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Online Islamic Spaces as Communities of Practice for Female Muslim Converts Who Wear the Niqab

In: Hawwa
Author: Anna Piela1
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This article focuses on online narratives of female converts to Islam who wear or plan to wear the niqab. There is little discussion in research literature about motivations leading to adoption of the niqab or experiences of women who wear it. Instead, the discourse on niqab has been sensationalised by tabloid media which construct it as a symbol of otherness and separation from the host culture and, recently, one of radicalisation. This begs the question: why are some converts drawn to it despite negative reactions to the niqab by some Muslims and non-Muslims. Here, I examine online discussions in which converted women argue why they wish to wear the niqab, often in contradiction to other Muslims’ views. I draw from Rambo’s conversion model () and Lave and Wenger’s concept of communities of practice to illuminate the process whereby participants learn about Islam and the niqab through social interaction.

Abstract

This article focuses on online narratives of female converts to Islam who wear or plan to wear the niqab. There is little discussion in research literature about motivations leading to adoption of the niqab or experiences of women who wear it. Instead, the discourse on niqab has been sensationalised by tabloid media which construct it as a symbol of otherness and separation from the host culture and, recently, one of radicalisation. This begs the question: why are some converts drawn to it despite negative reactions to the niqab by some Muslims and non-Muslims. Here, I examine online discussions in which converted women argue why they wish to wear the niqab, often in contradiction to other Muslims’ views. I draw from Rambo’s conversion model (1993) and Lave and Wenger’s concept of communities of practice to illuminate the process whereby participants learn about Islam and the niqab through social interaction.

Introduction

In recent years, British tabloids have published several stories about British women who converted to Islam. These stories frequently contain two tropes: the niqab or burka (Islamic clothing that includes face covering) and extremism. A Daily Mail article titled ‘How 100,000 Britons have chosen to become Muslim . . . an average convert is a 27-year-old white woman’ (Doyle 2013) is a prime example of this trend. It reports from two studies about the apparently quickly growing numbers of British converts, notably, the characteristics of an ‘average’ convert (young, white, female) are followed by a statement that since 2001 ‘the country has seen the spread of violent Islamist extremism and terror plots’. Next, names of notorious converts involved in said plots are listed. Photos used to illustrate the articles include one of two women in niqabs although it is not clear whether they are converts; the caption repeats that two-thirds of recent converts are white women. Further down, an inset paragraph details a presumably ‘typical’ convert story about a woman who converted due to her exasperation with ‘being a slave to a broken society and its expectations’. She is said to have adopted an ‘Islamic scarf, or a niqab’ but in the photo, she is wearing a hijab (a headscarf), not a niqab (an outfit that includes a face veil).

The juxtaposition of references to these three elements: female converts, radicalisation/extremism, and the niqab appears to be intended as it creates an impression of causality between them. This impression is mirrored in reporting on ‘jihadi wives’ from the uk who move to Syria to marry is fighters; for example, 13 out of 17 women whose photos are used to illustrate Elgot’s article titled “The lives of the British jihadi women who have left to fight with Islamic State” are clad in niqabs. Following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, two photos were released of a partner of one of the attackers although it was unclear what her involvement in the attack was and in one photo, she wore a niqab (bbc 2015). The caption under the photo stated the police were looking for her, yet one could question the rationale behind the publication of her photo with the niqab on; after all, this particular photograph could not help the public to identify or report her. Unreflective and unquantified inclusion of the niqab in reporting of such events may have a dangerous consequence, creating an impression that any woman wearing a niqab is a radical extremist (Chakraborty and Zempi 2012).

Abu-Lughod (2006) argues that one-dimensional representations of women who follow Islamic dress-code make it difficult for non-Muslims to appreciate the complexity of these women’s lives. This applies both to negative and positive experiences related to adoption of Islamic dress-code. There is evidence that niqab-wearing women experience verbal and physical abuse by individuals linking this piece of clothing with terrorism. For example, in the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s report, a woman narrates an incident whereby her niqabi cousin was called ‘Bin Laden’ on public transport (2004: 29). This is a typical form of verbal insult directed against Muslim women (The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia 2004). The number of attacks on niqab and hijab-wearing Muslim women in the uk sharply rises after terrorist incidents such as the 7/7 bombings in London (ihrc 2004) but also following the introduction of ‘burka bans’ in other European countries (Chakraborti and Zempi 2012). This danger was recognised by the Australian and French public in December 2014 and January 2015, respectively, where in the aftermath of the Sydney and Paris attacks, Twitter hashtags #illridewithyou and # VoyageAvecMoi were created to offer support to Muslims travelling on public transport who might be targeted by those looking for retribution. Whilst these hashtags are uplifting signs of solidarity with a vulnerable group, they also signify that members of the public are aware of the reality of Islamophobic prejudice in their societies.

