Anabel Inge: Salafi Women

Anabel Inge is the author of ‘The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion’ (OUP, 2016). This monograph is based on her PhD research, which she completed at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London. She has taught courses on Islam and the Anthropology of Religion at SOAS (University of London) and King’s College London. Here, we discuss her fieldwork, research findings, and the theoretical contributions of her account.


– What are you hoping to achieve with your book?

Anabel Inge: It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but I want to humanise these women. These are ordinary women who have made extraordinary choices, but they are ordinary, British women.

They’ve so often been stereotyped and caricatured, and it can be frustrating to see the gap between what’s said about these women, and what I’m finding by observing first hand, or by listening to them. I wanted to fill that gap, and, in doing so, destroy the obvious myths – such as that they’re forced to wear niqabs or have been brainwashed.

And then there are the less obvious myths that are often the subtext of these portrayals, such as the idea that they’re zealous religious fanatics whose lives revolve solely around rigid rules. In fact, I found they were ordinary and often ‘disobedient’ human beings, with competing responsibilities and attachments in their lives that weren’t necessarily just to do with religion.


– How did you decide upon your particular lines of research enquiry?

Anabel Inge: In the book, I start off by looking at conversion processes, but I go on to look at continuing engagement or commitment to Salafism and Salafi groups, and how it is lived out in practice, considering the kinds of challenges that these women face.

Taking conversion first – this came up very quickly. When you start spending time with proselytising groups, the first thing they want to tell you is their testimony. It also became clear that it wasn’t just the ‘total’ converts who regarded themselves as converts. Rather, there were also those who were ‘born-Muslims’ and seemed to have undergone a quite radical identity transformation and readjustment in their lifestyle and religious practices. Sometimes, this identity transformation could permeate their lives even more than in the case of somebody who was brought up in, for example, a non-religious family or a Christian family. Every case was different, but conversion seemed to be common to all of them. Indeed, some ‘born-Muslims’ called themselves converts, or told me things like: ‘When I became Salafi, I felt as though I was learning about Islam from scratch.’

As for engagement and commitment, those ideas emerged later in fieldwork as I spent more time observing the women – such as observing the gap between what I was hearing in the halaqa (study circle) and what I saw people doing. To take just one example: teachers would constantly extol the virtues of being an upright, diligent student of knowledge, meaning you attended study circles on a regular basis, you read relevant things at home, you recited the Qur’an. But I noticed that a lot of the women I was meeting at these circles were skipping lessons, often for months on end. They often had other responsibilities, or didn’t have the time, or even, perhaps, inclination.

My research was also informed by what the women directly told me. In this kind of fieldwork, I think it’s really important to keep an open mind, and to go into the field without a hypothesis to test, and not set the agenda myself through, for example, my interviews. So I tried as far as possible to take a non-directive, open, yet academically critical, approach.


– You write in your book that, ‘“Salafi” is an elastic identity label’. Can you elaborate on what you mean?

Anabel Inge: The identity label ‘Salafi’ literally means you attach yourself to the salaf, usually meaning the first three generations of Muslims, who are widely admired and respected by lots of different Muslims. As a result, it’s quite unsurprising really that insiders often invoke the label as a way of legitimising their conversion.

Similarly, it’s a very broad conception when academics use the label. In most cases, academics have followed the typology of Quintan Wiktorowicz, which sees Salafism as an umbrella term including some jihadi groups, some politicised or Islamist groups, and the ‘quietists’, who were my particular focus. Consequently, you end up with such a broad definition that you start to wonder how analytically useful the term ‘Salafi’ actually is.

My approach is to accept that this typology can be useful. But I also really think we need to try to understand the term ‘Salafi’ in specific contexts, such as the contemporary British context, where the label is used in a different way to how it was only 20 years ago.


– How would you characterise Salafism in the UK?

Anabel Inge: Salafism in the UK these days is largely a quietist movement. In terms of those who self-describe as Salafi, they tend to be towards the apolitical end of the spectrum, which means that they strongly promote obedience to the rulers and the law of the land, and oppose any activities that you might consider ‘political’. That could mean lobbying, demonstrating, or even voting.

It’s important to stress that the vast majority of self-described Salafis in the UK are opposed to ISIS, jihadism and terrorism. Often, Salafi leaders have very publicly challenged the arguments of these groups.

There is a complication here, which is that today you still find successor groups of Al-Muhajiroun using the label ‘Salafi’ as one of their many fronts. As you can imagine, this strategy causes a lot of distress to the Salafis whom I studied, because they then get mistaken for each other.

I think it makes most sense to use the Salafi label in the UK to apply to a quietist group, or a spectrum of politically quietist groups. That way, we avoid encouraging confusion between the quietists and those who are actually out to harm us – which can lead to further stigmatisation of non-violent Salafis, and also, potentially, criminalisation.


– What role did your gender play in your fieldwork?

Anabel Inge: Gender determined one of the most important parameters. I focused on women, rather than men or leaders, who are mostly men. In that sense my research had some limitations, although I still managed to conduct several interviews with male Salafi leaders.

But these research parameters were also beneficial. Once I got stuck into the academic literature on Salafism in the West, and in particular on Salafism in the UK, I noticed that there was a dominance of male researchers, and it appeared that their lack of access to women had to some extent shaped the lines of enquiry that had so far been pursued. To date, research had been geared towards certain directions, such as intra-Salafi rivalries, counter-extremism initiatives and the relationship between Salafism and violence.

