Many British Muslim Women Embrace Political Islam

Third in a six-part series.

"The Muslim Woman's Dilemma" host and guests. i i

hide caption"The Muslim Woman's Dilemma" host, Aamna Durrani, on the set.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
"The Muslim Woman's Dilemma" host and guests.

"The Muslim Woman's Dilemma" host, Aamna Durrani, on the set.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Reporter's Notebook

Read Sylvia Poggioli's thoughts on reporting on Muslims in Europe over the past decade.

East London Mosque i i

hide captionThe East London Mosque, where women meet to discuss the Koran in what they call "circles of knowledge."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
East London Mosque

The East London Mosque, where women meet to discuss the Koran in what they call "circles of knowledge."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Ruby and al Azami i i

hide captionLubaaba al Azami (left) and Mahera Ruby attend meetings at the East London Mosque. They say they have found empowerment in their Muslim identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Ruby and al Azami

Mahera Ruby (far right in black), with fellow Mulsim women Lubaaba al Azami (next to her in beige) and Kalsima Bibi on the far left at the East London Mosque. They say they have found empowerment in their Muslim identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Kidwai, Saffour, and Soag i i

hide captionSaida Kidwai (from left) Amal Saffour and Roya Soag at the London School of Economics. They're members of an Islamic student group active on British campuses.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Kidwai, Saffour, and Soag

Saida Kidwai (from left) Amal Saffour and Roya Soag at the London School of Economics. They're members of an Islamic student group active on British campuses.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Two and a half years after British-born Muslims carried out suicide bombings in London that killed 52 people, British authorities are worried about the growing number of Muslim youth turning their backs on mainstream British society.

Most surprising is that many second-generation daughters of South Asian immigrants are embracing a political form of Islam.

Some say British Muslims have felt a growing sense of alienation since Sept. 11, 2001, and the London bombings, which has inspired some to segregate themselves from mainstream society and to greater assert their Muslim identity.

The 'Muslim Woman's Dilemma'

At the Islam Channel TV network, located in a sleek glass and steel building near London's financial district, the reporters are mostly women — all with their heads covered. Some reveal only their eyes underneath black veils.

The network broadcasts a talk show called, "The Muslim Woman's Dilemma." Host Aamna Durrani wears a headscarf tightly wrapped around her head that falls into soft drapes over her shoulders.

Durrani was born in London to Pakistani parents and is increasingly asserting her Muslim identity, especially since 9/11 and the 2005 London suicide bombings that led to what she says are draconian anti-terrorism laws.

"My allegiance to the Muslim ummah, the community, definitely has got a lot, lot stronger as a result of the war on terror. And it has made the sense of solidarity throughout the world a lot stronger — and definitely for Muslim women here in Britain. It has really made us think where our loyalties lie," Durrani says.

Growing Alienation from British Society

Analysts here say another cause of local Muslims' growing alienation has been Britain's role in the war in Iraq. They say it has inspired many young Muslims to segregate themselves from mainstream society.

A 2006 Pew poll showed 81 percent of Muslims surveyed considered their Islamic identity more important than being British. Like some others, Durrani says she would take part in the electoral process only if it were based on Islamic law and the Koran.

On Whitechapel Road, in the heart of the largest Muslim community in the United Kingdom, there has been a visible increase in women's use of the face-covering niqab over the past year. Many women here have discarded the long colorful scarves typical of their South Asian cultures and now shroud themselves in black.

Unapproachable and faceless, they shop at the outdoor stalls. Many non-Muslims see the total cover-up as a sign of growing separation. Many Muslim women say it's a political statement, a sign of their new-found identity.

Women Inside the East London Mosque

The tall minaret and large dome of the East London Mosque, one of the biggest in the United Kingdom, cast long shadows over the street. In the 1990s, this mosque acquired a reputation as a haven for radical young Muslims.

Now, this mosque is one of the few in Britain where a new generation of Muslim women is moving into the centuries-old male bastion of religion.

Women meet here to discuss the Koran in what they call "circles of knowledge." They're using education to open long-closed doors.

It's not easy for a reporter to penetrate this world. There's widespread dislike for the media, accused of fomenting what many Muslims call "Islamophobia." But some mosque activists — all of Bangladeshi origin — agree to talk.

Kalsima Bibi wears the full face veil, the niqab. She resents Labor Party veteran Jack Straw's 2006 remarks that he would prefer that his constituents not wear the face veil when they come to speak to him.

"For him to ask someone to remove an article of clothing — I find it inappropriate. I don't see why that should all of a sudden be an issue," she says.

Mahera Ruby and Lubaaba al Azami talk about their empowerment, saying Islam breaks down barriers among Muslims.

"Personally for me, having a Muslim identity, that is all I have and [it] has given me [the] ability to aspire to achieve ... whatever I want," Ruby says.

"You don't have a nationality if you are Muslim, you don't have a color for Muslims, you don't have a language for Muslims," Azami explains.

Signs of Increasing Confrontation

The major concern of the women at the mosque is to avoid too much mingling with Western culture. Ruby sends her children to Islamic schools to avoid sex education classes and exposure to what she calls the pagan myth of Santa Claus.

And, she does not single out the 2005 London terrorist attacks as an act of extremism.

"I mean, look at 7/7, how many people died in 7/7? You look at the amount of rape and gun killings, gun crime, twice as much, three times as more people they're being killed," she says. "These are all extremes; to me any violence is extreme."

It's statements like this one that writer and researcher Munira Mirza, a young woman of Pakistani origin, sees as a sign of an increasingly confrontational attitude.

"At the same time women are putting on the headscarf, they are also going to work, to education, increasingly vocal in the media — and this is the confusing thing about Muslim women in the West," Mirza says. "They are becoming Westernized at the same time as they are adopting their religious identity more strongly."

Meshing Studies and Religion

Three students, all wearing the Islamic veil, meet outside the Muslim prayer room at the London School of Economics, one of Britain's premier universities. They're members of an Islamic student group active on British campuses. Their fields of study range from English literature to Arabic to international relations.

The students are articulate and confident and full participants in the Islamic women's awakening.

"Muslims do have faults, especially the way they have been treating women. There have been many faults and errors. Mosques and board of trustees have always been men," says Amal Saffour, 20.

"My mother tried to get involved and was basically shunned. There is a lot of change within the community that needs to happen," says Roya Soag, 21.

They claim there's no conflict between their British and Muslim identities, yet they seem indifferent to the possibility that their raised Islamic consciousness could lead not to greater integration, but rather to increased separation from mainstream British society.

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