Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium: Ever Shrinking Spaces

Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium: Ever Shrinking Spaces.

Dr. Amina Easat-Daas

Macron and his government’s recent crackdowns on Muslimness in France signal the further shrinkage of viable spaces for the public and visible presence of Muslimness in the nation. In early October 2020 Macron outlined plans to legislate prevention of ‘Islamist separatism’, but for many this recalled the French colonialist project the ‘code de l’indigénat’, which regulated the indigenous Muslim populations and in particular the nature of Islam in the colonies. Macron’s speech was soon followed by murder of French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, which sparked national (and arguably international) debate around Charlie Hebdo, the freedom of speech, and the place of Muslimness in France. As is often the case in French politics, such debates took place with a distinct absence of Muslim voice and representation.

In late October 2020 controversy continued further with the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin’s calls for the dissolution of prominent Muslim organisations in France. Among these were the humanitarian organisation, BarakaCity and the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France – the Counter Islamophobia Collective in France, an awareness and advocacy group who are among, if not the principal actor in combatting Islamophobia in France. French political officials appeared somewhat oblivious to the fact that the call to dissolve these French Muslim organisations without any substantiated evidence to legitimise the action clearly contradicted the 1901 French Freedom of Association law, which guarantees French citizens the right to engage and even develop their own associative politics. On the other hand, perhaps this move underlines the extent to which the French political elite do not see French Muslims as French citizens and as such French Muslims remain the perpetual incomplete citizen.

This clear example of the shrinking of spaces for political participation by and representation of French Muslims is not the only measure that limits the presence of Muslimness in France. For example, the implementation of the 2004 Loi Stasi limits the presence ‘ostentatious faith symbols’ in French schools and the 2010 Loi anti-niqab (Burka ban) These legislative measures disproportionately impact gendered Muslimness in France and are framed on the grounds of an arguably ‘falsified’ laïcité (French secularism).

Similar narratives are increasingly evoked in Belgium, a nation which officially recognises and supports faith groups, including Islam. In June 2020, the Belgian Constitutional Court ruled to implement a ban on philosophical, political and religious symbols in higher education on the grounds of ‘neutrality’. This ban was met with strong condemnation, particularly by Belgian Muslim women since they would be disproportionately impacted by the measure. On 5th July 2020 thousands assembled in Brussels to protest the ban, bearing placards with slogans such as “Stop telling women what to do with their bodies”, “I cover my hair not my brain” and “Belgium your Islamophobia is showing.” Given its federal constitution, the ban has since been overturned in Wallonia, but remains in place in Flanders. Such limitations in Belgium and in neighbouring France limit both the short-term educational engagement opportunities for Muslim women in the two cases, but also limit these women’s future engagement and insertion into society. This exclusion disadvantages Muslim women but also perpetuates their outsider status and the perception of their being unassimilable.

Against this backdrop of distinct Islamophobia, and particularly gendered Islamophobia in France and Belgium, my recently published book, entitled “Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium” examines the nature of participation in politics – across a range of levels from supranational, national regional, local politics and grassroots activism by self-identified Muslim women in the two cases. Statistical evidence by Sinno (2009) points to Belgium having proportionally the highest rates of Muslim political representation in the West, but conversely this proportionally lowest in France.

My book is based on data derived from semi-structured interviews with Muslim women who participate in politics in France and francophone Belgium. The analysis of this data was divided into three principal sections; firstly the examination of the factors that motivated Muslim women to participate in politics, secondly the nature of the opportunities encountered by the women in France and Belgium and finally, the study examines the reported barriers to participation in politics experienced by French and Belgian Muslim women.

Muslim women’s expressed motivations to participate in politics were as diverse as the interviewees themselves. In France, primary Participate in politics was shaped by key catalysts in political sphere of France. For example the 2002 presidential second round run off run off which saw Jacques Chirac pitted against the far-right party presidential candidate, Jean Marine Le Pen, respondents in the study sample felt motivated by these events and their strong anti-racist ideals to become engaged in politics, this was very much reflective of the French culture of protest. Although post-data collection, the events described above are similarly likely to have motivated Muslim women in France and Belgium to become active in politics. For example, in discussion of the state regulation of Islam, an interviewee stated: “When I hear ‘French Islam’ it makes me cringe a little or [if I hear about the] Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, the thing that Nicolas Sarkozy created with the [Grande] Mosquée de Paris etc. He created it to regulate Muslims…” In sum, the consistent need to defend and fight for one’s right to exist as a French or Belgian Muslim and to practice one’s own interpretation of Islam is a key catalyst in motivating Muslim women’s political participation.

Additionally, further motivators included their hybrid Muslim and European identities and the central emphasis on social justice apparent in the two, for example the women cited being compelled by local rates of homelessness, racialised police brutality or sustainability among other issues. However, particularly in France, the women noted that they could not publicly express that Islamic values around social justice had inspired their activism and doing so would constitute career suicide.

