This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.
Between 2008 and 2010 the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) agenda included specific initiatives to empower Muslim women in order to combat terrorism. Although directed at genuine concerns, such initiatives form part of a wider ‘culturalist’ approach that sees Muslim women only in relation to the ethnic or religious communities of which they are a part. Muslim women have been given a voice only as victims or survivors prepared to disclose their personal stories. Such initiatives as a result contribute to dehumanising stereotypes and ultimately have negative effects on the very women they purport to assist.
As a recent report by Birmingham University shows, it is Muslim women who are bearing the brunt of increasing anti-Muslim racism. Equally, recent research by the APPG shows increasing discrimination against Muslim women in employment. The media and its dehumanising representations of Muslim women undoubtedly contribute to forming the stereotypes which feed these problematic developments. It is, however, also important to consider the role of the state in this process, particularly in the way Muslim women are discussed in social policy.
My doctoral research was focused on initiatives to empower Muslim women which were part of New Labour’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) agenda (widely referred to simply as ‘Prevent’). These were announced in January 2008. At the level of central government they included establishing a National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG). The role of NMWAG was to advise the government on issues deemed to be relevant to Muslim women. In practice, its role largely involved overseeing three initiatives: a role models’ road show; a campaign to improve the civic participation of Muslim women; and a project looking at theological interpretation. At the level of local government, local authorities were encouraged to use Prevent funding to support projects specifically focused on empowering Muslim women.
“The objective of giving the silent majority a stronger voice feeds into commonsense understandings of Muslim women as silenced within their communities.”
The impetus for these particular initiatives stemmed from the idea that, as ‘the silent majority’, women need to be given a ‘stronger voice’. Furthermore the initiatives should be situated within a broader policy landscape of debates on multiculturalism, community cohesion and Britishness. The objective of giving the silent majority a stronger voice feeds into commonsense understandings of Muslim women as silenced within their communities. In this article I explore interviewees’ understandings of Muslim women’s silence in relation to those suggested by policy discourse, considering the ways in which the state’s attempt to ‘give voice’ worked in practice. I argue that the operation of such initiatives continued to constrain Muslim women’s voices, restricting ‘voice’ to a narrow range of speakers speaking about a narrow range of issues.
The association between initiatives to empower Muslim women and Prevent is only intelligible through an understanding of a wider policy trajectory in which an imagined, essentialised Muslim community is pathologised. The moral panic following urban unrest in northern towns in 2001, the events of 9/11 and the London bombings of 7/7, has resulted in Muslims being constructed as the internal Other. The Prevent agenda is, therefore, heavily inflected with broader national debates on the alleged failures of multiculturalism and Britishness. Muslim women and men are both portrayed as threats to the British way of life. Yet, whilst Muslim men are explicitly regarded as dangerous for their susceptibility to violent extremism, the Muslim woman as silenced victim, by contrast, has implicitly come to symbolise the dangerous consequences of ‘too much multiculturalism’.
This can be observed in the conflation of different policy concerns associated with Muslim communities. For example, policy texts on Prevent also refer to forced marriage, female genital cutting, gendered violence and homophobia. Moreover, such issues are frequently problematically described as ‘cultural practices’ reflecting the ‘asymmetrical ascription of culture’ when it comes to Other women. Whereas gendered violence against non-minority women is rarely explicitly attributed to their ‘culture’, by contrast, gendered violence is presented as part of Muslim ‘culture’. Consequently, the myriad experiences of Muslim women, including their perceived absence from the political sphere, are reduced to this simplistic notion of ‘cultural difference’. Muslim women’s empowerment therefore acts as a proxy for attempting to integrate what is imagined to be a culturally homogeneous, yet currently inassimilable, community.
The association between empowerment and Muslim women has a common sense appeal. Firstly, the majority of Muslims in the UK are South Asian and there is a long tradition of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’. Secondly, within debates on the compatibility of multiculturalism and feminism Islam is characterised as particularly problematic. Whilst the relationship between religious fundamentalism and patriarchy is undeniable, there is a particularly prevalent discourse about Islam and gender equality. As Haleh Afshar writes, ‘feminism…is hailed as the ultimate weapon of British middle class hegemony and is at its most pernicious where Muslim women are concerned.’
According to the policy literature, the impetus for a National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG) came from Muslim women themselves. As Ruth Kelly, Communities Minister at the time put it, ‘Muslim women…have told us that they often feel excluded, sometimes by their own communities and sometimes by those outside it’. She referred to the, ‘inequalities they face, and the challenges they experience as they seek to take further steps to participate more fully in their communities, and to tackle extremism’. She added ‘that we [in government] must do more to ensure that they find their voice more easily’.
“Muslim women’s empowerment therefore acts as a proxy for attempting to integrate what is imagined to be a culturally homogeneous, yet currently inassimilable, community.”
