Gender, Conversion, and Islam
A Comparison of Online and Offline Conversion Narratives
Karin van Nieuwkerk
In this chapter, conversion narratives of female converts to Islam collected during anthropological fieldwork in the Netherlands will be compared with self-presentations of new Muslimas on the Internet.
During my research among Dutch female converts to Islam in 1997 and 1998, I was often impressed and puzzled by the diversity of the women's stories. I conducted in-depth interviews with twenty-four women, and of half of them I also interviewed relatives or friends.1 In addition, I joined twentyfive meetings of two organizations for converts and analyzed their monthly magazines.2 During these meetings I had many informal talks with converts. After most interviews I came home with the feeling that I could understand this particular woman's choice for Islam, but that her motivation was rather specific and quite dissimilar from the motivations and the life stories of the women I had spoken to before.
I thus often found it difficult to understand these women's choice for Islam in a sociologically satisfactory way. It was hard to relate their conversion to (a lack of) religious affiliation, educational background, family milieu, and psychological crises, or even to their marriage with Muslim partners, because this was not the case for five new Muslimas. Although most were married to Muslim partners, were of a middle-class background, and were well educated, these factors did not give much insight into the reasons for and meaning of their conversion. It appeared that each conversion story made sense only within the framework of the complete life story. For one of them a psychological crisis and medicine addiction convinced her of the natural and healthy character of Islam; for another woman sexual harassment made her realize the importance of a certain distance between the sexes. Some women tried to rebel against dominant mothers; others tried to find a “place to belong.” Several converts were attracted to the spiritual and all-encompassing nature of Islam; many were attracted to the rational character of Islam. Some converted to establish a harmonious marriage relationship or to realize a unified upbringing of the children; others converted without a Muslim partner.