The experiences of British muslim women defy lazy stereotypes about Islam

Berenice Scandone interviews young British muslim women, who say that their faith provides them with a sense of confidence, belonging, and cultural understanding.

Berenice Scandone
27 July 2016
 Flickr/number10gov. Some rights reserved

Young muslim women talk to former prime minister David Cameron. Photo: Flickr/number10gov. Some rights reservedIn the aftermath of the massacre in Nice on Bastille Day, and amid a series of terrorist attacks linked to Islamist extremist groups, social media has exploded with xenophobic posts - referring to the 'threat' apparently posed by Muslims. Not supporters of Islamic State, not terrorists, but Muslims - as if these were the same thing. Increasingly, those who believe in Islam are seen with suspicion, assumed to be guilty of something - of secretly covering or helping out terrorists, of being terrorists themselves, or simply of following a religion which is deemed inherently violent and at odds with 'our' liberal values. Increasingly, they are targeted only for the 'fault' of professing this faith, and the Western states granting them the apparent freedom to make those professions are not called into question.

The pervasiveness of this flawed logic exacerbates 'us' versus 'them' dichotomies, and gives credit to dreaded scenarios of inevitable 'clashes of cultures'. It is also what ultimately motivated me to share some of my findings from my doctoral research, conducted  with young South Asian Muslim women in London. More and more friends' Facebooks are awash with statuses that can be more or less summarised as: 'Enough is enough, look where we've got to, the only solution is to ban the practice of Islam from our country'. This compelled me to provide an alternative view of what it means to be Muslim; a view which is grounded in the narratives and lived experiences of the women I was lucky enough to encounter.

Of Bangladeshi origin, but born and bred in London, these 20-something women came from a variety of family backgrounds. Their fathers were employed in jobs as diverse as cab drivers, tailors, school tutors, construction workers, cooks, doctors and business owners. Their mothers, whilst mostly housewives, also held different positions, as social workers, as managers or company directors. All of the interviewees were in higher education. In the course of my research, they told me about how integral Islam was to their identity.

being Muslim afforded them interpretative tools and discourses that allowed them to establish a confident sense of self 

More than any notion of ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘British’ culture and values, its principles and teachings spoke closely to these young women’s social worlds, providing them with the means to interpret their situations and with guidance as to how to act upon them. Like other religions and beliefs, Islam offered comfort and enabled resilience in the face of adversity. Significantly, being Muslim also afforded them interpretative tools and discourses that allowed them to establish a confident sense of self, and to overcome perceived tensions among different aspects of identity.

Shay is a 20 year old woman from an upwardly mobile family who had moved from the inner city to the suburbs. She recounted the difficulties she experienced when being transferred from primary to secondary school. Here she was among the very few South Asian Muslim students, and found her Bangladeshi, working-class identity provided her little means of fitting in. Of Islam, she told me:

"[Being] Muslim has been the only thing that’s been constant throughout my life. […] Without it, I don’t know what I would be."

For these young women, who are both British and Bangladeshi, Islam was a source of belonging that crucially transcended social differences and divisions. Expression of this were, as mentioned by Labiba, the idea of the umma - the global community of believers -, and the advancement of values of unity and solidarity which extended beyond the Muslim community:

''One of the foundations of being a Muslim [is] being close to your Muslim brothers and sisters. […] And not just Muslim. That’s one of the things that you see when you go to things like university, it’s like you’re unified as all these different people, different cultures, different religions."

Reflecting a common view, another girl, Rani, spoke passionately of the core values Islam promoted, and of how they were applicable to all cultures:

'"Because I think the values that a Muslim should have, they apply to any culture, anyone, you know. [...] Like treating everyone as equal and having respect for other people, for yourself, all of that, it comes from Islam.'"

Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions of Islam as characterised by restrictive, patriarchal gender norms, many of these girls also gave examples of how, by referring to its precepts, they were in fact often able to overcome restrictions regarding living arrangements, education, employment, and marriage. According to their accounts, Islam facilitated the advancement of agency, by providing a space for them to negotiate among competing expectations expressed by their families, communities and the broader society. Choices of clothing, especially the choice to wear a headscarf - seen by many non-Muslims as emblematic of women's submission and lack of freedom - were conversely presented as conscious and voluntary expressions of modesty and self-respect.

Choices of clothing, in particular the choice to wear a headscarf [...] were conversely presented as conscious and voluntary expressions of modesty and self-respect.

The devaluation and pathologisation of Islam often underpins 'either / or' discourses of national belonging. According to these notions, 'belonging' presupposes assimilation, and thus distancing oneself from one's Muslim identity. This, in turn, is likely to generate conflict between different aspects of identity, and as attested by Kanta, to make identification with nationality more problematic:

'When I think about being British I can’t not think about being Muslim at the same time, and there’s that sort of constant conflict of having to justify myself and say I am British. […] Like when David Cameron was talking about the values and you’d think supposedly British values of free speech, I thought that’s very much a Muslim value as well, so why can’t it be together?' 

Within the current climate, the stories reported provide an important counter-narrative, which can serve as an antidote to circulating portraits of Islam as inextricably linked with violence, misogyny and obscurantism. By drawing attention to the variety of meanings and values that being Muslim can encompass, they break the homogenising and stigmatising image that all too often is being applied to those who practice faith. It shows how their understandings are attached to many different experiences, contexts and situations. For the women who took part in my research, as for many other Muslims, Islam does not only provide the lens through which one can make sense of his or her life, but is itself differently interpreted in the light of lived experiences. In this process, its principles are drawn upon, re-elaborated and re-interpreted, revealing the dynamic and experientially informed character of Muslim identities. 

These reflections reveal the untruth of the ever more popular depictions of Islam as an essentially coercive and brutal monolith. They reveal that the related stereotypes commonly imposed on those who follow this faith bear no resemblance to the multifaceted experiences of Muslims, serving only to alienate people and divide society. Asking for constant apologies for the actions of people they do not recognise themselves in, and forcing choices between supposedly incompatible identities and allegiances, does nothing but play into the hands of terrorism, by deepening precisely those societal fractures on which organisations like IS thrive. Instead, we might want to start recognising Islam for what it is: a religion which can offer guidance and values. We might want to start acknowledging the positive role it can have in the lives of people - to start fostering, instead of silencing and downplaying, its capacity to promote equality and solidarity.

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