We need to better understand the needs and challenges faced by female Muslim converts
A groundbreaking report produced by the Centre of Islamic Studies (University of Cambridge) in association with The New Muslims Project is launching today at the School of Oriental and African Studies, entitled, 'Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives.'
The narratives of the title reflect the journeys made by a group of 47 female converts to Islam from around the UK, reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of contemporary Britain. These women gathered in Cambridge last year to discuss their personal experiences of religious conversion.
While the report considers the nuances of their individual and personal experiences it also highlights a set of generic issues that affect female converts to Islam regardless of their ethnicities, class, education or social background. The report focuses on a range of issues, some of which have, and some of which have not, been publicly discussed before. Included here are perspectives on dress, marriage, family, the children of converts, sexuality, polygyny, struggles within the faith, the relationship with 'heritage' Muslim communities, political engagement, forms of religious guidance and spirituality.
Non-Muslims are frequently perplexed as to why women, and in particular educated women, choose to embrace Islam. Generally, most people possess less than a rudimentary understanding of the ideals and precepts of Islam and tend to base their assumptions on an unhelpful mixture of ignorance and Islamophobic sentiments.
A more informed understanding requires the enquirer to step outside the parameters of their own frames of reference and see the world from an Islamic perspective. While many values are shared between Muslims and non-Muslims the expression of those values are conveyed in different ways. They may, at times, erroneously appear to conflict. While estimates vary as to the number of converts to Islam in the UK (some estimates are as high as 100,000 converts in Britain) many people will now know a family member, friend or colleague who has embraced Islam and they are struggling to come to terms with what that entails.
Undoubtedly, the most important consideration to emerge from Narratives of Conversion to Islam is the pressing requirement for on-going personal support, particularly during the early stages following conversion. This is frequently characterised by sustained periods of uncertainty and confusion, as well as unsettled relationships with family and friends.
Many converts report feeling isolated and alone, following the initial euphoria that greets their conversions. The existing and often limited provision of services available to them requires urgent development, plus better engagement with members of heritage Muslims communities. Measures can then be designed to help converts become better integrated and assimilated into these existing communities. This is imperative to prevent converts becoming alienated both from their culture of origin and from the Muslim communities that they seek to join.
Islam is a communal faith and Islamic ideals inculcate a regard for one another. These encompass a sense of solidarity, embodied in a loving concern for the well-being of every Muslim. Converts need to see these principles applied through supportive action and acknowledgement from heritage Muslim communities, which alongside established groups of converts can work together to find better solutions.
In this regard the New Muslims Project, based in Leicestershire, has supported those new to Islam over the past 20 years. It offers a variety of services designed to meet the specific needs of this diverse community. Such support has included counselling and advice, educational and social programmes, a Meeting Point newsletter, Qur'anic Arabic tuition, trips to Muslims countries and pilgrimages to Hajj and Umrah. It has also provided the infrastructure to develop a network of regional support groups.
Latterly, the New Muslims Project has become engaged in research, such as the new report launched today. In 2010-11 it initiated a study into the challenges faced by converts to Islam in Leicester, 'Between Isolation and Integration: A report on the Muslim Convert Community in Leicester,' and is currently involved in a number of on-going research projects.
'Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives' is launched by the Centre for Islamic Studies, Cambridge, and the New Muslims Project, at an event chaired by Kristiane Backer tonight.