[A small group of the Muslim convert women who took part in the in the research and discussions process]
By Ruqaiyah Hibell
A new ground breaking report, entitled, ‘Narratives of Conversion to Islam: Female Perspectives,’ results from a collaborative research project established between the Centre of Islamic Studies, Cambridge University and The New Muslims Project, based at The Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicestershire, was published in May 2013. The research, based on a series of meetings convened at Cambridge, drew together a socially and ethnically diverse group of forty-seven women from across the UK in order to document their experiences of, and perspectives on, conversion to Islam. The report is a fascinating dissection of the conversion experience of women in Britain in the 21st Century. The 129-page report outlines the social, emotional, and at times, economic costs of conversion, and the context and reasons for women converting to Islam in a society that holds pervasive, negative stereotypes about the faith.
Islam appears to hold a fascination for British women, in particular, who convert to the faith in large numbers. Estimates project that approximately 5,000 Britons embrace Islam each year, two-thirds of whom are thought to be female. Most of them are independent and professional career women — who take the decision to convert to Islam despite facing often considerable opposition from family and friends. High profile female converts include the journalist, Yvonne Ridley, and MTV presenter, Kristiane Backer.
Founding director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, Professor Yasir Suleiman, explained that researchers had set out to explore the paradox of women converting to Islam which counters misperceptions that Islam oppresses women. “Conversion is a complex phenomenon. It is often full of joy and pain for the convert and her family and friends, regardless of the faith to which she converts, but no more so than when the faith is a maligned Islam and its followers.”
The huge diversity among the convert community reflects the huge diversity to be found among the heritage Muslim community in Britain. Professor Suleiman mentioned that conversion did not offer an easy journey – it proved to be extremely demanding. It was not about merely adopting the hijab and suddenly being a Muslim. Conversion is not for the faint-hearted; it entails discipline, learning and spiritual growth. The costs can be high – with some women reportedly losing their employment and experiencing estrangement from their social networks following their decisions to convert to Islam and struggle to gain acceptance and understanding from society, friends and families.
The research focused on a wide range of issues including dress and appearance, family, marriage, sexuality, domestic violence, polygyny, divorce, converts’ children, homosexuality, trans-sexualism, gender, identity, media, citizenship, political identity and engagement, guidance and spirituality and struggles within the faith. For each area under discussion, a diversity of opinions was expressed by the participants.
The report found that non-Muslims are often perplexed by religious conversion to Islam, and find it difficult to understand why women, and in particular, educated women, choose to embrace a faith that they perceive to be at least, medieval in its approach to the role of women and, at best, antagonistic. Generally, non-Muslims are ill-informed about Islam and their attitudes are clouded by Islamophobia. While projections vary widely as to the number of converts to Islam in the UK (some estimates suggesting figures as high as 100,000) increasingly many people will know of a family member, friend or colleague who has embraced Islam and are struggling to come to terms with what that entails.
Many people mistakenly assume that women convert only to marry a Muslim man. While romantic relationships and marriage to Muslims may naturally introduce women to the faith, many retain or adopt Islam following the collapse of such relationships. Spirituality flourishes in many ways, some women embrace Islam due to an intellectual search for the fundamental meanings of life, whilst others are inspired through spiritual experiences, such as guidance through dreams. Others are impressed by the personalities of Muslims they encounter and are attracted to faith by observing admirable personal qualities; increasingly many are attracted by the high status Islam accords to women.
It is noticeable that conversion continues to flourish in a political and social climate that appears increasingly antagonistic towards Islam, a faith, which is too commonly maligned as dangerous and presented in monolithic terms.
Detailed within the report are examples of women who embraced Islam after exploring the faith in order to refute its validity and then found themselves increasingly attracted to Islamic ideals and teachings. It was concluded by the participants that as, ‘God guides whom he wills,’ all avenues to conversion are equally valid.
Significant focus was devoted within the report to appearance, with substantive discussion on issues surrounding dress. This involved exploring the significance of decisions made by individual participants regarding whether to wear, or not wear, a headscarf, or ‘to be worn by it.’ Appearance can assume many guises and discussion surrounding the extent to which Muslim women, and converts in particular, are able to ‘appear’ and participate within mosques and organisational structures governing Islamic institutions; highlighted issues surrounding their marginalisation and apparent invisibility.
The low public profile of converts coupled with how to overcome an absence of social and political representation was revealed as a pressing set of concerns within the report. Many women said they felt they had been forced to adopt more conservative attitudes than those they had grown up with. There were tensions between the converts and heritage Muslim society over faith, gender sexuality and politics.
Women’s rights remain a highly charged political issue within Muslim communities and while participants were not unanimously supportive of feminism as defined in the West, the need to raise the status of women within Muslim communities was fully acknowledged. Attempting to realise rights enshrined within Islam has proven more difficult to achieve. Participants were especially critical of the concept of Sharia councils operating in Britain in terms of the councils’ potential to jeopardise the rights of women.
