Religion, gender and migration: beyond 'obedience vs agency’

It is time that debates surrounding religion and migration in the UK move beyond the almost monolithic focus on Islam, recognising the multiple and fluid ways in which religion shapes, and is in turned shaped by, experiences of migration, says Chloé Lewis

Chloé Lewis
28 November 2011

‘Religion’, ‘gender’, and ‘migration’: three terms which taken together tend to evoke assumptions of fundamentalism, oppression, and an overall threat to ‘British identity’. A mere glance over ‘mainstream’ media reports in the UK and those of our continental counterparts confirm such presuppositions, succinctly symbolised by ‘the veiled Muslim woman’. Religious affiliations, especially in relation to ‘migrant’ communities, have in recent years been accorded increasing importance politically, socially, and culturally within the UK and the west more broadly. In this regard, it is important to recognise the influence of the current political and geopolitical context, which has led to particular attention being paid to Islam within host societies. Against this backdrop, the multiple and fluid ways in which religion shapes and is in turned shaped by experiences of migration are too often overlooked.

It is time that debates surrounding religion and migration move beyond the almost monolithic focus on Islam, recognising the diversity across as well as within faith-based communities as opposed to a singular understanding of a particular religious community. A symposium on ‘Gender, Migration & Religion’ recently convened by Middlesex University provided a cross-comparative analysis of the experiences of diverse faith-based migrant communities – Jewish, Muslim, Jainist, Hindu and Christian – in an array of contexts. This was a rare opportunity to consider these three themes together, providing a powerful reminder of the multi-faceted nature of religious faiths on a community and individual level, while highlighting the complex and contradictory ways in which religion and religiosity intersect and interact with a wide array of identity markers. A key theme that emerged from the conference was that religion is a possible source of agency, and even ‘empowerment’ – a notion which sits somewhat uncomfortably with most secular western feminist discourses – but also represents a possible source of exclusion for both female and male migrants in the UK.

Islam in the UK has been dubbed by politicians and the media as a ‘mark of separation’, with the burqa, arranged marriages, and so-called honour-killings at the forefront of such perceptions. It wouldn’t be outlandish to state that public debates surrounding ‘Muslim women’ view and portray this group as homogenous ‘passive victims’ of a particularly austere and male-centred manifestation of patriarchy, in ways, which simply put, ‘western’ women are not. Unsurprisingly, a recent YouGov poll found that 69% of those surveyed ‘believe that Islam encourages the repression of women’. Moreover, the failure to engage the voices of Muslim women in such debates has, paradoxically, reinforced their perceived repression. However, research by the Social Policy Research Centre at Middlesex University in partnership with the London Borough of Barnet into the ‘concerns, experiences and aspirations’ of women, more specifically mothers, who identify as ‘Muslim’ in different ways and to differing degrees, stressed the need to recognise the diversity of experiences within Muslim communities, which are influenced by a number of factors, including ethnic and/or national background, socio-economic standing, and length of time since arrival in the UK. As one of the research participants said: ‘Look, Somalis and Afghanis, the needs are so similar. We have all come here so recently, we are refugees. The Asians came here before us, they are well-established. They have businesses, while our people are still on benefits… the Muslims are not only one community, there is a lot of diversity.’

Nevertheless, this study was able to discern some commonalities in relation to the role(s) played by Islam for these women. For instance, Islam was found to provide useful resource in developing parenting strategies in a UK context. Religion was seen to provide a source of moral authority in attempts to mitigate against fears that “children may be led astray by negative influences” such as gangs, street crime, drugs, and for girls, teenage pregnancy. These concerns were perceived by some to be a common reality for all mothers “whether or not you are Muslim”. Interestingly, the notion of ‘normalcy’ was echoed by a number of the participants, and was, in a subsequent article, interpreted by one of the authors of the report to represent a mechanism by which Muslim women attempt to resist the collective stigmatisation of Islam. The second key role of Islam in parenting was in the provision of religious knowledge and values of “real Islam” to their children, as distinct from the stereotypes promoted in some ‘traditional’ Islamic as well as ‘British’ discourses. This included the confinement of Muslim women to the ‘home’, which according to a number of the participants reflects a misinterpretation of the Quran and a denial of Islamic history in which “women were always active as teachers, scholars, and business women”.

The emphasis ascribed to female employment by the women in the study may, in part, be attributable to changing financial needs of migrant women and families following their move to Britain. As noted in the study in relation to Iranian women: “women who did not work in Iran, were forced by economic circumstances to take up paid employment after they moved to Britain”. For women who had recently arrived in the country, language – rather than religious or cultural – barriers were seen by many to be a greater obstacle to engaging with the local and wider community. The insights into these women’s perspectives fundamentally challenge stereotypes of ‘Muslim women’, who are often depicted as a monolithic and invariably subordinated group by virtue of their religion.

