The “Cool” Muslims of Contemporary Islam: Female Converts and their Presence in the Media

As a convert to Islam, I have had other Muslims ask me, particularly in settings where I have discussed Islamic feminism and LGBTQ2/S rights, whether or not I converted to be one of the “cool” Muslims that are often times presented in the media. By “cool,” people often mean not-orthodox.  (I started preparing this post before the discussion in the comments of Nicole’s post last week, but those comments emphasise the privilege that comes alongside getting to choose to be one of the “cool” ones.)

While looking for interesting Muslim women’s stories in Google leading up to International Women’s Day, it was common to find few of the same converts to Islam coming up again and again in my search. Female (usually white) converts to Islam are quite prominent in the media, particularly when their activism or focus is on the area of Islamic feminism (oftentimes equated with “progressive Islam”), or if their conversion stories seem unusual or particularly emotional. An example of this can be seen in an article from last November on the rise of converts among Western women, which Lara covered for MMW.

Amina Wadud. Image via WISE Muslim Women.

Unlike other Muslim women, converts to Islam are often considered to have the ability to mediate between Islam and their particular societies (see, for example, Sarah from Little Mosque on the Prairie). It’s possible that some might be more accepted in the media because they “represent” a “progressive” form of Islam.

For instance, Dr. Amina Wadud a well-known scholar and activist, has been interviewed, cited, quoted or referred to in few articles and videos (here, here, and here in Spanish).  Wadud, as many know, is a controversial scholar for many members of Muslim communities, especially for having led a highly-publicised mixed-gender prayer and for being a prominent Islamic feminist.

Western media and Muslim religious media outlets have placed Wadud at a centre of the discussion between “progressive” Islam and orthodoxy (here and here). Nevertheless, Wadud continues to navigate the complex relationship that the Western media has with Muslim women.

Similarly, the example of Yvonne Ridley provides us with some insight into the role that converts to Islam are deemed to fulfill.  Riddle is quite prominent in the Western media possibly because of her background as a journalist. She seems to be quite interesting especially because of her conversion story, which has been closely related to the post-9/11 war on terror (you can watch it here). Ridley converted to Islam in 2003 after being held captive (and later released) by the Taliban in 2001 for illegally crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Other Youtube clips of Ridley show her discussing topics like the war on terror, the works of Harun Yahya, and her own conversion to Islam.

Yvonne Ridley. Image via Innovative Minds.

Ridley has been able to connect with the media in a way that other Muslim activists may not be able to; and  she has provided the Western media with a message that may be troubling (and that is, Islam is not bad for women) coming from a Western, Caucasian journalist. Her relationship with the media relates to her background as a journalist, but it could also be influenced by the combination of her Western background and her identity as a Muslim convert.

 

The conversions of “celebrities” such as Kristiane Backer and Lauren Booth were also widely covered. Their changes of religion get discussed under the “Oh my God Western women are converting to Islam!” phenomenon (here and here). Nonetheless, the conversion stories that these women tell have had an interesting effect in the Western media as well as in Muslim media outlets. Similar to Backer, Booth received a lot of attention when she became Muslim, and seemed frustrated at having to explain herself over and over.

Conversion stories are appealing across the divide for many Muslims and non-Muslims. They are featured in the media, particularly Western media, as an “exotic” way of digging into Western women’s thoughts and feelings, although not necessarily approving of them. For Muslim media outlets, the story is somehow different. They feature convert stories as a way to “prove” to the world that Islam is desirable for women and even more liberating than feminism.

Marie Laure Rodríguez Quiroga. Image via WebIslam.

On the Spanish side, Ndeye Andújar,  co-organizer of the Congress of Islamic Feminism, and Marie Laure Rodríguez Quiroga, the president of the Unión de Mujeres Musulmanas de España (Union of Muslim Women of Spain), are perhaps deemed as an “acceptable” combination of Islam and Westernization. This can be seen through their involvement with more conservative sides of the community, such as WebIslam, while still advocating for Islamic feminism and LGTBQ2/s rights.

Another example can be seen through Ingrid Mattson. Mattson is also a prominent figure in North American media, particularly for being the first female and the first convert to be elected president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Mattson is often featured in the media for her academic work focusing on interfaith dialogue (here and here). Nonetheless, her conversion is also said to be a source of understanding between communities.

This small selection of female converts to Islam speaks to an interesting relationship between them and different media outlets. Female converts (especially white women) are depicted as mediators between Islam and the West, and are sometimes credited with reconciling Islam and feminism.

The question that must now be asked is whether or not this is true. Just like the previous instances of female converts being identified as “more progressive” or “Westernized” there may be other examples that show that Muslim converts may be harder to position as mediators between “both worlds,” for instance, Maryam Jameelah, who, coming from a Western background and being a convert, supports polygamy, is close to the Jamaati Islami movement and seems to politically oppose the West (as discussed in here).

In addition, it must be asked whether or not the focus on female converts to Islam tells us anything about the general situation of women in Islam (if it can be generalized) and the opinions of diverse Muslim women. These women, as mediators of both worlds, can, to some degree, pick and choose their causes and their battles. Some other Muslim women may not have this choice.

