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Je Suis Une Muslimah: The Battle between Freedom and Repression

1 Comment 🕔11.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

“Muslim Pride.” Photo credit: Charles Roffey


by Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor

Islam in Europe is perceived and experienced in different ways: as lived reality for those who are European Muslims and as an equal player in a plural society; but also, more frequently, as a symbol of ‘backward and repressive’ religion in a ‘secular and enlightened world’ and as a source of terrorism and violence in an otherwise ‘secure’ Europe. In contexts of suspicion and tension between different kinds of believers, the killings of Charlie Hebdo employees were surely an attack on many freedoms – the freedoms of expression, personal belief, security, and, indeed, the right to live. This appalling and sad event, which will be forever ingrained in histories of satire and journalism, was rightly condemned by people of all persuasions – religious or not and of different genders, philosophical leanings, and nationalities.

Yet in our rush to strenuously and unequivocally condemn, we run the risk of entering into a facile debate that fails to recognize that the Charlie Hebdo killings were (and are) just one front on which this battle between freedom and repression is being waged. We are blind to the complexity necessitated by a plural, diverse, and globalized Europe, within which it is possible and usually necessary to be ‘European’ in different ways. And it is with this foregrounding of the need for an informed and more complex debate about the modern challenges to freedom that I begin my brief discussion of Muslim women and their experiences of being European.


A note about methodology

As a sociologist of religion, rather than relying solely on religious texts, I root my scholarship in the lived experiences of people, who in my research lexicon are ‘meaning-makers.’[1] Such a focus on lived religion facilitates insights into the fluidities of everyday practices of religion. This stance is particularly useful in European contexts, where the religious contours of society are rapidly changing and where there is a rise in religions that are ‘new’ to European contexts.

As a feminist scholar, I am also intensely aware of the hierarchies in systems of knowledge that privilege the powerful few, assigning them authority and authenticity: male or female?; secular or religious?; East or West?; North or South? These are philosophical discussions that extend beyond the scope of this paper, but I encourage readers to reflect upon such hierarchies and their own positionality. For example, in a recent article, a group of academics at University College London argue that much of our intellectual thinking is underpinned by an ideology that is white and by a positioning of “Europe (and its settler colonies) as the moral and intellectual leaders of the world.”[2] It is not clear whether the collective acknowledges the existence of its own preferred hierarchy/ies that is/are not white, but they make a valuable and important point about the inherent biases in all so-called ‘neutral’ intellectual thinking.

It is important to be aware of different hierarchies, but not always with a view to rejecting or only challenging them. Rather, with challenge must also come symbiosis and a bridging of different intellectual traditions – where, for example, it may be possible to think both as a secular feminist and as a religious believer. To go back briefly to lived religion, in a complex, globalized world it is indeed possible to be both religious and secular at the same time. For all debates, and particularly for sensitive ones that involve human beings, such as this one – it is important that we acknowledge that we always write as ourselves. Finally, this article uses narrative – the narratives of Muslim women whom I interviewed as part of my research, and also my narrative as an academic.


I am French and I wear a hijab

Malika is French by nationality and now lives in London. Here are her thoughts and disagreements with French secularism – laïcité:

I’m French […] it was a time when the law against the hijab was passed. At that point I thought, Oh my God! I wanted to be a teacher and then I thought well, if I have to teach it means that I have to take off my hijab, because it is forbidden in schools and at work. This was something I couldn’t think of.

In France the concept of secularism, originally in 1905 the law meant that everybody was free to practice their religion but they kind of manipulated it to be now that no religious signs are accepted. And that is because of history and how France was treated by the Church. But in France now you actually have an anti-religious feeling. And if you are Muslim then you are really unlucky […] So in France it is really difficult – because they ask you to choose between being a citizen and your belief […] In France you kind of start like thinking – you sometimes have shame and you become shy because you are Muslim. They make you feel different – no you have a problem, we are fine.

– Malika

Malika found her situation unbearable. As an educated young woman with aspirations to be a teacher, she felt stifled and repressed. So she chose to move to England:

I came to England and when I came to England, it was, Wow! I was shocked that I could go to work, go and teach with my hijab. It made me so happy and it changed my life.

– Malika

Her freedoms, to practice her faith, to have a fulfilling career, to gain economic independence, and, indeed, to be a citizen, were severely curtailed in France. She took quite a radical decision to uproot herself and move to Britain. The hijab may be understood as a piece of cloth or as a form of expressing oneself.[3] It does not cause harm, yet it has become sufficient reason to deny Malika (and many women like her) many freedoms.

“Muslim Queen Elizabeth.” Photo credit: Bixentro


There’s nobody like me!

Shamsia is a young British woman. She is proud of her British upbringing and the fact that she has the freedom to be herself. When I met her, the first thing she said to me was that she will not be able to criticize British or Western society. Yet she says this about the media:

Because I guess I was born in England and stuff … it’s just … Islam is a big part of me. Because wherever I have been so far … loads of people … there have been loads of Muslim people as well and non-Muslims have been used to that fact. And they’ve been used to having women wearing hijab and whatever, being completely normal. [….] I know that in PE and stuff when you had to take off your scarf they wouldn’t understand: “why you actually have nice hair!” […] and other than that most people have been very accepting.

