Many British Muslim Women Embrace Political Islam British authorities are worried about the rising number of young Muslim women who are embracing a political form of Islam. A 2006 Pew poll showed 81 percent of Muslims surveyed considered their Islamic identity more important than being British.

Many British Muslim Women Embrace Political Islam

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we'll travel to a country that is struggling to manage a threat within its borders. British authorities had to confront that threat after the London subway bombings. The attacks in 2005 were not blamed on foreign terrorists. They were blamed on British-born Muslims. And Britain is where we go next in this week's examination of Islam in Europe.

We've been learning about European Muslim women, and it turns out that many second-generation daughters of South Asian immigrants are embracing a political form of Islam.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli continues our series, reporting from London.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Islam Channel TV network is located in a sleek glass and steel building near London's financial district. Long tables with computer screens fill the large newsroom. The reporters are mostly women, all with their heads covered. Some reveal only their eyes underneath black Islamic veils. A woman's talk show, "The Muslim Woman's Dilemma," is currently on the air.

(Soundbite of show, "The Muslim Woman's Dilemma")

Unidentified Woman #1: The treatment of women in Islam is a stick that's used to beat Islam with, and at the moment, there's a bigger agenda going on, isn't there? We know that...

POGGIOLI: The show's host is Aamna Durrani. Her headscarf is tightly wrapped around her head and falls into soft drapes over her shoulders. She was born here of Pakistani parents but 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.

Ms. AAMNA DURRANI (Host, "Muslimah Dilemma"): My allegiance to the Muslim, what we say, ummah, the Muslim community, definitely has got a lot, a lot stronger as a result of the war on terror. And it has made the sense of solidarity throughout the world, I think, a lot stronger and definitely for Muslim women here in Britain. You know, it has really made us think - where do our loyalties lie?

POGGIOLI: Analysts here say another cause of British 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 here considered their Islamic identity more important than being British. Like some of them, Durrani refuses to take part in the electoral process unless it were to introduce Islamic law based on the Koran.

Ms. DURRANI: If I was going to vote for anything, it would only be for the Sharia law.

(Soundbite of Whitechapel Road)

POGGIOLI: On Whitechapel Road, in the heart of the largest Muslim community in the U.K., there's 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.

(Soundbite of market)

POGGIOLI: 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 newfound identity.

(Soundbite of mosque)

POGGIOLI: The East London Mosque is one of the biggest in the U.K. Its tall minaret and large dome 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.

(Soundbite of door opening)

POGGIOLI: 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.

Katsim Abibi(ph) wears the full face veil, the niqab. She resents Labor Party veteran Jack Straw's 2006 remarks that he would prefer that his Muslim women constituents not wear the face veil when they come to speak to him.

Ms. KATSIM ABIBI (Activist): For him to ask someone to remove an item of clothing I find rather inappropriate. And I don't see why that should all of a sudden be an issue.

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

Ms. MAHERA RUBY: Personally for me, having the Muslim identity has - that's all I have, and it has given me the ability to aspire to achieve whatever I want.

Ms. LUBAABA AL AZAMI: You don't have a nationality...

Ms. RUBY: Yeah.

Ms. AL AZAMI: ...for Muslims, you don't have a color for Muslims, you don't have a language for Muslims.

POGGIOLI: The major concern of the women here 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.

Ms. RUBY: I mean, look at 7/7, how many people died in 7/7? You look at the amount of rape and gun killings, yeah?

Ms. AL AZAMI: Yeah.

Ms. RUBY: Gun crime, twice as more, three times as more people, you know, they're being killed. So when we look at one extreme to the other, these are all extreme. To me any violence is extreme.

POGGIOLI: 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.

Ms. MUNIRA MIRZA (Writer): At the same time that women are putting on the headscarf, they are also going to work. They're also going into education. They're increasingly vocal in the media. This is the, I think, the confusing thing about Muslim women in the West, is that they are becoming Westernized and at the same time they are adopting their religious identity more strongly.

POGGIOLI: And some young women are giving a Western twist to purdah, the Muslim system of sex segregation.

Unidentified Woman: Well, me and my friends are having a party that night. A fancy dress party. Girls only.

Unidentified Woman #2: I really want to do a, you know, black tie, except without the men.

Unidentified Woman #3: I have so many dresses that I want to wear.

POGGIOLI: 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 all British campuses. Their fields range from English literature to Arabic to international relations.

Amal Saffour(ph) is 20.

Ms. AMAL SAFFOUR (Student, London School of Economics): Muslims do have faults, and especially with the way they have been treating women there have been many faults and errors. And it seems to me traditionally that many mosques, you know, their board of trustees, et cetera, have always been men.

POGGIOLI: Roya Soag(ph) is 21.

Ms. ROYA SOAG (Student, London School of Economics): My mother especially tried so hard to get involved with it and was basically shunned. There's a lot of change within the community that needs to happen.

Ms. SAIDA KIDWAI(ph) (Student, London School of Economics): I think our generation, like, as we grow older and as we start taking charge of things more...

Not to sound, like, power-hungry...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POGGIOLI: And Saida Kidwai is just 19. All three students are articulate and confident, and full participants in the Islamic women's awakening.

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.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can hear the first two parts of the series and also see where Muslims live across Europe by going to npr.org.

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