So much for sisterhood: Conversion, appropriation… and is there a difference? (I)

Back to Esra Ozyurek’s thought-provoking book on (mostly white) German converts to Islam in Turkey, and onwards to a subject which has been bothering me for a long time… appropriation, conversion, and where the dividing line is. Or, is there actually a dividing line?? And if there isn’t, then what on earth am I doing, continuing to identify as Muslim?

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn't intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts...

The first time I saw this book cover, I assumed it was intended to communicate the weirdness of white female converts in the eyes of many born Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Now that I consider it more carefully, I wonder if it isn’t intended as a commentary on the many conflicting pressures and expectations faced by white female converts…

My thoughts on this issue continue to evolve. Back in the day when I first converted, I hadn’t even heard the word “appropriation” and had no idea that it was an issue. Nowadays, I see it as an important issue that poses complicated ethical problems that I have no idea how to navigate “ethically”. So, what I am about to say here is rather disjointed.


To begin with something concrete: the cover of Ozyurek’s book. This book has a picture of a white, apparently middle aged woman. She is wearing what looks like the upper half of a white prayer hijab outfit with black patterns around the edges, a brown galabiya with coral and gold embroidery. Her eyebrows have been plucked, she is wearing kohl and lipstick, and her hands are decorated with red nail polish, several rings with large decorative stones, and henna. In her right hand is a burning cigarette.


She stares directly at the camera, but her expression is not inviting. She looks rather pissed off. Why? Because the photographer is interrupting her smoke break? Because she knows she is obviously breaking several conservative Muslim “rules”, and is anticipating judgy reactions from onlookers? Because she doesn’t like being gawked at by curious outsiders?

Or, maybe this is intended to invert the more usual Orientalizing themes that often appear in pictures of veiled women—she doesn’t look like a stereotypical, submissive victim, she isn’t crying over her dead son or begging by the side of the road… but nor is she the stereotypical “terrorist” veiled woman, waving an AK47 or screaming “death to America.”

I am not sure what non-Muslim eyes see when they look at that picture. Do they wonder why anyone would bother covering their hair, presumably in the name of modesty… and then wear red lipstick and nail polish, which are often regarded as something a woman would wear in order to look attractive? Do they assume that no born Muslim women ever smoke, so the lit cigarette indicates that the woman in the picture is either “inauthentically Muslim” or ignorant of her chosen faith? Or, that she is a rebel? Or, maybe their eyes just stop dead at the juxtaposition of white skin and white head-covering… and their minds try to grasp how “a woman like us” who presumably has all freedoms and choices open to her would choose to “do that to herself”?

(This is beginning to sound way too double consciousness-y. The mark of a conservative convert, I suppose.)

But I know what I reflexively see when I look at it. What registers immediately is now difficult it is to place it in any context. She is wearing the type of hijab that is most usually worn for prayer, especially at home. Either she is about to pray, or has just prayed… or has responded to an unexpected knock on the door of her home, throwing on the prayer hijab lying handy in order to answer it. But if that’s the case, why is she wearing nail polish? Did she make wudu’, apply nail polish, pray, and take a smoke break? Or make wudu’, apply nail polish, take a smoke break before praying… only to be interrupted by the photographer??

Yeah, I know it was posed and not “real”—but what are they trying to simulate here? That a convert doesn’t know or care that you can’t make wudu’ over nail polish, unlike a “real” Muslim woman, who would presumably know this… although many of the female converts the book discusses were influenced by Salafism, so they would have encountered the whole “what renders wudu’ void” discussion ad infinitem? Or that converts are preoccupied with certain symbols of Muslimness, particularly the headscarf, and like to appropriate some colorful ethnic traditions, such as henna decorations and embroidered galabiyas, but miss the central point of what modesty “really is”? As a result, converts may ostentatiously wear hijab in the name of Islamic modesty, while continuing to engage in behavior that are often stigmatized as immodest in some immigrant Muslim communities, such as smoking and wearing cosmetics in public, but are blind to the contradiction? (Though again, converts having dealings with Arab and Salafi-influenced communities will almost certainly have heard an awful lot about what “true modesty” is and how women are “supposed to” dress and behave in public, at home, and everywhere else.)

Or maybe the point of the photo is that it doesn’t make much sense. That there is no readily obvious context. That the model who is playing the role of the convert is doing just that—playing a role, that she doesn’t actually understand.

