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Attiya Ahmad: Gendered Malleabilities and South Asian Domestic Workers' Islamic Conversions in Kuwait: Ethical Formation, Affective Labour and Being Naram in the Inter-Asian Region

Over the past fifteen years tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers in Kuwait have converted to Islam. A widespread phenomenon, these women's experiences are distinctive and contrast with those of other foreign residents in the Arab Gulf states. Drawing on ethnographic research I conducted in Kuwait, I discuss how South Asian migrant domestic workers’ adoption of Islam marks the interrelation between two contemporary processes that are often examined in isolation from one another—the rise of global Islamic movements, and the feminization of transnational labour migration. Recent scholarship in both fields has revealed the micro-dynamics of these macro-processes. Both religious movements and labour migrations place emphasis on, and rework individual subjectivities. Situated at the convergence of these two processes, migrant domestic workers’ newfound pieties simultaneously index the ethical formation of religious subjectivities promoted by Islamic reformists, as well as the increasing focus on workers’ personalities and comportment that characterizes the ascendance of affective labour in our late-stage capitalist world. Domestic workers' position at the confluence of these two transnational processes is not accidental but points to a gendered discourse shaping their experiences of migration, work and religious piety. Over the course of my fieldwork, the understanding that women are naram, a Hindi/Urdu word denoting softness, pliability, and adaptability, suffused the utterances and experiences of my interlocutors. This gendered discourse of women’s malleability undergirds and works in tandem with contemporary religious and labour processes in reshaping South Asian migrant women’s subjectivities and social belonging in the contemporary Indian Ocean and Inter-Asian region.
Dr. Attiya Ahmad is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the George Washington University (Washington DC, USA). Broadly conceived, her research focuses on the interrelation between gender, labour migration, diasporic formations, cosmopolitanism, and Islamic movements crosscutting the Arab Gulf States and South Asia.  Dr. Ahmad is also developing a project focusing on halal tourism networks spanning the Arab Gulf States, the United Kingdom and Turkey.  Her work has appeared in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, and edited volumes focusing on labour migration, diaspora, and religion in South Asia and the Gulf Arab States.  She is currently revising her book manuscript, which focuses on the Islamic conversions of South Asian migrant domestic workers in Kuwait.She obtained her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University.



Wednesday, April 22, 2015. 12:00 PM


Encina Hall West, Room 208


Center for South Asia


Free and open to the public.