Gender, Prevent and British Muslims

Katherine Browne

Katherine E. Brown

This article is part of a series on the legacy and future of Prevent.

When Prevent was first established it made the mistake of stereotypically portraying Muslim women as ‘naturally’ liberal and ideally placed to combat aggressive ‘masculine’ Islamic extremism. Under the Coalition this portrayal has disappeared, but now Muslim women are ignored, or only mentioned as passive victims of terrorism or community oppression.  This is despite the fact that they, too, have been impacted by Prevent’s tendency to cast suspicion on any religiously committed Muslim.

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In 2008 I argued that although Muslim women are frequently touted as ‘the missing link’ in British counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation projects, the reality of funding and policy debates is that women are frequently marginalised from discussions and programmes. When women are included in counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism related activities it is in an ad-hoc manner and only in terms of their presumed influence on men rather than as citizen’s who are impacted by, and impacting on, them.[1] Not only this, I argued that their participation in these policies and programmes was dependent on an assumption that British Muslim women were ‘naturally’ liberal and were automatically best placed to dissuade their ‘naturally’ vulnerable sons and husbands of any radicalism. We see a ‘radical-moderate’ binary underpinning Prevent that is set up in gendered terms. Such assumptions, I argued, at best did not match the reality of Muslim women’s activism, and at worst were counter-productive.

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“When women are included in counter-radicalisation activities it is only in terms of their presumed influence on men.”

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Since then, the UK has had a series of revisions in its counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation policies. Such revisions came about due to continued criticism that while funding women’s leadership and empowerment projects may be desirable linking them to counter-terrorism distorted the outcome and produced minimal observable effect.[2] As the written evidence submitted to the 2010 Prevent review from Birmingham Activist Citizens Group (PVE 65) highlights:

Despite Government recognition of the importance of engaging young people and women, there has been a significant failure to create meaningful links and opportunities with women’s and young people’s groups… Though women and young people are used as a banner through which to champion PVE projects, most project leads tend to be male, exclusive and kept within a small inner circle of people. (Evidence 218)

Furthermore as the Muslim Women’s Network UK stated:

Muslim women are one of the most deprived groups in Britain today who should be empowered anyway. There is concern that the skills of Muslim women are being built up to ‘spy’ on their families rather than participate fully in society and overcome barriers they face. For example, Muslim women face multiple discrimination based on their gender, ethnicity, faith and dress; [have the] highest unemployment rates; the poorest health; low educational attainment etc, yet there appears to be no concrete policies to tackle these issues. In addition, other faith and secular women’s groups are hostile towards Muslim women’s groups as a result of the ‘prevent’ funding being targeted towards them.[3]

The outcome of such criticism and others is an increasing unwillingness to support and fund ‘empowerment’ and ‘soft’ counter-radicalization activities, cutting funding from ‘radical’ but non-violent groups, and favouring instead ‘de-radicalization’ efforts (which at present only target men). Most recently the Extremism Task Force has reported on tackling extremism in the UK.[4] Unsurprisingly this nine page report makes no reference to gender or women.[5] This is despite the fact that the British Government has signed up to United Nations Resolution 1325, which is a worldwide agreement to include women in preventing and resolving violence. In addition, on the few occasions when women are discussed it is singularly as victims of terrorism or of community oppression (including linking honour crimes to terrorism).[6] This ignores the fact that in Britain seven women have been convicted under the UK anti-terrorism crime and security (ATCSA) laws since 2001[7] (of 235 individuals since 2001). Thus, while a number of activists will be pleased with this decoupling, it does not mean that women will not be used as ‘political pawns’ or their position exploited to expose ‘radicals’ in their midst, and neither is it guaranteed alternative sources of funding will be found to support these projects.

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“When Muslim women do participate in politics or activism they the spaces available to them discursively and materially constrained by Prevent and the securitization of Muslim communities.”

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Prevent Hearts and Minds
New Labour took a ‘hearts and minds’ approach to counter-radicalisation when it launched Prevent in 2007. This has been eschewed by the Coalition in favour of a narrower focus on ‘de-radicalisation’.

However despite this gender-blindness, Muslim women are impacted on by counter-radicalisation measures, and associated policies, and are active in challenging the State’s construction of their faith and their communities as ‘risky’ and ‘vulnerable’. In my subsequent work looking at securitisation discourses, it was notable the range of Muslim women’s activism and the challenges they offer to the demonisation of their faith and communities.[8] A quick glance at Emel Magazine[9] or the Muslim women’s power list[10] show just some of the ways in which Muslim women are not only ‘more than’ victims of patriarchal communities but neither are they pawns of the state. Tania Saeed at the University of Oxford has interviewed female Muslim university students in the UK and has shown how their university activism and political engagement extends beyond the ‘radical-moderate’ binary.[11] She reveals how their activism is premised on open dialogue and engagement and is pro-active in challenging Islamophobia. Sumeya Patel is another activist taking this approach, she and a number of other niqab wearing Muslim women in Leicester, in the face of Islamophobic attacks, have begun a series of outreach activities to engage in dialogue with other community groups. Her aim is to encourage others to see herself and other Muslim women as more than ‘letter-boxes’ or ‘Ninjas’ who can be verbally abused or assaulted but as engaged active citizens and as equally but differently British in society. She has also initiated the Sakina School for Girls in Leicester in response to the failings in private Islamic and state schools to educate and empower young Muslim women[12] Here we see the development of a critical patriotism, a ‘Muslim assertiveness’ but one that is not based on the secular ‘liberalism’ assumed by government policy.[13] Rather, these Muslim women are taking an avowedly Islamic position from which to challenge community and government. In other words we are seeing an activism based on a strong, deep, perhaps ‘radical’ understanding of faith and its role in the modern world.[14]