The niqab is no doubt received more negatively and causes more resistance than the hijab in the West; however, wearers of both types of garments are targets of violence and harassment (The Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia 2004). The niqab makes its wearer more visible and so wearing it in public has potentially more dangerous consequences. Na’ima Roberts, a convert to Islam and a prominent niqab-wearing activist explained why the niqab may garner a strongly negative reaction in a society unused to it:

It is as if, once you put on the niqab, you cease to have a human identity. I know that the niqab is a shock to the system for most people in non-Muslim societies—we are used to seeing so much personal information about people around us, being able to tell their race, their age, their physique and their attractiveness. The niqab gives none of this information.

In Zebiri (2008: 109)

Methodology

This study was based on examination of public Internet spaces where female Muslim converts were discussing a range of questions related to wearing the niqab. This article addresses research findings related to the questions: Why do women who are already likely to experience difficulties due to their conversion choose to wear the niqab, rather than the hijab, seen by many Muslims and non-Muslims as a less controversial Islamic signifier? What are the religious, social and practical dimensions of this experience for a convert? How do converts ‘learn’ to wear the niqab as a religious practice?

Method

In the recent years, the Internet has been hailed as a useful repository of knowledge about religions that can be used by converts (Dawson and Cowan 2004). However, it has also been pointed out that the Internet facilitates pluralisation of religious authority which results in the production of ‘unauthorised’ religious knowledge (Anderson, 2004). Bunt (2003 and 2009), one of the pioneers of research on Islam online, outlined the entirety of Islamic websites, blogs and forums and called them “Cyber-Islamic Environments”. Interestingly, Bunt mentioned gender-segregated forums, noting that they were off-limits to him as a male researcher: “for reasons of ethics and gender, the writer did not wish to enter as a researcher or anonymous passive observer into the areas of all-female Muslim cyberspace (for example, mailing lists and chatrooms that could be defined by some as e-hijab (covered) or e-haram (forbidden)” (Bunt 2003: 209). This signalled an important consideration of research on online forums: it may not be appropriate for everyone to conduct research anywhere they wish.

The choice of netnography as a method (Kozinets 2009) was dictated by the research questions which focus on participants’ views, perspectives and experiences. Qualitative methods, including netnography, are considered appropriate when the aims of the research stress the “understanding of the social world through an examination of the interpretation of that world by its participants”. (Bryman 2012: 380) The choice of an online forum as a setting was dictated by the line of inquiry which examined ways in which participants create meaning collaboratively with others within online communities of practice.

All identifying information about the contributors or the specific websites from which data have been taken has been removed to ensure anonymity. Instead, pseudonyms have been used. The research did not involve interaction with participants but collection of already existing data, available on the Internet to anyone. Contributors were not requested to provide informed consent in the understanding that “netnography uses cultural information that is not given specifically, in confidence, to the researcher” (Kozinets 2009: 143) and that “if the researcher does not record the identity of the communicators and if the researcher can legally and easily gain access to these communications or archives”, analysing online archives is not human subjects research (Kozinets 2009: 144). Ethical conduct was defined by guidelines of the British Psychological Society (2007) and the Association of Internet Researchers (2012). Its aim was to acknowledge the contributors’ expectations of privacy and consider the degree to which research observations could potentially harm the quoted individuals. Excerpts of online discussions were included in the article only if it seemed that posters did not have an expectation of privacy at the time of writing their contribution and where the use of this data was assessed not to be harmful to them.

Data

Data used in this article come from a range of sources. The key data set originates from one mixed-gender Islamic online forum, open to all for reading posts, but requiring registration for posting. These discussions were identified through the Google search engine using different combinations of words “convert”, “revert”, “niqab” and “burka.” Such searches also returned discussions to which converted women who wore a niqab contributed and blog posts with comments.

The article looks at three discussions held between January and December 2014 initiated by two individuals, both self-identified as female Muslim converts (one of them uses the word ‘revert’ which indicates a return to Islam). The first woman discusses her dilemmas related to adopting the niqab. The second woman initiated two discussions in which she reported (a) an intention to convert and adopt the niqab, (b) the fact that she had recently converted and (c) some challenges related to wearing the niqab. Other contributors (discussants) include other niqab-wearing converted Muslim women, niqab-wearing born Muslim women, non-niqab wearing born Muslim women and Muslim men. Furthermore, data were drawn from 15 blog posts which self-identified as testimonies of women who converted and adopted the niqab. These writings provided a different interpretational layer for the research questions.

