Female Islamic leadership in Sweden

In Sweden, women establish religious authority as they are appointed leaders in Muslim youth associations. Their commitment is intertwined with identity politics, leading their activism out beyond the mosques and classrooms and into civic centres and television studios

Pia Karlsson Minganti
31 January 2013

The number of women engaging in Islamic study circles is growing steadily around the world, as is the number of female instructors. The various ways in which the religious authority of these circles is legitimized and practiced has motivated an exhaustive collection of studies published in the volume Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. It provides the world-wide dimension of such a development, while including Muslim diaspora communities in Europe. Here the women’s religious commitment often becomes entangled with identity politics and the quest for recognition and participation in the larger society. This is perhaps especially true for the activists in Muslim youth associations, such as the Sunni-dominated national organisation Sweden’s Young Muslims (Sveriges Unga Muslimer, SUM). Fieldwork among its members provides insight into how young women’s religious commitment and leadership increases their engagement, not only with mosques and other venues for the acquisition of Islamic knowledge, but also with various non-Muslim public spheres.

Many of the young women I interviewed had participated in Qur'an schools in local mosques during their childhoods in the 1980s and 1990s. However, their narratives reveal a lack of continuity in their mosque attendance. Not much space was offered to the adolescent women within their congregations. This reflects what happened during the establishment of Islam in Sweden that took place in the latest decades. There were few larger mosques and smaller premises rarely allowed any space for women; instead men were given precedence because of their duty to pray collectively. The exclusion of the young women from the mosques reflected the differing expectations of the appropriate roles for ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

However, as pioneers in the first Muslim youth associations during the 1990s and 2000s, the women interviewed had experienced the mosque culture shifting from a mono-gender space to a forum for both men and women. One explanation for this shift, besides the women’s own struggle for access, is the need of Muslim communities to mobilize women in the Islamic revival and the need of the Swedish state for representative Muslim spokespersons. As highlighted by Miriam Künkler in her article on Iran, the theoretical framework adopted by Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach helps explain such conditions for the career paths female authorities choose, that is, “between female agency, male invitation and state initiative”.

In fact there is a great demand for the young women’s public Islamic activism, from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Within the frames of mosques and youth associations they are invited to be transmitters of Islam to the next generation, as well as activists encouraging the young to identify with Islam. Thus, even while they are students, the young women take part in teaching basic knowledge of Islam to children and peers. The lack of formally trained scholars among European Muslims produces a market for many less skilled teachers to contribute, women among them. Here, authoritative charisma would first and foremost be a question of having an extrovert personality and contributing to the sense of community and role-modeling of the new generation of Muslims. As suggested by one of the women called Leyla:

"Now, as I am a member of the board [of a local Muslim youth association] and a leader of the younger ones, I must behave properly. I am a role-model. ... We leaders joke a lot and try to create this cheerful climate in which the young ones feel safe. Of course, our task is to strengthen their iman [faith] and we should encourage them to pray and wear the hijab and so on. But we avoid putting pressure on them. We just let them see that we pray and practice Islam and, yes, that we are pretty cool people."

Furthermore, the women are invited to act as leaders in the sense of being decision-makers and organizers. In their youth associations they are engaged in boards and committees, even as presidents (i.e. Barlin Nuur who was president of SUM from 2004 to 2008). They organize courses, seminars, conferences, camps and excursions. In relation with broader Swedish society, which places demands on Muslim communities to move towards more egalitarian gender norms, the young women are requested by the Muslim community to act as public representatives, or ‘ambassadors’ for Islam - as the young women themselves would sometimes jokingly phrase it.

This mindset is reflected in the view of one male respondent, who argued that there is a need for a ‘super-sister’ to defend Muslim women’s interests, “because their own voices would be better heard than men speaking on their behalf.” The young women willingly embrace this extrovert task and associate it with agency, as did Hawa in her description of herself as a capable and courageous person fighting for Islam: “Sometimes we say, ‘She’s a real mujahidah!’ That is, someone who fights.” The designation mujahidah is a feminine term for ‘freedom-fighter’. Hawa clenched her fist, but immediately chose to clarify herself: "I mean, not jihad like violence. Everyone seems to believe that jihad is only about war, but it is more like struggle. So, a mujahidah can be someone who does her best. Like Amina, my friend, who studies to become a physician and has children at the same time. Or like me, struggling for people to understand Islam."