However at the same time, both Saeed’s, mine, and other’s research show how constrained Muslim women are by the ongoing radicalization debates that presents them as a ‘risk’ to society, and as ‘at risk’ of exploitation and radicalization.[15] My fears in 2008 were that the ‘securitization’ discourse would limit Muslim women’s ability to participate in university education as families and individuals would fear state surveillance. Saeed’s subsequent work suggests that while Muslim women still go to university they are discouraged from joining Islamic societies, or participating in student politics because their families don’t want them to be associated with ‘trouble’. Furthermore a number of Muslim students note increasing difficulty in accessing university spaces if they wear a niqab. Universities, such as Imperial College, argue that banning face veiling is necessary on the grounds of security – although as an aside, the only Muslim female (ex) student convicted of terrorism offences in the UK (Roshonora Chodhary, a King’s College University student who attempted to assassinate an MP) did not wear one. However Muslim students say that such banning moves have the effect of making them less secure, by treating them a priori as ‘threats’ and assuming they are ‘radical’. Indeed one of the participants in Saeed’s study notes: ‘If you’re a moderate Muslim, the one who chills and hangs out, has beard occasionally, you’re ok, because your moderate, but the moment you start going too much into your religion… then you are in the danger zone. You’re in the zone that you can become one of those fundamentalists’. Another argues, ‘As a Muslim person if someone calls me moderate is it saying to me that you are not practicing your faith properly. Either way you are kind of damned, whether you are an extremist or moderate, you don’t want to be either really’. What this suggests is a limiting of the ways in which Muslim female students can be both ordinary students and ordinary Muslims.

Shaista Gohir has argued that Muslim women’s activism is considered a ‘side show’ by counter-terrorism policy makers. The shift in Prevent, its funding, and refusal to engage with non-violent but ‘radical’ Muslims has not changed this. We see the continued framing of moderate-radical binary through gendered discourses, which ensures that the underestimation of Muslim women’s activism will remain and may actively discourage Muslim women in the UK from engaging in local and national politics in the future. Furthermore, when they do participate in politics or activism they will find the spaces available to them discursively and materially constrained by Prevent and the securitization of Muslim communities.

Katherine E. Brown is Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London. Her research examines the roles and portrayal of women in terrorism, counter-terrorism, and violent politics. She has published articles on this theme in Antipode, European Journal of Cultural Studies and British Journal of Politics and International Relations.


[1] Brown, Katherine E. (2008) “The Promise and Perils of Women’s Participation in UK Mosques: The impact of Securitization Agendas on Identity, Gender and Community” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 10, pp.472-491. See also http://soundings.mcb.org.uk/?p=44

[2] Briggs, R (2010), Community engagement for counterterrorism: lessons from the United Kingdom. International Affairs, 86 pp. 971–981; Brown, K. E. (2010) “Contesting the Securitization of British Muslims: Citizenship and Resistance,” Interventions: International Journal of Post-Colonial Studies 12:2, pp. 171-182;

[3] Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) (2010) “Memorandum: Written Evidence Submitted to the House of Commons, Select Committee Report 2010 on Preventing Violent Extremism PVE20.

[4] Usually de-radicalisation activities are those which target already radical individuals while counter-radicalisation refer to broader preventative activities .

[5] Tackling Extremism in the UK: Report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (December 2013) (London: HM Government), https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263181/ETF_FINAL.pdf

[6] For example, David Aaronovitch (2013) “Lets expose these apologists for injustice” The Times 5th December http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article3940038.ece

[7] Two of which were quashed on appeal following clarification of UK Counter-terrorism legislation. This excludes Northern Ireland.

[8] Brown, Katherine E. (2010) “Contesting the Securitization of British Muslims: Citizenship and Resistance,” Interventions: International Journal of Post-Colonial Studies 12:2, pp. 171-182

[11] Saeed, T. (2013) Unpublished PhD Thesis. Department of Education. Oxford University.

[13] Modood, T. (2006) “British Muslims and the politics of Multiculturalism” in Modood et al Multiculturalism, Muslims and Citizenship: A European Approach (London: Routledge); Ramadan, T. (2010) What I Believe (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[14] McGhee, D. (2005) “Patriots of the Future” A critical examination of community cohesion strategies in contemporary Britain” Sociological ResearchOnline 10:3 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/10/3/mcghee.html

[15] MacDonald, L. Z (2012) “Gender within a Counter-Terrorism Context” in Spalek, B. (Ed) Counter-Terrorism: Community Based Approaches. (Basingstoke: Palgrave-MacMillan) pp.100-119.

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