The limitations of this approach are as follows: the sample is highly purposive and is not representative of all female converts (Bryman 2012); for example, those not using the Internet for whatever reason would be excluded from the research. Furthermore, there is close to no information about contributors to online threads, save for what they disclose in their postings. In this sense, the provided details and self-identifications have to be taken at face value (Kozinets 2009).

My analysis is a mix between inductive reasoning of grounded theorising and what Blaikie (2000, p. 25) calls ‘abductive reasoning’: moving back and forth between theory construction/process of explanation and data analysis. This results in theory development, data generation and data analysis occurring simultaneously. This strategy is associated with the interpretive tradition and involves ‘moving between everyday concepts, lay accounts and social science explanations’ (Mason, 2006, p. 180). My aim is to show ‘familiar in the strange’ as well as ‘strange in the familiar’ (Goffman, Turnbull, and Garfinkel in Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007, p. 161), looking at both mundane and surprising aspects of the data from new angles.

Analysis

Zebiri (2008: 243) states that women who wear the niqab are well represented amongst British converts although it is difficult to make any approximations of their number. She interviewed a small number of niqab-wearing women as part of a larger sample of converts. She situated their narratives in the context of Roberts’ autobiography which culminates in a decision to wear the niqab. Prior to that, she went through stages: first, she wore a relatively unnoticeable bandanna, then a headscarf, then a jilbab (a more concealing outer garment), finally, the niqab. Roberts linked these stages to different degrees of religious faith, commitment and awareness. She described this progression as a continuous desire to “step up a gear” in her faith. This dynamic often appears in narratives of not only converts but also “born-again” Muslim women who rediscover their faith. Bouteldja (2011), who interviewed 35 women in France who wore the niqab (eight of them converted to Islam) found that almost all interviewees wore a hijab before they adopted the niqab. Clarke (2013), who conducted a study based on 55 online surveys and 43 interviews with niqab-wearers, stated that “wearing the hijab is usually a prelude to wearing the niqab” (2013: 5).

Religious motivations for adopting the niqab are the strongest theme in all discussed literature but the process is invariably described as lengthy and reflective. It involves considering the religious identity, Bouteldja calls it a “spiritual journey” (2011: 40), but also familial and social relations as family and friends will position themselves in relation to the niqab and be likely to be affected by it to some degree. The religious motivations aim to preserve modesty and appropriate gender/sexual conduct of the wearer. Interestingly, few interviewed women refer to specific Islamic sources which might be interpreted as recommending the wearing of the niqab; they are aware of the debate over the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith in relation to this issue. However, as one woman put it, “it’s better to be on the safe side” (Clarke 2013: 33). Furthermore, some women say wearing the niqab is “sunnah”, that is, it is a recommended act by the Prophet or his wives (who covered their faces in front of strangers). The niqab serves as a tool enabling a degree of gender separation required in Islam. Finally, most respondents say they simply enjoy wearing the niqab whether due to the religious experiences it facilitates or feelings of liberation (from society’s expectations regarding women’s bodies or, more specifically, the male gaze) and empowerment. The theme of the niqab as freedom was particularly strong in Clarke’s study (2013).

The next part of the article considers the collected data situated in the context of Rambo’s stages of conversion (1993) which illuminate how attitudes to the niqab may develop in converts.

Context

Context defines the nature, structure and process of conversion. Rambo argues that it is dynamic as it involves a range of “conflicting, confluent, and dialectical factors that both facilitate and repress the process of conversion” (1995: 20). It encompasses people, events, experiences and institutions which operate in conversion and shapes the subsequent conversion stages. The context is highly likely to influence the later decision to adopt the niqab as the convert’s beliefs about the body, modesty and gender roles may exist at conscious or unconscious levels already. Samira (has been Muslim for 8 years, previously Catholic) talked about how she found the idea of covering (encountered in a book about Islam) to be in agreement with her feminist views: “I thought O my God . . . this is what I’ve been thinking as a feminist, for years to say don’t view my outer, listen to the inner.” Other contributors write in a similar vein concerning their views about preference for modest understated clothing and discomfort with the hyper-sexualised representations of women in the West. Razia (has been Muslim for 11 years, previously Protestant) tells of having actively participated in the glamorous and carefree lifestyle she later rejected, highlighting the fact that she had always had spiritual needs which could not be fulfilled by Christianity or Eastern philosophies. She describes herself at that stage as a “feminist libertarian” who, at that point, joined a campaign for civil rights for all, not just for some people. This echoes Jensen’s (2008: 393) findings related to a discernible category among Danish converts to Islam who convert due to similar reasons: “Conversion is then brought about by a social indignation to injustice and feelings of solidarity with the oppressed people in the world order.”