Conversion does not reflect a smooth journey within the faith. Faith by its very nature includes doubt, questioning and self-reflection. There are periods of time when faith is intense and other times when there are struggles to retain a sense of attachment to Islam. What characterised the converts’ detailed narratives within this study was despite undergoing at times severe tests of faith a strong connection to God was retained. Such resilience was particularly notable, in the case of converts from African-Caribbean heritage who reported that one of the major attractions of Islam was an awareness of Qur’anic injunctions stipulating equality and equity, whereby, each person is judged by God, on the basis of their piety and not their physical characteristics. When converts from African-Caribbean heritage confront indifference and exclusion, this reflects badly on the prejudicial mind-sets harboured by some Muslims.
By way of contrast, many Muslims admirably provide support and services to those who have embraced Islam, and most converts can affectionately recall the assistance they received following their conversions from members of the Muslim communities. Nevertheless, the strongest theme running consistently throughout the report is the need for more support and services. Many converts reportedly experience a lack of support, and a sense of isolation, following the euphoria that greets their conversions.
Initial stages of conversion are frequently characterised by uncertainty and confusion along with fractured relationships between family and friends that, take time, patience, and reciprocal good will to restore. It is here, that the existing and often limited ranges of services require investment and development, in order to improve the experience of embracing Islam and to counteract converts’ often reported sense of displacement from their culture of origin and inability to assimilate into the Muslim communities they seek to join. Converts need to witness that they have become accepted as authentic Muslims by experiencing a compassionate concern for their welfare and their future development as valued adherents to Islam.
The intrinsic value of this report lies in providing a forum through which the opinions and attitudes held by female converts to Islam can be voiced. Rather than being spoken about, the participants involved in the study are assuming ownership of their narratives, conveying direct and personal experiences of conversion. Much of the media focus on conversion centres on the experiences of white, middle-class women in terms of their responses to relationships and appearance.
This study includes the accounts of the white middle-class along with a variety of women from other ethnic heritages and social groups while allowing new angles and perspectives on issues commonly discussed to emerge. It also provided a forum allowing a broader range of issues to be discussed than had previously accumulated through academic or journalistic accounts of conversion. Converts serve to confound and challenge negative racist or clichéd narratives depicted in the media of heritage Muslims because their culture and heritage is intrinsically reflective of British culture.
The subsequent findings may at times reflect adversely on both the heritage Muslim communities and the indigenous communities from which the converts derive. However, this reflects an imperative need to find solutions and appropriate responses to the range of concerns that the report draws attention to.
In terms of the purpose of the report, from an academic perspective it was to extend and deepen existing knowledge on religious conversion to Islam. From a practitioners perspective it was to raise awareness of specific sets of issues affecting converts to Islam in the UK, many of which will also contain generic, universal components that are widely experienced by converts regardless of their nationality and/or former beliefs. Included here, would be factors such as how to present conversion to families, friends and wider society, how to seek partners for marriage within an Islamic framework, how to integrate Islam into an existing lifestyle and for converts to determine where the boundaries can be drawn and demarcated between retaining aspects of previous modes of behaviour and beliefs and thus incorporating an Islamic set of ideals, beliefs and practices into their lives.
The report’s recommendations include a comprehensive set of measures requiring implementation by heritage Muslim communities and established groups of converts, designed to facilitate converts’ integration into heritage Muslim communities and to maintain a sense of belonging to British society, whilst retaining a strong Islamic identity. The ideal scenario sees converts as authentic representatives of Islam becoming conduits between heritage Muslim communities and British culture, able to inculcate a representation of Islam exemplifying the invaluable contribution that Islamic faith can make to wider society. This underlines the converts’ own potential to be a powerful and transformative influence on both the heritage Muslim community and wider British society. It is not unrealistic to expect from British society a more responsible approach on the part of the establishment and the mass media; providing space for balanced Muslim voices to be heard and allowing equitable representations of Islam to emerge.
The principle organisation that has for the past twenty years been tasked with providing services to converts to Islam from across the UK is the New Muslims Project. Such services include the Meeting Point magazine which has a cumulative readership of 4,000 converts to Islam; the magazine is welcomed at 140 prisons and young offenders’ institutions across the UK. As well as counselling and advice, Qur’anic Arabic tuition, Shahadah certification and gift packs, educational and social programmes and trips to Muslim countries, including Hajj and Umrah, the New Muslims Project has provided the infrastructure to develop a network of regional support groups in towns and cities the length and breadth of Britain.
Latterly, the project has been involved in a number of on-going research projects. An initial report, ‘Between Isolation and Integration: A report of the Muslim Convert Community in Leicester’, was produced in 2010, in conjunction with Leicester City Council. The New Muslims Project remains under the able leadership of its Educational and Research Co-ordinator, Mrs Batool Al-Toma, whose drive and determination to improve services for converts to Islam in the UK has had a profound impact on the lives of the converts she has assisted. A similar exercise is planned in association with the Centre for Islamic Studies based on the narratives of male converts to Islam and will follow when time and funding allows.
The research project was initiated by Professor Yasir Suleiman, Project Leader, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, Cambridge University in association with Batool Al-Toma, The New Muslims Project, Markfield.
The research was funded by CIS while the writing of the report, gathering of the participants and aspects of the administration was carried out by Ruqaiyah Hibell and Batool Al-Toma of the NMP.
Ruqaiyah Hibell, The New Muslims Project, The Islamic Foundation