Gender and Conversion to Islam in the West
Karin van Nieuwkerk
Conversion to Islam by women in the West may evoke a range of sensitive issues. Crossing religious and ethnic boundaries generally disturbs conventions and can engender hostility. Female conversions may raise even stronger reactions because traditions have often constructed women as symbols of ethnic and religious boundaries. Female conversion to Islam summons up particularly fierce battles because gender issues have been pivotal in the construction of Otherness between “Islam” and the “West.” Female converts are thus regularly treated with hostility. A Dutch convert said, “People stare at you because they see that you are white. Maybe that is the cause of the aggression; you are a traitor to the race.” By some Muslims, however, conversion by Western women is proclaimed and promoted. “Despite all the negative propaganda regarding Muslim women, female converts to Islam outnumber their male counterparts by an estimated ratio of 4: 1!” Thus we are informed by “The True Religion,” a Web site with a clear missionary goal.1
One contentious issue is the extent of the phenomenon. Is the number of converts increasing? Are more women attracted to Islam than men? In a videotape, Osama Bin Laden told his Saudi visitor that after the 9/11 “operation” more Dutch people had converted to Islam than in the previous eleven years.2 Similar rumors regarding Americans were spreading in the United States.3 These claims, as well as the statement that women converts outnumber men “by an estimated ratio of 4:1,” are clearly part of an ideological struggle (see also Allievi 1998, 241). Some academic research indicates, however, that maybe not four-fifths, but still two-thirds, of converts to Islam are female (Wohlrab-Sahr 1999b; Wagtendonk 1994; Haleem 2003). Whether this is generally valid is not clear. At this point we must simply state that we do not know exactly, since for most countries no statistics are available or the statistics do not distinguish between second-generation-born Muslims and native converts. What is clear, though, is that gender issues are focal in the discussions of conversion to Islam, whether statistically, ideologically, or symbolically.