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'Many can't accept a woman in her right mind would choose the niqab'

Dr Anabel Inge has written the first in-depth study of British women who follow Salafism, a highly conservative interpretation of Islam that is growing rapidly in the UK. Her book, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion, has just been published by Oxford University Press, and is based on nearly two-and-a-half years of fieldwork with hundreds of Salafi women in London. She gained unprecedented access to this usually very private community to explore how and why so many young British women – of both Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds – are turning to Salafism. She introduces her key findings in greater depth in this exclusive email interview with The Muslim Institute.

1. What surprised you most about your research?

Salafi women have been widely written about and commented on since 9/11 – yet their own voices have been almost entirely absent. So I expected that there would be some surprises when I spoke to these women. But the gap between public portrayals and the reality was, at times, rather startling.

There’s often an assumption that Salafis are immigrants with no strong attachment to the UK – and perhaps even a desire to harm it. Also, that women are forced into face veils and seclusion by their male relatives. In fact, I found that the vast majority of the Salafi women I encountered were British-born or had come to the UK at a very young age. They were native English-speakers, with a relatively high educational attainment, and subscribed to a strictly non-violent interpretation that vehemently opposes ISIS and terrorism, and which prescribes obedience to the law of the land.

And I couldn’t find a single case of coerced niqab-wearing: on the contrary, the women had typically chosen it against the wishes of their families – who were mostly less conservative Muslims. Many faced intense pressure from relatives to remove their face veils, and some admitted to wearing it secretly for fear of their parents’ reactions.

Why did they persevere? For them, becoming Salafi was typically the result of years of searching for ‘pure Islam’, stripped of all cultural additions. In multi-faith, liberal Britain, Salafism bestowed reassuring religious and moral certainties that the women claimed were rooted in the holy texts. Many said that Salafism had given them a sense of ‘inner peace’.

2. After writing an article in The Independent, you received two seemingly contradictory kinds of attack in the comments section and on social media. The first is that your work acts as an apology for Muslim extremism, and the second that you’re perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes about Islam as an extremist and misogynistic ideology. How would you respond?

Getting criticised by opposing sides often makes academics think they got the balance about right! First – let’s get this in context: those who attacked me as an apologist for extremism clearly hadn’t read the book; and only a couple of tweets have accused me of being an Orientalist (they hadn’t read it, either). Salafism is an incredibly divisive subject that causes heated and emotional debate, so I expected these kinds of reactions from a minority of people.

My aim as a researcher was to go into the field without a hypothesis to test, but to be guided by what I observed and what Salafi women said to me – while remaining academically critical. I took great care to conduct my research sensitively and in accordance with strict ethical research guidelines.

My work covers some of the less palatable aspects of Salafi groups – ie the fact that a minority of preachers teach that you should separate yourself from non-believers and not befriend them. But I’ve also pointed out that these strictures are flexible in practice – many Salafis had close non-Muslim friends. And I’ve emphasised that in nearly two-and-a-half years of research, I did not encounter any explicit or implicit support of Jihadism or terrorism – only outright opposition. This undermines the narrative around Salafis that has been widely accepted since 9/11.

A few people have accused me of perpetuating stereotypes of Islam as misogynistic simply because I’ve explained what Salafis believe, without condemning it as a distortion of Islam. But as a social scientist and a non-Muslim, that’s not my role. I’ve never suggested that Salafism, or any faction for that matter, represents ‘true’ Islam – I leave that to Muslims to determine. But it’s a group that’s growing rapidly in the UK, attracting an increasing number of young women who choose to embrace practices seen by many other people as ‘sexist’. So Salafism needs to be properly researched so that we can obtain reliable – rather than speculative or one-sided – information.

Rather than exoticise Salafis, I’m keen to highlight the ordinariness of their lives. Much of my book is about the everyday realities for these women. Just like many other British women, they wanted degrees, careers and decent partners – and they often adapted Salafi teachings in order to further these goals. They weren’t all zealots whose lives revolved around rigid rules and domestic chores – far from it! Most struggled to implement Salafi teachings day-to-day – and lapses were very common.

3. What are some of the other responses to your work that you find interesting?

I’ve had plenty of outright racist and Islamophobic vitriol. Things like: ‘These people should be deported back to their fatherland.’ Worryingly, lots of people were irked that I used the term ‘British’ to describe these women – yet they speak English and were mostly born in the UK, often with generations of family based here. After the Brexit vote, we saw an upsurge in anti-Muslim attacks – it seems that the association of visible Muslims with ‘foreign-ness’ is etched in the minds of many. For them, ‘Britishness’ is something a covered Muslim woman can never achieve.

Clearly, many people struggle with the idea that a woman in her right mind could possibly choose such a way of life. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote a piece in the ‘i’ noting my conclusion that none of the women had been coerced, but said that she ‘knows’ they are indeed forced. Others have written insulting posts, claiming that such women must be mentally ill or sexually perverse. No evidence is ever cited in such commentaries.

But I’ve also had a great many messages from both specialists and ordinary members of the public, thanking me for giving them a balanced insight into a little-understood community. For example, one non-Muslim wrote that reading the book had fundamentally changed his views. And many Salafis have written to thank me for clarifying misunderstandings. There have also been important discussions around the apparent paradoxes raised by my research: can wearing a niqab and jilbab be a way of ‘taking control’ of your body as a woman? Should we tolerate intolerance?

Shanon Shah is a sociologist of religion who teaches at the University of Kent and is deputy editor of Critical Muslim.