She’s taken a bit here (hijab, of course, because every true Muslimah must wear one! because that “Why hijab?” pamphlet she was given before she converted says so!) and there (those exotic embroidered clothes are so pretty and feminine!). She tries to practice the basic obligations (such as prayer five times a day), as well as the sunna (henna! the female Companions wore it!), but has also kept some bad European habits because even though everyone knows they are unhealthy they’re too hard to give up (smoking), and try as she might, the body language associated with “modesty” such as lowering one’s gaze doesn’t come easily. Nor do purity laws make much sense (tell me why Allah can’t hear my prayers if I make wudu’ when I’m wearing nail polish again? I thought Islam is supposed to be a rational religion??).

Converts don’t usually learn their religion “naturally,” the way those who are born into it are assumed to do. Converts often learn primarily in an intentional, self-directed manner. They read pamphlets, books, online articles. They watch youtube videos, documentaries. They attend study circles aimed at converts, as well as Muslim conferences and classes. They discuss “how to do X the right way” with other converts. They do these things in order to learn and practice the basics of their new faith. Learning how to pray organically, by watching one’s parents for example, is seldom an option. (Though, reality can be more complicated, what with born Muslims growing up in non-practicing families and learning about their faith when they get older primarily on their own steam… but that’s another issue.)

The sources most accessible to white, European or North American converts who do not know Arabic or any other language such as Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Hausa, Malay, etc are usually written/produced by Muslims of varying degrees of conservatism. These sources often focus on identity issues in the here and now, as well as legal questions— what is/is not acceptable for Muslims to believe or do, hijab, halaal food and drink, how to perform rituals such as salaat and fasting correctly, gender roles in the family, and so forth. These issues tend to be presented in absolute terms (e.g. haraam/halaal; “the scholars agree that X is an obligation…”). Both Muslim community expectations of converts as well as (often) the expectations of non-Muslims also act to promote this focus on outward appearance (clothing, food, rituals) as the proof of “true” conversion, especially for women converts.

As a convert, I almost never came across thoughtful consideration of, say, the complex history behind the present-day Muslim near-obsession with hijab. Even when such discussions were in English, they were not directed to people such as myself, and it was difficult to relate them to my own predicament as a convert, trying to learn as much as I could about my new faith and to practice it “correctly.”

Most of my convert friends were in a similar situation—married to immigrant Muslim men in our late teens or early twenties. This was in the early ’80’s, before the internet, and back when there was little information available about Islam or Muslims in the public library or the media. What we learned was mainly from books and pamphlets, often written by conservative immigrant male Muslims or by conservative  male religious leaders or activists in Pakistan, India, Egypt or Iran, as well as from sisters’ study circles (often short-lived, at least in my community), mosque sermons, the odd Islamic conference that we could manage to attend, and… our husbands and their ethnic communities.

It was a confusing situation, now that I look back on it.

On one hand, there was a lot of rhetoric (especially from those who were Salafi or who had been influenced by them) about separating “culture” from “Islam.” Some converts were very happy to claim that we of all Muslims were best placed to do that, because we supposedly were not at all in danger of ever confusing our “culture” with “Islam.” As white converts, we were allegedly culture-free, and therefore more able to read the Quran and the hadiths from a “culture-free” standpoint. (Which is obviously nonsense. But anyway.)

Yet, on the other hand, especially for us women, there was a lot of emphasis on learning all about culture. The cultures of our husbands, primarily, but also the cultures of other dominant ethnic groups in the community. As wives, it was minimally expected that we learn how to cook “right”—which meant, how to cook the foods that our husbands had grown up with, and to learn a whole lot of other cultural stuff, particularly customs and norms of social behavior. To make things even more complicated, certain aspects of Arab cultures were declared “sunna” and therefore somehow trans-ethnic and untied to any particular historical time and place (this was especially complicated for those converts who married immigrants who weren’t Arab).

(to be continued)


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  1. #1 by ayah on April 21, 2015 - 2:35 pm

    I suppose it’s a matter of perspective and the community a convert finds herself in. Plenty of Lebanese, Turkish, and Eastern European “born Muslim” women smoke, wear plenty of make up and nail polish, and still wear the scarf. People from these communities would see no incongruity in this cover photo. The juxtaposition only works for conservative converts who’ve converted into maybe Gulf or South Asian communities and of course for the wholly uninitiated who imagine Muslim women only as they’ve seen them in films.

    Not sure where I was going with this, but yeah, here in my Lebanese community a majority of women who wear hijab still do all these “unislamic” things and no one finds it odd in the least.

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