Part V: The Global North (North America and Europe)

Chapter 18: Intersectionality and Muslim Women in Belgium

Elsa Mescoli

In this chapter, the author applies an intersectional lens to discuss the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women in Belgium. By exploring the stories of some of these women, the author highlights the ways they negotiate their multiple identities to resist marginalization and discrimination, and thus reaffirm their role as active agents in their lives and in Belgium society. (Note: the names of research participants in this chapter are pseudonyms.)

Learning Objectives

  • Define the key concept of intersectionality, including the multiple notions that this approach mobilizes.
  • Analyze the processes of discrimination and subordination Muslim women face by highlighting the effect of intersecting identity factors.
  • Identify the strategies used by Muslim women to counter discrimination.

This chapter addresses the intersectional discrimination affecting Muslim women or those perceived as such. Muslim women constitute a diverse group and are often the target of multiple forms of discrimination and subordination. As members of minority groups in Western society, and as migrants or people with a foreign background in most cases, they face difficulties in finding their place in a society that despite its multiculturalism still places obstacles in the path to the fulfillment of their desired professional and social status. The discrimination of Muslims operates in numerous domains, and it targets their religious and racialized belonging. In particular, laws and policies that limit the wearing of religious and cultural symbols and clothing result in the exclusion from employment of those Muslim women who decide to visibly express their religious or cultural belonging. The aim of this chapter is to analyze these facts through recalling concrete life experiences of women and through approaching the discrimination that they live with an intersectional lens. This approach highlights how the combination of different identity markers operates within processes of discrimination. It also stresses the fact that Muslim women are active agents with a set of strategies to confront the difficulties that they encounter. Through a variety of actions ranging from individual resilience to collective resistance, Muslim women manage to capitalize their multiple belongings that are objects of discrimination and to struggle against marginalization, thus reaffirming their role as active players not only in their life experiences but also in the society in which they live.

The chapter begins by introducing the research topic and analytical tools then presents and discusses contextual elements and experiences of a sample of Muslim women. The research is based on both a literature review and extended ethnographic fieldwork conducted with Muslim women and men, as well as with organizations dealing with discrimination issues from 2015 to 2018 in Belgium. Fieldwork included semistructured interviews with key social actors, as well as participant observation of antidiscrimination initiatives (seminars, meetings, sensitization activities, women’s “safe spaces” for discussion, etc.). Through fieldwork, I collected life histories and experiences of Muslim women with different sociocultural and economic profiles. Most were born in Belgium but had a migrant family background with their parents coming, in most cases, from Morocco but also from Turkey or from other Arab countries such as Tunisia or Algeria.

Intersectionality and Muslim Women

As already discussed in the introduction of this book, intersectionality is both a complex concept and an approach originally used to study issues of discrimination and subordination affecting women’s life experiences. The concept of intersectionality describes a process of discrimination and subordination that operates at the intersection of race, class, gender, sex, ethnicity, nationality, ability, age, and any other identity markers and that shapes complex social inequalities (Crenshaw 1991; Collins 2015). As an analytical approach, intersectionality emerged in a US context to unpack the categories of “women” and “Blacks” in order to study the intersection of different social divisions in women’s life experiences (Yuval-Davis 2006), and intersectionality denounces the tendency to naturalize these divisions (hooks 1981). Intersectionality is an approach attentive to power relations and social inequalities; it is an analytical strategy that provides new perspectives on social phenomena, thus becoming not only a field of study but also a critical praxis (practical-oriented research work) that informs social justice projects (Collins 2015).

This approach constitutes an alternative feminist tool that counters the hegemonic discourse about women in Western contexts (Anthias 2002, 279). This means that it provides different views and different claims about gender inequalities than those commonly found in Western mainstream feminist discourse. In fact, the latter, despite its wide adoption, is not necessarily adapted to address particular forms of discrimination experienced by women from minority cultural backgrounds, since it does not take into account elements affecting them in their specific and complex contexts. In particular, the Western feminist approach based on the denunciation of patriarchy and men’s domination is reductive and does not function in every cultural context (Mohanty 1984). Besides shedding light on different and/or additional factors that contribute to gender inequalities, the intersectional approach gives feminist social actors, who are originally excluded from the development of this hegemonic discourse, the possibility to propose new forms of understanding and thus fight against intersectional gendered-based discrimination. With regard to Muslim feminists in particular, the intersectional approach enables them to counter those discourses spread within the Western feminist hegemonic narratives that see Islamic feminism as an “oxymoron,” since this religious tradition is seen as inhibiting the possibility of women’s emancipation. In general, a process of politicization of women’s voices addresses the overall system of domination affecting women beyond the private sphere and helps elaborate new forms of empowerment and social reconstruction (Crenshaw 1991). The socially imposed identity is reversed and becomes an anchor of subjectivity: women adopt a positive discourse of self-identification and actively position themselves within the lived political context.

