Attiya Ahmad, Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (New York: Duke University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Attiya Ahmad (AA): Over the past twenty years, tens of thousands of domestic workers—migrant women of diverse ethnonational, linguistic, educational and religious backgrounds—have converted to Islam in the Greater Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf (Gulf) region. Among the region’s vast population of noncitizens, groups often referred to as migrant workers, expatriates, and foreign residents, domestic workers are by far the largest group of converts. These women’s experiences in the Gulf also contrast with those of migrant domestic workers in other parts of the world, where religious conversions are little reported in what is now a robust body of policy reports and scholarly literature focusing on the feminization of transnational labor migration.
I learned of domestic workers’ Islamic conversions while conducting preliminary research on an ostensibly different topic: the transnational development of Al-Huda, a South Asian women’s Islamic reform movement, in the Gulf. Like many in the region, I was puzzled and curious when I learned about domestic workers’ Islamic conversion. Two things struck me: first, how widespread and widely debated their conversions are within the region, yet how little scholarly attention they receive; and second, the disconnect that exists between how domestic workers understand and discuss their conversions, with how others perceive and depict them. The issues animating my interest in Al-Huda—how transnational processes are reworking gendered geographies of religious piety and belongings crosscutting the Middle East, South Asia and Indian Ocean region—took on a new and unexpected configuration, one encapsulated by a question whose constant refrain would weave through my subsequent research and this book: Why are domestic workers converting to Islam in the Gulf?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: In broad and succinct terms, I would describe Everyday Conversions as necessarily interdisciplinary in scope and ethnographic in approach. The book brings into conversation a perhaps unexpected set of works, including scholarship on religious conversion, Islamic ethical formation and reform movements, domestic work and affective labor, the development of migration and labor regimes in the Gulf region, transnational feminism, and recent writings in feminist theory.
In terms of the specifics and substance of the book, Everyday Conversions is an ethnographic account of the circumstances through which South-Asian migrant domestic workers convert to Islam in the Gulf region that argues these women develop Islamic pieties through their gendered experiences of transnational migration and work centered on household spaces. The book brings into focus how domestic workers’ experiences of cooking, cleaning, and caring for their employers in the Gulf, and of provisioning their families in South Asia—everyday activities that are often disregarded or their importance assumed—lead to transformations in their subjectivities, affinities, and belongings. An everyday process, these conversions mark the confluence of two realms that are often assumed to be distinct and separate: the reshaping of migrant women’s comportment and personalities related to their undertaking of affective labor, and the ethical formation of religious subjectivities related to their engagement with Islam.
Everyday Conversions furthers prevailing work on the feminization of transnational labor migration, a phenomenon accounting for half of the total migration in the Middle East and Asia. Existing scholarship depicts households as everyday spaces that produce and reproduce familial networks and ethnonational belongings. Through analysis of domestic workers’ experiences, the book provides an alternative reading of household relations and activity as sites engendering newfound possibilities and transformations indexed by domestic workers’ Islamic conversions. These migrant women’s everyday conversions constitute a form of transnational subjectivity and belonging that does not supplant but develops alongside and reconfigures their existing familial and ethnonational belongings. Domestic workers’ experiences underscore how transnational processes are marked not simply by the diffusion or extension across borders of kinship networks, ethnonational forms (including diasporic ones), and religious movements. Rather, transnationalism constitutes a dynamic field in which gendered, religious, occupational-class, and ethnonational differences are invoked and reworked, configured and reconfigured together, a field generative of everyday conversions. Here, the everyday functions not just as a space of routine and continuity, but of contingency, emergent possibility, and ongoing conversion.
Everyday Conversions also challenges hegemonic understandings of religious conversion as an eventful moment that marks a rupture in converts’ lives and a rejection of their previous religious traditions. Instead, through careful examination of domestic workers’ utterances and stories, the book analyzes religious conversion as an ongoing process rooted in the everyday, where differences between the subject’s preexisting and newfound religious practices, as well as the outcomes of the conversion process, are not evident at the outset. The book’s analysis of religious conversion builds on prevailing scholarship in the anthropology of religion (in particular Islam) and gender. Both realms of scholarship emphasize differences and the incommensurability between discursive traditions (most notably Islam versus secularism and liberalism), in particular the different forms of gendered subjectivity and agency that these discursive traditions entail. This approach focuses on converts’ socialization or striving in relation to their adopted religious tradition and their replacement of one set of religious precepts and practices in favor of another—a process that reconstitutes and in many cases reinforces differences between religious traditions.
