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Being British and being Muslim

21 April 10

What lies behind Muslim women choosing more noticeable forms of Islamic dress? One Phase 1 Small Grant has probed the choices being made by a particular group of women in the Midlands. Dress is a visible indicator that British Muslim women are changing in how they feel about themselves.

Kaye Haw of Nottingham University conducted a study fifteen years ago of Muslim girls, looking at the choices they and their families were making about schooling. She has returned to these same communities, and talked with these women and their families about what has changed for them over those fifteen years.

It is a period which saw riots among Muslim youth in British cities and towns in the summer of 2001. Reports on these events were divided. Some blamed a separatism which had arisen from a misguided attempt to build a multi-cultural society. Others said the main factor was the relative poverty of Muslim neighbourhoods.

Events on the world stage soon overshadowed Britain’s experiences with the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. Muslims found themselves singled out in new ways, and their loyalties were under suspicion.

Kaye Haw’s research is entitled “The Myth of British Identity and the Failure of Multiculturalism?From hijab to jilbab.” The title connects the questions raised after the 2001 riots with the tendency among some young British Muslim to try out more visible forms of modest dress. The communities in her study have their cultural roots in Pakistan, but increasingly some young women have experimented with wearing alternative and sometimes more visible forms of modest dress, such as the full-length jilbab, which originate in other Islamic societies.

Kaye Haw talks about “resistant identity”. It is a response from a community which has felt itself to be in a corner, under pressure, and labelled by those outside it. Part of that response has been to look to Islam as a place to feel comfortable.

The gap of fifteen years between the studies also means that the memories of initial immigration and the hopes and beliefs that went with it have faded. There has been a growing realism that Britain has not met all those expectations.

However, Kaye Haw does not think there is a simple conclusion to be drawn about the adoption of more noticeable Islamic dress. The study has been detailed, focusing on a very particular community and families within it. And each decision to try a new dress option has its own story. Sometimes it has been simple rebelliousness by the young, sometimes much more considered, and very often one that could be changed or reversed subsequently.

The study has had another very practical product. Kaye Haw wanted to portray the “everydayness” of Muslim life to those not acquainted with it, so she has compiled a DVD from video diaries recorded during her study, as a discussion starter on what British Muslims feel about being British and Muslim.

Listen to the complete interview here.

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