Applying an intersectional lens to the study of the discourses about Muslim women in Europe means, first, to highlight the specific forms of discrimination that they undergo and, second, to describe the particular ways adopted to fight them. Muslim women in the West are often depicted as either dangerous or oppressed others (Mirza 2013, 7), and this occurs through a process of racialization that essentializes (religious gendered) identity. It is a process of “race-making” and “othering” connected to racism, a particularly virulent form of construction of cultural boundaries through discourse and practices aimed at subordinating, excluding, and exploiting racialized individuals on the basis of an assigned origin (Anthias 2016) and skin color (Torrekens and Adam 2015). In Belgium, this process operates in the context of a secularized and Christian-origin state of white European majority, where Muslim people embody the “cultural other,” (i.e., individuals seen as nonwhite and with religious beliefs based in foreign contexts and origins). This process of othering may concretely shape in different forms and engage a variety of discriminating discourses and practices, depending on the specific origins associated with Muslim people such as North African, sub-Saharan, or European descent. Keeping Muslim people outside this majority is a means of perpetuating state sovereignty over its subjects (Fadil 2016), constraining any possible challenge to it. A process of racialization is at the heart of anti-Muslim discrimination and also has a profoundly gendered dimension (Fadil et al. 2014, 226; Bracke 2007; Mescoli 2016, 2019). In fact, discourses on the extent of women’s emancipation are used as “boundary marker[s] of Western civilization” and they aim at depicting Islam as “women-unfriendly” (Fadil et al. 2014, 226). Therefore, Western feminist discourse about Muslim women mainly comprises rescue narratives and politics (Abu-Lughod 2002). As highlighted by Fadil et al., “The question of women’s oppression, neutrality, or the need for an ‘enlightened’ or ‘modern’ Islam” (2014, 242) generates “a sense of discomfort over the headscarf” conceived of as “a sign of a return to tradition or a rejection of Western norms and values” (2014, 226). Antiveiling sentiments (and policies) emerge as parts of anti-immigrant prejudice (Saroglou et al. 2009) and significantly affect Muslim women’s everyday experiences.

Scholars show that these processes generally occur within discursive contexts that are not neutral and, through discriminatory legislation and negative media representation of Muslims, contribute to the emergence of Islamophobic and racist acts (Ameli et al. 2012, 2). Islamophobia is a form of “racialized governmentality” composed of “a series of interventions and classifications that affect the well-being of populations designated as Muslim” (Sayyid 2014, 19). In parallel, Islamophobia results in culturalist discourses and acts that target Muslims’ alleged “unsuitable cultural and religious background as the reason for economic exclusion and marginalisation” (Zemni 2011, 29). Different Belgian actors (scholars, associations and NGOs, state institutions) use or critically address the term of Islamophobia and thus produce knowledge from diverse perspectives. Some also question the appropriateness and efficacy of the notion of Islamophobia, since the etymology of the word—recalling a fear and an irrational rejection—would not appropriately describe the processes of discrimination at stake (Dassetto 2009), making the term counterproductive (Maréchal et al. 2016). Islamophobia is then “a contested concept, both in and outside of academia, which also accounts for the reluctance in its adoption” (Fadil et al. 2014, 251). Despite divergent perspectives on Islamophobia, there is agreement on the spread of discourses that target the presence of immigrants as generating or worsening economic, social, and political problems of a society, thus putting social integration at risk (Martiniello, 1996) and on the fact that in recent years “it is Islam which is more and more often put in the dock” (Martiniello 1995, 80; also see Allievi 2005).

Muslim Women in Belgium: Between Undergone Discrimination and Exerted Agency

Belgium is among those territories where Muslims are represented mainly as immigrants (Sayyid 2014, 64–65). The number of Muslims in the country is determined through estimations, since there is no registration of religious or philosophical affiliations (Husson 2015). Estimates range from 250,000 to 400,000 (Torrekens 2005, 56) and up to more than 600,000 Muslim people including converted persons (Hertogen 2008).

