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Faculty Profile: Attiya Ahmad and “Everyday Conversions”

Attiya Ahmad

Dr. Attiya Ahmad is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs. Her research focuses on the gendered interrelation of Islamic reform movements and political economic processes spanning the Middle East and South Asia, in particular the greater Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean regions. Dr. Ahmad is currently working on a project focusing on the development of global halal tourism networks. She is the author of the award-winning Everyday Conversions: Islam, Domestic Work, and South Asian Migrant Women in Kuwait (Duke Press, 2017), which examines the process of religious conversion taking place among domestic workers in the Persian Gulf. Using extensive fieldwork conducted among South Asian migrant women in Kuwait, Ahmad argues domestic workers’ Muslim belonging emerges from their work in Kuwaiti households as they develop Islamic piety in relation—but not opposition—to their existing religious practices, family ties, and ethnic and national belonging. Everyday Conversions won the Fatima Mernissi Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association and the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award. Ahmad teaches Sociocultural Anthropology; Anthropology of Gender; and Anthropology of Religious Movements. She is also the recipient of the Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship in Religion, Journalism, and International Affairs and the NSF Cultural Anthropology Senior Research Grant.

Q: What prompted you to write Everyday Conversions?

A: Everyday Conversions marks the culmination of my first major ethnographic research project, a long-term study that I conducted on the Islamic conversions of migrant domestic workers in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region. I initially set out to research the transnational development of an Islamic women’s movement, a project that interrogated the interrelation between transnational migration and Islamic reform. While conducting preliminary fieldwork in Kuwait, I learned of migrant domestic workers’ conversion—a relatively widespread phenomenon that many people in the region knew about and often had very pointed opinions about. My fascination grew the more I learned about this phenomenon and the often incommensurably different ways in which it was discussed and understood by others. One of the challenges of the entire project was making sense of this phenomenon—something, as I discuss in the book, that we can only do when we account for the gendered nature of domestic workers’ experiences.

Q: What research project are you working on now?

A: ‘Now’ is the operative word here! I am on leave this academic year currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the development of global halal tourism networks. A loose and somewhat amorphous term, ‘halal tourism’ is used by a variety of actors—including travel agencies, investors, start-up internet companies, hoteliers, tour guides, religious certification boards, and consumers—to refer to an emergent sector of Islamic enterprise, one that is both modeled on and developing on the heels of Islamic banking, finance and charitable institutions. Halal tourism is a rapidly expanding sector of Islamic enterprise. A ‘niche’ sector expected to grow from $140 to $230 billion over the next five years, halal tourism is developing at twice the rate of the international tourism market as a whole, an industry vital to economic development (accounts for 10% of global GDP), state-making and nation-building projects, and that constitutes the most extensive global circulation of goods, services, information and populations of our time. Halal tourism also accounts for the largest cross-border movement of Muslims in history, a process that will dramatically increase as the growth of the world’s Muslim population outpaces the rest of the world. An ethnographic study of transnational halal tourism networks, my project strives to understand and contextualize sociocultural aspects of why entrepreneurs and consumers consider tourism to be an important site through which to produce gendered forms of Islamic piety and Muslim belongings—even in the face of the uncertainty and risk that mark shifting landscapes of conflict in the contemporary Middle East. Combining socio-cultural anthropology, as well as gender, tourism and Islamic studies, this project entails a combined 26 months of fieldwork centered on Turkey, and spanning outwards to United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain and the United Kingdom, that I will complete in 2019. By analyzing the transnational activities of halal tourism purveyors and consumers, and how these intersect with existing spaces of tourism/leisure and historical sites in Andalusia (Spain) and the greater Istanbul area (Turkey), my research highlights how material relations and processes act as counterpoints—working in conjunction and in contrast—to the production of Muslim gender relations, subjectivities, affinities and histories.

Q: What is your favorite class to teach at GW?

A: I do not have one particular class that is my favorite, but in general am most invested in my gender studies and feminist theories related courses. Gender studies and feminist theories not only help us to account for experiences and phenomena that are often disregarded, but they also provide us with conceptual frameworks of analysis that are both incisive and expansive. Thus far, I have not had the opportunity at GWU to teach courses on gender and the Middle East and/or and gender in Muslim societies, but hope to do so in the coming years.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring anthropologists studying the Middle East?

A: The advice I would offer to would-be anthropologists–one I would share with colleagues in other fields–would be for them to carefully consider the possibilities of ethnography: an encompassing process of knowledge production that not only entails flexible and painstaking forms of research, most notably participant observation, but that also pushes us to consider how important are the very forms in which we share and circulate our knowledge, i.e. how we ‘write it up’ our findings. To return back to Everyday Conversions, I would not have been able to begin to account for, much less analyze, the phenomena of domestic workers’ conversion, were it not for ethnographic practice, both in terms of the in-depth research that was needed, but also in terms of the supple narrative style interweaving stories, my interlocutors’ utterances, as well as more conventional forms of academic analysis, that marks the book.