This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.
Research with Muslim women challenges the stereotype of them as voiceless and economically marginalised members of conservative communities. In Britain, Muslim women have engaged in a struggle against patriarchy and newer social ills such as Islamophobia. Rather than being seen as a ‘feminist’ struggle, though, this effort is understood as a ‘reclamation of faith’. Public policy needs to take this into account, and recognise the diverse ways of being a woman.
In 2008 when I set out to research and document Muslim women’s voices in Britain I was not quite sure what to expect. On the one hand, the literature said I needed to expect oppressed or at least subjugated Muslim women. In Britain, ‘proof’ for this subjugation was said to be the ‘fact’ that this was the social group that was most likely to be unemployed and that Muslim women often did not have English language skills, which meant that their lives were sheltered at best, disconnected (from wider society) at worst. On the other hand there were concerns about the politicisation of particularly young Muslim women, as exemplified in the rising numbers of those who chose to wear the hijab. It seemed that in a proverbial clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, Muslim women had become the signifiers of difference on whose bodies, patriarchy imposed one set of values and secularity another. Muslim women’s voices and opinions on this matter and others seemed to be largely missing.
However, when I actually went out into communities, I found strong, active and socially-integrated women who were using their difference (as exemplified by their visible religious practices) to build spaces where difference and diversity could be discussed. These were also spaces where Muslim women could challenge patriarchy that was clearly prevalent in some Muslim communities. However in both cases they chose to do it in a way that conformed to their values and their beliefs, which they considered significant within their lives. This emphasis on religious values and ideals may not always fit into traditions of feminist activism which tend to generally eschew religion as patriarchal and misogynist. This focus on the part of Muslim women on their religion is also somewhat of a misfit when it comes to modern models of governance and activism which relegate religion to the private sphere. But then, a voice that talks to a different tune is not new – in Talking Back, the womanist activist and scholar bell hooks writes about being troubled by an ‘insistence on finding one voice, one definitive style of writing’ that fitted with static notions of identity and self. Her voice, and the voice of many Black women, were different from wider society’s perception of freedom, emancipation, liberation and agency. In the case of Muslim women and pluralist contexts, there needs to be similar realisation of the diverse ways of being a woman.
“In a proverbial clash of civilisations, Muslim women had become the signifiers of difference on whose bodies, patriarchy imposed one set of values and secularity another.”
Women lives are nuanced, and another interesting aspect of my findings was that along with their differences Muslim women, and others, chose to also emphasise their similarities:
I just think singling us out also makes us feel very different from women as a category. Like when you say Muslim women it’s like we’re not women but a different species – we don’t feel, we don’t cry, we don’t laugh, we don’t moan, we don’t feel unhappy. […] Why do I have to be completely alien from womankind altogether? I am a woman. I feel everything another woman would feel. The only thing that makes me different from them [other women] is that I chose Islam […]. And this doesn’t change me being a woman […]. I was born a woman. I feel like a woman. I talk like a woman.
This is not a contradiction, but simply a reflection of complexity of real life, where we are different in some aspects but similar in others. It is this context of diversity and similarity that Muslim women’s agency and their roles in governance need to be understood. In the UK, Baroness Sayeda Warsi and Salma Yaqoub may be the publically visible face of Muslim women’s agency. Internationally, Tawakel Karman and Shirin Ebadi have each been awarded a Nobel prize in recognition of their work to further the cause of Muslim women’s rights nationally and internationally. This is great! However there is so much more grass roots level activism that goes unrecognised, and when a dinner table conversation moves to Muslim women, often the Warsis and the Ebadis are dismissed as aberrations and the normative perception of Muslim women returns to being meek and unvoiced. It is such a perception that my research challenges. Yes, there is patriarchy, but then my research leaves no doubt there are also strong women who challenge patriarchy, inequality and also relatively newer social ills such as Islamophobia that are harming Muslim women’s interests.
So during the so-called ‘Arab spring’ Muslim women were seen protesting together with men, and together both men and women were motivating others to join the cause. In many of these countries, women have not had much social visibility and this has therefore been surprising. While the results of this ‘Arab Spring’ and the current situation of uncertainty in many countries where it occurred are disconcerting with regard to women’s rights, it is important to note firstly that given the years of dictatorship it will take time for democratic systems to become properly established, and with this will come opportunities for women to influence future democratic governments. Secondly, no matter the current difficulties, the Arab Spring did in fact catapult Muslim women’s voices into the public sphere, in contexts where often this was very limited, if non-existent.
“In 1917 Lady Mary Worthley Montagu, after meeting Turkish women, felt that they had so much more rights in society that she wanted to use their liberties as a stick to beat English society with.”
Coming back to Britain, we have a tradition and history of women’s rights, activisms, lobbying and influence on government that goes beyond even the Suffragettes. And into this mosaic of diverse women’s lives and ways, we find Muslim women’s stories interwoven too. So for example, in 1917 Lady Mary Worthley Montagu, after meeting Turkish women, felt that they had so much more rights in society that she wanted to use their liberties as a stick to beat English society with. Half a century later, Mary Wollstonecraft had a different opinion and now compares British patriarchy’s treatment of women to ‘the true style of ‘mahometanism’ [sic], [in which] they [Muslim women] are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species‘. It seems unfortunate that the writings of the latter Mary rather than the former have dominated how Muslim women are perceived.