Everyday Conversions provides an alternative reading of religious piety and gendered subjectivity by drawing on the work of transnational feminists—and the genealogies of feminist, critical race, post-colonial, historical-materialist and post-structural theories they intersect with—who examine the complex ways in which discursive traditions are interrelated and historically situated. The book not only analyzes how domestic workers become Muslim through their practice of Islam and the gendered forms of subjectivity and agency that these entail, but like other converts and practicing Muslims, how they apprehend, approach and actualize their pieties through the texture of their everyday lives. For these migrant women, everyday life includes their preexisting traditions of religious practice, and a gendered discourse of South Asian women’s malleability. Domestic workers’ Islamic conversion underscore the importance of examining the everyday not simply as the raw materials through which pieties are enacted and actualized, but as substances with their own particularities and vitality—including other intersecting discursive and religious traditions, as well as transnational and material relations—that shape the development of piety. These women’s experiences of conversion point to a process that is not linear and unidirectional, marked by an abrupt or radical transition from one religious tradition to another. Rather, their conversions are a recursive process characterized by sticky entanglements and messy overlaps where differences between religious traditions are porous, fluid, and negotiated on an ongoing basis.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AA: Everyday Conversion marks the culmination of my first major research project, so in the absence of a preexisting oeuvre, perhaps I’ll say a bit more about the underlying circumstances animating my research. Though I had never lived or worked in the Gulf, it was far from an unfamiliar place. Growing up in the thick of Canada’s (then nascent) Muslim diasporic communities, and then working with social justice groups and NGOs in South Asia and the Middle East, in particular Pakistan and Palestine, the Gulf constituted an important nodal point in our lives. Through a combination of family members, friends and colleagues’ stories and gossip, and directly observing some of them moving to, visiting from, or settling back from the Gulf, I had developed a palpable sense of the often complex and layered interconnections between transnational mobilities, laboring, and Islamic movements. This sense butted up against prevailing accounts where the region’s Islamic movements (often glossed as Wahhabi) and the region’s migration and laboring regimes (often reduced to the kefala system) were largely treated in isolation from one another; or, when examined together, were examined in somewhat simplistic and formulaic terms, for example, where migration was treated as a vector in the spread of Wahhabism. The underlying challenge of this project was to not only learn more about the region’s transnational Islamic movements, non-citizen populations, and migration and laboring regimes, but to also develop a flexible and encompassing analytical framework to account for the interrelation of these processes.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: My hope is that this book will be of interdisciplinary appeal to scholars in anthropology, gender and feminist studies, Islamic and religious studies, Middle East, South Asia and Indian Ocean studies, as well as work on migration, diaspora, and transnational studies. Scholars in these fields will likely recognize the debates different parts of the book take on, but in addressing these overarching questions, I purposely pared down disciplinary jargon and I approached them through an examination of what I think are the most important and compelling parts of the book: my interlocutors’ utterances and experiences. I designed the book in this way in the hopes that it would be broadly accessible across disciplines; that readers would not only be poised to, but also interested in reading across different disciplinary and area studies driven issues and questions—for example, migration specialists would not simply read the ‘migration parts’, Islamic studies scholars the ‘conversion parts’, and Middle East scholars the ‘Gulf parts’, etc. As I mentioned earlier, one of the underlying goals of this project was to develop modes of research, analysis and writing account for the interrelation between phenomenon and regions that are often treated as distinct and separate. I tried to accomplish this in both the substance and form of the book.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: I am in the midst of conducting ethnographic research on transnational halal tourism networks centered on the greater Istanbul area and Andalucía, and spanning outwards to the Gulf, the United Kingdom and South-East Asia. A recently coined term, halal tourism references an interrelated set of transnational processes that are reshaping Islamic pieties and practice, neoliberal logics and relations, gendered relations, national/world heritage sites, and interregional relations between the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. My research strives to understand and contextualize sociocultural aspects of why entrepreneurs and consumers consider tourism to be an important site through which to produce Islamic piety and Muslim belongings—even in the face of the uncertainty and risk that mark shifting landscapes of conflict in the contemporary Middle East.