The phenomena of choosing female converts as the “ideal representation” of Islam in the West, for example, is a troubling one because it excludes the majority of female Muslims and it silences other voices.  It also tends to highlight the voices of white converts over women of other backgrounds, and, of course, it ignores the many Muslim women from Muslim backgrounds who were born and raised in the West. Although their contributions are often times very valuable, are we implying that there is not value in non-Western or non-feminist views? And are we saying that women who are raised Muslim can never be considered Western and can never be understood by the West?

  • anneke

    Even though I like the piece, I am really doubting whether Muslim converts are viewed to be so progressive, in “all media” that is. My experience, from The Netherlands, is that (female) converts are viewed to be burqa-clad, Al-Qaeda luvin’ fanatics. Take for example the Belgian convert Lesley, who helped her boyfriend and friends escape from prison, by renting a helicopter. Or Martine van der O., member of the Hofstad group, who are guilty of plotting the murder on Theo van Gogh. Or the ’7/7′ widow Samantha Lewthwaite, who is currently at large in East Africa, allegedly having ties to local Al-Qaeda groups. In the media neither of them is viewed to be a smart, strong woman, rather “victims” of a radical Islam. Women from shaky backgrounds, with not much education and very easily influenced.
    And when I converted, I got a comment that I was surely “betraying my country” and my parents were worried that I would marry the first Mohammad that crossed my path and led a burqa-clad, child-bearing isolated existence behind closed curtains…. That did not really happen, but the fear is there, and that fear is fed by the media too.

    • Maryam Hajar

      This article makes a good point, and i agree with the conclusion. Not all converts in America could be, or want to be defined as ‘feminists’…but come to Islam for it’s true path rather than to argue w/fiqh matters, gender roles etc. Most converts in The Netherlands may be as you say, but here in the U.S. they are mostly like myself…take shahadah and follow the middle way; not an extremist way. In our community of Muslims here, I dont know any Sisters who converted that became radical or donned a burqa after conversion. Most wear hijab by choice, have professions, are stay-at-home moms, active in their communities, or whatever- just as any American women do. If the media has any impact on American Muslimahs..it’s to make us out to be “other”…separate.and we struggle with that and work to educate to avoid Islamophobia.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Anneke, you are completely right. Yet I think there are two different experiences that are think are a bit different. One thing it is at the personal level, when I converted, for instance, many people have told me that if I marry a Muslim he is going to lock me up and beat me because “Qur’an says so.” Another thing is the advocacy part. Not every convert is able to create a media-friendly connection, and even less when they can be related to groups like Al-Qaeda. However, if this link does not exist, I think converts particularly in North America get are often represented in a somehow friendly light in the media.
    On the other hand, other orthodox Muslim groups talk about this converts as “Westernized” as “non-orthodox” (for instance Al-Qaradawi’s reaction to Wadud’s role as imam in a mixed congregation). Nonetheless, not all converts are put in that category. Many Muslim sites online actually prize the role of converts in our communities and share their experiences as a “proof” of Islam as a desirable religion. In my community in Canada it is common to hear “you converts are better than us because you chose Islam.” However, when we deviate from what our communities consider “orthodox” we are then described as “westernized.”

  • http://muslimahspeaks.com/ Laura Sultan

    As a convert to Islam, I often have the experience of bridging the understanding of the Christian culture of the family I was born into and the Muslim culture of my adopted religion and the family I married into. It’s a natural consequence.

    However, I’m don’t think the media’s over-representation of Muslim converts can be attributed solely to bridging that divide. I’m sure part of is due to xenophobic tendencies in the media and Western society.

    On the other hand, I must ask where are all of the Muslim-born women who are willing to talk to the media? Where are all of the Muslim-born women who are public speakers by profession? Do converts feel more freedom to speak to the media, at public conferences, or (gasp!) in front of men?

    I wholeheartedly agree that the voices of Muslim women are needed from the full spectrum of the Ummah.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

    @ Laura Sultan: Personally, I don’t think there’s necessarily a lack of “Muslim-born women who are willing to talk to the media” – but I think they often have to work a lot harder to be seen/heard. I think part of it, as you say, is related to xenophobia and racism (especially because white women – and men – who become Muslim are often much more often listened to than people of other backgrounds). Then there’s the novelty factor – a woman who has become Muslim is sometimes seen as having an “interesting” story for that fact alone, while a woman who has always been Muslim sometimes has to fight harder to be seen as worth talking to. (I find this really problematic and annoying, but it seems to come up.) So I don’t think the problem is that there are fewer women who were born/raised Muslim who want to speak to the media, but rather that it’s often more difficult.

    • http://muslimahspeaks.com/ Laura Sultan

      You are probably right that “a woman who has always been Muslim sometimes has to fight harder to be seen as worth talking to,” and this is unfortunate. My question was not to indicate that they are not there but to question how one becomes visible to the media outlets. Many of the women mentioned in the article were already famous before their conversion, or they are highly controversial and directly contacting the media for their own ends.

