Household Contestations: Religious Conversions, Domestic Workers and Political Discourses in Kuwait

By Attiya Ahmad
Submitted to Session P3275 (AME-Anthropology of the Gulf Arab States I: New Ethnographic Approaches to Power, 2013 Annual Meeting
In recent years, scholars in a variety of fields, most notably anthropology and gender studies, have pointed to the importance of the household as a dense space of everyday power relations—whether these be sovereign, disciplinary, biopolitical or affective in form—through which gendered, racialized and classed differences and hierarchies are produced. This paper examines the importance of households to two sets of political discourses and projects in Kuwait, those of secular-liberals and Islamic reformers. I approach this topic from a somewhat oblique angle: by examining debates about the Islamic conversions of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait. Domestic workers from East Africa, and South and South East Asia are a ubiquitous and integral part of Kuwait. They comprise one-sixth of the total population and are employed in more than 90% of households. Whether it be cooking, cleaning or caring for children and the elderly, their work is crucial to Kuwait’s social reproduction. Over the past decade, it is estimated that tens of thousands of these women have taken shehadeh, the Islamic testament of faith. A widespread social phenomenon, these conversions have generated a great deal of debate centering on one question: why are these women adopting Islamic precepts and practices? Drawing on interviews I conducted with a panoply of social actors in Kuwait, both citizens and non-citizens, including employers, labour agents, embassy officials, human rights workers, long-term foreign residents, feminists and women’s activists, Islamic teachers and leaders, I trace both secular-liberals’ and Islamic reformers’ explanations of these conversions, and examine how they are underpinned by fundamentally incommensurable understandings of religion and the role of religion in public and political life—yet how they have seemingly complementary understandings of the role of households to their politics. For Islamic reformers, the household is fundamental and considered to be the starting point of their political projects. For liberal-secularists, the household is a realm that should be free from, and a limit point of state intervention. In my analysis I show how debates and questions circulating about domestic workers’ newfound pieties complicate these seemingly distinct and complementary discourses, and I discuss the ways in which the household has become a flashpoint for struggles over religion, secularism, biopolitics, and racialized relations between citizens and non-citizens in Kuwait.