Gendered Workings of Religious Pieties: South Asian Domestic Workers' Becoming Muslim in Kuwait

By Attiya Ahmad
Submitted to Session P2410 (Ethnographies of Gender, Migration, and Institutional Change in the Gulf Arab States, 2010 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait have developed newfound Islamic pieties. Occurring in a much maligned and understudied region--the Arabian Peninsula--this widespread phenomenon has either been elided, cynically dismissed, or the motivations for these conversions and their socio-historical conditions of possibility assumed. Based on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Kuwait and South Asia, this paper analyzes how domestic workers themselves' discuss their newfound pieties. Domestic workers' articulations, focusing on 'house-talk,' suggest a shift in analytic focus, one emphasizing their everyday relations and activities within households--relations and activities configured through gendered understandings and practices--as generative of their newfound Islamic pieties. Domestic workers' experience becoming Muslim not as a radical break from their previous relationships and religious practices, but as a gradual reworking of them. House-talk and domestic workers' newfound Islamic point to household as gendered spaces of confluence between Islamic ethical practice and the affective and immaterial labour entailed by domestic work, and between global Islam and the feminization of transnational labour migration that marks our contemporary world.