Quest and Encounter Stages

Rambo (1995) argues that people, as active agents in the creation of meaning, often undertake a quest to fill a spiritual void. Such a quest may be particularly compelling in a crisis situation (which, however, has not emerged from the narratives of the contributors, therefore, I do not discuss the crisis stage from Rambo’s typology). This view of converts as active agents and not passive ‘recipients’ is shared by most authors writing about female conversion to Islam; women appear to be actively rejecting “old ways” which they find unsatisfactory and search for a new path (Zebiri 2008; Roald 2012; van Nieuwkerk 2006). Some contributors’ narratives about these stages are markedly ‘intellectual’ where the individual in question came into contact with Islam through literature on religious doctrine and practice (Köse and Loewenthal 2000). Samira describes the moment when she realised that Islam represents a worldview which is very close to what she already believed: “I read about hijab, and I was more curious, more curious . . . This was exactly what I wanted.” Razia’s first positive encounter with Islam was when she read the Qur’an whose teachings resonated with her activist worldview: “One day I came across a book that is negatively stereotyped in the West–The Holy Qur’an. I was first attracted by the style and approach of the Qur’an, and then intrigued by its outlook on existence, life, creation, and the relationship between Creator and creation.”

Köse also writes about other “types” of conversion, amongst them mystical, experimental, affectional, revivalist and coercive (2000). The experience of the third contributor featured in this article, Zahra, does not seem to fit into any of these. However, it appears to be similar to a type described by Jensen (2008), based on socialisation with other Muslims such as neighbours or co-workers. She starts a discussion thread on the Islamic forum declaring that she plans to covert, along with her husband and two daughters, as she has been introduced to Islam by her neighbours (who fulfil the function of “the advocate” in Rambo’s model (1993)). It appears that her knowledge of Islam is based on the interaction with neighbours and associated community: “after thinking about it for 2 years my husband wanted to convert so I also agreed along with our 2 young daughters. They have told me that once I convert I will be required to cover myself completely. I have some questions.”

Interaction and Commitment

The interaction phase may involve observation and participation in a new faith community. It provides opportunity for gaining experiential as opposed to theoretical knowledge of the new faith. Rambo states that there is often a “halo effect” as challenges and tensions are not visible; the newcomer may lack the knowledge of the faith which may prevent them from thinking critically about the group’s practices (Rambo 1993). Zahra begins posting after she made the decision to convert but before she actually says the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith). At this point, she does not question the idea of wearing the niqab immediately after conversion which reflects Rambo’s reservations (however, as demonstrated later, she follows the forum advice against the opinion of her neighbours). Her message expresses a mix of anticipation and apprehension about the niqab and she directs several questions at other women on the forum who wear the niqab. In particular, she asks: “How will people see me? How does it feel to cover completely? Is it difficult to walk when you are covered? Will it be easy to breathe? Should I wear a hijab or a khimar? How long should my abaya be? Should I wear something between my abaya and regular clothing?”

This post is followed by a very lively discussion; 35 responses are posted on the forum. The majority of the contributors argue that it is not a good idea to start wearing the hijab immediately upon conversion—they suggest that she take it step by step. In fact, some discourage her from wearing a hijab in the first instance and advise her to familiarise herself first with Islamic teachings and start praying. In this, they challenge the idea that Islam “begins with” the full niqab but rather indicate that the niqab signifies the outcome of a lengthy process of reflection, very much like in Na’ima Roberts’ account discussed earlier. Two people who applaud Zahra for her plans regarding the niqab are quickly and sharply repudiated by other contributors. A female contributor (who does not wear the niqab herself) states sarcastically:

what do you know about hijab or niqab except from what you read in fiqh books? Nothing . . . And you come like a little flower “go for it” like it’s buying an ice-cream . . . And yes we know better because we wear it it is personal and it is not explained in a fiqh book. Hijab a bit more than just a rule we follow for the sake of it. What’s next you’re going to teach me, how to wear nail polish?

This response valorises experiential knowledge rather than purely doctrinal knowledge. This is appropriate in relation to the original set of questions as Zahra did not ask whether the niqab was a requirement: she had accepted it and was rather interested in learning about others’ experiences in order to define her own expectations. The contributor above also creates a demarcation between “female” experiential knowledge and “male” theoretical knowledge regarding the hijab. She emphasises it by comparing it to nail polish, used here as a trope for an essentially female accessory which can be experienced and therefore fully known only by women.

