The project focuses on female Muslim leaders in Britain, including scholars, activists and intellectuals. Based on 10-12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, it explores how individual leaders establish and maintain authority across a range of transnational public spaces, and the extent to which they are reconfiguring structures of Islamic authority, which are largely male dominated, in Britain and beyond. This study contributes to the dearth of work on the informal public roles of Muslim female leaders in Europe. It also forms a substantial contribution to the social scientific literature on public religion, transnationalism, authority, and leadership.
The Leverhulme Trust
The John Fell Fund
The recent presence of these female scholars and activists is the result of an increasingly plural and fragmented landscape of Islamic knowledge that has, in the last thirty years, witnessed the growing popularity of lay preachers, activists, and scholars, alongside ‘traditional’ teachers. These, in turn, are producing alternative public discourses, styles of leadership, and ways of thinking, as well as employing new mediums and modes of transmitting their teachings. Unlike their male counterparts, female leaders in Europe rarely occupy prominent positions in mosques but often organise informal classes, post information online or provide support to small-groups of Muslim women. Interestingly, many work across different ‘publics’, and simultaneously teach, preach, appear in Muslim and mainstream media, or run online forums available to English-speaking Muslims.
Whilst the increasingly public role occupied by female scholars and activists within the Islamic revival in Muslim-majority settings has garnered some intellectual interest, the informal, public and transnational engagements of female Muslim leaders in Europe have yet to be studied ethnographically. The empirical work available on Islamic knowledge production and dissemination in Europe focuses mainly on male leaders or imams. This is, however, limited to formalised institutions and mosques. These female public actors are finding new roles within the production and dissemination of Islamic knowledge, thus expanding traditional structures of authority, orthodox forms of debate, and the forms and means of public engagement. This project, therefore, is empirically innovative and will offer ethnographic insight into the increasingly varied landscapes of Islamic activism of young female Muslims in Britain. It will also provide unique comparative material on changing forms of Islamic knowledge, authority and leadership, and the role of gender in transnational public religion.
Analytically, the project explores how individual leaders establish and maintain authority across a range of “publics”, and reconfigure existing structures of authority and forms of leadership. In so doing, it addresses a series of interconnected questions:
1. What are the public modes of reasoning and argumentation, and leadership styles employed by these female Muslim leaders?
2. How do these leaders develop and sustain transnational and national engagements, discourses and debates, and what role do these play in claims to authority and their involvement in public spaces in the UK?
3. What forms of inclusion and exclusion do they encounter, both within existing structures of Islamic knowledge production and dissemination, and the broader public spaces in the UK?
The project is based on 10-12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, involving interviews and participant observation amongst female leaders, analysing their forms of public engagements in a range spaces, both physical and virtual, in the UK and beyond. It focuses specifically on forms of reasoning, performance and leadership styles, transnational engagements, discourses and debates, and practices of inclusion or exclusion.
The research is divided into three phases. Phase 1 involves mapping different forms of public engagements of a relatively large sample of female Muslim actors. Phase 2 entails an in-depth study of 3 to 6 female leaders, who are engaged in influential forms of public reasoning. Finally, Phase 3 involves interviews with followers, and with male scholars to assess the extent to which the experiences of the female leaders differ to those of their male counterparts.