Youth workers must challenge the prejudice and exclusion faced by young Muslim women

Image: Vlad Tchompalov at Unsplash, via Youth and Policy

We are delighted to welcome the following compelling and timely guest post, by our steering group member Naomi Thompson and her co-researcher Stephen Pihlaja. Our readers may also be interested in an article on Media Diversified, which discusses the role of grooming and argues that Shamima Begum would be seen very differently if she were white. By coincidence, the excellent book ‘It’s not about the burqa’ was released this week: “Here are voices you won’t see represented in the national news headlines: seventeen Muslim women speaking frankly about the hijab and wavering faith, about love and divorce, about feminism, queer identity, sex, and the twin threats of a disapproving community and a racist country.”

Thanks again to Naomi and Stephen for the following response to current debates in and beyond youth work circles; responses and related contributions welcome, as ever.

Young Muslim women in England are subtly denied their status as equal and credible citizens every day through their experiences of exclusion. The attempt to strip Shamima Begum of her UK citizenship by the government, and the public opinion and media vitriol that have fed into it, are a more explicit and exaggerated form of this.

In 2016, we undertook research with young Muslim women in England. Our research found that young Muslim women in London and Birmingham were judged and feared for how they dressed and experienced direct and indirect exclusion on a regular basis. The young women identified unanimously as British when asked about the most significant aspects of their identities. When asked how others perceive them, they recognised that they are often not seen as British but as ‘foreign’ or ‘other’. This impacted on their sense of identity and belonging.

Public spaces and public transport were a common arena where they faced direct exclusion. One young woman described someone shouting the word ‘terrorist’ out of a car window as they passed her. One young woman recounted how, just after the 2015 Paris attacks, her friend had been refused a seat on the bus in Birmingham by a woman who had her bag on it who said ‘it is because of you that this has happened’. A young woman in London explained how on busy tubes at rush hour, no one would sit on empty seats next to her.

The young women were ambitious and hopeful but also felt uncertain about their futures in Britain. They realised that being visibly Muslim through wearing the Hijab was a factor in their exclusion and they recognised a lack of visibly Muslim role models in public life. They explained how they thought they would have to change how they dressed to get a public facing career. They feared for their siblings and future children from the antagonism they experienced and some considered that life would be better living somewhere else.

These young women are being routinely excluded and ‘othered’ everyday and their status as British citizens disregarded and denied. Our government’s response to Shamima, to make her stateless, is an extension of this prejudice. Whilst we make no link between our research participants and Shamima’s radicalisation and grooming, we do see a clear link between the everyday exclusion of young Muslims and the response in the media and public opinion, including among youth workers, to Shamima’s case. As youth workers, I firmly believe we should be challenging this prejudice and exclusion.

For more on the research we conducted, see:

Or if you have journal access via a library:

Thompson, N. and Pihlaja, S. (2018) Temporary liberties and uncertain futures: young female Muslim perceptions of life in England. Journal of Youth Studies.

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