Another critique this contributor issues is related to the neighbours who introduced Zahra to Islam. She writes:

she is not even reverted subhannallah and she is being told she has to wear it, where is the honesty in that? These people havent told her “it is ok if you dont, it is ok if you do depends on you and your madhab BUT the hijab is fardh at least”. Does she even know salat or any scholar?

This extract highlights two points: first, the already discussed concept of a particular hierarchy of Islamic faith, knowledge and practices whereby faith comes first (as is expressed by the shahada) and practices are a result of obtaining knowledge and reflecting on it (hence the reference to ‘knowing’ salat (Islamic prayer) rather than practising it. Knowing scholars who are able to interpret Islamic scriptures based on their knowledge of Arabic and theology education and are required to make explicit the connection between the scripture (giving a particular Qur’anic verse or a hadith), the mode of interpretation and the practice in question is helpful. Many such scholars have proliferated on the Internet, providing online-based fatwas (rulings) (Zaman 2008). The second point made in the extract refers to a certain degree of flexibility in Islam where a believer may wish to choose a madhhab (one of four schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam) and follow its teachings which vary to some degree. Different madhhabs issue different judgements regarding the niqab: some hold that it is required and some say that it is only recommended (as far as the hijab is concerned, all madhhabs hold that it is required). The matters are complicated by the fact that a Muslim need not follow a madhhab, Muslims may choose a specific scholar or rely on their own understanding of the Scriptures with many Muslims reported to claim that they are “just Muslims” (Kabir 2013). Hence, the contributor argues it is a dishonest act on the part of the neighbours to present their understanding of Islamic teaching on female covering as the only one in existence.

Seven responses are posted in the thread before the first woman who wears the niqab responds to Zahra’s questions. Overall, 5 women with the requested characteristic responded. The topic running through the earlier discussion related to the question whether it is advisable for a convert to adopt the niqab immediately upon conversion continued here; however, its weight was different as these answers were based on experiential knowledge of women who personally wore the niqab and were able to comment more specifically on the issue rather than discussing perceptions or doctrinal knowledge. One woman praised Zahra for the intention to adopt the niqab and provided a link to a Qur’anic verse which, in her view, plainly ordered women to cover to protect their modesty. In contrast to this, echoing earlier comments in the thread, two other women recommended that Zahra should learn to pray and learn more about Islam first to ensure that she understands why some Muslims cover from an Islamic point of view and only then gradually adopt simple loose clothing such as a hijab, a jilbab and, eventually,the niqab. This is in order to allow not only the woman but also her family to adjust to the new situation. To support this position, a hadith was provided:

There is a Hadith in which Aisha (rd) said if the Prophet [Peace Be Upon Him in Arabic script] told everyone to stop drinking they would have never stopped drinking and if He [Peace Be Upon Him in Arabic script] had told them to stop committing Zina they would have never stopped but the Prophet [Peace Be Upon Him in Arabic script] first orders to believe in no god except Allah [May He be glorified and exalted in Arabic script].

Another woman added that “There can be Islaam without hijab, but not without salah”, potentially allowing for a discursive position that hijab is not required; however, this line of argument was not pursued.

Mediating between these two opposing views was one woman who argues that the best solution to the question depends on the circumstances and the person involved, stating that for some, it may be possible and desirable to adopt the niqab straightaway. However, she also writes that the intention behind the deed is important and pious deeds ought to be done for the sake of Allah, not other people—perhaps indirectly referring to the fact that Zahra quoted her neighbours’ opinion that a “married woman should be covered” without references to Islamic scriptures or her own reflection on them.

Four women addressed the question of other people’s reactions and the consensus was ultimately that pleasing Allah through wearing the niqab is more important than people’s negative reactions to it. Two women noted that people’s reception of the niqab varies depending on the area, with urban and diverse areas being more neutral, while rural and homogeneous areas might be more hostile to the niqab. This observation echoes Secor’s spatial analysis of Istanbul (2002) and her conclusion that “veiling is an embodied, spatial practice, and as such it is embedded within its local context . . . [it is] implicated in women’s experiences of mobility, their physical movement in and through urban spaces”. Secor noted that all spaces that she analysed were characterised by what she called “veiling regimes”, sets of rules regarding veiling or non-veiling that resulted from dominant power relations defining these spaces.

