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The Cost of Conversion: Defining and Illustrating Experiences of Islamophobia Amongst Female Converts to Islam (FCI)

by in Identity on 23rd September, 2019

 ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!’ (The Christian Recorder of March 1862, Wikipedia).

Equally words can devastate and hurt, to burn into our soul at times especially when they come from those we love. Conversion to Islam is a spiritual journey transforming who and what a person is, hopefully moving one closer to God; it alters how life is lived and opens belonging to the Muslim community and acknowledgment of a purpose beyond the physical world.  

Equally this tremendous change has the potential to alter how non-Muslims perceive converts in ways not always anticipated. My research in 2017 showed that conversion could be problematic when it comes to family relationships, as well as in the public sphere since it occurred within a burgeoning backdrop of anti-Muslim rhetoric. There is a daily battle against the inescapable phenomenon of Islamophobia, a new and distressing experience for many Muslim converts.

What is Islamophobia how can we define it?  

To put it simply, it is a closed view of Islam and Muslims, seeing us as ‘backward’ and ‘incompatible with modernity and Western society’ (Runnymede, 1997).  It stereotypes all Muslims and thwarts acknowledgment of the wealth of diversity found in Muslim Beliefs and practices (Allen, 2010:54). ? Ameli and Merali (2015) describe Islamophobia as macro- aggressions involving and including verbal assaults and physical assault or as nuanced micro-aggressions, almost imperceptible actions so nuanced you are left wondering ‘did something just happen, and I missed it?’

“You know it’s happened, but it’s not something you can actually say something about, because you can’t prove it.  You can’t prove that it’s happened…. (B)”

Islamophobia has been normalised at a structural level whereby the state maintains inequality through institutional racism filtered down through the mediums of legislative practices and media reporting. Subsequently, multiculturalism and diversity have been damaged through these very mediums.  IHRC (2015:16) argues Islamophobia will persist if state incongruity claims racial ‘blindness’ and neutrality but symbolises a ‘Britishness’ which is ‘precise and exclusive’. The stage for the normalisation of Islamophobia is succinctly set; Islam is the ‘other’ and identified as being so, while the British government fails to address its complicity in maintaining, disseminating and perpetuating inequality: Muslim identity is met with discrimination and denial (Grosfoguel and Mielants 2006; 5-6):

“We are getting used to it.  It horrible that! Just saying it out loud:  ‘we’re getting used to it.’ (Repeats to practice and confirm new and ironic discovery, laughs)…”  (E).

Most research on Islamophobia examines the experiences of heritage Muslims and whilst converts certainly share these experiences their position is uniquely complicated on several levels (Beg, 2017). For converts Islamophobia can be isolating and disorientating in many ways; they encounter Islamophobia as a new, startling and intimidating experience.   For converts it challenges both body and mind, producing a disjuncture between past experiences of identity and belonging through ‘othering’. Female converts, particularly those who wear hijab, are visible and vulnerable in public and private spaces:

“Like, if you’re white in a public space people don’t see you; you just blend in don’t you.  Now obviously people notice you; they do.” (F.)

Sadly, this can be a new experience for White converts and a continuation of past experiences for BME converts; in either case, there are spatial and temporal considerations which force recognition that conversion has a price.  Spatially places they were once able to move about in freely are now potentially hostile; temporally adverse changes permit comparison between the past and present. When participants were asked if they had experienced discrimination before conversion they all said no:

“No. Because I wasn’t Muslim.” (C)

Identity and belonging through a different lens

While undoubtedly spiritual commitment is a solace, it is impossible to escape the fractures between then and now and not to recognise how identity and belonging are destabilised (Beg, 2017).  Importantly, unlike heritage Muslims, there is no reliance on the support of a diasporic community or Muslim family who truly understand how you feel. For FCI there is an absence a stabilising ‘imagined homeland’ experienced by many heritage Muslims; effectively cultural heritage and ethnic community become inaccessible.  Added to this self-perception of a convert, in cultural and community terms, may vastly differ from the perceptions of others (Beg, 2017). Many FCI does not feel their ‘core’ has changed yet the reaction of other people serves to contradict this belief (Beg, 2017).