These are all valuable themes, but focusing on women allowed me to explore something new within academia, and things that were also important to these women. For example, how do you get a job if you wear a face veil and/or a long black gown? How do you get a degree if you aren’t allowed to mix with men? How do you get through the day when you have a constant barrage of abuse in the street simply because you wear a face veil? How do you find a good Salafi husband, when you’re allowed only to speak to a suitor with a third person present – and only on a few occasions? So, these were the kinds of questions that were not only important to the women I studied, but also hadn’t been  tackled in what I was reading about Salafis in Britain.


– You have a chapter on marriage in your book. Can you tell us about some of the material it aims to cover?

Anabel Inge: In my fieldwork, I came upon an often-used expression: ‘Marriage completes half your din’ – said by one Salafi woman to her fellow Salafi sister. The latter would probably be younger and toying with the idea of getting married, sooner rather than later.

This idea is interpreted quite literally by Salafi women. By getting married, you open up the possibility of 50 per cent more reward in the hereafter – and that will help to determine your destiny, so this is a serious matter. In practice, it involves wifely duties such as obeying your husband, and maternal duties such as being a good mother – all of which are rewardable.

But then the risks associated with getting married are also high – so the stakes are high on both sides. As a Salafi woman, you know that you may be letting yourself in for an ordeal if you marry a man who’s looking for an excuse to control his wife, because you will be religiously obligated to obey him – unless, of course, he asks you to do something impermissible, such as not praying. And you also know that this will include any requests for sexual intercourse, and that he is entitled to marry again if he wants to take a second, third or even fourth wife.

So I was interested in how these women, who were well educated, negotiated these tricky issues with their own desire for a happy and stable union. To offer one example on the subject of polygamy: there were some women who said that they’d write into their marriage contract that if their husband were to take a second wife, he would have to divorce his first wife. So this wasn’t the same as saying he’s not allowed to practise polygamy – which would be akin to saying that polygamy is haram (forbidden) – but it’s a sort of way round it.


– What is ‘Salafi burnout’?

Anabel Inge: ‘Salafi burnout’ is a phrase that I believe was coined by Abdal-Hakim Murad. It describes a kind of collapse or a mental exhaustion that purportedly happens after an initial enthusiasm later fizzles out. After ‘burning out’, the former Salafi then becomes profoundly non-religious.

In the context of my fieldwork, I didn’t find it a particularly accurate phrase. It gives the false impression of a dramatic, sudden collapse in religiosity. And I didn’t come across a case like that – just as I didn’t come across a case of a sudden, immediate conversion, either.

Disengagement is often a very gradual and irregular process, consisting of lapses and surges in religiosity or practice. So, while disengagement certainly does happen in various shapes and forms, I would hesitate to use the term ‘burnout’ because of its radical, dramatic connotations in this context.


– What would you consider to be Salafis’ greatest reputational challenges in this contemporary context?

Anabel Inge: I found that Salafis were very open about their image problems. The most widely known trope is that they are very cold, harsh, judgmental people who, under the guise of giving nasiha (religiously sound advice) will rebuke people for not practising in the correct way, and assert their superiority in doing so. This reputation actually put a lot of people off Salafism – many of my interviewees had to wrestle against that reputational issue before they could consider converting.

And then, more recently, there have been a number of allegations made online by those claiming to be ex-Salafis, saying that leaders and other male Salafis – in both the UK but also abroad – have behaved inappropriately towards women. I have to say I couldn’t verify these accounts, which are vehemently denied by the leaders named in them.


– What do you see as the future of Salafism in the UK and Europe more widely?

Anabel Inge: Salafism in the UK and more generally in Europe is facing numerous challenges. In particular, there are ongoing concerns about radicalisation, and the emergence of ISIS. Many commentators have lumped Salafis and ISIS together, or at least associated the two by suggesting they share the same parent ideology. Undoubtedly, there are many similarities and features that they share in common with regard to their creed. But there are obviously very important differences, too.

Salafis in the UK have responded by, for example, publishing online refutations of ISIS and their jihadi ideology, which usually consist of quotations from the Qur’an, Salafi scholars, hadiths that are considered authentic, and words of the salaf. A leaflet that one particular Salafi preacher published went so far as to suggest that it is the duty of every Muslim to report any sign of terrorist plots to the authorities, which includes non-Muslim authorities. So, I think that they have opposed ISIS in very unambiguous and publicly available ways.

Another challenge is the possibility of more niqab bans. We already have them in countries such as France and Belgium, and there’s talk of niqab bans in other countries as well. My fieldwork suggested to me that a niqab ban would lead to the possibility that some Salafi women who regard the face veil to be wajib (religiously obligatory) will emigrate, either to another European country or a Muslim-majority country. These women are in a minority, since most regarded the face veil as only sunna, or highly recommended. But those who regard it as wajib will consider themselves to be earning a sin every time they step outside without a niqab – a sin that will count against them on Judgment Day, and so something that is a serious matter.

It’s worth saying that, as part of my fieldwork, I met a few Belgian and French Salafis who had migrated to the UK since the niqab bans and were now based in Birmingham. This migration reflects a recent move by one of the Salafi scholars in Saudi Arabia, who actually said that if you find it practically difficult to migrate to a Muslim country, then go to Birmingham where you can be part of the Salafi community there. These women told me that this journey was their ‘petit hijra’.  Hijra of course refers to the Prophet’s historical migration from Mecca to Medina, but also more generally means migration to a land where you are more free to practise your religion.

(November 2016)