Has UK public policy succeeded in ‘empowering’ Muslim women?

wMuslim women continue to be the focus of public debate and policy in Britain, with discussions of everything from segregation on university campuses to foreign policy turning on their impact on Muslim women’s rights and social status. Typically in these debates Muslim women are depicted as the victims of coercion by family members, community elders or religious radicals. But is this perception warranted? And what can recent research carried out with British Muslim women tell us about policy debates on issues such as the banning of the niqab or the prevention of violent extremism currently taking place in the UK?

This series brings together a collection of researchers to look at Muslim women’s experiences and evaluate the success of recent government policies aimed at empowering Muslim women.  It begins with three articles looking at how Muslim women have been included in public policies in Britain over the last five years.

In Initiatives to empower Muslim women as part of the UK’s ‘war on terror’Naaz Rashid (University of Manchester) examines attempts that were made, as part of the ‘war on terror’, to give Muslim women in Britain a ‘stronger voice’. Offering a critical review of policy programmes set up as part of the ‘Prevent’ agenda, she highlights policymakers’ tendency to view Muslim women only through the lens of their ‘cultural communities’, which, she argues, takes the focus away from the deep structural and material factors affecting their lives.

Exploring similar terrain, in Muslim women’s experiences of involvement in UK governanceStephen H. Jones et al. (University of Bristol) look at why efforts by government to engage Muslim women often fail, highlighting in particular the difficulties that Muslim women have faced being taken seriously even in government forums that were set up to support them.

In The gender imbalance in British Muslim organisationsKhadijah Elshayyal (Royal Holloway, University of London) then turns the focus to Muslim representative organisations, arguing that while the emergence of male-led Muslim leaderships was understandable given that the first Muslim migrant were mostly men, the current structure of Muslim community associations is alienating a rising generation of British Muslim women who are forced to find their own spaces.

The remaining three articles examine three issues that are different, but each very significant.

In Niqabis in the British mass mediaAnna Piela (Leeds Trinity University) surveys recent controversies over the niqab, asking why, in political contexts that claim to value personal choice above all else, media debates over Muslim women’s dress have refused to accept Muslim women’s claims to freely choose full-face veils.

In British Muslims’ relationship crisisFauzia Ahmad (University College London) looks at the ‘relationship crisis’ among educated British Muslim women who currently struggle to find partners, and highlights how this is causing some to turn to unorthodox options including, in a few cases, polygamy.

Finally, in Recognising Muslim women’s voicesSariya Cheruvallil Contractor (University of Derby) draws together common themes in the other articles to offer a short, historically informed article questioning the stereotype of British Muslim women as voiceless and uninterested in public engagement, and calling for greater recognition both of the diversity of feminist struggle and of the different ‘ways of being authentically British’.

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