Halal tourism is a rapidly expanding sector of Islamic enterprise that is modeled on and developing on the heels of Islamic banking, finance, and charitable institutions. A ‘niche’ sector that is projected to grow from $140 to $230 billion over the next several years, halal tourism is developing at twice the rate of the international tourism market as a whole—an industry vital to economic development (accounts for 10% of global GDP and 1/11 jobs worldwide), state-making and nation-building projects, and that constitutes the largest global circulation of goods, services, information, and populations of our time. Halal tourism also accounts for the largest cross-border movement of Muslims in history. While there exist longstanding traditions of travel for the sake of religious striving among Muslims, including forms of scholarly travel, pilgrimage to Mecca, and travel to religious shrines, modern forms of tourism among Muslims are a recent phenomenon that remain little examined. The overwhelming majority of halal tourists are women, and the halal tourism infrastructure centers on producing what actors deem to be proper gender relations among Muslim.
My hope is that this project on halal tourism will contribute to our understanding of how gendered Muslim strivings are formed in relation to economic relations and circulations, affective and immaterial forms of laboring, new media and e-commerce technologies, and engagement with historical artifacts and monumental/heritage spaces.
J: How does your book approach the question of gender relations?
AA: Feminist theories and gender analyses animate Everyday Conversions in both content and form. Different sections of the book examine how gender relations and discourses undergird transnational migration, laboring relations, subject formation, biopolitics, household relations, religious conversion and practice, as well as emergent forms of transnational belonging and socio-political organizing. Following a long tradition of feminist ethnography, black, Chicana and postcolonial feminist scholars, narrative renderings of domestic workers’ migration experiences, and evocative tracings of everyday affects, the book uses storytelling to tease out and convey my interlocutors’ experiences without stabilizing, foreclosing, or overgeneralizing their meaning and significance. If narratives have long been the preeminent form and medium of conversion, retellings in and through which conversions are enacted, in this book I have sought to tell a more modest and mundane set of stories that convey moments of slippage, tension, and traces of feelings, thoughts, and impressions of domestic workers’ gendered experiences of everyday conversions.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
The politics of the [Gulf] region’s belonging and exclusion, and its politics of Islamic reform, informed much of my thinking when I first began research in Kuwait. As the initial contacts I established with South Asian domestic workers through friends, neighbors, and colleagues snowballed into a network of two-dozen domestic interlocutors, and as polite small talk deepened into sustained conversations and visits, I started to develop a textured sense of my interlocutors’ everyday lives. Yet, I was impatient about what I was learning—what I often dismissed as tidbits of household gossip and details about their everyday routines. To me this was merely background information. I suspected my interlocutors were prevaricating about the circumstances surrounding their Islamic conversions. With time, as I developed more trusting relationships with them, I hoped they would begin opening up to me in earnest and that our discussions would be more frank and forthright.
I attributed what I took to be South Asian domestic workers’ silence about the reasons for their conversions to the different factors that each explanatory frame emphasized. Far from being conspicuous, domestic workers’ silence was readily assimilable to the logics of these explanatory frames. Both liberal-secularist and Islamic reformers understood domestic workers’ silence as further evidence of the veracity of their respective explanations. For groups who analyzed their conversions in terms of the region’s politics of belonging and exclusion, it was clear why domestic workers would not want to discuss their conversions: such discussions would raise uncomfortable questions about the sincerity and motivations for their conversions. Domestic workers’ conversions and their silence were both read as symptomatic of the hierarchical relations that existed between themselves and their employers. In this view, they converted because of their precarious positioning, which also accounted for why they would be loath to discuss their conversions. The reason for domestic workers’ silence was also obvious to Islamic reformers. These women’s becoming Muslim was understood to be an act with its own justification. They had come to understand the truth of Islam, to recognize and return to their fitra, a God-given ability to distinguish right from wrong that marked them as Muslim, for which explanations were superfluous.
