How Deborah Became Aisha
The Conversion Process and the Creation of Female Muslim Identity
Until recently, most of the psychological and sociological research on conversion has been concerned with identifying: (1) what type of person might be predisposed toward religious conversion (Allison 1969; Batson and Ventis 1982; Christiansen 1963; Deutsch 1975; Gillespie 1991; James 1962; Lofland and Stark 1965; Meadow and Kahoe 1984; Salzman 1953; Ullman 1989); or (2) why someone converts (Allison 1969; Snow and Phillips 1980; Starbuck 1911). However, as Karin van Nieuwkerk indicates in the introduction to this volume, researchers are now recognizing that conversion is an ongoing process and are focusing their attention on the stages that converts go through (see, for example, Rambo 1993; Köse 1996; Poston 1992; Sultán 1999; Roald, this volume). These works recognize that there are various types of converts, many routes to conversion, and different types of Islam to which an individual may convert. Three important issues, however, are neglected in most studies. First, a consideration of how conversion to Islam requires not only a change in the convert's religious identity, but also a renegotiation of social, gender, and national identities. Second, how these new identities are embodied through taking up new bodily practices. Third, the wider context in which these identities are re-created, including power relations, interactions with other Muslims, and learning how to be a Muslim in a largely non-Muslim society.
In this chapter, I will address these issues by looking at the process of conversion and the re-creation of religious, gender, and national identity in Glasgow, Scotland. The bulk of the research upon which this discussion is based involved participant-observation and interviews with a group of twenty-five female Sunni converts who attended a weekly Islamic education/discussion group for women. I have also included information from an interview with a male convert and his wife who were not attached to this group.1
I begin my discussion by looking at the conversion story of Aisha, the leader of the Islamic education/discussion group. Her case study illustrates the importance of considering the social context in which the conversion