In Belgium, the principle of neutrality stipulates that the state does not intervene in the nomination of religious officials and that it ensures equal treatment to the officially recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox liturgy). The process of recognition of Islam as official religion in Belgium has led to the creation of an official representative body (the Executive of Muslims in Belgium, EMB) to function as the main interlocutor between the “Muslim community” and the state. However, these assumptions and the existence of this organization do not prevent the shaping of an institutional context that affects Muslims and Muslim women in particular. Indeed, despite alerts about the increase of racist discourse and action against Muslims EMB has made no overt opposition, shifting from neutrality to a widespread laïcité (meant as public and institutional secularism), the state creates forms of structural discrimination in the public sphere and contributes to their emergence in the private one. This process mainly operates with regard to veiling. The face veil ban was created by the law of June 1, 2011, with almost unanimous approval and supported by arguments depicting the wearing of face veils as an extreme form of women’s cultural oppression. This and other regulations based on the principle of neutrality have consequences for Muslim women who wear headscarves. For example, women are usually forbidden to wear headscarves in educational institutions and when working in the public sector. This taken together with recent international decisions provides a sort of institutional legitimization to those employers who restrict the wearing of headscarves in the private sector. For instance, in 2017 the Court of Justice of the European Union allowed employers in the private sector to adopt internal regulations that prohibit wearing visible signs of political, philosophical, or religious convictions (Court of Justice of the European Union Cases). In Brussels, the ban was lifted in July 2019 from high schools, thus leading to an improved situation concerning the access to higher education for Muslim women wearing headscarves. This is not the case in other regions of the country such as Flanders and Wallonia, where bans existing in schools are lifted only in the case of successful lawsuits. This complex situation depends on the fact that in the Belgian federal state, regions are in charge of competences related to education.

Several civil society and antidiscrimination bodies denounce the increased occurrences of religious discrimination, as well as the overrepresentation of Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, in these incidents. Figures and facts are provided by international associations such as Amnesty International but also and mainly by the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunity (Unia), that is the institutional body in charge of combating discrimination, and by associations such as the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium (CCIB). The restrictions on wearing the Islamic headscarf influence the educational and professional choices women make, and act as levers for auto-exclusion (Ben Mohamed 2004) from some professional routes. In fact, women frequently evaluate their employment opportunities based on the constraints that they will face as Muslim women, especially if they wear headscarves. The discrimination targeting Muslim women’s religious belonging intersects with other processes of subordination. First, there is the process of ethno-stratification of the job market (Okkerse and Termotte 2004; Tratsaert 2004; Martens and Ouali 2005). This notion describes a socioeconomic process leading to the concentration of workers of certain nationalities or origins in some employment sectors and jobs (Adam 2007, 225–226). People with foreign origins are overrepresented in the most precarious and poorly paid employment sectors, where working times are irregular and tasks are arduous. By contrast, they are underrepresented in public services and cultural institutions, among other sectors (Unia 2017). In parallel, unemployment rates and durations are higher among people of foreign origins than for Belgian people without foreign origin, also because youth, in particular, face difficulties finding and keeping a job (Adam 2007, 226–229). Discrimination (also operating in the domain of education) plays a role in the shaping of these structural constraints. Second, in Belgium as in other European countries, wage and employment gender gaps are persistent and amplified when comparing individuals with non-EU citizenship with Belgians, as highlighted by the research of the Institution for the Equality of Women and Men (Institute 2015, 44). This results in keeping women in a dependent status (EWL 2014, 18), and in orienting them toward limited professional choices. Consequently, the ongoing process of domestication of women, meaning their relegation to the domestic sphere, in terms of household and childcare (Rogers 2005, 18), is reinforced and extended to the work domain, where it results in a gendered stratification of jobs. This means more precisely that women are more often associated and oriented to jobs within the domains of care and education, for example, than toward the broader job market and its possibilities. Muslim women report that employment agencies may contribute to this process when they directly or indirectly orient Muslim women toward jobs that are supposed to be “adapted” to their needs. Many women recount having been asked to apply for housekeeping jobs, despite the fact that this was not necessarily their first aspiration and did not correspond to their professional or educational profile. Moreover, discrimination operates during job interviews with potential employers, where the latter ask women questions aimed at assessing their private experience of faith as Muslims, thus measuring their level of “Muslim-ness” (Mescoli 2016, 2019; Toğuşlu 2015). The aim would be to evaluate whether the interviewed women’s values and practices would be compatible or not to with those of the concerned firm or company. Unlike non-Muslim women, Muslim women have to face questions about their domestic intimacy rooted in the employer’s stereotypical visions of gender relationships within Muslim families. Imane, a Belgian-born woman, converted to Islam and married to a Muslim man, recounted to me discriminatory experiences that she underwent when she was looking for a job. Having a Belgian name, she was not discriminated against in the first selection phase, which often happens to women whose names are associated with a foreign origin. However, when she arrived at the interview wearing a headscarf, employers were often surprised. Moreover, this generated unexpected questions, such as, “Does your husband beat you?” Employers posed other questions concerning individual behaviors that were not related to the job requirements and tasks, such as, “Do you shake hands with men? Do you pray five times a day?” Indeed, answers to these types of questions seem to take priority over assessing the Muslim women’s professional skills, and it can be particularly intense with women wearing headscarves. The consequence, as was the case for this woman, is often to reorient one’s professional ambitions (even if it is not necessarily always connected with dissatisfaction, as we will see later).

