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.


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.

Europe wary of Muslim immigrants, poll says

Europeans believe immigration from Islamic countries is a threat to their traditional way of life, a survey has suggested. The poll, carried out across 21 countries, warned that Europe’s Muslim population could treble in the next 17 years. It also reported “a severe deficit of trust is found between the Western and Muslim communities” with most people wanting less interaction with the Muslim world. The study, whose authors include the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, was commissioned for leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. It reported “a growing fear among Europeans of a perceived Islamic threat to their cultural identities, driven in part by immigration from predominantly Muslim nations”. It concluded: “An overwhelming majority of the surveyed populations in Europe believe greater interaction between Islam and the West is a threat.” Backbench Tory MP David Davies whipped up the hysteria by reportedly claiming he was “not surprised” by the polls findings.

The Pope and Islam. Is there anything that Benedict XVI would like to discuss?

The New Yorker is publishing a long article on the difficult relationship between the Vatican and Islam. “These are fierce theological times. It should come as no surprise that the Vatican and Islam are not getting along, or that their problems began long before Pope Benedict XVI made his unfortunate reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in a speech in Regensburg last September, and even before the children of Europe’s Muslim immigrants discovered beards, burkas, and jihad. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and more than a billion Muslims. And what divides the most vocal and rigidly orthodox interpreters of their two faiths, from the imams of Riyadh and the ayatollahs of Qom to the Pope himself, is precisely the things that Catholicism and Islam have always had in common: a purchase on truth; a contempt for the moral accommodations of liberal, secular states; a strong imperative to censure, convert, and multiply; and a belief that Heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them. (…)”

Forging A Voice In ‘France’s High-Rise Hell

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France – In the United States, the word “suburb” may conjure up images of bedroom communities with neat, tree-lined streets and good schools – a haven from the hustle and flow of city life. Not so in France. This Paris suburb ( banlieue ), a tinderbox of crime, sky-high youth unemployment and minority disaffection, spectacularly burst into flames last fall as riots gripped hundreds of ghettoes across France. Unrest, though less severe, again plagued Paris suburbs last week. Among other issues, the fury in the streets among the mostly Muslim youth has underscored the lack of political representation for this growing segment of French society. The National Intelligence Council estimates that Western Europe’s Muslim population, which is now as high as 20 million, will more than double by 2025. Coupled with a graying indigenous population, that would mean the continent’s largest population shift in centuries. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe at 6 million (out of a population of around 60 million), although precise figures are hard to come by because the state officially does not tally ethnicity or religion. Yet, none of the 555 deputies in the French National Assembly is Muslim. […]