Other advice that was provided included particular useful configurations of different pieces of clothing and opinions on required length or opaqueness of work garments. Women reassured Zahra that breathing in the niqab was not difficult but suggested that she tested different kinds of fabric in different kinds of weather to ensure that she did not overheat. As seen in the next section, Zahra did not heed this particular advice and came across problems, causing her to consult with the group again. The final reply provided some brief advice on a creative use of a long shawl as a niqab but the contributor who wrote this also added that she did not feel comfortable discussing this matter in a thread that could be seen by men. Thus, the niqab is once again positioned as a strictly female issue, removed not only from male authority but also perception and imagination even though to an outsider, the question of the mechanics of wearing the veil does not appear embarrassing or sexualised. It is possible that experiential knowledge about the niqab is to some degree guarded as with it comes authority over practice. This thread was concluded with Zahra thanking other contributors for advice and restating that she was ready to wear the niqab. In a later, separate post she confirmed she had indeed converted along with her family.

As noted in other works on Islamic online forums (for example, Bhimji 2005), postings often contain Arabic phrases which constitute an international Islamic vocabulary. This could be conceived as one type of a shared repertoire of resources, characteristic of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). Lave and Wenger (1991) hold the view that people are engaged in a range of pursuits, individually and in groups. These enterprises mean that we continually adjust our relationships with others and with the world at large. This forms a basis for collective learning and, in time, collective learning leads to practices that start to define communities that engage in them. Communities of practice can be formal and informal. In a religious context, attending a mosque could form participation in a more formalised community of practice; contributing to an online religious forum could be an informal one. In both cases, however, members are united by participating in common activities and by ‘what they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities’ (Wenger 1998). This shared practice around things that matter to this particular group is key to a community of practice. Wenger (1998) proposes that a community of practice is defined by three factors: what it is about (a joint enterprise, defined and constantly renegotiated by its members), how it functions (a set of rules that define how the community operates and binds them together in a particular relationship) and what capability it has produced (a shared repertoire of communal resources such as vocabulary, artefacts, sensibilities, routines, styles). Importantly, communities of practice provide a social context for learning. Certainly, there are certain limitations of online spaces for Islamic learning in the context of conversion such as “unauthorised knowledges” and competing claims to religious authority between different groups, yet they are important sites of knowledge production. Hence, I propose to look at an online forum in which recent converts and soon-to-be converts socialise themselves into the practice of niqab by debating religious, social and practical dimensions of it with others.

Finally, there is a discernible dominant (albeit debated) understanding of what conversion should entail and in what order. In other words, it is about defining particular practice: ways of approaching issues that are shared amongst members to a significant degree.

Outcomes

A conversion is not a single moment in time; it is rather conceptualised by most scholars as an extended process, unfolding over a long stretch of time (Rambo 1993). The hijab and the niqab worn in the wake of conversion are uniformly reported by its wearers as having facilitated their religious experiences. They say they feel “closer to God”, “at peace” and “protected”. These statements, combining narratives of feelings but also of God reflect characteristics of affective and religious outcomes of conversion in a theoretical model created by Gelpi (1986). However, at social and, to a lesser degree, practical levels, the adoption of the niqab may pose some difficulties. Eight months after her conversion, Zahra posted another message on the forum. She had been wearing the niqab for some time (however, she followed the forum advice to adopt the hijab first and only then try the niqab) and it appears she disregarded the advice from forum members who warned her about avoiding overheating. In her posting, Zahra details many layers of her clothing she currently wears: a T-shirt, an ankle-length abaya, a long khimar and a 3 layer niqab along with gloves. Her hair is wrapped in a special bonnet cap and then covered by the khimar. This, based on the assessment of other members, is too much, especially, as Zahra reports problems with overheating, hard breathing and feeling disoriented. Again, other women advise her to purchase shorter garments (with just one ankle-length one) made with breathable fabrics. They recommend online shops where she can procure these.

Zahra also tells of another difficulty: she is disconcerted by people’s stares when she is out wearing the niqab. Other contributors offer her heartfelt support and comfort her by saying that one does get used to this with time. One of the women, also a convert, tells others that paradoxically, her interactions with non-Muslims became easier when she swapped the hijab for the niqab. She used to receive comments that she was a “traitor” as she has a fair complexion and people could see she was Muslim. Franks (2000) argues this is due to the racialised perceptions of Islam—converts “cross the boundary of whiteness”. Another convert living in Egypt stated that wearing a niqab prevented her from being recognised as a non-native Egyptian which aroused interest in men, again similar to another account in Franks’ study (2000). In other words, a niqab may cover up bodily features which mark them out as converts and therefore “untypical” Muslims which leads to unwanted attention, whether intended positively or negatively by others. This may constitute another dimension of the freedom granted by the niqab. Not only does it prevent judgements in relation to physical attractiveness but also to ethnicity and, in connection to that, marginality and a certain degree of vulnerability stemming from occupying the liminal position as a convert.