More recently but before the advent of large post-war migrant Muslim populations (in the 1960s), early British converts gave voice to some aspects of Muslim women’s issues. For example in the mid-1926, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, a British convert to Islam and translator of the Quran into English, wrote against the seclusion of women and encouraged women’s education both in Islamic sciences and in ‘secular’ subjects so that ‘women may have their own great athletes, lawyers, physicians, scientists, and theologians’ (Pickthall 1926: 145). In current contexts, Muslim women’s agency is multi-pronged.
Firstly, they challenge cultural norms within their communities that deny Muslim women rights and visible roles. They believe that rights have been accorded to them in foundational Islamic texts but that cultural interpretations of these same texts disallow what is rightfully theirs. They do not call this a feminist struggle, but describe this as a reclamation of their faith. And it is perhaps the dynamics of this reclamation rather than any political interest that has caused a perceived resurgence of the hijab among young Muslim women. In modern Britain, Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities (including Malala Yousefzai’s activism) are often underpinned by Muslim women’s emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy that all women experience around unequal power hierarchies in society (which for example mean we have fewer female CEOs or professors) and the objectification of women’s bodies in some sections of the media. In this regard they stand with their sisters of all backgrounds.
“Muslim women do not call the challenging of cultural norms in their communities a feminist struggle, but describe it as a reclamation of their faith.”
Secondly, the Muslim women I spoke to are proud of their British heritage and value the opportunities that Britain has given them. They see themselves as dialogians who philosophically and socially embody both ‘Britishness’ and ‘Muslimness’. As intermediaries between these two aspects of their identity, they can demystify and dispel stereotypes on either sides. Such activism is often observable in Muslim women’s roles in inter-faith dialogue and in the media. So for example in the recent public rhetoric about the niqab or face-veil that some Muslim women wear, many Muslim women spoke on the radio and on television channels clarifying their stance as British Muslim women. This will surely have influenced public opinion and in turn government – rather than ban this garment, Home Secretary Theresa May says that this remains women’s choice and the government should not tell people what to wear.
For the final strand of Muslim women’s struggles, we go back to the notion of voice and bell hooks’ point about the diversity of voices. On far too many policy panels and government think-tanks, there is a dominance of a western-centric and often secular voice that does not understand the different ways of being a woman. Muslim women in Britain are gradually working through these political structures to ensure that their voice and their way of living is woven into the fabric of women’s activism in Britain. This is perhaps where Muslim women have the farthest to go, but this is a journey they have begun.
Given the heterogeneity in Muslim women’s contexts and experiences, I limit my conclusions to Britain. The religion or belief contours of Britain are now less Christian, more secular and more plural than ever before, and policy makers need to legislate for diverse voices. In doing so they need to be cognisant of the different ways of being that now inhabit Britain. Muslim women in Britain may in the past have been marginalised for different reasons, but young British Muslim women have used this marginalisation as an opportunity to talk about difference, demystify it and to build bridges of commonality across society. They have also challenged patriarchy’s negation of women’s rights. So if a precedence of agency and activism already exists what do we need to do for the future? I believe we, wider society, policy makers, and thinkers need to recognise the value of what is already being done. In doing so not only do we acknowledge the important work that these community activists are undertaking, we also dismantle stereotypes of the meek and silent Muslim woman, that continues to deny the existence of these strong women and the significance of the work that they do.
Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Society, Religion and Belief, University of Derby. She specialises in the Sociology of Religion with particular emphasis on democratic research methodologies that seek to work with and for research participants. During 2011 to 2013 Sariya was part of the team that undertook the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Project, Religion and Belief, Discrimination and Equality in England and Wales: Theory, Policy and Practice (2000-2010) which was led by Prof Paul Weller. She is the author of Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah (Routledge 2012) and co-author of Religion or Belief, Discrimination and Equality: Britain in Global Contexts (Continuum 2013).
 hooks, bell (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist: Thinking Black. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers: 11
 Name changed because participant wanted to remain anonymous.
 See S. Cheruvallil-Contractor (2012), Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah: London: Routledge pp. 74-75
 Montagu, Mary (1716 – 1717). The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Worthley Montagu. Edited by Lord Wharncliffe (1837). London: Richard Bently: 7
 Wollstonecraft, Mary (1792). Vindication of the Rights of Women. Retrieved 7th February 2010 http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=F-eMN2YFdZoC&lpg=PP1&dq=mary%20wollstonecraft%20a%20vindication%20of%20the%20rights%20of%20women&pg=PT17#v=twopage&q=&f=false
 Weller P, Purdam K, Ghanea N and Cheruvallil-Contractor S (2013) Religion or Belief, Discrimination and Equality: Britain in Global Contexts. London: Continuum
The images used in this article of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Montagu are in the public domain.