Carceral feminism puts Muslim women at risk

Photography by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Think more policing and harsher laws will stop violence against women? Think again. For Muslim women, in particular, it could only make life harder.

On 30th September, Sarah Everards murderer was sentenced at the Old Bailey to a whole-life term in prison. While this hearing was happening, just across the hall, Sabina Nessa’s alleged murderer was also appearing before the court. Both of these cases sparked a national discussion around gendered violence and what could possibly be done to protect women. It’s an urgent conversation, but many of the solutions being put forward will only create more problems.

In an article for The Sun, Jess Phillips, Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, wrote: If we are to end [violence against women], the police and government must get tough and treat violence against women with the same force – and funding – as terrorism.” Because terrorism laws have been so successful in the past and haven’t thrown up an array of their own issues, right?

This is an example of carceral feminism, a type of feminism that sees gendered violence as an individual problem that can be solved through the expansion of punitive measures and punishment. It typically calls for an increase in police on the streets, an increase in police and state powers, and harsher laws and policies.

But we know that we can’t rely on the police to keep women safe, because as we’ve learned from Sarah Everards case, sometimes the police are the perpetrators. So what will happen if there are more police officers with more powers? One thing’s for sure, it’s not going to result in less violence.

In fact, these kinds of measures will only end up harming women from marginalised communities even more. And there’s one group that would face an especially potent mix of issues when it comes to carceral feminist solutions to gendered violence: Muslim women.

Muslim women already have to deal with the state violence that comes with being a Muslim in the Western world, a reality that is a daily chore. Combine this with carceral feminism and you’ll simply get rampant gendered Islamophobia.

Mainstream media often painting the patriarchal system Muslim men exist in as completely separate to the patriarchal system everyone else lives in”


In the UK, Muslims have seen a huge increase in the surveillance of their lives over the past few decades, mainly through the Prevent legislation. Prevent is a national counter-terrorism strategy that was introduced in 2003 and gives the state wide-reaching powers to surveil and control communities it classes as a terrorism risk”. And it’s everywhere. Prevent is embedded in so many key areas of society, including education and health, and requires organisations to report any behaviour that’s seen as a precursor to radicalisation.

As of 2017, Muslims were 50 times more likely to be referred to Prevent than other groups. Even though referrals for Islamist” radicalisation and right-wing radicalisation are now beginning to balance out, referrals involving Muslims still increased by 6 per cent in 2020. Meanwhile, Prevent referrals for right-wing radicalisation decreased by 0.1 per cent in 2020 and has remained relatively stable for the last three years. Nearly two decades after its creation, Prevent is still having a disproportionate effect on Muslims.

Muslim children have been referred to Prevent for meaningless reasons, such as a teacher mistaking an eight-year-old’s T‑shirt slogan for ISIS propaganda, students wearing Free Palestine badges or reading books related to terrorism. A kid should be able to go to school without being interrogated by the police because their teacher made a mistake. How many white children would be labelled prone to terrorism” after wearing a badge?

An increase in state and police powers to combat gendered violence will only mean that this kind of surveillance will get even worse. Muslim men are often viewed as the worst perpetrators of misogyny and gendered violence in the UK, with mainstream media often painting the patriarchal system Muslim men exist in as completely separate from the patriarchal system everyone else lives in.

There is no better example than the narrative that developed around the Rotherham and Rochdale child sexual exploitation cases, which saw headlines about Muslim grooming gangs” splashed across newspaper front pages. Far-right groups capitalised on this rhetoric, with organisations such as the English Defence League using it to drive forward their anti-Islam” agenda. This isn’t to say that the Muslim community doesn’t have a problem with misogyny and gendered violence, because we do. But Muslim men don’t exhibit inherent or exceptional levels of misogyny.

This stereotyping, coupled with the fact that Muslim men are already repeatedly targeted by Prevent and the police, could, in turn, lead to even more Muslim men in the legal system and in our prisons (According to last year’s statistics, the proportion of Muslim prisoners increased from 8 per cent in 2002 to 16 per cent in 2020).

More men in prisons will then lead to the break up of families, potentially pushing many Muslim women into economic hardship as they single-handedly take care of their families. And it’s unlikely that the state will step in to help them. If it’s achieved its goal of protecting women”, their security will no longer be a state problem. Instead of helping Muslim women live safer lives, carceral solutions will simply leave them in even more precarious and vulnerable situations.

Due to the stereotyping of Muslim women as quiet, submissive and inherently victimised – perpetuated by fictional portrayals in TV series such as Homeland and the news, which tends to narrowly focus on stories around honour killings and violence – there could also be a tendency by state institutions to just presume that all Muslim women experience gendered violence, whether they’ve voiced this or not.

Operating alongside the existing suspicion of Muslim communities, an increase in the remit of the state could result in even more surveillance in the lives of Muslim women. Surveillance with the justification that it’s being done for our own good”, of course, but without ever asking or listening to what we actually want or need. And it might not just be the state that does the surveillance. Following the lead of institutions, the public could also end up engaging in a spy culture to protect” Muslim women in the same way Priti Patel had everyone snitching on their neighbours during lockdowns.

An emphasis on carceral feminist solutions could also lead to an even bigger push and justification for integration” initiatives that target Muslim women in an attempt to empower” them. It’s something we’ve already seen with then Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for English language courses for Muslim women in 2016.

These are integration initiatives that, again, operate under the assumption that Muslim women are submissive, oppressed and in need of liberation. They don’t have the goal of ensuring Muslim women are active participants in society but instead attempt to erase the religion and cultures of Muslims by westernising their lives.

An increase in police powers or harsher laws will only provide more of the groundwork needed to integrate” Muslim women, a process that will likely also be policed. It begs the question, would a Muslim woman who appears and acts more Western be safer? The answer is a resounding no.

We need to figure out a solution to gendered violence. But we also need to ensure that proposed solutions don’t simply protect a small minority of women, leaving the majority facing even more harm than before. Increased state surveillance and control, the break up of families, and the erasure of religion and cultures will not protect Muslim women from gendered violence. That isn’t what we need. What we do need is an intersectional approach embedded in every step taken to prevent this type of violence from happening in the first place, rather than bringing in harsher laws that are just a knee-jerk reaction to the problem. Muslim women, like all women, need to be included in the decision making. It’s our protection, our safety, our lives.

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