As Zahra converted together with her husband, it seems that there are no conflicts between them in relation to her dress code. Aisha and Malika, two other converts who are members of the forum, have different experiences. Aisha has been Muslim for 9 years and she wishes to wear the niqab but her husband won’t allow her to do so. Aisha emphasises that she loves her husband but she would like to convince him to let her wear the niqab. Malika has been Muslim for 5 years, wears the niqab secretly and she would like to wear the niqab openly but she fears to start because she still lives with her parents who are non-Muslims and she does not want to provoke their anger. They have accepted her as a Muslim but she feels that her relationship with them would suffer if they saw her in a niqab.

Their accounts reflect a desire to negotiate the religious need with a wish to preserve good relationships with loved ones. Unlike the contributors mentioned earlier who claimed that opinions of others did not matter when it came to faith, these two women clearly struggled with a notion that they should make an unconditional choice to wear the niqab despite their strong religious need for it.

Discussion

Rambo refers to Gelpi’s classification of different outcomes of conversion (1986): affective, intellectual, ethical, religious and social. The adoption of the niqab by converts could be linked to these stages in order to explain such a decision from a theoretical point of view. The affective dimension, discussed earlier, relates to one’s “emotional life, with its passions, feelings, and intentions”. Conversion testimonies on the online forum and personal blogs usually convey very positive feelings about this process. All responses to Zahra’s question: “what does it feel like wearing the niqab?” said “it’s great” or “amazing”. One of the converts on the forum described this as feeling that “everything fell into place”. Those who described wearing the niqab for the first time talked of “immense spiritual peace” that they experienced. It may be possible that upon adopting the hijab and feeling very positive about it, some converts choose to take it further and experience a stronger sense of fulfilment and peace.

Women who adopt the niqab usually concede that it is not required (fardh) but recommended according to their interpretation (or those of the scholars they follow) as evidenced by the large amount of interview data presented by Bouteldja (2011) and Clarke (2013) and they describe it as “extra effort” in their religious practice. The hijab, whilst appreciated as a signifier that differentiates many Muslim women from non-Muslim women, is seen as a more normative type of covering. The ethical dimension of conversion in relation to the niqab often reflects the shift from a lifestyle largely described as hedonistic to a pious one. Razia’s previous career as a personal trainer and glamour model focused on acquiring, retaining and displaying her attractive body in public; this exemplifies the lifestyle that is often critiqued by female converts. In contrast, the act of covering is read as empowerment through gaining a particular freedom—freedom from judgements based on one’s attractiveness. Hence, many converts who valorise this freedom in their narratives, including Razia and Samira, identify themselves as Muslim feminists. Covering one’s face with a niqab is likely to facilitate this shift as, ideally, the only judgement regarding the individual in question would be made on the basis of her behaviour and personality as opposed to her beauty (or a lack of thereof). Certainly, judgements related to stereotypical representations of Islam will still be made by some but they will be based on ascribed characteristics and more telling of the people who make them, not the woman wearing the niqab.

The religious outcome of the adoption of the niqab is prioritised and cherished: simply, women report that it makes them feel closer to God. It was not seen as a religious duty or obligation; it was a freely offered expression of love for God. This resonates with reasoning of niqabis engaged in private conversations by Tarlo (2007). Wearing the niqab is often acknowledged as an act that required inner strength, derived from strong belief. At the theological level, devotion to God over concerns for worldly affairs could be understood in terms of ‘greater jihad’ (Heck 2004), a struggle against one’s own weaknesses. These could include fear, shame or doubt about one’s devotion to God. The religious and affective outcomes related to wearing the niqab resonate with what the phenomenologist Otto (1958: 12) described as experiencing “the numinous”, a religious feeling that is to be found “in strong, sudden ebullitions of personal piety . . . in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies”. The numinous may come sweeping like a “gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship” (Otto 1958: 12).

The social dimension of conversion is closely linked to shifting identities of converts. They leave some old communities and enter new ones; yet, they may feel the need to reassert that they remain English, Scottish, Irish, American and so on—which is not always obvious to some non-Muslims who are reported by the contributors to sometimes talk with them very slowly, assuming the female converts (especially those covered by a niqab, therefore, unidentifiable in terms of ethnicity/nationality) in question do not speak English or ask female converts where they are from, assuming they came from elsewhere, placing them squarely in the “Other” category (Franks 2000). This reflects the degree to which Islam is racialised; upon conversion, one symbolically loses membership in the “indigenous” ethnic white category. Whiles some relationships, especially, between men and women have to be redefined completely upon conversion (and, indeed, the niqab may provide a tangible form of this redefinition), some are fostered regardless as in Malika’s case where she has to navigate the relationship taking into account her parents’ sensibilities as well as her religious needs.

