Converting to Islam: British women on prayer, peace and prejudice
Around 5,000 British people convert to Islam every year – and most of them are women. Six of them talk about prejudice, peace and praying in car parks
|Ioni Sullivan: 'In my heart, I began to consider myself a Muslim.' Photograph: Felicity McCabe for the Guardian|
On Saturday, Guardian Weekend magazine published “Converting to Islam: British women on prayer, peace and prejudice” – a series of interviews I did with six British women who have converted to Islam.
The piece seems to have hit a nerve: so far it got more than 2000 FB shares and 1289 comments – many far from positive! I was surprised at the level of hostility and defensiveness of some of comments. To many, converting to Islam is simply incomprehensible: these women must be stupid or foolish. I thought the six women had explained quite well why they were attracted to Islam, and I had found their reasons intriguing. Of course, much of their original interviews got cut out to fit the allocated space, so their views, feelings and experiences got rather compressed and simplified in the Guardian article.
My article had been triggered by a comprehensive research by Cambridge University’s Center of Islamic Studies – a 129 page report based on the anonymous testimonies of 50 converts. The report called "Narratives of Conversions to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives" gives a much more in-depth view of the conversion experience - and I highly recommend it. I had written an introduction to my article explaining the research, but it too got cut out. Here it is:
Each year, an estimated 5,000 British people convert to Islam – the majority of them women. Western women who convert to Islam perplex non-Muslims - or attract suspicion as in the case of the Boston bomber’s widow, so Cambridge University researchers have set out to try and find out why so many choose to embrace a religion that is widely seen as repressing them.
“We wanted to understand the conversion experience from the inside and dispel misapprehensions of female converts to Islam,” says Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the university’s Centre ofIslamic Studies (CIS). With the New Muslim Project of Markfield in London, CIS brought together 50 British converts of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds for candid in-depth discussions over several days. It was the first forum of its kind in the UK.
The resulting report offers a fascinating dissection of the conversion experience of contemporary British women, highlighting broad themes: for example, the tensions between converts and the “heritage Muslim” community; the poor quality of services offered to all women in mosques; the ubiquity of dress etiquette in framing the conversion experience. It also addresses issues such as sexuality, marriage, domestic violence and divorce, and explores the reasons for women to convert to Islam and their role in countering the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the UK media. All the women’s views and experiences in the report are presented anonymously.
“Our objective is to inform the debate on conversion to Islam rather than to advocate a particular position or to paint a rosy picture of the conversion journeys and the cultural norms that surround it,” says Professor Suleiman, the project leader.
One of the report’s key findings is the disproportionate attention, verging on obsession, given to white women converts by both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Their conversions are highly visible, so these women are often considered as “trophy” converts among “heritage Muslim” communities, but not as suitable marriage partners. Another unexpected finding is the lack of support available to female converts who live outside traditional networks. Women, especially single and divorced, talked about the challenge of finding a suitable husband, feeling lonely and unwelcome, dealing with abusive partners or obtaining a fair divorce.
“Islam is seen to answer the spiritual needs of convert women, but some heritage Muslims may fall short of the ideals of Islam that are so attractive to convert women," Professor Suleiman says. The report, which is addressed equally to Muslims (heritage and convert) and non-Muslims, includes recommendations to better support converts.
“The debate is just starting and we need to have more informed studies about conversion to Islam that directly address public interest and concern,” adds project manager Shahla Suleiman. The next phase of the research will focus on male converts.