Janet Jackson and Islam: How the Conversion Debate is Helping Muslim Women

There was a time, long before Beyoncé was the Queen of Modern Pop, that Janet Jackson ruled the charts.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when her Rhythm Nation album was unleashed, Jackson was the embodiment of a strong, powerful and independent woman at the top of her game. The accompanying Rhythm Nation tour saw her impress the world with stunning dance moves, style and dexterity. Critics at the time praised the positive cultural influence she was having, becoming a role model for girls everywhere – especially young black (or non-white) women.

She’s had a few ups and downs since then, but the world still sees Janet Jackson as a brand of strength, freedom of expression and glamour.

This week, she’s made headlines all around the world for giving birth at the age of 50 (congratulations, Janet!) But what should be reported as a joyous occasion – with, perhaps, some interest in her advanced years in becoming a mum – is being overshadowed by reports that she has converted to Islam.

In October last year, while pregnant, Jackson was photographed in London shopping with her Qatari husband, Wissam Al Manna. The tabloids screamed ‘Janet Jackson Spotted in London in Full Islamic Dress!’ What transpired is that she was wearing an Adidas black poncho, although she might have been sporting an Islamic veil underneath.  

But why is Jackson’s religion causing such a fuss? At the time of writing, she’s made no comment to the press about any conversion to Islam. Neither has her husband. We just don’t know. Perhaps her silence is feeding the rumour mill. But it’s interesting that the speculation is grabbing so many headlines.

Is much of the Western world shocked that a woman who we perceive to be strong minded, independent and successful in her own right converting to Islam? What does that say about the general perceptions of the religion? Do we really still have this notion that Muslim women cannot possess the qualities that we perceive Janet Jackson to have?

Some newspaper reports suggest that she would have been, in effect, ‘forced’ to convert by her Muslim husband. That she could not – or would not – have freely made a choice to convert, to ‘cover up’, to hide her ‘freedom of expression’.

We can’t speak for Janet Jackson, as we don’t know if she has converted or not. And to be honest, does it really matter? But what we do know is that the speculation is triggering a real debate in newspapers and online. People are questioning what it means to convert. Why a woman would make that choice. And what does it mean for a woman who was brought up in a different religious background – or none at all – to suddenly become a Muslim?

A recent article in The Telegraph posed these questions and spoke to various women who have converted to Islam. One is a Poland-born woman called Zara Gluch, 30. She says: “Since I have started covering myself, I feel people respect me more, they look at me differently. People used to [catcall] me before and say things. Now they don’t. I feel like Islam is the true religion for me.”

Another woman, Khadijah Elliott, converted to Islam more than 10 years ago when she married a Muslim man. She says: “Most people think I have brainwashed her or scared her into becoming Muslim … My friends said if you get married to a Muslim man, he’ll make you his slave.” All of this, she says, just isn’t true.

However, she does say that: “When you’re about to convert, everyone can be really excited and you’re about to be embraced by this massive family. But obviously the excitement dries down and a lot of converts end up feeling really isolated. As a convert you’re in between two communities. The Western one you have been part of your whole life, and then the Muslim community you’re trying to integrate in as well.”

This, to us, hits the nail on the head. This is why the newspapers are so interested in Janet Jackson’s conversion. They want to know how it’s possible for a previously non-Muslim woman to convert. How ‘one of us’ could become ‘one of them’. What it’s like to lodge yourself between the ‘two worlds’.

The reality, of course, is that there aren’t ‘two worlds’. We’re here, living on the same planet and in the same countries and most of us are integrated into the same communities. There is no ‘them and us’.

What’s great about the Janet Jackson story is that these questions are being given column inches. Some British people are learning about Islam and what it means to be a Muslim woman for the first time. It’s well known that familiarity breeds acceptance and Janet Jackson’s celebrity is earning visibility for Muslim women regardless of whether she’s now a Muslim or not.

The irony is that if Jackson has not converted to Islam, she’s fast becoming the ‘postergirl’ for the modern Muslim woman. Questions are being asked. Issues are being debated. The positive truth is getting through.

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