Similarly, research on Nigerian Pentecostalism in the UK highlights the complexities surrounding expectations of 'female submission' among its followers in London. In 2009 a report by the ippr stated that the rise of Pentecostalism in the UK was ‘perhaps the most significant change in the UK demographic of faith’, citing migration from Africa as a substantial contributing factor. The same year, this particular branch of Pentecostalism had approximately 150 parishes in London alone, demonstrating the reach within Nigerian communities living in Britain. A study presented at the symposium uncovered Nigerian women’s conscious ability to acquire agency within this religious framework. According to the author, Katrin Maier, it is through acts of ‘submission’ in the home, such as taking care of the children and doing the housework, thereby conforming to ‘Biblical requirements’, that these Nigerian women can simultaneously adopt leadership roles within, for instance, the church. This was exemplified by the experiences of a female pastor, who was seen to be both obedient (to her husband) and powerful (in the church) at the same time. This research further confirmed a need to go beyond the conventional binary often promoted in (secular) western feminism of ‘obedience versus agency’.

In contrast, research presented on burgeoning “Neo-Hinduism” practiced by some Hindu Tamil women, demonstrated a much clearer ‘break’ from Sri Lankan Hindu ‘tradition’ within elements of the diaspora. Ann David gave us a rare glimpse/insight into the changing nature of religious practices in a converted house “on the corner of a suburban road behind the main high street in East Ham”. In this “unusual” site of Hindu worship, “female devotees no longer remain simply participants, but are becoming transformed into religious specialists and leaders of ritual”. This strongly contradicts “traditional and current practice in mainstream Hindu temples” in India, Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, where male priests offer the “only access to divine power for the women”. Though David cautions that women’s place in Hindu traditions is complex and “clearly cannot be viewed through a lens of Western feminist standpoints that search for women’s equality and rights”, she nevertheless spoke of the “sense of freedom and empowerment in their women’s involvement in ritual practices” as a “dominating theme” in conversations and interviews during her field research. These changes may represent “gender empowerment, but also the particular changing priorities of Hindus in diasporic contexts”. Religion in this context of migration is seen to play an “emancipatory function” for women.

This fits comfortably within the broader understandings of ‘gender and (forced) migration’, which often stress the inversions or reconstitutions of gender roles and relations resulting from migratory experience(s). David proposes that ‘living on the boundaries in a diasporic milieu brings unsought and unforeseen changes which can provoke a need for continuity as well as the desire for innovation’. This suggests that the experiences of this community of Tamil Hindu women – as with most migrant communities – can in many ways be thought of as Janus-faced, at once looking ‘back’ to and maintaining a transnational link with Sri Lanka while looking ‘forward’ to life in the current location. While the development of this “new religious movement” is not representative of all Tamil Hindu women living in the UK, its presence in East Ham contributes to ongoing processes of Tamil transnational ‘place-making’ in the area. This serves to construct and promote a (perceived) collective Tamil identity within the British host population, which in turn draws many Tamil migrants and asylum seekers towards this London Borough.

Although religion can, and does, play ‘positive’ roles within migrant communities in UK, it is also important to recognise the exclusionary dimensions of faith-based community formation(s), often imperceptible to host communities and with detrimental implications for individuals on the margins. This, according to Nick Gill, is aptly exemplified by the Polish Catholic communities in England and Wales. The Polish Catholic Mission (PCM) has been a key pillar of the Polish diaspora since the post-war period, intent on ‘upholding the Polish language, and Polish Catholic values and traditions’ by providing youth groups, charity events, Saturday schools and cultural events aside from its religious functions. The PCM is, as a result, seen by the host community to be a central meeting point for Poles, and the quickest way to systematically communicate with the community, especially, it is assumed, ‘if they’ve just come over from Poland’. Thus, local public service providers, such as the Police, employment agencies, or administrative city agencies, target churches for information distribution on health and safety, local schools, and job opportunities. What this fails to realise, however, is the changing composition/face of the PCM in recent years to the extent that the church is no longer representative of the Polish community in the UK. There has been a marked decrease in levels of church attendance, particularly among the younger post-2004 migrant Poles who have found alternative meeting places, including cafés, restaurants and even libraries. The evident consequence of what Gill calls the “inertia of host organisations in adapting to changing migrant conditions” is that non-church going Poles “often miss out on the information and opportunities” provided through the church. This takes us back to the need to recognise the diversity within religious communities. It also adds further support to the idea that the role of religion is fluid, particularly within migrant communities who are constantly changing and (re)adapting in relation to both their country/community of origin, as well as their ‘new’ or current location.

Overall, the presentations given at this symposium made me question a number of my own assumptions concerning women and religion. I say ‘women’ here because the ‘gender’ dimension of the symposium focused almost exclusively on female experiences of religiosity. This reflects a common tendency in both academic and non-academic settings of equating ‘gender’ with ‘women’, which serves to reinforce the idea that men and boys are somehow gender-neutral beings. It would also have been interesting to engage with issues surrounding sexuality, which are often closely linked to ‘gender’. However, the symposium did impart – at least for me – a clear awareness that assumptions made as a (‘western’ feminist) observer can be misleading. Indeed, the point that resonated almost unanimously through the works presented was a need to go beyond simplified binaries of ‘obedience versus agency’ and ‘submission versus freedom’. Though I am wary of advocating for an absolute doctrine of cultural relativism, perhaps we should be more open to a sense of religio-cultural relativity and to the diverse ways in migrant individuals and communities relate to and engage with religion in UK contexts and elsewhere.


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