Thus, the young women act as guides in mosques, and as invited public speakers and debaters. They have taken action in favor of specific minority rights, such as alternative diets in school and the establishment of mosques and Muslim schools; they are committed to supervising representations of Islam in the media and other public spheres and counteracting misrepresentations; and they engage as writers and editors for newsletters and homepages on the internet

Not withstanding many Muslim men’s invitation to the young women to get involved in public Islamic activism, this issue is constantly renegotiated and challenged. An example of conflicting positions on femininity in relation to such a public activism is the young man who, contrary to the one who called for a resourceful ‘super-sister’, critically reminded Hawa about men’s role as ‘foreign ministers’ and women’s role as ‘domestic ministers’. He pointed to the ever-present perception of women needing protection from public situations and people’s gazes. “It is an effort that you do not need to be exposed to,” he declared to Hawa who was about to participate in a television talk show about the use of hijab. In this case Hawa thanked him for his caring words, but remained true to her calling to perform dawa. Thus, she also remained true to that view on Muslim femininity that sees it as compatible with the particular form of exercising authority in public that is represented by the performance of dawa.

When making their voices heard in the open the young women are clearly driven by an impulse to counter their popular image as passive victims to Islamic patriarchy; rather, they want to present themselves as autonomous agents. This self-description reflects one core aspect of their reinterpretation of Islam, that is, the emphasis on personal piety and free choice as basic and compatible moral categories. The influence of this positioning as pious subjects is two fold.

First, it may strengthen the women’s position in their negotiations with family members on crucial issues, such as their public activism or future marriages. With solid references to the Qur'an, to its reinterpretation by renown religious authorities, and to her own piety, Noor managed to get what she wanted in several areas despite initial opposition from her family, for instance participating in gender-mixed activities organized by SUM, and becoming engaged to a ‘brother in Islam’ of different ethnic background than herself.

Second, the emphasis on personal piety and free choice as basic and compatible moral categories may pave the way for the women to become understood as ‘normal’ people in coherence with the dominant ‘Western’ ideal on individual agency. This ideal has become increasingly used in non-Muslims majorities’ identity constructions, in contrast to Muslims who are instead conceptualized as determined by their culture and religion. The women destabilize such a divisive and exclusionary view by stressing their active agency. 

However, the women’s message about having a free choice – to choose a husband, be involved in Islam, don the hijab, or refuse to shake hands with men – has not been absorbed by many Swedes who find claims of female empowerment shrouded in Islamic dictates unconvincing. In the autumn of 2008, Swedish Television launched a talk show called Halal TV with three hostesses all wearing hijab. It was broadcast in prime-time with the explicit aim of giving voice to women committed to Islam. It was cancelled after one season, after strong criticism not only from those normally negative to the mere presence of Muslims in Sweden, but also from people who initially looked forward to the programme. Besides depictions of the women as fundamentalists and victims of false consciousness, part of the critique made reference to the hostesses having given an impression of double-speaking and as having an unclear agenda. Why did they refuse to shake hands with a non-Muslim male guest while claiming to be emancipated women? Did one of them, a student of law, reject the death penalty and reject stoning as an execution method or not?

The example of the TV-hostesses shows the multiple platforms through which Muslim women are exerting their authority. They have gained authority as a result of their own initiative and by invitation from various Muslim and non-Muslim actors. A general motive for their increased authority is their function as transmitters and mediators of Islamic identity. Simultaneously, their bodies become sites of contestation over what constitutes such identity and a good Muslim role model. There are voices telling women to withdraw from the public scene, not only Muslim voices echoing patriarchal ideals, but also non-Muslim dismissing them as “victims” or “fundamentalists” rather than good Muslim role models. The example of the TV-hostesses also sheds light on the failure of non-Muslim audiences to grasp the complexity of the representations of Islam made by women active specifically within organized Muslim youth networks in Sweden and, not least, these representations’ intertwined relation with discussions about ‘the national self’ and ‘the other’.