Many of the Muslim women policy actors I interviewed agreed that, despite the long (and fractious) history of state engagement with the Muslim ‘community’, Muslim women were very often absent from this process. They had long been critical of the government for always engaging with the same self-appointed, self-styled ‘community leaders’, who were invariably men. One told me that she ’thought there was a genuine feeling that traditionally women had been ignored or left out by Muslim men…’ In addition, some respondents, in particular those involved in offering support to BME women experiencing domestic violence, had experienced direct and overt hostility. Such hostility, whilst clearly deplorable is, however, possibly more an unfortunate corollary of the sensitive nature of the work such organisations do rather than necessarily a prohibition on women more generally.
As another respondent told me, however, ‘it’s not only our men that are sexist; it’s the government and local authority’. She suggested that this could clearly be seen in the way local officials replicated and perpetuated stereotypes about Muslim women, arguing that they saw ‘that the power is with the men’ and because of ‘the stereotyped image that women […] don’t have any say in the Muslim community’, Muslim women continued to be ignored. This view was replicated amongst many respondents with comments such as: ‘I don’t think the government were interested in speaking to Muslim women before, they didn’t care, no one asked ever to speak to women’; and ‘when they say we [i.e., active Muslim women] don’t exist, we do exist actually, the government just doesn’t want to see us’.
Furthermore, the extent of women’s absence from the policy landscape prior to these initiatives needs to be examined. In the process of my research it emerged that many of the NMWAG members were already known to various government departments, were invited to apply and then asked to nominate others in a snowball exercise. Not only was this process not open or democratic, it was skewed in favour of those already known to government officials because they were working on policy areas which were already the target of government attention, such as forced marriage. A similar process occurred when a second, more open round of recruitment took place, designed to recruit a wider range of candidates. This suggests that there was already a network of Muslim women who were working in relevant policy areas and thereby questions the presumption of silence or ‘lack of voice’.
Given that recruitment in NMWAG was founded on existing networks, this raised issues about its representativeness. There were criticisms, both within and without, that the group was largely dominated by representatives from longer-established South Asian communities. During the second recruitment exercise, therefore, women from less well-established communities (and therefore less well-known to government, e.g. Arab and Somali) were invited to join NMWAG. This superficial concern of ensuring that different ethnicities were represented arises from a broader ‘culturalist’ framework in which it is women’s ethnicity which differentiates them, rather than their differential social positioning, for example, as third or fourth generation working class Muslim women in the economically deprived North of the UK; or as Muslim refugee women living in hyper-diverse outer London boroughs. This focus on ethnicity detracts from deeper structural and material factors which impinge on Muslim women’s lives.
Furthermore some interviewees thought they had been excluded because the government did not see them as ‘Muslim enough’. In addition, perhaps unsurprisingly, the women who were recruited were those who were amenable to the Prevent agenda. Muslim women’s organisations who were vocal prior to the initiatives may not have been the ones the government was interested in listening to. The An-Nisa Society, for example, was very vocal in its objections to Prevent. This is not to diminish the important work being done by various BME and Muslim women’s organisations who accepted Prevent funding, but as Katherine Brown has argued, ‘the instrumental use of gender by government has had the impact of relegating Muslim women’s political activism to a sideshow’.
“Policy discourses focused on religion alone contribute to dehumanising stereotypes of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ and ultimately have negative effects on the very women they purport to assist.”
It has been suggested that NMWAG was ‘more akin to a “political fad” than it was in achieving any real meaningful political empowerment’. This is partly because, ‘…in a cruel irony that is one mark of women’s oppression, when women speak as women they run a special risk of not being heard because the female voice is by our culture’s definition, that-voice-you-can-ignore’. This can be seen in the way that many respondents described the spaces in which they were ‘given voice’ as being narrowly defined. For example, Yasmin, who had been a senior advisor to the Metropolitan Police on honour related violence, felt that Muslim women were only given a voice ‘as victims or survivors, who were prepared to disclose their personal stories’, suggesting that people were limited to these very narrow subjects and that this diminished the role of women in engaging in not just the Prevent agenda, but the wider integration agenda. She explained that, ‘whereas you can talk about the veil, if you want to discuss any other issues, you know, I mean the credit crunch, anything, then you’re not allowed a voice because … what could you possibly know?’.
In conclusion, my research argued that the Muslim woman emerges from social policy discourses as a ‘neat cultural icon[s] … over messy historical and political dynamics’ seen only in relation to her ‘community’. Policy in practice engages with Muslim women as victims solely of ‘pathological Muslim patriarchy’ rather than victims of deprived socio-economic conditions, citizenship uncertainties, or patriarchy and racism in wider society. Attempts to engage, empower and give voice to Muslim women as part of the Prevent agenda reflect this problematic characterisation. Such policy discourses, therefore, focused as they are on religious affiliation alone, contribute to perpetuating dehumanising stereotypes of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ and will ultimately have negative effects on the very women that such initiatives purport to assist.
This article is based on a longer paper published in Ethnic and Racial Studies.
Naaz Rashid is a Research Associate in the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and has published in Ethnic and Racial Studies as well as The Guardian and Open Democracy. Her research interests lie in the field of race, gender and religion and her background is in policy.
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 Emphasis added.
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The image of Ruth Kelly is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.