  • Chris

    I have to agree with the “(gasp) in front of men?” comment. I do not believe it is xenophobia that keeps Muslim born women from being in the spotlight. Very often it is limitations they are put under and put onto themselves. Many national Muslim associations seek women as spokespersons, and can find only converts who are willing to do the job. Hardly, you can accuse them of xenophobia.

  • http://www.redmusulmanas.com/ Natalia (Ndeye) Andujar

    Siento escribir en español, no hablo inglés. Gracias, Eren, por intentar abordar un tema que suele instrumentalizarse, como muchos otros. Por lo que a mi respecta, no comparto tu punto de vista. No es que sirvamos para conciliar “islam y occidente”, sino que somos musulmanas occidentales. No tenemos por qué esperar a qué encajemos en ningun molde predefinido.

    El Islam no es una religion extranjera, forma parte de nuestra tradicion europea, con una presencia milenaria. Por otro lado, en mi experiencia con los medios de comunicacion, se nos censura porque no validamos el discurso mayoritario, esto es, que las musulmanas son sumisas y victimas indefensas.

    Prefieren visibilizar a musulmanas que renieguen del Islam o bien que sean una triste parodia de lo que los medios de comunicacion esperan. El objetivo no es otro que alimentar la islamofobia, hay una clara agenda politica en Europa para crear una cortina de humo que oculte los problemas reales y para ganar votos. No es casual que la extrema derecha vaya en aumento.

    En mi opinion no solo somos molestas por no encajar con esa imagen artificial, sino porque somos criticas con nuestras supuestas democracias, porque denunciamos tanto el fundamentalismo religioso como el neoliberalismo ya que ambos se retroalimentan.

    Tampoco entiendo bien qué significa que se puede ilustrar la combinacion entre el Islam y la occidentalizacion con nuestra implicacion en las caras mas conservadoras de la comunidad, como WebIslam, ya que esta comunidad es plural y avanguardista en muchos aspectos.

    Espero que estas puntualizaciones ayuden a matizar tu texto. Wa salam

    [[Krista's translation, with apologies for parts I might miss:

    I'm writing in Spanish, I don't speak English. Thanks, Eren, for trying to take on a topic that is often brought up, like many others. As far as I'm concerned, I don't share your point of view. It's not that we serve to reconcile "Islam and the West," it's that we are Western Muslims. We can't fit ourselves into a predefined mold.

    Islam isn't a foreign religion, it's a part of our European tradition, with a long presence. On the other side, in my experience with the media, they censor us because we don't validate the majority discourse, which is that Muslim women are submissive and defenceless victims.

    They prefer giving visibility to those Muslim women who renounce Islam or who are a sad parody of what the media hope expect. The objective is only to increase Islamophobia, there's a clear political agenda in Europe to create a smokescreen that hides the real problems, and to gain votes. It's not a coincidence that the extreme right is growing.

    In my opinion we are not only angry about not fitting into this artificial image, but also because we're critical of our own supposed democracies, because we denounce religious fundamentalism as much as neoliberalism, and that they're both growing.

    I also don't really understand what it means that that the combination between Islam and Westernisation can be illustrated in our involvement in the more conservative facets of the community, like WebIslam, which is already a plural and progressive community in many ways.

    I hope that these precisions help to bring more nuance to your piece. Wa salam ]]

  • http://www.redmusulmanas.com/ Natalia (Ndeye) Andujar

    Aprovecho la ocasion para informar de que un grupo diverso de musulmanas (conversas y no conversas) hemos creado una Red para visibilizar nuestro trabajo y dar a conocer los diversos perfiles de nuestro colectivo.

    http://www.redmusulmanas.com

    [[Krista's translation: I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to inform you that a diverse group of Muslim women (converts and non-converts) has created a Network to make our work more visible and to publicise the diverse profiles of our collective.]]

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Gracias por tus comentarios Natalia, y creo que das en el clavo en que a lo mejor muchas de las mujeres que se convierten no lo hacen para reconciliar al Islam y el occidente, yo misma incluida. Pero por otro lado es la vision que los medios expresan muchas veces cuando hablan de un Islam “moderado” o la lucha de las mujeres por un lugar en el Islam. Yo creo que esto debe de ser problematizado porque no somos un grupo homogeneo y el ser conversas no nos hace mas “liberales” necesariamente. Por el otro lado, el hecho de ser conversas puede o abrirnos puertas o completamente cerrarlas sobre todo cuando viene a las cuestiones academicas del Islam.
    ———-
    Thanks for your comments Natalia. I think you are completely rights when you say that converts do not necessarily aim to mediate between Islam and the West. However, this is the view that is often portrayed in the Western media when they talk about “moderate” Islam, or the struggle of Muslim women to find a place in Islam. I think this must be problematized because we are not a homogenous group either as Muslim women or as Muslim converts. Being converts does not make us “more liberal”. On the other hand, due to the particular and individual perceptions of the role that we play within the community, we can either get many doors open or many closed specially when it comes to issues of Islamic scholarship and religious practice.


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