Everyday Conversions

Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait

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Attiya Ahmad
Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , March
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $25.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822363446.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the greater Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region, tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers from diverse backgrounds have converted to Islam. Some attribute this phenomenon to the workers’ precarious position in Kuwaiti society: their dependence on the sponsor families for whom they work causes them to convert for higher remuneration, respect, better treatment, or due to pressure from their employers. By contrast, Islamic reform groups claim that the conversions are a result of their movements successfully promoting religious piety and reform. Attiya Ahmad, however, in a textured and careful ethnographic study argues that although related to these factors, this phenomenon is not entirely reducible to them. Instead, a multitude of elements converge in the “everyday” lives of these South Asian migrant women (as lived in both Kuwait and in South Asia), sparking the slow process of conversion, or more accurately, the process of these women becoming (and being) Muslim. 

Everyday Conversions begins with an introduction that discusses the historical and socioeconomic particularities of Kuwait and the working conditions of its migrant workforce (a population that hugely outnumbers its citizens). Ahmad arranges the remainder of her discussion around five central themes that emerged from her conversations and interactions with female domestic workers in Kuwait and South Asia. These themes help tease out the variety of forces that create the rhythms and patterns of everyday life that resulted, for her interlocutors, in a gradual turn to Islam. 

Chapter 1, “Temporariness,” explains that the government of Kuwait gradually narrowed the definition of “Kuwaiti,” largely to limit those who benefitted directly from state-run institutions and grants financed by petrodollars. Today, approximately two-thirds of the population are non-citizen migrant workers who are unable to become citizens and are sponsored by citizens through the kafala system. The precarious situation of the domestic workers complicates their relationship with their employers who sponsor them, live with them intimately, and who are responsible for their health and well-being. Above all, the workers are always temporarily in the country, even when they work for the same family for thirty years, as Ahmad’s interlocutor Geerti did. Many remain in the country for decades and are vital to their households in both Kuwait and South Asia, albeit in different ways.

The complex connections that domestic workers form with the two households is the theme of the second chapter, “Suspension.” In strangely similar ways, the women support families on different continents (what Ahmad calls “doubling”). For example, even in the face of rigidly hierarchical relationships in their work households, they develop caring and affectionate relationships that involve gifts and other forms of support. Meanwhile, their migrant status is a result of the economic needs of their own families in South Asia who sometimes demand even more materially and offer less emotionally. This liminality results not only in actual displacement, but also in the feeling of displacement. As Mary/Maryam poignantly explains, “both places are sometimes my home” (100).

The quality of malleability that helps the women successfully adapt to their work households is known as naram, and is the primary theme that Ahmad discusses in chapter 3. South Asian women are expected to develop naram as they move from their natal to their husband’s home. Similarly, they are able to modify their behavior, attitude, personality, and dress to fit their work situation as well as to adapt yet again when they return to their home. “It is different” is a refrain that Ahmad hears echoing through her conversations with these women, not just about the physical labor they perform but also concerning “interpersonal interactions” (114-15). This malleability, Ahmad argues, facilitates the adoption of Islamic practices as well as the learning of Islam, generally. 

The fourth chapter, “Housetalk,” examines some of the processes that directly influence conversion. For example, Chandani—one of the women that Ahmad spoke to—was the caregiver for an ill, elderly member of the family who was especially devout. Some of the practices that she observed or heard were a comfort to her after her charge died; this moved her to continue some practices and to learn more about Islam. However, another convert, Ritu, was curious about the religious significance of the hijab and abaya that she was required to wear, and this curiosity led her to learn more about Islam and eventually adopt it as her faith. These stories highlight the fluid nature of conversion. Rather than an abrupt moment of epiphany, in these cases conversion is “gradual and processual” (137).

“Fitra,” the fifth chapter, discusses women’s Islamic classes and study groups. Arranged by the Islamic da’wa (outreach) movement’s women’s centers, these classes range from the study of Arabic to Islamic exegesis, but also include practical instruction. Conducted in a multitude of languages, they teach participants how to be a Muslim. However, these centers also offer a socially acceptable place—one that employers will not object to—for workers to meet and speak with people in their own language and discuss problems or issues in their own lives through the lens of Islam. Approached in this way, Islam becomes a natural, logical, and helpful system by which they grapple with their own lives and problems—one which supplements, rather than supplants, preexisting cultural, familial, and religious understandings.

As someone deeply interested in the overlap of religious identity and practice in South Asia, I wish that Ahmad had discussed further how “traditions of religious practice are not juxtaposed but experienced in entangled ways” (193). But this does not diminish the enormous contribution of Everyday Conversions. Ahmad demonstrates that becoming Muslim is a gradual outgrowth of everyday, commonplace experiences, and makes clear that these women are changed—as we all are—by those experiences: the work they do, their status in Kuwait and at home, and their relationships. This book will be of interest to a variety of people—those interested in Islam, migrant experiences, the Indian Ocean world, and gender studies, especially—and readers will find Ahmad’s highlighting of conversion as one result of a variety of processes particularly relevant in today’s world. Above all else, Ahmad’s work has made me think about creating a nuanced class about conversion, using it as one of the primary texts. Certainly Everyday Conversions will lend itself well to others looking for a similarly grounding manuscript.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Keely Sutton is Assistant Professor of Religion at Birmingham-Southern College.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Attiya Ahmad is assistant professor of anthropology at The George Washington University.

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