2012
Sign reading "Allah" Credit: Shahla Suleiman.

Sign reading "Allah" Credit: Shahla Suleiman.

A project concluding this weekend examines why women choose to convert to Islam - and what the experience is like.


Judging by what the media tends to write about Islam, you would expect liberal-minded, intellectually-engaged women to give it a wide berth. The paradox is that a noticeable number choose to become Muslims."


—Yasir Suleiman

A landmark project which seeks to map out the different routes through which women convert to Islam, and describe their experiences on entering the faith, reaches its conclusion this weekend.

"Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain", which is being run at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in association with the New Muslims Project at Leicesester, is collating the views and stories of female converts in an effort to provide an insider’s view of what the experience is really like. A report, detailing the results of three meetings exploring why they chose Islam, their feelings about doing so, and the responses of family, friends and other Muslims, will be published in the spring.

Those involved in the project will remain anonymous until the final report is released, as a condition of their participation. They include women from a range of age groups, variously of white, African, and Caribbean descent. Among them are former Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and atheists.

Organisers say that one of the main reasons for the project is "a general sense of frustration" with one-dimensional portrayals of female conversion in the media. Often these focus on women who marry into the faith, and suggest that they do so at the expense of their independence and liberty.

The reality, academics say, is far more varied and complex. "Judging by what the media tends to write about Islam, you would expect liberal-minded, intellectually-engaged women from non-Muslim backgrounds to give it a wide berth," Professor Yasir Suleiman, who is chairing the meetings and the project’s leader, said.

"It seems to be a religion that clashes with our ideas about modernity. Yet the paradox is that there is a noticeable number of well-educated, intellectually-engaged women with high-flying careers who are choosing to become Muslims. So the question is, how do we explain this?"

Although there are no firm statistics about women converting to Islam in Britain, it is possible that as many as three-quarters of British converts - an estimated 100,000 between 2000 and 2010, were female. To investigate why women convert, three symposia organised by the Centre of Islamic Studies were developed based on an initial discussion in May last year. The subsequent gatherings touched on questions such as family, dress, lifestyle, relationships within the Muslim community, marriage, the media, sexuality, political identity and the tenets of the faith itself.

Despite the myriad reasons for women converting to Islam - which, contrary to popular belief, often do not involve marriage - the project team say that a consistent, emerging theme is that many stressed a strong sense of continuity with the past. Although outsiders view conversion as a break with a previous life, and in extreme cases apparently "racialise" white converts as if they have somehow become non-white by joining the faith, the women who make the change retain many of their fundamental beliefs and relationships.

Why they convert is a highly complex question, however. In some cases, women simply came into with the Qur’an and found that it struck a spiritual chord - sometimes one that, given their background, they initially found it hard to accept. Other cases recorded in the discussions included those of journalists who, dispatched by their editors to write a piece about the restricted lives of female converts, were in practice won over to the merits of Islam itself.

The final report will, organisers say, attempt to portray the experience of conversion in full by expressing the participants’ feelings and stories whether positive or negative. Women who are attracted to Islam because it seems versatile and inclusive, for example, sometimes find themselves struggling with the more conservative views of Imams. Others have encountered a sense of triumphalism from some "heritage Muslims", who are keen to show off white converts to the wider world because of their social origins, rather than because of their beliefs.

"The report will attempt to describe and explain the journeys converts take in full," Professor Suleiman added. "The stories are very different, but the women who tell them have consistently stressed that they don’t see conversion to Islam as a break from the past, but part of one greater, continuing journey as a whole."

The final report from the project, Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain will be published online by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, in April or May 2012.

 
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