Yeah … and in terms of the media I haven’t seen any actually Muslim women being portrayed in the media … like me … I haven’t seen anyone like me … they don’t talk about normal people who go to school and colleges and work and stuff. It’s just mainly … I have only seen people in Burkhas on the TV and like that is Muslim women. That’s how it is the media. And it’s about, usually stories of … like girls who want to wear hijab to school and then they’re not allowed. So it always shows it in terms of a conflict – between Islam and hijab and everything.

– Shamsia

Elsewhere, I have discussed how, historically, Orientalist representations of Muslim women portrayed them as the exotic different ‘other.’ When it came to Muslim women, the media usually spoke about abuse, honor killings, and repression. ‘Normal’, successful Muslim women did not exist. In a world that is truly free, all different voices should be heard equally.[4] Muslim women have joined in the condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings, yet they are also critical of all the voices that call for the protection of freedom of expression and of media neutrality. These Muslim women question how it is possible for some voices and forms of expression to be freer and more neutral than others.


Between culture and religion

Shukri is of Somalian origin. She lived in Holland and then in England. She reflects about her ‘Europeaness’:

But the thing is…there is a difference between religion and culture. I come from a Somalian culture and a lot of things that they say – a woman shouldn’t do this and girls should act in a certain way. Actually when I look it up, it’s just cultural beliefs. I am aware that this happens but I am thinking my parents even though they are cultural they still treat me in an Islamic way […]. If there is something that they tell me about behaving in a particular way and it’s cultural, I will tell them that it has nothing to do with Islam, it’s just your culture. I obviously, because I grew up in Europe, I am going to have some European culture in me.

– Shukri

Shukri’s narrative is reflective of what many young Muslim women and men are saying about the need to move beyond constructs of Islam that are specific to places outside of Europe. Instead, they say that European Muslims must discursively and practically move toward ways of living and being in Islam that are European. According to these young people, if you move beyond the scaremongering and suspicion, it is possible to find shared values and commonality. They also often say that living in Europe has given them the freedom to critically engage with their faith.


Concluding comments

In this article, I presented three brief narratives of Muslim women, and in each case I have tried to explore the influence of their being European and Muslim on their lives. These narratives also highlight the conflicts and conciliations that are possible between these two aspects of women’s identities, with particular emphasis on their freedoms.

Malika, through her narrative, urges us to question the lens through which we look at freedom of expression. The same ubiquitous piece of cloth that a Muslim woman may buy to use as a hijab may also be bought by a woman who is not Muslim to wear as a scarf around her neck. As a society, we need to reflect on why in the former case it may become a matter of societal condemnation whereas in the latter it is inconsequential. As a feminist, I wonder if this is a result of societal guilt about historical European (mis)treatment of women, including veiling in the Church, being offloaded onto the hijab, thus allowing European society to relinquish responsibility for it former wrongdoings against women. This is a debate that will go on and which needs to go on.

Shamsia’s narrative offers insights into the synergies that are possible between Islam and Europe, yet she questions how the same media organizations that are vociferous about protecting freedom of expression and neutrality remain largely impervious to positive images of Muslim women. We also do not sufficiently talk about Islamophobia – women are particularly visible and vulnerable. They often told me about being spat at, being abused, having their scarves pulled off, and, occasionally, being subjected to physical violence.

Shukri’s narrative offers a more positive outlook of the ways in which young Muslims are reclaiming Islam for themselves,thus creating a space that is European and Muslim at the same time and able to function both as a secular and as a religious space.

Such narratives are symptomatic of young people’s confidence and aspirations to challenge the simplistic but also enduring bifurcations in our society. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur argues that human nature finds it easier to think in twos: black and white, good and bad, us and them, etc. To move beyond bifurcations is difficult and requires identity positions to be challenged – can I be me if I am not different from her? Yet, this is not a rejection of identity, but an assertion that commonality is possible. As a society this narrative of European Muslimness must be heard and encouraged. A sense of belonging among young European Muslims would be the biggest inhibitor to the radicalization of all forms, including those that are far right or ‘Islamist’.

To conclude, previous understandings of religion, secularism, and, indeed, Europe are no longer sufficient to address the issues of modernity and plurality. We need new definitions and a more informed debate. To be adequate, this debate must be sustained and pragmatic, and society must try to address underlying issues. Such a debate must also be open – allowing difficult questions to be asked – and inclusive and aware of the underlying hierarchies of how we think and produce knowledge.


Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor is sociologist at the University of Derby, UK. From August 2015, Sariya will be working at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. She specialises in the Sociology of Religion with particular emphasis on democratic research methodologies that seek to work with and for research participants. She is the author of Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah (Routledge 2012), co-author of Religion or Belief, Discrimination and Equality: Britain in Global Contexts (Bloomsbury 2013), co-author of Islamic Education in Britain: New Pluralist Paradigms (Bloomsbury 2015) and co-editor of Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion (Bloomsbury 2015).


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

[1] Juliet Goldbart and David Hustler,  “Ethnography,” in Research Methods in the Social Sciences, ed. Bridget Somekh and Cathy Lewin (London: Sage, 2005), 16–23.

[2] <>, retrieved April 23, 2015.

[3] Sariva Cheruvallil-Contractor, Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Sariva Cheruvallil-Contractor, Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).





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