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Be More British, Speak More English, Dress Like This - Another Normal Week for British Muslim Women

20/01/2016 14:59 | Updated 20 January 2017

Another week and another barrage of politicians and newspaper headlines place various demands on British Muslims. This week's disproportionately focus on Muslim women, calling on them to change the way they dress, speak more English more often, and reform Islam. Not asking for much then.

As unnecessary as they are tiresome, the real problem though is that this week's demands merely regurgitate ideas and approaches that have previously been shown to be unworkable or have categorically failed. More concerning though is that they once again illustrate how British politicians and the British media have been complicit for more than a decade in appropriating Muslim women for political and ideological gain.

From research undertaken with Surinder Guru, we found clear evidence of how successive British Governments had instrumentally used the issue of gender when seeking to engage with Muslim communities. As we put it, far from empowering Muslim women it instead reduced them - as also their concerns and needs - to little more than a novelty sideshow that was being surreptitiously scripted by those with all the power.

This week's announcements also fit this template.

So while Cameron said he was opposed to a French style blanket ban against the wearing of the niqab (face veil), he added that it was not only "proper and sensible" for public officials and institutions to be able to ask Muslim women to remove any coverings (face or hair) but also ban them if deemed appropriate.

Justifying this on the basis that "when you are coming into contact with an institution or you're in court, or if you need to be able to see someone's face at the border", the reality is that procedures are already in place for Muslim women who wear the niqab to remove it if requested.

Why then is Cameron calling for something that already exists? And if it is about being 'able to see someone's face', why is Cameron suggesting that hijabs (head coverings) could also be banned?

A further announcement has seen Cameron threaten to deport Muslim women who fail English language tests after coming to the UK on spousal visas. Under new guidelines, those women will be required to pass an additional English language test after two years at which time they will have to show a worryingly vague 'improvement'.

Underpinning the drive towards more Muslim women speaking more English more is something Alison Pearson gives a voice to in the Telegraph. For her, this is necessary as Muslim women appear to have the ability to reform Islam. As she explains, this is because "mothers can teach their sons better, but not if they don't have the words".

But as my research into the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group (NMWAG) showed, such views and indeed the demands that come with them are as unreasonable as they are destined to fail.

Formed in 2008, the NMWAG's remit was to advise Government on issues relating to the empowerment and increasing participation of Muslim women in civic, political and public life. Key to this was the explicit acknowledgement by Government that Muslim women were not only able to influence and challenge extremist ideologies but so too the religion, theology and culture of Muslims in Britain. To achieve these political aims, the Government imposed priority for the NMWAG was to challenge 'theological understanding'.

A vehicle through which Government sought to engineer if not necessarily exact power, the NMWAG was dismissed as a 'political fad' failing to offer any real or meaningful political empowerment to British Muslim women or indeed challenging theological understanding. Far from surprising, such 'top-down' interventionist approaches are always going to fail because insidiously underpinning them is the desire to re-make the Islamic tradition in Britain. Both then and indeed now, this is what is driving the political appropriation of Muslim women. Through them, the Government is trying to project its own liberal, communitarian and multicultural logic onto Islam. Like New Labour and the Coalition beforehand, the current Conservative Government is similarly hell-bent on trying to change British Islam.

And that is true of the Britishness agenda also, something I have recently written about in some depth. Far from being an approach seeking to shape or promote a British identity relevant for today's increasingly diverse Britain, the Government's Britishness agenda - telling Muslims to be more British - prefers to put forward a hollow and meaningless concept of British identity that discursively conveys and subsequently reifies who 'we' are not rather more than who 'we' are.

A forceful and vengeful political vehicle that seeks to differentiate, demarcate and subsequently discriminate against Muslims and their communities this week's political approaches and their appropriation of British Muslim women are little different.