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. [Read more...]