look of innocence

European Muslim women are proud to live in and belong to Europe, despite facing a daily struggle against prejudice from both within and outside their own communities, new research suggests.

The subject of Europe’s Muslim women has been under-researched and under-considered. The aim of this report was to find out about these women’s daily lives, their thoughts, feelings and problems, and the contribution they are making to European society.

Dr Sara Silvestri

The pilot study, to be presented at a public conference in London today (Wednesday, January 28th), indicates that Muslim women believe life in Europe has given them freedom, opportunities and security.

It also reveals that an emerging generation of Muslim women are becoming increasingly independent and are determined to assert their right to a full education, a career and to follow their own dreams.

But it adds that many do so in the face of archaic patriarchal cultural traditions on the one hand, and discrimination and suspicion from the non-Muslim majority population on the other. These challenges, combined with the relatively poor family backgrounds of many European Muslim women, threaten to limit their social mobility, whatever their aspirations.

The study, entitled Europe's Muslim women: potential aspirations and challenges, was commissioned by the King Baudouin Foundation and carried out by Dr Sara Silvestri, a Research Associate at Cambridge University's von Huegel Institute and at its Department of Politics and International Studies. Dr Silvestri also lectures at City University, London, where the report will be presented.

It is the first academic study to investigate the topic of Muslim women in Europe in a comparative way, examining it beyond the questions of the wearing of the hijab and the migration experience.

A total of 49 women from Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom - most of them European citizens - were interviewed to provide a snapshot of the experiences, views and aspirations of Muslim women. Although the sample was small, the project is not intended to provide a definitive profile. Instead, it aims to act as a platform for future work by highlighting areas where researchers and policy-makers might focus their efforts to improve the lives of Muslim women living in Europe.

As well as the interviews, a wide range of academic reports, national statistics, government and EU reports, policy papers, speeches, media reports and blogs were analysed.

"The subject of Europe's Muslim women has been under-researched and under-considered," Dr. Silvestri said. "It has left a gap in our knowledge that can lead to misunderstandings, stereotyping and prejudice. The aim of this report was to find out about these women's daily lives, their thoughts, feelings and problems, and the contribution they are making to European society."

The study found that European Muslim women are keen to assert their right to take charge of their own lives and that many see that as entirely compatible with retaining an Islamic identity. Of the women Dr. Silvestri interviewed those who chose to wear the hijab saw doing so not as an attempt to distance themselves from wider society, but as an expression of their freedom to make their own choices.

It warns, however, that "not all Muslim women have the internal drive, strength, or have been exposed to sufficient stimuli to take such a step." Doing so not only involves breaking free of the narrow-mindedness which still exists in some closely-knit Muslim communities, but resisting external racism, social stigmatism and ignorant assumptions that they are "oppressed and illiterate".

"They are daily resisting and negotiating on two fronts," the report says: "With patriarchal norms and family structures in the community, and externally with prejudice coming from the non-Muslim environment."

The report also notes that the under- or poor performance of Muslim women in employment and education remains a problem often related to class. Improving their upward social mobility, it says, is made more difficult still by the fact that most European Muslims come from relatively poor socio-economic groups.

In spite of these disadvantages, however, the report found that many Muslim women are asserting their right to govern their own lives, seize opportunities and engage with wider society and civil organisations even in the face of occasional prejudice.

The interviewees expressed an overall commitment to European values such as the rule of law, democracy, freedom and the respect of diversity. For that reason, they expected respect for their own religious views and felt frustrated when prevented from practising their faith as they would like.

None of the respondents expressed any desire to live under existing sharia law systems. The report says their recurring aspirations as European citizens are "unexceptionally ordinary" - to live in peace and within the law, to feel integrated, to receive a good education and to have a decent job and a happy family life.

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