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Documenting Conversion to Islam: Laughter in the Face of Trouble

Date:13 February 2020
Women in hijab taking selfies and enjoying the view
Women in hijab taking selfies and enjoying the view

How do women converts to Islam use humour to challenge negative stereotypes about their religion? CRCG-affiliated Research MA student, Lucy Spoliar, investigates.

Interviewer: "What’s been the hardest thing for you to give up since becoming a Muslim?"

Alana: "Parma ham. I love parma ham… I’m known for walking out of Tesco with just a packet of parma ham, just eating it, just as it is. I think that’s been the hardest thing. That’s what my cousin says to me… How could you give up parma ham?" 

Alana’s response to this question, early in the documentary Make Me a Muslim (2014)[1], prompts the interviewer to burst out laughing. Both relax and become visibly more comfortable. Interactions of this kind beg the question: how, when and why do converts use humour to narrate their conversion stories? I suggest that showing a sense of humour is a powerful way for converts to “speak back” against representations that they disagree with without seeming disagreeable.

This pressure to appear agreeable is not specific to converts to Islam. Using humour to challenge inaccurate stereotypes is a strategy that women and people of colour also use when negotiating patriarchal and racial dynamics. At the same time, however, as humour theorist Giselinde Kuipers reminds us, women are often categorised as “humourless” in mainstream media and political discourse.[2] One need only scroll through the comments that sit beneath any YouTube clip featuring a female stand-up comedian to recognise this pattern. If women in general are deemed “humourless,” this applies in particular to Muslim women, whose lives are (supposedly) shaped by patriarchy. This entanglement of gendered and religious assumptions has the potential to act as a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy” in marginalising women in general and women who convert to Islam in particular, excluding them from the playful, humorous moments of everyday experience. 

In recent decades, academic research and mainstream media alike have framed female converts to Islam in terms that are far from humorous, asking; Why are Western women, raised in liberal contexts, converting to Islam?[3] Headlines like ‘Swapping raving for praying,’[4] ‘Ces Françaises qui ont été séduites par l’islam’ (“These French women who have been seduced by Islam”)[5] and ‘Women and Islam: The rise and rise of the convert’[6] abound. In an article currently under review entitled ‘Documenting Conversion: Framings of Female Converts to Islam in British and Swiss Documentaries,’ Dr Nella van den Brandt and I identify three prevailing strands in discourse on women’s conversion to Islam:

  • Women’s conversion to Islam is sometimes framed in terms of vulnerability to “radicalization.”[7] In French media, converts to Islam are explained as victims of a kind of identity crisis, and French society is characterised in terms of a “lutte” (struggle) against radicalization. While this discourse of “securitization” does not apply exclusively to female converts, the difference seems to be that male converts who become “radical” are often figured as violent outsiders, while female converts were “led astray” by the wrong guy.
  • Conversion may be perceived as paradoxical; female converts belonging to Western democracies that supposedly “safeguard” gender equality should not, the argument goes, be converting to Islam, understood as a patriarchal, oppressive religion.
  • Women who convert are often represented in the media as family troublemakers, who create problems within their social environments by deviating from the moral codes of their parents, friends, partners etc. This seems to resonate with certain gendered assumptions about the role of women as central figures (and, perhaps, peacekeepers) in the domestic sphere.

Of course, these “strands” don’t emerge as separate and distinct patterns but as interweaving and interconnected threads. Yet these discursive strands do not seem to accommodate the nuances and particularities of female converts’ lived experiences. In the documentaries Make Me a Muslim (2014) and Les Converties d’Allah (2017),[8] humour emerges as one way in which converts contest the representations that they disagree with.

Early in the documentary Make Me a Muslim, we are shown footage of Alana (the Parma ham-loving convert) putting on the hijab (an archetypal image used to underline the process of conversion in visual media). In a voice-over, the narrator tells us that, before converting, Alana was anxious to find out how her conversion would be received by her family and friends. The interviewer asks Alana gently how her family has “coped” with her conversion. In so doing, the documentary positions conversion as “problematic” for Alana’s relationships with family and friends; something that needs to be “coped” with.

However, through the framework of humour, Alana lets the audience know that this is not how she or her family experienced her conversion. She explains, smiling, that it was like “telling them I was gay or something.” She remembers with amusement that she was nervous to tell them in case they looked at her differently or could not accept her. Her fears were assuaged when her parents responded in turn with surprise that she would imagine her conversion to be a “big deal.” She goes on to add, laughing heartily, that her dad “thought she already was a Muslim.” Here, Alana laughingly corrects the interviewer’s assumption that her family struggled to accept her conversion.

