© Peter Sanders
© Peter Sanders

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the research on gender in relation to British Muslim communities so far has focused on women, and especially the fortunes of the emerging generation of young British-born Muslim girls.

Issues such as marriage and education, employment and dress, have been considered in some depth. Arguably, questions around the ‘hijab’ and more recently the ‘niqab’ have become ‘semiotically over-charged’ leading to an undue fascination with what Muslim women look like, rather than who they are. This disproportionate focus on Muslim women has of course also resulted in the indirect exclusion of ‘masculinity’ within the research field.

This situation is now being remedied with important new studies on the experiences and identities of young Muslim men in Britain. Similarly, academic attention is now beginning to shift – away from a stereotypical preoccupation with a narrow range of ‘women’s issues’ – towards a broader agenda that is concerned with women’s participation in the labour market and in civil society. These new research directions are very much in keeping with a fundamental principle about equality between both genders in Islam.

There is no sense in which men or women are superior or inferior in relation to one another, certainly in the eyes of God. Rather, the emphasis within Islamic sources is upon their unique attributes and qualities as men and women, the ‘blessings’ of their gender, and the responsibilities that derive from them. Long before women supposedly gained ‘equal rights’ in modern European and Western societies, Islam accorded Muslim women rights in relation to ownership of property, education, inheritance, free choice in the matter of matrimony (and retention of her ‘identity’ following marriage).

It is unfortunate that over time, discrepancies have arisen between the ideals enshrined in Islamic thought and teaching, and the realities facing Muslim women in everyday life. It was not long after the death of the Prophet Muhammad that Muslim women found their newly defined God-given rights being denied to them. This is often a reflection of a lack of Islamic education within Muslim communities, combined with the power of cultural traditions shaped by male interests.

Many British Muslim women have had access to more enlightened Islamic education than was possible for their parents and grandparents. Research has shown the myriad ways in which Muslim women are drawing upon Islamic sources to articulate their religious rights. This has often involved them illustrating the distinction between sometimes restrictive cultural expectations and assumptions about gender, and more liberating religious teachings. As an outcome of this process, they have been proactive in establishing formal and informal networks of mutual support, as well as contributing to national level Muslim organisations and civil society.

A good example of this entrepreneurialism can be seen in the work of one of the oldest and most enduring Muslim women’s organisations in Britain, namely, the An-Nisa Society, founded in London by two sisters, Humera and Khalida Khan, in 1985. The society has helped to set new agendas around social welfare priorities, and has lobbied successive governments on matters of social policy that have a direct bearing on Muslim women’s everyday lives, such as access to equitable health care, improved educational opportunities for children, and challenging the cumulative disadvantages that arise from poor housing and ill-health.