Muslim women wearing headscarves also suffer from discrimination when they try to access goods or services. For example, social workers and legal advisors of the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities have recorded several cases of women whom dentists refuse to treat unless they take off their headscarves and of women who were not served in some shops without being given an explicit reason. In discussion with me during interviews, some Muslim women also reported other episodes of discrimination such as when bus drivers did not stop when they were the only ones waiting at the bus stop, or when they were asked to take off their headscarves when entering the polling station to vote. Moreover, physical aggressions targeting Muslim women are not rare (Unia 2015; CCIB 2015) Furthermore, women face verbal abuse, both face to face and through the media: cyberhate speech appears through different Internet channels, such as email chains, comments on social networks or to online newspapers articles, etc. (see Centre 2009, 14–15). Attacking Muslim women also seeks to blame Islam for gender-oriented violence. Brems et al. report that several women experienced an increase in aggressive reactions starting after the previously mentioned face veil ban and from the debate generated by its mediatization: “The negative image of Islam in general and of the face veil in particular that is projected in the media seems to give people permission to react in an aggressive manner. . . . Moreover, it appears that many people now refer to the ban in their interventions vis-à-vis women who wear the face veil, acting as a kind of vigilante police” (Brems et al. 2014, 106). The authors report the “refusal of treatment of a veiled woman by hospital staff, refusal of vendors at a curio market to sell their goods to a veiled woman, and refusal by a school director to let a mother pick up her child from school when wearing her face veil” (106). Paradoxically, while in some cases some women abandoned the face veil or limited its use without changing their other habits, many others finally stop going out by themselves, since without the veil they no longer felt free to move or safe from the male gaze.

The multiple dimensions of discrimination toward Muslim women also include the fear of reinforcing stereotypical representations. In fact, some women who have suffered from domestic violence or from sociocultural pressure on gender roles by members of their family, may decide not to complain about the constraints that they live within in order “not to feed to the stigma” concerning gender relationships between Muslim women and men. As Imane explains, Muslim women often “do not want to talk about conflicts. . . . Maybe they were beaten, maybe they had a nice marriage. . . but if it was bad and violent, they don’t talk about it” (Imane, interview by author). The representation of Muslim women as either dangerous (allegedly connected to acts of terrorism directly or through their children or husband) or oppressed is hardly challenged in the media because of the absence of Muslim women in this domain, apart from cases where their religiosity is addressed. This is also connected to the fact that, in general, press and other media products are mainly produced by men in Belgium, as in other European countries, and that minority groups and people associated with Islam do not have the same access to public expression. In fact, the recognition of the active role of Muslim women in the social and political sphere is not systematic. Many Muslims affirm that their statements are often discredited through their religious affiliation as alleged prior interest in their claims and reasoning. While interviewing a Muslim woman working as a lawyer and scholar, she told me that for her and other Muslim women occupying similar roles in the society “it is difficult to be considered a valid intellectual, we are never detached from this belonging” (Nour, interview by author). This discrimination is perceived as a reiterated subtle form of microaggression (Solorzano 1998).

