AMEWS Association for Middle East Women's Studies

AMEWS/JMEWS offers its warmest congratulations to the 2018 AMEWS Book Prize Winner and Honorable Mention!

The 2018 AMEWS was awarded to Attiya Ahmad, for her Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (Duke University Press, 2017).

This excellent book is the product of several years Attiya Ahmad spent in Kuwait and some time in Nepal. From the beginning Ahmad inserts herself as a transnational Canadian-Pakistani feminist Muslim into this keenly observed, and deeply textured ethnography of South Asian women, some of them have lived in Kuwait for up to 40 years. She explores the question: Why are domestic workers converting to Islam in the Arabian Gulf region? In Everyday ConversionsAhmad presents us with an original analysis of this phenomenon.

The book begins and ends with Islamic centers: first, Al-Huda a Pakistani Urdu-speaking women’s movement; finally, Kuwait’s Islamic Da’wa Women’s Center for international non-Muslims and Muslims wanting to deepen their faith. Ahmad analyzes women’s transnational suspension between Kuwaiti and South Asian homes. Each chapter begins with a vignette that is then elaborated through “storytelling” that consists of recorded conversations and intricate observations that draw the reader into an almost novelistic account of the lives of her 24 subjects.

The definition of “everyday conversions” emerges gradually throughout the book so that we understand conversion not as a strictly religious phenomenon but as a total and very gradual change that ultimately motivates a religious decision as the culmination of everyday conversions. Ahmad contests the usual reasons given for migrants’ conversions and unrolls the patterns of their daily lives to show that conversion is not a sudden response to coercion or a desire for better treatment but a slow acceptance of fitraand Islam’s accommodation of previous religious identities by naramwomen.

One of the book’s key words is naram, a term applied to South Asian women. Naram, far from unskilled labor, “requires the development of skills, language abilities, and sets of cross-cultural and religious knowledge, but also necessitates the cultivation of dispositions and ongoing self-disciplining with respect to interpersonal interactions.” It entails emotional labor to fit into specific households: “being naramis like glue for women’s families… it resonates with the fluid, flexible student-centered pedagogies of Kuwait’s Islamic da’wa movement, thus facilitating domestic workers’ learning of Islamic precepts and practices.” Kuwait’s Da’wa movement develops “a contingent form of cosmopolitanism based on resonance, not synthesis or dialectic” and does not supersede previous identities.

Ahmad considers the household central to the production of ethno-national and transnational belongings and subjectivities. The temporariness of their jobs and their personal suspension between two homes should not to be resolved into diasporic identity that indicates discomfort. “Dual agents of reproduction,” they are considered “essential to the everyday functioning” of both households. From remittances to South Asia to immersion in their Kuwaiti families, from birth to death, produces real affection. Ahmad’s analysis of the kafala system and changing relationships between Kuwaitis and growing numbers of migrant workers highlights the importance of gender with men segregated in dormitories and poor accommodations (where she stayed) and women being part of every aspect of Kuwaitis’ lives.

In examining the connections between migration, labor, gender, and Islam, Ahmad complicates conventional understandings of the dynamics of religious conversion and the feminization of transnational labor migration. She proposes the concept of everyday conversion as a way to think more broadly about emergent forms of subjectivity, affinity, and belonging.

For book cover description, please visit publisher site.


Honorable Mention for the 2018 Prize went to Mehammed Amadeus Mack, for his Sexagon: Muslims, France and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017)

Building on France’s moniker as the hexagon, Mehammed Amadeus Mack’s Sexagoncritically examines the way the figure of the young, virile, hypermasculine Muslim from the banlieues of Paris serves as a counterpoint to liberal French secular society’s understanding of gender and sexuality. Surveying a wide range of representations of young Muslim men and women in the banlieuesof Paris, Mack demonstrates how North African immigrant and diasporic communities in France are shaped through postmulticultural discourses of inclusion and exclusion that depend on sexualized assumptions about these communities.

Mack’s book is a sophisticated study that provides deep analysis of wide range of sources and employs a cultural studies framework in a way that challenges canonical queer theories. In particular, Mack’s troubling of liberal-secularist “coming out” narratives through a critical interrogation of clandestinity opens up new ways of thinking about visibility in relation to queerness and queer communities in the Franco-Arab context. Theorizing sexual clandestinity as a site for unregulated possibilities, whether liberatory or not, Sexagoncan be aligned with cutting edge work in queer of color theory.

Using the analytic of “virility,” rather than masculinity, to explore elements of vigor, assertiveness, combativeness, and ambition in Franco-Arab men and women of the banlieues, Mack shows how Muslim youth work on and against narratives that cast them as both hypersexualized and subject to sexually intolerant cultures.

Taken together, the organizing concepts of clandestinity and virility demonstrate how Franco-Arab youth have found ways of subverting the official scrutiny of the French Republic and to thwart its desires for universalism and transparency. Clandestinity, in its impenetrability, at once baffles liberal-savior narratives of sexual liberation and homonormativity even as it creates more complex queerings of intersectional identities.

For book cover description, please visit publisher site.