Converts usually report a degree of difficulty related to their family’s conversion upon “coming out”. Zebiri (2008: 71) reported that only 10% of her sample experienced full support of their family during and post-conversion. The niqab is likely to make matters more difficult and some contributors in this study said they had been “disowned” by their families upon the adoption of the niqab. On the other hand, the niqab appears to be resented by some Muslims (Shirazi and Mishra 2010) and with already existing prejudice against converts in some Muslim communities, (Zebiri 2008) a convert wearing a niqab may find herself without social support networks. Online groups have been identified as a potential remedy to this problem and women like Zahra may find advice, support, friendship and even spouses by joining a range of Muslim e-communities from matchmaking websites to Islamic study groups to interest groups (van Nieuwkerk 2006; Zebiri 2008).

During my data collection, I encountered several closed online groups for women who wear the niqab; presumably, these groups provide them with platforms for interaction based on an even closer identity match.

The thread that emerged in response to Zahra’s questions about the day-to-day illustrated a process of ‘learning’ to be a Muslim. Zahra’s socialisation into Islam was enacted not only through her neighbour’s introduction to the faith but by the online community’s debate into Islamic culture. The concept of community of practice suggests that learning is a process situated in social interaction; I illustrated earlier how a small section of this process occurred in Zahra’s case. However, the theory also assumes a progression of the new member from the margins of the community towards its centre as they gain mastery of knowledge and skill (Lave and Wenger 1991). This process is illustrated by one of the responses to Zahra’s final posting: another woman, referring to Zahra’s worries regarding other people’s ‘stares’ advises her to engage with strangers where appropriate in order to be an ambassador for Islam and to spread knowledge about Islam and its teachings. She suggests that the niqab may be a useful artefact in such interactions as many non-Muslims will ask about it. Therefore, she encourages Zahra to take ownership of her religious experience and claim authority over Islamic knowledge. This signals that she anticipates that Zahra will move from the ‘periphery’ of the community of practice towards full participation, as an expert.

Conclusions

This article looked at experiences of women who converted to Islam and adopted the niqab. In particular, it explored reasons why some women might find the niqab preferable to the hijab despite increased social challenges related to wearing the niqab in the West. This question was considered in the context of different types of consequences in which conversion may result. Finally, the concept of communities of practice was used to understand ways in which converts may learn about the ‘mechanics of religion’—the practical dimensions of some key religious practices—through online interaction.

The niqab has a personal, deeply religious meaning for women who adopt it. This suggests that the niqab does not only symbolise their relationship with God; wearing it constitutes religious worship itself regardless of theological debates over whether it is obligatory. This indicates that the act of wearing the niqab is important to women’s identities in terms of constructing an affiliation to Islam as a religion. The emphasis on positive feelings associated with wearing it suggests that the niqab reflects the ‘numinous’, individual and possibly mystical aspect of religiosity which cannot be reduced to scriptural obedience. For some converts, the niqab represents a somewhat ascetic rejection of materiality (symbolised by the perception of the body as a sexual commodity) and a focus on God. Socially, the niqab may pose more difficulties within closer relationships, for example, familial ones. However, the niqab, rather than the hijab may be preferable to converts in the public, helping them to avoid identification as an “untypical Muslim” who “crossed the boundaries of whiteness” (Franks 2000).

A community of practice such as the online forum described in this article provides an alternative point of reference to a convert. It appears that while, initially, Zahra accepted the interpretation of Islam held by her neighbours, the discussions on the forum regarding the rationale and practicability of immediate adoption of the niqab led her to question the former to some degree which was demonstrated by the fact that she initially wore the hijab, not the niqab. In other words, the community of practice appears to encourage critical reflection on the interpretation originally presented to her as binding. Disagreements between forum members may actually be constructive in the sense that they demonstrate to converts that interpretations of Islam may differ; the meaning of teachings is actively socially constructed through interpretation and debate. Furthermore, such online debates allow converts to gradually develop authority based on religious knowledge whereby they gain a sense of ownership over their religious journey and influence on others.

The findings of this article provide a window into a particular religious trajectory and challenge the dominant representation of niqab-wearing converts as simply ‘radicalised’ or ‘brainwashed’ into a fundamentalist religious ideology. This challenge is of particular significance at a time when representations of the niqab are used excessively in reporting on terrorist attacks, as reductionist interpretations of it may lead to retribution against the women who wear it.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Michael Casey W. Woolf for his comments on the draft of this article.

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