Europe’s Muslim women’s potential, problems and aspirations

This report presents the key findings of a qualitative study about Europe’s Muslim women, conducted by Dr Sara Silvestri (London’s City University and Cambridge University, United Kingdom), on behalf of the King Baudouin Foundation (Belgium).

It aims to obtain a general sense of the extent to which the religion of Islam plays a role in defining the experiences of Europe’s Muslim women and to charter the main issues of concern, and trends of thinking and of mobilization among them. The study has the ambition to bring forth the voice, daily life, problems, and aspirations of these women.

The research is innovative because the subject of Europe’s Muslim women, in its complexity and entirety, has been under-researched and under-considered, as a narrow focus on the veil issue has prevailed in some academic publications and in media and policy circles.

The empirical research was conducted in Belgium, Great Britain and
Italy, primarily in three cities with large concentrations of Muslim populations: Brussels, London, and Turin. It involved questionnaires and structured and unstructured interviews with 49 Muslim women.

Findings

This research unveils a picture about Europe’s Muslim women that is highly variegated. The respondents’ relationship to their faith and their ordinary interaction with and feelings towards European society had some common features but at the same time differed in relation to personal experiences of migration or relations to the local environment, social class, age, access to – and level of – education, marital status, the presence and influence of the extended family. The principal findings are:

* HETEROGENEOUS TYPOLOGIES – It would be highly inaccurate to describe the current picture of Muslim women in Europe as a field divided into a feminist/modern and a conservative/backward camp. In fact, the situation is much more fluid, complex, and multi-layered, with many opinions and behaviours – often of an opposite nature – coexisting together. For instance, despite recent vocal attacks of controversial Muslim intellectuals and female activists denouncing female repression in their religion and culture of origin, all the respondents of this research affirmed to love and follow their religion freely. Islamic principles and practices were seen not as blind impositions but as a rational source of personal morality that the individual is free to follow. They were adamant in explaining that they were not submitted by their faith. On the other hand, they rejected the culturalist approach of those communities and religious leaders that often exploit Islam to impose ethnic rather than faith-based beliefs and un-necessarily strict norms of conduct.

* BELONGING TO EUROPE – Muslim women living in Europe proudly feel to belong to Europe fully. In particular they appreciate the European promotion of values such as rule of law, democracy, freedom, and respect of diversity. Most of the respondents were actually European citizens. For all these reasons they said to be especially frustrated when they feel discriminated for being unable to practice their faith as they would like, or when they are misrepresented as passively submitted to Islam. Simultaneously, they also complained about another source of prejudice: the judgmental mentality of closely-knit minority communities. Nevertheless they demonstrated resilience and ability to face prejudice in a rational balanced way.

* EMANCIPATION WITHIN TRADITION – Although archaic and patriarchal features that undermine female autonomy and equality persist among Europe’s Muslim communities, many Muslim women are emerging as independent, determined individuals. Empowered by increased levels of education and by independent access to religious knowledge, they have the potential to become important agents of radical transformations from within tradition that does not need to go through radical means. However, knowledge of the language of the country of residence and employment opportunities are the keys to their full success.

* DIVERSITY & INTEGRATION – Contrary to the fears of many Europeans who, at the sight of Muslim veils, point to the risk of an Iran- or Saudi Arabia-style curtailment of freedoms and Islamisation of Europe, none of the respondents said that they wished to live under that type of sharia law in Europe, not even those who wore the full jilbab (full black robe, covering the body from top to toe). Instead, they felt privileged for living in democratic European countries where the rule of law is in place and that protect gender equality, diversity, and fundamental freedoms. Benefiting from these rights and freedoms and being well integrated were also the two key things that the Muslim women wished for their children and the future Muslim generations.

* ASPIRATIONS – The wishes of Europe’s Muslim women for their own future and for the future generations are unexceptionally ordinary. Their recurring dreams are: to be respected as individuals, to live in peace and within the law, to feel integrated, to receive good education, to have a decent job, and to have a happy family, ideally in the shade of God’s blessing.

Knowledge versus oppression – Islam as a path to individual autonomy

Many Muslim women, in Europe and abroad, are still constrained in their actions and choice by a combination of factors: socio-economic deprivation and patriarchal norms of conduct, family structures, and community expectations that are articulated in Islamic terms. However, this is not the only phenomenon characterising European Islam.

Beyond the veil, this research has revealed a crucial innovative dynamic that is under way among Europe’s Muslim women: an assertion of individual autonomy that goes hand in hand not only with an appropriation of visible Islamic symbols but also, and more importantly, with an acquisition of independent knowledge-thus-ownership of the faith. This process does not reject tradition – which is respected as a centre-piece of the faith – but takes place within it. By transforming the interpretation and application of tradition it redefines its boundaries. However, we have to remember that not all Muslim women have the internal drive, strength, or have been exposed to sufficient stimuli to be able to undertake such a step. In addition the picture of Europe’s Muslim women also includes some individuals who have decided to isolate themselves from western lifestyle as well as others who have rejected religious tradition altogether.

Some dramatic situations involving Muslim women as well as the tensions that we often see among Europe’s Muslim communities are much more likely to be the consequence of intergenerational conflicts concerning this multifaceted process of emancipation than the outcome of a pan-European fundamentalist project of Islamisation.

The current process of re-appropriation of the Islamic faith through search for knowledge and adherence to religious practices initiated by the young Muslim generation should enable them, in the long term, to withstand the pressures of social conventions. However, inability to speak the language of the country of settlement, ignorance and stereotypes about Muslim women’s oppression (both within and outside Muslim communities), societal prejudices against Islam, and draconian laws in the name of secularism do not seem to help this process of emancipation from within. Similarly, no successful transformation is likely to happen till Muslim men are not involved in the reconsideration of the link between sacred and fixed Islamic values and more fluid societal habits and cultural tradition.