Reactions to discrimination are multiple, and the narratives that women shape are equally based on the intersection of diverse belongings. Muslim women shape a feminist discourse in which they promote women’s rights. Such discourse is also connected with a religious meaning, and it is for this reason that activists and scholars speak of specific forms of Islamic Feminism (see, for example, Hamidi 2015). Femininity is described as multifaceted life experience that includes religiosity without affecting the right of being active agents within society. Thus, Islamic feminists argue for guaranteeing freedom of religion. The actions implemented toward this aim by a variety of social actors including, but not limited to, those who associate with Islamic feminism, function in different ways. First, they promote a description of Muslim women’s life histories as diverse in order to highlight their autonomy and counter the idea that they are victims of patriarchal and misogynist cultural and religious principles. As a consequence, the decision to wear (any form of) headscarf is the result of “plenty of reasons and individual strategies. . . . There is a multitude of histories, a multitude of experiences, and we have to listen to this diversity,” as explained by Sarah (interview by author), a woman employed as a social worker and local politician. In her opinion, as for many other Muslim women with whom I spoke, wearing a headscarf also has personal meanings. The different existing forms of headscarves and their use testify to the complex rationales that underlie the active choice of wearing one among these head coverings (see, for example, Tarlo 2010). However, all forms of headscarf do not receive the same appraisal in the social and professional environment of women. Another woman, Nabila, working in a local association, recalled her experience of having been asked to wear a “more alternative and fashionable” form of veil than the traditional hijab that she used (Nabila, interview by author).

Additionally, several Muslim women can opt not to wear any form of headscarf. This choice can be driven by structural constraints, for example, if women are asked to remove their headscarf or in case they decide by themselves to do it to avoid discrimination in the professional domain. However, this choice may also be determined by the fact that some Muslim women do not consider the headscarf as a relevant element needed to shape and affirm their religious identity or because they do not find it necessary to make this identity visible. Both veiling and unveiling are bodily practices (Fadil 2011) adopted to shape Muslim women as autonomous subjects that embody and perform diverse “ideals of womanhood and of the moral system” and responding to different codes of modesty (Abu-Lughod, 1987: 160). Individual stories can also be publicly narrated, for example during sensitization activities such as intercultural initiatives, or through websites or blogs. During my ethnographic studies I had the occasion to meet Nadia, a young Muslim woman who was among the founders of a blog where everyday life stories are narrated by Muslim women living in Brussels. The aim of this and other similar initiatives is to deconstruct racialized gendered stereotypes that essentialize the religious component of Muslim women’s identity. Sarah narrated to me how important it was to show that Muslim women are engaged in a variety of initiatives: “I study at a music academy . . . I follow piano courses, I sing, I am in a theatre company and I think that when you see on the stage a person wearing a headscarf, this can also deconstruct prejudices . . . this puts questions.” (Sarah, interview by author) This woman also contradicts prejudices targeting the religious or racialized belonging of Muslim women by asserting her professional skills, as shown in the following statement:

When I was looking for a [sic] work, they told me: “how would you act tomorrow if in a help care interview you have in front of you a woman, a young girl, that wants an abortion . . . you with your headscarf, with your beliefs . . . how would you react?”. I always had the same answer: “I am here to listen to the person, I am here to give her space to speak about whatever problem she encounters, I am not here to judge her, I am not here to decide in her place, I am not there to direct her . . . I am here to help her, and if her choice is abortion, I will orient her toward those services that could accommodate her.” (Sarah, interview by author).

By this statement, this woman highlights the professional attitude that she takes when facing the requests in her job as a social worker, showing that this attitude is independent of her religious belonging. Similarly, Dounia, another woman working in an association that promotes gender rights, among other activities, stated:

Sometimes people do not imagine an Arab woman, Muslim or not, that is also professionally ambitious, that is interested in having a career . . . there are plenty of young women that are very engaged, they wear headscarves, they do not wear headscarves, some of them declare to be Muslim, others we do not know” (Dounia, interview by author).