It is empowering for the women to take part in the re-reading of original Islamic texts. However, these reinterpretations are not supposed to be carried out according to individual initiative, but developed in relation to authorized representatives and the general consensus on what should be recognized as authentic Islam. The women adhere to the teachings of established religious authorities in part because of the priority they put on the rights and needs of the wider Muslim community. This priority is related to their sense that the Swedish Muslim diaspora and its practice of Islam are vulnerable and open to attack. Researchers such as Nadia Fadil (2009) have illustrated how Muslims are deprived of authority and pressed to submit to what is perceived as the majority’s national values in order to be recognized as full citizens. The Halal-TV hostesses, like other members of the Muslim minority, were asked to adapt to the practice of hand-shaking with the opposite gender, while the majority does not need to realize the coexistence of diverse ways of greeting.

My analysis emphasises that such domination of the majority may result in the young women acquiescing to the restoration of (male) Muslim authority because of the likelihood that debates resulting from their efforts to change the Muslim community from within will leave the Muslim community as a whole open to attack. For example, in June 2000, just a week after its inauguration, Stockholm’s new grand mosque was reported for gender discrimination by a woman member of the Swedish parliament to the government agency Jämställdhetsombudsmannen (The Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, EOO). Faced with this report, the young women did not leap at the chance to compare their position with men or to measure their status by the amount of square metres offered on the balcony. Rather, they stood together with the traditional religious authorities to protect the prevailing order.

In order to better understand the young women’s priorities when negotiating gender dynamics within the Muslim community with various agents in the larger society, the concepts of frontstage and backstage actions are helpful. According to Erving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life frontstage actions aim at presenting a coherent self before a broader audience, while keeping all incoherence backstage. In critical frontstage situations, as in the case of the Stockholm Grand Mosque being reported for gender discrimination, the young women did not seize the opportunity to debate alternative gender orders, but instead stood with the traditional religious authorities

In an open letter addressed to the politician in question, representatives of several Muslim women organisations emphasised a tradition, which they dated back to the days of the prophet Muhammed, of separating the two genders in prayer. They underlined their perception of this gender division as a voluntarily chosen order, organised to facilitate the focusing on God in prayers. They wrote," this gender division could be organised architecturally to give women a separate space free of 'disturbances', yet with the possibility to see and hear everything going on in the mosque.”

The young women I spoke to agreed with the open letter, arguing that the prevailing gender order was voluntary, practical and, above all, in line with God’s will. However, in less formal and conflict-ridden situations – that is backstage, among their peers – these women engage in reflexive deliberations and test alternative norms and practices. In Suad’s youth association they decided to take away the curtain dividing them from the male teachers and peers, a decision which she appreciated as an improvement: “I mean, you actually don’t learn well if you are only listening. One also wants to see the speaker and to be able to put direct questions to the teacher.”

This study’s wider importance lies in its demonstration of the value of including the perspectives of young Muslim women in a collective conversation, instead of instigating debates and actions on the premise of ‘their false consciousness’ and ‘our gender equality’ only. The reporting of their mosque for gender discrimination is an issue that is not only related to gender relations within the minority community, but also to the centrality of gender relations in the constitution of Swedish identity and national boundary making at large. Along these lines, portraying women’s unequal access to mosque space as a problem can be read as a way of defining the gendered character of the nation, through the establishment of acceptable and unacceptable ways of presenting female bodies in the public sphere.

Such ‘problematization’ of the minority obscures the way many of the young women close ranks to protect their community when criticized from the outside, while they are simultaneously putting gender on the agenda as the organizers and lecturers of youth classes. They promote readings and discussions on women’s roles and rights, and are negotiating for greater visibility and presence within the formal affairs of the Muslim community, including the arena of religious authority. Ill-informed pressure from Swedish officials and other non-Muslim actors is likely to shut down these ongoing ‘backstage’ processes of change. In the long run, the closing of ranks that occurs in response to outside pressure on the Muslim community has the potential to restrict female Islamic authority and public activism.

This is the third in a series of articles stemming from the volume Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority published by Brill,2012


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