‘…how come you won’t let me in but the other carers you will?’ and he said   ‘Because I want somebody White.’ So I said ‘Well I am White!’ …he told me that you’re still a foreigner and stuff.’ (A).  

‘…Then I got on the bus that I usually get on every morning with like the regulars…and they was all like looking at me funny…’ (A)

Most devastating is the act of intimate Islamophobia perpetrated by non-Muslim family and friends.  Beg (2017) carried out research on a group of U.K. female converts from the North of England. In most interviews, participants became tearful or cried at the recollection of their families’ reactions to their conversion to Islam.

“He was very like… he said that he…’  (Breaks down at this point – very distressed) I still live with my non-Muslim family and stuff… I know that my family are gonna start making comments…’  (A)”

“…he [brother] always brings up about the religion and I’m thinking I don’t really want to talk about it because you end up starting an argument…He doesn’t talk normally he kinda shouts…’  (C)”

“I’ve had bouts of being quite depressed, scared. (Long pause)…It has been ehm [Very long pause and begins to cry, is clearly distressed at the impact of Islamophobia]….there has been a range of emotions; you constantly feel like you’re fighting [pauses]…to soldier on, it’s a constant battle, and sometimes it’s exhausting especially when these things keep going on [Terrorist attack]…It is exhausting….It is so, so hard, you lose friends, you… (E).”

“Still can’t pray in front of my mum cos you see her like her face whenever you try and talk to her about anything in Islam, she clams up…’  (E)”

In comparison when talking about Islamophobia experienced in public spaces they were less distressed while recognising the need to be alert and aware of public hostility, they were less emotional:  

“Obviously if that person’s being racist you have to let it go in, sort of thing.  Just totally try and blank it out or just don’t respond to it…’ (C)”

“I just let it go over my head, obviously I’m in a work place as well, but I just, yeh I ignore it. Yeh, like I don’t really notice sometimes, like people looking and things…‘…I don’t even notice it I just get on with my day to day life, yeh. Everything’s fine…’ (A)”

Converts believe their ‘core ’is unchanged and they are still the same person, a concept not always reciprocated, even by their closest intimates.  Unfortunately, family and friends are equally affected by discursive policing and stereotypical portrayals of Muslims and are often hostile to the new life of a convert.  The destabilisation of identity is described succinctly by participants:

…It’s like you don’t belong on this side anymore, you don’t belong with your (White) community. (E).   

“‘…maybe they weren’t used to seeing a White British woman wearing a hijab.  So it came as a bit of like shock almost and they didn’t quite know how to take it… (B)  “

“It intensified once I started wearing hijab … well as a White Muslim you get the stares, like; obviously they look at you….  But some others like growl and say ‘I don’t know why you’re dressed like that for!’ (E)”

Family censure is experienced more painfully and intensely than the cruelty of a stranger.  Even though Islamophobia of a stranger can and often does involve physical danger, the long-term psychological effect of intimates’ censure resonates more profoundly.  Moosavi (2014) calls this ‘subtle’, but I would argue it is far from subtle regarding delivery, escalation, and significance. Assaults, jibes, and discrimination from strangers can be dealt with by the police, retaliation or simply ignoring the event.  This does not mean the repercussions are not severe nor long-lasting for victims, but they do not necessarily have to see the perpetrator again (Beg,2017). Intimate Islamophobes tend to share the most private of spaces with converts, family spaces, homes and family ties can be strained or severed.  Inevitably converts experience a more profound exclusion when familial ties and relationships are put under pressure by conversion to a religion under suspicion (Beg, 2017). 