Other ways of reacting to discrimination consist of detecting and denouncing racist and Islamophobic acts. Besides relying on the general antidiscrimination law of May 10, 2007, Muslim women and other social actors supporting their actions, such as the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, point to the need for developing specific forms of reporting that could enable women to describe the intersectional character of the discrimination they face. Specific forms of reporting would better account for the extent of the intersectional discrimination affecting Muslim women, as well as for the multiple criteria used to detect it, so to “have voices that speak about this, in order to objectify the phenomenon and make it possible to do advocacy . . . and to put the issue of Muslim woman on the European agenda”, in the words of a Muslim woman working as an advocacy officer in an NGO dealing with issues of racism (Loubna, interview by author). For Karim, a man engaged in fighting against Islamophobia, reporting includes “listing the factual, the observable and the measurable” so to “categorise and structure [victims’] ideas.” (Karim, interview by author). Legal fights against the undermining of Muslim women’s rights help women in their personal lives and are also effective in addressing the structural discrimination present in public institutions. An example is when a legal action results in the removal of the restriction to wearing headscarves from higher education institutions. Successful case laws and strategic court litigations foster the creation of specific “legal arsenals and coherent juridical arguments,” as stated by a lawyer expert in court cases related to the discrimination of Muslim women wearing headscarves (Safia, interview by author). Another example is the 2015 Actiris (the Brussels public employment service) case, concerning three women who were forbidden to wear headscarves in this service. Its positive outcome marked an important point in combating the discrimination of Muslim women since from that moment on the case could be used to support “lobbying, . . . advocacy, awareness raising, training”, and it reiterates the right to work as a “source of autonomy and subsistence,” recalled one activist Muslim man (Selma, interview by the author) and many of my research participants.

Other forms of combating the intersectional discrimination of Muslim women consist of various individual and contextual strategies that women use to deal with a professional and life context that is constraining. Some strategies may help women “adjust” to this context, a sort of resilience adopted to keep feeling comfortable with their bodies and with the space they cross and inhabit. Some women recount that they have finally been obliged to give up a professional career since wearing a headscarf was not allowed on the job. They then reoriented themselves professionally to other jobs, and they found reasons and motivations to engage with these new careers. This is the case for example of Louna, a woman that found her passion and vocation in teaching Islamic religion, notwithstanding the fact that this did not correspond to her original professional project. Other adjustments may include the choice of not wearing a headscarf while working, or of finding other types of head covering that are accepted at work. Other women also put in place acts of resistance supported by a sharp awareness of their rights—acquired through experience and study—and by the will of having their rights respected in spite of the difficulties that this implies. For example, Yasmine, a young woman providing for the needs of her two children, insisted on (and finally obtained) her right to wear a headscarf at work, and she did so by leaning on the fact that the social service agency who found her the job did not put restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols. In many cases, resisting social constraints and exercising individual strategies led women to share their expertise with other women. These efforts result in some women forming associations to support (financially, psychologically, and through legal advice) Muslim women victims of discrimination, and some others aimed at coaching and empowering women not to be discouraged by the difficulties they face. These were the choices some of my research participants made, particularly those who were determined to capitalize on their experience of discrimination and to promote actions aimed at reducing the possibility that other women face similar difficulties. Since employers were not willing to hire her, nor even test her professional skills, because she was “visibly” showing her Muslim religion by wearing a headscarf, Imane finally opted to create her own business. One service her firm provided was supporting other Muslim women in their job search, including preparing appropriate ways of answering discriminatory and stereotypical questions that employers might ask during job interviews. The aim of this, and other similar efforts (in the words of the initiators), is to remind Muslim women that they do have valuable skills despite potential employers’ attempts to dismiss them. Other possible actions are boycotting shops that do not allow employees to wear the headscarf, going to exams with witnesses able to record if discrimination takes place, among others. They also consist of more generalized actions of mediation (i.e., attempting first to find a negotiated solution among parties before or instead of resorting to legal procedure). A woman active in an antiracist association stated: “It is more through negotiation that we try to put forward the rights of the parties. . . we try to remind people that the law allows freedom of religion for everyone . . . and later [come] the sanctions, we first remind of the principle that is in this case that of the freedom of religion” (Lina, interview by author). Negotiation is aimed at promoting the adoption of inclusive policies that benefit Muslim women and potentially other individuals (e.g., when they help put in place more flexible regulations that comply with a variety of individual needs). Some examples of companies or institutions that implement an “inclusive neutrality” exist in Belgium. For instance, the public social welfare center in Louvain recently adopted an internal regulation allowing Muslim employees to wear headscarves if they desired to. Other organizations create more general “diversity plans” aimed at providing victims of discrimination with appropriate support, as well as to promote diversity within public services or businesses. However, the introduction of an “ethnic” or “diversity” quota that can be included in such policies is strongly criticized by several actors that point out the risks of using a tool that may contribute to the perpetuation of a process of racialization aimed at marginalizing people with migrant backgrounds.