At another stage in the documentary, convert Lisa is asked how converting to Islam has affected her social and domestic life. To the consternation of the interviewer, she replies, with a smile, that her mum likes to call her a “nun on the run” and one of her neighbours describes her as a “ninja.” The interviewer seems perturbed by these seemingly hurtful remarks but, for Lisa, it’s just banter and she gives as good as she gets. Against the narrative of the “oppressed” convert, Lisa’s boisterousness tells a different story. Lisa treats the interviewer in an equally teasing, bantering manner, and it seems almost as if the more serious the questions asked, the more playful the answers given. Lisa invites the interviewer - and, with her, the documentary’s audience - to be “in on the joke.”  

In Les Converties d’Allah (2017), a Swiss documentary on the same theme of women converting to Islam, we are introduced to Miriam. The narrator tells us that Miriam is a “furiously independent woman,” so it is hardly surprising that when the interviewer asks Miriam if a Muslim man has “helped her” learn about Islam, she seems surprised by the question, bursts out laughing, and teasingly tells her interviewer to “stop with the clichés.” This playful correction shows Miriam’s authority and challenges the narrative of the submissive woman who embraces Islam for her husband. Miriam explains that she and her partner have separated, but she maintains her commitment to Islam as a matter of personal conviction. In Make Me a Muslim, convert Sofia responds to a similar question by laughing indignantly and declaring colloquially that, in her experience, this narrative of female oppression is “complete codswallop.”

Converts in these examples seem to challenge the idea that conversion to Islam is paradoxical for Western women (strands 2) and that female converts are family troublemakers (strand 3). Perhaps as you’d expect, discussion of radicalization in these documentaries is a less humorous topic, being linked to Islamophobic violence or mother-daughter relationships broken down by radicalization. However, many stand-up comedians have taken their comedy as a platform through which to contest the “vulnerability to radicalization” strand (1).

In 2001, shortly after 9/11, British female stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza opened her set with the one-liner, “My name is Shazia Mirza, or at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.” Since then, she has explored the limits of comedy around Islam and securitization in various ways, most recently in a controversial show entitled The Kardashians Made Me Do It (2016), inspired by three London school girls who left the UK to join ISIS. In one clip of her set, she says, “I told my friend Matthew that I was thinking of becoming a Jihadi bride.” The audience stays uncomfortably quiet, but she follows the line up with the reassuring “it’s a joke, obviously.” By way of explanation, she adds, “They wouldn’t have me. They’re not looking for an in-house comedian. I’m thirty years too old and when it’s hot I get my ankles out for the lads” - this has the audience laughing.

But where, I wonder, does the limit lie? How does the convert’s everyday expression of humour differ from the performance of humour by the stand-up comedian? As I delve further into these topics, these questions remain open and intriguing.

Humour in the voices of Muslim converts - and Muslim women more generally - is not unambiguous or monolithic. It is also not uncritical of the Islamic tradition, although I have focused here on the ways in which I see humorous actions as challenges to three dominant discursive strands concerning women converting to Islam. Humour does not always necessarily and unilaterally mark a challenge to traditional identity formulations. Yet, when a woman who has converted to Islam jokes about the way society represents her, she takes a step beyond the ‘main- and malestream’[9] and creates a space in which her individual experiences can be seen.

This topic is further explored and analysed in an article by Lucy Spoliar and Dr Nella van den Brandt, which is currently under review at a gender studies journal.

 

[1] Harte, A., Collins, S. and Hughes, E. 2014. Make Me a Muslim. BBC Production.

[2] Kuipers, G. 2011. ‘The politics of humour in the public sphere: Cartoons, power and modernity in the first transnational humour scandal’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 14 (1): 63-80.

[3] McGinty, A. 2006. Becoming Muslim: Western Women’s Conversions to Islam. Palgrave Macmillan US.

[4] See https://graziadaily.co.uk/life/real-life/girls-swapping-raving-praying-s-like-young-female-muslim-convert/ (last accessed 28/01/20).

[5] See https://www.europe1.fr/societe/Ces-Francaises-qui-ont-ete-seduites-par-l-islam-771764 (last accessed 27/01/20).

[6] See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women-islam-the-rise-and-rise-of-the-convert-6258015.html (last accessed 27/01/20).

[7] Saeed T. 2016. Islamophobia and Securitization: Religion, Ethnicity and the Female Voice. Palgrave Macmillan.

[8] Pekmez, S. and Rebetez, W. 2017. Les Converties d’Allah. Temps Présent.

[9] Ahmed, S. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.581.

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