Conversion to Islam or Becoming Muslim?: Da’wa, Domestic Work and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait

By Attiya Ahmad
Submitted to Session P2011 (Kuwait's Irreconcilable Knots, 2009 Annual Meeting
Gulf Studies;
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 in Kuwait and in domestic workers’ places of origin. These debates center on one question: why are these women adopting Islamic precepts and practices? Drawing on 21 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Kuwait, and 2 months of research in Nepal, my paper maps out two explanations given for domestic workers newfound pieties. One explanation, circulating among Kuwait’s foreign resident population, members of Kuwait’s liberal movement, local and international human rights organizations, labour agencies, foreign embassies and domestic workers’ families and communities of origin, focuses on the political-economic factors and asymmetrical power relations leading to domestic workers’ ‘conversion to Islam’. The other explanation, espoused by members of Kuwait’s myriad Islamic reform and da’wa groups, focuses on the ethical processes through which these women ‘become Muslim’. Both explanations are predicated on incommensurable forms of reasoning that often lead people to misapprehend or speak past one another when addressing the issue of domestic workers’ pieties. In tracing these areas of dissonance, my paper discusses the ways in which these explanations index and instantiate two competing political discourses in Kuwait—those of liberal secularist and Islamic reformers. My paper explores these issues by tracing out several of my interlocutors’ experiences, and by tracing out how others, including their employers, family members, and people concerned with Kuwait’s domestic work sector, understand and talk about domestic workers’ newfound practice of Islam. In so doing, my paper underscores the importance of the household as an integral site in and through which forms of social belonging and political practice are being reconfigured and remapped in our increasingly integrated world.