It is not difficult to notice that within both Muslim and non-Muslim circles the idea of the Muslim woman as a subservient wife is still prevalent. On the one hand, Muslim women are perceived as weak, oppressed and incapable subjects. On the other, masculinity in Islam is often shaped in relation to Muslim women as wives, mothers and non-public members of society.
For converts the divide may be even stronger. The lack of Muslim background diminishes a woman’s legitimacy within some Muslim communities. Furthermore, we live in a constant dilemma between those who think that we converted because we met a Muslim guy, and those who tell us that because now we are Muslim we must comply with specific gender roles.
While it is true that many women convert because they meet ‘the’ guy… Many others find in Islam a real spiritual connection. For many of these women, gender roles may not be part of the ‘deal.’
Gender roles are a cultural construction. Therefore, what is an “Islamic” gender role in some communities is not Islamic at all in others.
This is true also of our engagement Islamic sources. While some argue that Islam is whatever scholar so and so says, others question gender roles based on silence of the Qur’an regarding gender roles.
This is often accentuated in female converts to Islam. Coming from diverse backgrounds, converts tend to be culturally different and are likely to question other Muslims’ definition of “Islamic.” The conflict is even bigger when it comes to gender roles and the image of the subservient wife.
Non-Muslims often challenge converts’ religious decisions based on common stereotypes. Thus, non-Muslims often think is that converts are likely to marry a Muslim man who will lock them up in their houses, will beat them up every day and will impose other three wives on them.
Conversely, within Muslim circles we also become exotic items of consumption. Especially when it comes to Western girls, Muslim men tend to expect the perfect combination of subservience and naughtiness that they would not expect from a girl from a “respectable” Muslim family.
Converts to Islam are exoticised because they have just the right sexual appeal. Nonetheless, because of their conversion to Islam, they are also expected to be “good girls” publically.
Although there is no way to generalize the convert-Muslim experience, going back and forward between “Islamic” gender roles, and the non-Muslim idea of the oppressed Muslim woman makes female converts to Islam look as subjects with virtually no agency.
Yet, a sign of the agency these women hold can be simply seen through their decision and their commitment to live a Muslim life. Challenging common stereotypes and questioning the ideals of wifery in Muslim communities is part of the journey that many of them follow.
Even though it cannot be denied that there are Muslim women, converts or not, who subscribe to ideals of housewifery and ‘appropiate’ femininity by choice, for many Muslim women, part of being Muslim is appealing to their right to question and contest different interpretations of Islam.
This, by itself, is a challenge to mainstream understandings of women as subservient mothers, wives and members of men’s households. Furthermore, converts to Islam tend to be some of the most active members in the community and some of the strongest advocates of ‘non-traditional’ roles for women in Muslim communities at least in the West.
The idea of Muslim women as subservient wives, is a myth, both in Muslim and non-Muslim settings, that needs to be contested and addressed. Women, in different cultures, religions and circles, may be subservient by choice or by force. However, the mere stereotype that portrays Muslim women as the only subservient women due to their religion denies the agency that Muslim women exercise in both conservative and progressive Muslim circles, and the agency that women in general exercise when they choose to follow or to remain in Islam.