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Session Overview
S73: Negotiations of Religious and Secular Gender Scripts in Women’s Conversions in Contemporary Western Europe
Tuesday, 19/Jun/2018:
9:00am - 10:30am

Session Chair: Anne-Marie Korte
Location: Unitobler, F013
Lerchenweg 36


Session Abstract

Speaker 1: Title of Contribution
Lieke Schrijvers: 1) Gender Scripts and the Construction of Sexual Ethics among Evangelical and Muslim Converts in the Netherlands

Speaker 2: Title of Contribution
Mariecke van den Berg: 2) Scripting Religious and Gender Transformations: Comparing Transgender and Conversion Narratives

Speaker 3: Title of Contribution
Nella van den Brandt: 3) Producing Differences: Narratives about Women’s Conversion across West-European

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Sexual Scripts among Women Converting to Judaism, Islam and Pentecostalism in the Netherlands

Lieke Lotte Schrijvers

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

This paper builds on extensive anthropological fieldwork in the Netherlands among women who converted, or are converting, in Pentecostal Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. This research specifically adresses questions of gender in conversion narratives. Such a comparative approach enables a further understanding of the constructions and enactments of gender scripts in secular and religious contexts. Sexuality is often a topic discussed in regard to conversion, where especially traditional religious groups are suspected of a sex negativity and strict norms regarding sexual behavior. This paper does not obscure the role of gender difference, but rather approaches scripts about women’s sexuality as one of the ways broader gender norms play out in ethnographic realities. Sexuality has become a politically charged theme, and sex among religious people is especially loaded with stereotypes and assumptions about freedom and emancipation. This paper, first, continues the discussion of ‘sexularism’ (Scott 2009), by investigating and problematizing the role of sexual norms in the construction of a secular/religion binary in the Netherlands. In a second step, the paper acknowledges the lived reality of such scripts for converts. For the interlocutors in this research, conversion was indeed related to their understanding of sexuality, sexual praxis and ideals of sexual subjectivity. In many instances, a distinction between their secular social upbringing and contemporary religious life is replicated, in which sex becomes a charged area of negotiation. In order to further understand these ethical formations, I take on an approach from the anthropology of sexuality and queer studies, where a theory of sexuality has developed which aims to deconstruct the notion of identity as fixed, and instead points to the historical socio-political factors that constitute sexual subjectivities. Such a perspective opens up the conceptualisation of sexuality as shaped by historical contexts, individual desires and experiences, as well as social discourses. Sex is thus something someone does, a practice, act or performance, but can also constitute an important part of subject formation and self-identification. Rather than assuming a difference in such ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ moral codes, I focus on the meaning of sexual ethics in the daily lives and self-conceptions of female converts. Three themes are the starting point of the discussion: marriage and virginity; homosexuality; and menstruation rituals. It thus asks how religious sexual scripts play a role in the formation of the interlocutor’s personal sexual ethics. These are not merely norms or rules ascribed by religious authorities, but religious women enact, negotiate and contest such scripts as religious agents. Looking at sexual scripts in particular allows for an analysis of the potential discrepancies between, on the one hand questioning normative understandings and deconstructions of religion/secular binaries, while at the same time recognizing the realities of such binaries in messiness of everyday life.

Scripting Religious and Gender Transformations: Comparing Transgender and Conversion Narratives

Mariecke van den Berg

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

This paper explores the formation of religious and gender scripts in two types of transformation narratives, namely those of religious conversion and transgender transition. These two types of transformation are closely related. Religious conversions almost always include a certain degree of gender transformation such as adopting rituals that affirm gender identity in new ways. Likewise, transgender transitions often have a spiritual component such as the search for Scriptural ‘transcestors’ (Reay 2009) or the meaning of two-spiritedness in Native American cultures. I will argue that reading narratives of religious and gendered transition in relation to each other will shed light on the formation, fixedness and fluidity of the scripts of religion and gender that underlie processes of identity-formation in present day Western culture. In this paper the focus will be on transition narratives in the context of Judaism. The analysis is based on four autobiographies and novels that highlight gendered and/or religious transformation: Through the Door of Life: A Jewish journey between genders (Ladin, 2012), Uncovered (Lax, 2015), A queer and pleasant danger (Bornstein, 2012) and Between Gods (Pick, 2015). In discussing these literary works I will focus on the question of that it means to have a ‘fragile self’: a self that cannot be based on premises of birth and biology, but that rather must be consciously constructed, narrated, and authenticated.

Producing Differences: Narratives about Women’s Conversion across West-European Contexts

Nella van den Brandt

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

My postdoctoral research explores media and cultural productions in order to investigate the ways in which the religion/emancipation paradox is being envisioned, constructed, but also subverted through issues of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. A case study of women’s conversion as it is represented in series, documentaries and autobiographical literature is one way of doing this.

Quite some examples of documentaries and memoires can be found across Western European contexts that show an interest in conversion to Islam. Some of them focus particularly on women. The existence of this production raises the question: why all this current interest in conversion to Islam, why at times the particular focus on women, and why now?

When looking at media and culture as sites of the construction of cultural meaning, I noticed some clear cases of the setting up of a religion/emancipation paradox through an oppositional framing of religious and secular gender scripts. In this paper, I analyse the British 2013 BBC series 'Make Me a Muslim' and the Dutch 2015 series 'From Hagelslag to Halal' and will show that in these examples, the religion/emancipaton paradox is both upheld and at times subverted.

Investigating the genre of converts' memoirs provides the opportunity to look at self-narratives that are potentially more elaborate, complex and in-depth. Drawing upon Wohlrab-Sahr's notion of 'double frame' in the study of conversion to Islam in the West (1999), I analyse the 2009 memoir of former MTV presenter Kristiane Backer, 'From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired My Life' to demonstrate the narration of multiple negotiations of gender scripts.

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