When I began my research I was looking for materials—responses, comments, stories and observations—that would confirm or counter these two explanatory frames, yet what I was learning from South Asian domestic workers seemed to evade them altogether. It took me some time to realize that in the repetitive folds of their utterances about everyday work, experiences of migration, and transnational networks of family and friends, domestic workers were not being silent or evasive about their Islamic conversions. Rather, they discussed and experienced their religious conversions in a register that was more muted and subtle, one that is easy to overlook, particularly amidst the din of public debates undergirded by liberal-secularist and Islamic reformist explanations. Both these explanatory frames emphasize a particular set of factors to account for domestic workers’ Islamic conversions, namely, their precarious positioning and hierarchical relations with their sponsor employers in Kuwait, or the influence of Islamic reform movements in Kuwait. The alternative explanation domestic workers were pointing to pushes us to consider how these factors are embedded in their everyday activities and relations. Migrant domestic workers’ Islamic conversions do not develop because of, in spite of, nor do they mitigate the hierarchical relations that exist between themselves and their employers. Their Islamic conversions also do not develop through the direct outreach of Kuwait’s Islamic da‘wa movement. Though related to these factors, domestic workers’ conversions are not reducible to them. These women’s precarious positions and hierarchical relations with their employers, and the activities of Islamic da‘wa movements in Kuwait tell part of the story of their everyday conversions, but not in the ways envisioned by liberal-secularists or Islamic reformers. Domestic workers’ conversion experiences point to how these factors come into confluence and are configured by their everyday gendered experiences centered on household spaces and routed through longer histories of interregional connections between the Gulf and South Asia. More succinctly put, domestic workers’ experiences foreground a realm—the everyday—as crucial to their Islamic conversions. Their conversions are inextricable from their everyday experiences in ways that necessitate a more expansive understanding of both “conversion” and the “everyday.” Their conversions are not marked by an eventful moment, or by an abrupt, radical transformation. Rather, their conversions develop through ongoing processes of transformation, a gradual reworking of their lives embedded in the everyday where the outcomes are not clear at the outset. Domestic workers’ experiences push us to consider how the everyday is not just a space of habit, routine and continuity—a space through which discursive and disciplinary regimes are produced and reproduced—but how the everyday also constitutes a space of contingency, emergent possibility, and ongoing conversion.
Domestic workers’ Islamic conversions were inextricable from their everyday activities and relations, ones centered on their households—both those in Kuwait and more remotely mediated through letters, phone conversations and occasional visits, the households in the places they had migrated from. Although radically different from one another—one focusing on political-economic factors, the other religious processes, one positing a self-interested, cost-benefit maximizing subject, the other a subject shaped through pious practice—both liberal secularist and Islamic reformist explanations of domestic workers’ conversion or “reversion” to Islam emphasize the importance of the household. For groups promoting secular-liberal forms of governance domestic workers’ conversions underscore an important yet fraught gendered limit point to state authority and intervention. Among members of Kuwait’s Islamic movements, households are considered to be sites of paramount importance to the production and reproduction of pious Muslim subjects. Domestic workers’ utterances and my own observations of their experiences in Kuwait highlight the importance of their everyday relations within Kuwaiti households to their Islamic conversions, but in ways that resist reduction to self-interest, pressure or simple assimilation, and that are not accounted for by general public discourse. Households constituted dense and vital spaces of everyday work, intimacy, economic exchange, affect, and hierarchical gendered, aged, raced and kinship relations through which these women came to convert to Islam—sensibilities and practices through which they then came to reexperience and rework their lives. Routed through the household, domestic workers’ Islamic conversions mark the confluence of two realms often assumed to be distinct and separate: the everyday ethical formation of religious subjectivities related to their engagement with Islam, and the reshaping of their comportment and personalities related to their undertaking of affective labor. Their experiences mark the interrelation of political-economic and religious processes without eliding or fetishizing the importance of each to the other. Undergirded by gendered logics and relations, in particular a gendered discourse of South Asian women being naram—a Hindi-Urdu word denoting malleability—these processes are reshaping domestic workers’ subjectivities, affinities, and transnational social networks. Rather than marking a rebirth or abrupt change in their lives, they experienced conversion to Islam as a gradual process through which they came to reengage and rework their lives. This process was neither unidirectional nor linear, but cyclical and recursive: they apprehended, approached, and actualized Islamic precepts and practices in and through the stuff of their everyday lives, which included their hierarchical and often fraught relationships with their employers; the gendered labor they undertake; and their preexisting languages, religious traditions, familial relations and other forms of belonging, including those based on ethnicity and nationality. Domestic workers’ conversion to Islam were marked by emergent relationships and affinities, ones that did not supersede or subsume their existing familial and ethnonational belongings, but developed alongside them, in tandem, and reconfigured them.