Intimate Islamophobes tend to share the most private of spaces with converts, family spaces, homes and family ties can be strained or severed.  Inevitably converts experience a more profound exclusion when familial ties and relationships are put under pressure by conversion to a religion under suspicion (Beg, 2017).   Research indicated intimate Islamophobia provoked in-depth emotional responses showing the depth of meaning for FCI. During interview, all the participants became upset, emotional or cried despite original protestation that they were fine and not experiencing Islamophobia.  The intimacy of perpetrators caused a profound hurt, forcing engagement with coping strategies. Many converts mask, cover, deny and minimise both the extent to which they experience intimate Islamophobia daily and how deeply they are affected (Beg, 2017). Just how painful Intimate Islamophobia can be was revealed later in the interview when participants seemed to remove their ‘masks’ of denial:

“it’s just not nice, like cos they don’t…, And obviously it used to really upset me and ehm he used to, he said that he… (breaks down at this point – very distressed).”  (A).

“that I only came into Islam because I had all these Black men in my house…it really, really hurt me… he was saying was that his own daughter was a tart”. (E)

Islamophobia is most disruptive when it invades private spaces such as family networks and ties. Bigotry and hostility within intimate spaces creates a loss of understanding and mutuality often making conversion a painful experience for converts and their non-Muslim families (Ramahi and Suleiman, 2017: 21).  Brice (2010) found 66% of female converts received a negative family response on conversion. The main problem for families was hijab which created a sense of loss and fear daughters had chosen an oppressive religion.  This often resulted in unwillingness to engage with the new faith and long-term ruptures with non-Muslim family and friends. Converts face shock, disappointment, indifference, estrangement, aggression and violence within the private sphere. (Zebiri, 2008, 2011; Moosavi, 2014; Ramahi and Suleiman, 2017).   

The Quantifiable  Cost of Conversion

The cost of conversion to Islam can be counted in several ways: distance and isolation from ethnic communities, reduced spatial mobility, a doubly gendered Islamophobia constructed from visibility, vulnerability and the risk of assault usually perpetrated by White males (Tell MAMA, 2015: 10; Hopkins, 2016: 186; Awan and Zempi 2015: 6; Lambert and Githens-Mazer, 2010).  The high risk of experiencing Islamophobia can be understood concerning cultural expectations; women are charged with protecting, visually representing and maintaining national culture (YuvalDavis, 2010).

Undeniably hijab is neither British nor White; wearers are suspected of transmitting alien cultural traditions,  and are considered to be fundamentalists making an anti-Western political statement (Suleiman2013).   Beg (2017) found converts wore hijab as a commitment to God and had not taken the decision lightly; indeed, politics was not a consideration in their decision making.

Participants still lived with and kept in touch with non-Muslim family despite the difficulties this caused. Importantly they still maintained an emotional connection to their native culture, while remaining within the parameters of Islam.  However, there was also recognition that without top-down changes broadcasting a new message about Islam they would continue to experience exclusion permeating even the most private areas of family life. Participant F explained how she and other converts had begun to build and develop their own Eid traditions to reproduce the excitement of Christmas; acting as a potential link between Islam and British society (Brice, 2010). FCI and converts, in general, do not automatically slot into the communities of heritage Muslims for many reasons (language, cultural differences, interpretation of Islamic practices), and do not therefore inevitably replace the non-Muslim family with the heritage Muslim community. Instead, they work hard to maintain family relationships and minimise acts of intimate Islamophobia despite the hurt this causes.

The significance of intimate islamophobic experiences is the severance and reconfiguration of the most essential of human relationships – our family ties with kith and kin.  Conversion has the power to cause immense upheaval for both FCI and non-Muslim family members; addressing this form of Islamophobia is paramount since the family is the cornerstone of the Ummah and Islam exhorts Muslims to keep the ties of the womb.  Anything less is indeed costly for all concerned.

Soraya Beg

Soraya Beg

I have been Muslim since birth (Pakistani father) but was raised as a Sikh. I became Muslim again about 38 years ago. I am mother of 4 and grandmother to 6. I have an Honours degree in Soical Sciences, a teaching Degree in Adult Ed and an M.A. in sociology. My dissertations have always focused on Muslim women and after 9/11 with a focus on British Muslim women. Currently, I volunteer with MEND and am involved with their 'Mending Communities' project for reverts. I am also hoping, Inshallah to start a PhD in 2019 funding dependent, looking at British reverts and their struggles as outlined in my article.