Concluding Remarks

The feminist project of adopting an intersectional approach to the study of women’s subordination and, in particular, of the life experiences of Muslim women, is based on the consideration of women’s multilayered identities operating at “the interplay of different locations relating to gender, ethnicity, race and class (amongst others)” (Anthias 2002, 275). As any other individuals, Muslim women are associated with a set of categories that link to gender (they are women), religious belonging (they are Muslim), cultural or ethnic belonging (they may have foreign origins and they are racialized), socioeconomic and professional status (they are students, workers, unemployed, etc.), and personal status (they are wives, mothers, daughters, etc.). This composite positioning, on the one hand, has to be considered when analyzing the specific and complex forms of discrimination and subordination that Muslim women may undergo and that affect their life experience at the intersection of these categories. Yet this positioning has a political scope that allows women to formulate claims related to each of their identity markers and at their intersection, for example regarding equal access to education, jobs, and social resources. Women’s life histories and narratives of belonging are then forms of social action that operate in a context where institutions attempt to regulate and control the political subjectivities of the members of minority groups. The aim is to contribute to “a process of maintaining and sustaining a cultural and political hegemony within the nation” that responds to a moral “anxiety over the potential loss of hegemony in defining the contours of the nation state” (Fadil 2014, 251; also refer to Appadurai 2006 and Povinelli 1998). Operating in such a context means to challenge and transform hegemonic discourses of race, gender, and religion (Mirza 2002, 6), thus exerting agency (the capacity of action within a given sociopolitical structural context that may constrain individual and collective responses) (see Ahearn 2001, among others). Going beyond the dichotomy between subordination and resistance and “mak[ing] sense” of their religious life experiences (Bilge 2010, 22; Mahmood 2005), contemporary Muslim women enact agency through embodying the intersectional categories of belonging that they are assigned to or that they claim. Their action consists of defining specific forms of feminisms that are anchored in their identities, including their religion, and that are situated in the European context, thus contributing to the constitution of a European intra-Islamic field and its integration into global/worldwide (Muslim) space (Djelloul and Maréchal 2014). By doing this, they assert the need for an institutional recognition of their legitimate inclusion in the sociopolitical and cultural context where they live: that means fulfilling their rights, just as any other citizens, and ensuring the possibility of exerting them.

Review Questions

  • Describe how intersectionality operates with regard to the discrimination and subordination of Muslim women, by:
    • defining the key notions that you use; and
    • bringing a concrete example in form of life history (not necessarily among those studied in the chapter);
  • What does the notion of “agency” mean and how can it be applied to describe the strategies put in place by Muslim women to counter discrimination and subordination (provide with a concrete example)?

Key Terms

agency: the capacity of a person to act independently and make their own choices within the constraints of the social structure; these can conform to or resist cultural expectations.

ethno-stratification: In the workplace, this notion describes the socioeconomic process leading to a concentration of workers of certain nationalities or origins in particular sectors and jobs.

hegemonic discourse: a discourse that promotes the dominance of one group over another supported by legitimating norms and ideas that normalize dominance. Using collective consent rather than force, dominant social groups maintain power, and social inequalities are naturalized.

intersectionality: refers to the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, and gender that create overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage. The goal of an intersectional analysis is to understand how racism, sexism, and homophobia (for example) interact together to impact our identities and how we live in our society.

Islamic feminism: A feminist movement that seeks freedom of religion on the basis of a multifaceted definition of femininity that recognizes both religiosity and women’s agency within society.

Islamophobia: fear of, and prejudice against the Islamic faith and Muslims in general

racialization: the process of ascribing a racial identity and associated traits to a group. These characteristics are often defined by a dominant group with the aim of discriminating against and excluding the subordinate group.

Resources for Further Exploration

The ethnographic material used in this chapter has been collected within the framework of the following research programs, whose publications are of help to deepen some of the topics as well as further contextual elements addressed in this chapter:


The author thanks all the Muslim women who have shared their life experiences for this chapter.


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About the author

Elsa Mescoli is an anthropologist affiliated with the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies (CEDEM) at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Liege, where she is working as lecturer assistant and postdoctoral researcher. She obtained a joint doctorate in anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca, Italy, and political and social sciences at the University of Liege, Belgium. Her thesis focused on food as a means of defining subjectivity in the context of migration. Mescoli’s present research interests include the discrimination of Muslims and public opinion on migrants, with a focus on asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants. The list of her publications and presentations is available at



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