Muslim Women and Power

Political and Civil Engagement in Western European Studies

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Danièle Joly, Khursheed Wadia
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , April
     322 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book by Danièle Joly and Khursheed Wadia is published in Palgrave Macmillan’s Gender and Politics series, edited by Johanna Kantola and Sarah Childs. The series publishes books on politics, international relations, public policy, and gender. It aims to provide new empirical findings and push forward the boundaries of conceptual and theoretical research in feminism and politics. Muslim Women and Power has both empirical and theoretical aims. The book is the outcome of the 2007-2011 project “Women from Muslim Communities and Politics in Britain and France,” funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (v). Documenting Muslim women’s participation in political processes and structures, Joly and Wadia had various objectives, and they reached out to scholars as well as policy and decision makers (5). While stressing the need to influence public debate and policy makers, they also contribute to feminist political theory that insists on broadening the understanding of “politics.” They envision “doing politics” as both political participation and civic engagement (123127) and investigate the intersecting effects of gender, “race,” ethnicity, and faith on Muslim women’s capacity to act and on their autonomization processes (23-30).

Joly and Wadia argue for the importance of comparing French and British contexts because they share a number of similarities but also display fundamental differences regarding their political histories, cultures, and institutions. These have an empirical influence on Muslim women’s political and civic engagements. However, the different policy terminologies in France and Britain also have an impact on the treatment of the empirical data (7-9). The project employed a multi-method approach. Archival work included the examination of media dossiers, third sector organizations’ reports, and government policy statements. The empirical work was done mostly in Birmingham and Paris (centers of large Muslim populations), and in secondary sites including Coventry, Cardiff, Manchester, Bradford, Rotherham, Glasgow, and Lyon. The qualitative data was gathered in diverse ways: semi-structured interviews with twenty key informants in each country; focus groups in Birmingham, Coventry, and Paris; and fieldwork at a number of events in Britain and France (9-15).

The book is organized into two parts. Part 1 (chapters 2-4) introduces the reader to key concepts and contexts, and part 2 (chapters 5-8) is based on the empirical research. Chapter 2 builds the conceptual framework and considers Muslim women’s relationship to politics within the context of gender and politics in general. It presents a feminist approach in combination with Margaret Archer’s realist approach and Alain Touraine’s methodology for the study of action and social movements in the shape of sociological intervention (SI) (23-28). It is structured on the basis of the idea that women’s “theatre of action” is constituted by three major arenas: majority society, the ethnic group, and the Muslim group (28-45). Chapter 3 provides the societal and institutional context of the research and looks at the relationship of Muslims to British and French society. Two aspects of this context are examined for their bearing on Muslim women’s action in the public domain: the evolution of policies and their conceptualization of populations of Muslim background in their interaction with majority society; and Muslim women’s relation with majority women’s movements and politics (47). Chapter 4 then presents the historical, demographic, and socio-economic profile of Muslim women in Britain and France. It maps migration histories and explains the main demographic features of Muslim populations, while spotlighting Muslim women in the area of education and employment. However, the authors acknowledge that the fact that population surveys in the UK do, and in France do not, collect data on religion and ethnicity makes it difficult to make direct comparisons of the socio-demographic situations of Muslim populations in the two national settings (91).  

Chapter 5 examines the political participation and civic engagement of women from Muslim communities in Britain and France. It establishes a typology of participation and activism, namely formal institutional politics, street politics, everyday politics, and public service and community politics (127-33). Joly and Wadia highlight the two most common forms of action: voting and activism through third sector organizations and groups (133-51). They furthermore explain the recent rise and growing visibility of Muslim women’s organizations in the post-9/11 era. Chapters 6 and 7 study the collectives that constitute the domain of Muslim women’s action and autonomization. First, the authors explore the relationship of women from Muslim communities to the ethnic group and the Muslim group. Despite the difficulties of separating “culture” from “religion,” Joly and Wadia argue for making analytical distinctions, thereby following Muslim’s women’s own arguments and the importance they attach to differentiating culture from religion (163-64). Next, chapter 7 focuses on Muslim women’s relationship to British and French society and demonstrates the significance of multiculturalism in Britain and laȉcite in France. The authors also dedicate a section to Muslim women’s strategies to access autonomy and pursue their life projects (212-27). Muslim women’s action is based on an awareness of tensions and contradictions in their environment; an emotional commitment to certain concerns and issues (such as gender inequality, ethnic and racial discrimination, Islam and social inequality); and the confidence to engage in action oriented towards change. Chapter 8 identifies key issues of concern to women from Muslim communities. Foremost is that of Islamic dress, while another is control of women, whether by the state through War on Terror policies or within Muslim communities by men. Chapter 9 provides a summary of the research’s approach, main arguments, and outcomes.

Joly and Wadia’s study generates important new insights into the ways Muslim women engage in action, the parameters and contexts for their action, and the similarities but also differences between Britain and France. The women who participated in this study, contrary to the expectations of political and public discourse, are well informed about their political, social, and religious situations, formulate critical points of view, and build modes of action pursuing their life projects. The authors conclude the book with a hopeful note on the future for women from Muslim communities and their participation in political and civic life. Notwithstanding the many barriers and obstacles, Muslim women’s challenges will continue to run and multiply (271).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nella van den Brandt is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Danièle Joly is professor emerita at the University of Warwick. She is Research Associate at the Centre d’analyse et d’intervention sociologiques, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and is attached to the Chair in Rethinking Social Justice at the Collège d’Études Mondiales, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris.

Khursheed Wadia is principal research fellow at the University of Warwick. She is an Overseas Research Fellow at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and Research Associate at the Centre Migrations et Citoyenneté, Institut Français des Relations Internationales, Paris.


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