Women who convert to Islam don't necessarily adopt the lifestyle of 'born' Muslims. Yet people around them tend to assume the opposite. This was one of the findings to come out of Vanessa Vroon-Najem's research, for which she will be receiving her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on 9 April.
Between 2006 and 2011, Vroon-Najem studied women in the Amsterdam region who had converted to Islam, looking at how they dealt with possible tensions between ethnic, national and religious belonging.
'Tensions with regard to changes in daily life that occurred in the context of conversion to Islam, for a large part, depended on the visibility of these choices. Women's changes in dress or diet, or refraining from socialising in the context of alcohol or with the opposite sex, were often a surprisingly short route to being perceived as a foreigner', Vroon-Najem says. 'This circumstance fuels perceptions of conversion to Islam as a radical change and a break with the past. My observations of conversion, however, unsettles this type of conceptualisation. I found that conversion was often a slow process, and a distinctly ambiguous ritual in regard to the exact moment.'
Vroon-Najem’s research revealed how converted women not only engaged in a personal transformation process, but also became connected to the ummah, the world community of Muslims, often conceptualised as a symbolic family of brothers and sisters. Sisterhood was a means for women to take part in and shape their (feelings of) belonging to the ummah.
Converts often emphasise the importance of distinguishing between 'culture' and religion. Decisions such as which Muslim practices to adopt, which books to read or which lectures to attend all turned out to be highly personal. At the same time, seeking guidance, the women often turned to volunteers running groups for converts, consulted written sources (like the Qur’an) and searched the Internet for answers.
Caucasian-Dutch converts belong to the ethnic majority population, but their choice for a conspicuous, minority religion tends to push them outside the national fold, notes Vroon-Najem. ‘When ethnic differences among converts are taken into account, the narrowness of the Dutch national fold becomes even more exposed, as women who were already considered “other” before conversion are less often noticed as converts and more often "othered" based on their skin color and ethnic background. What all the women shared was the need to be flexible: in regards to their non-Muslim families, in regards to the specific challenges of the non-Muslim society within which they live, and in finding their way as converts when learning how to incorporate Islamic precepts into their daily lives.’
How do you actually become a Muslim and what does it involve? In the exhibition 'Converted, Becoming Muslim – Being Muslim', the Amsterdam Museum takes you into the world of a convert. Based around Vroon-Najem's research, the exhibition includes a documentary photo series by photographer Saskia Aukema, titled 'Converted'. An accompanying book is being published by Uitgeverij Komma/d’jonge Hond.
V.E. Vroon-Najem: Sisters in Islam: Women's Conversion and the Politics of Belonging. A Dutch Case Study. Supervisor: Prof. A.C.A.E. Moors.
The graduation ceremony will take place on Wednesday, 9 April at 11:00
Location: Aula of the UvA, Single 411, Amsterdam.