Opportunities to participate in politics in the two cases was shaped by the political opportunity structures in each country. In short, in spite of legislated gender parity measures the majoritarian French political opportunity limited Muslim women’s participation in representative politics, thus following the pattern of reduced minority representation as typically seen in majoritarian systems. Contrastingly, the proportional system in Belgium coupled with compulsory voting and legislated parity measures, lent itself to increased political representation by Muslim women. However Muslim women’s participation in Belgian party politics was not straightforward, often Muslim women were sought out by parties, as one respondent notes “Political parties approach me [to be a candidate], in spite of the fact that I am a woman, in spite of my headscarf, they [political parties] still approach me.” However once these women have been elected to office, they begin to face issues, as this interviewee points out: “Oh yes, there are loads of examples, there are loads of political parties that invite Muslim women who wear the headscarf to stand as candidates and they let them whilst maintaining their headscarf. But, when the time comes for her to assume her political responsibilities, to carry out her role, they will say yes, but without the headscarf.” The book discusses the way in which Muslim women fulfil gender parity requirements, can serve to secure the ethnic vote and present an outward image of diversity in the party, but regrettably face barriers once in office.

Barriers to Muslim women’s political participation were numerous and diverse in both cases. Like women globally, Muslim women faced barriers to participation stemming from their gendered roles in society, including homemaking for example. Similarly, women reported a lack of time being a key limiting factor in their politics. Specific to their Muslimness, the weaponization of laïcité and neutrality posed a significant barrier to Muslim women’s political participation. For example, regarding the headscarf in French politics, this interviewee notes: “You will never see a headscarf wearing women in the National Assembly. It is now impossible. Even among the most progressive parties … the headscarf halts political participation.”

Against a backdrop of growing political discourse and legislation surrounding their gendered Muslimness and Islam more generally in the two cases, Muslim women’s political participation in France and Belgium is both central to their citizenship, a means of contesting their ‘otherisation’ and foregrounding their voices in the political and social arenas, but as the findings presented in book highlight, the road is long but not impossible.

To read more, you can purchase Dr Amina Easat-Daas’ book Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium here.

CURA invites expressions of interest from outstanding prospective PhD students

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) invites expressions of interest from outstanding prospective PhD students, who would like to apply with us for an AHRC Midland 4 Cities PhD Scholarship. We welcome applications from students developing innovative, interdisciplinary and internationally relevant research ideas, which intersect area-based and urban studies, humanities, arts and culture. Potential themes include but are not limited to arts and urban politics, urban cultures, the creative and social value of cities and urban political-economic narratives. Given the competitiveness of this scheme, applicants should have both a first class honours degree and a masters degree with distinction (or international equivalent).

In the first instance, prospective applicants are invited to submit an outline proposal of around 750 words, outlining the project and explaining its fit with both CURA and the Midlands 4 Cities scheme. Successful candidates will be invited to develop the outline proposal for a full application. The outline proposal should include the following:

– Overview of project and research questions

– Explanation of intellectual positioning, originality and M4C relevance

– Likely research methodology and methods,

– Brief explanation of why you want to study with CURA and your preferred supervisor(s)

The outline proposal should be submitted, with a CV, to the CURA Institute Head of Research Students, Dr Mercè Cortina Oriol at merce.cortina-oriol@dmu.ac.uk by Monday 2nd November. Further information about the Midlands 4 Cities Doctoral Training Programme, including eligibility and timelines, can be found at https://www.dmu.ac.uk/research/midlands4cities-dtp/m4c.aspx.

For more information about CURA, our 2020-21 research brochure can be downloaded from here.

Please email Dr Mercè Cortina Oriol if you have any queries.

Governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance: democratic radicalization and co-optation in the case of Barcelona

The participatory and deliberative democratic ideals that underpin participatory governance have gained much popularity with the media and political elites, with illustrious cases such as recent citizen assemblies in Ireland, the UKand France grabbing headlines. These so-called “invited spaces”, because they are generally top-down and opened by public agencies, have been criticised for sanitising and de-politicising participation. Indeed, right at a time when their numbers are growing, the space for meaningful citizen input is paradoxically constrained by technocratic decision-making and the related rise of authoritarian populism. However, the past decade has also witnessed a global expansion of calls for more transformative democratic participation, driven by anti-austerity movements, from Occupy to the Indignados, climate protests such as Extinction Rebellion, or movements for race equality such as Black Lives Matter.

In our paper, recently published open access in EJPR, we focus on changes in participatory governance in the city of Barcelona, whose recent history has included a significant shift from a top-down approach to participatory governance towards attempts to institutionalise more radical and bottom up forms of participation. Inspired by the demands of social movements following the 2008 financial crash and a period of punitive austerity measures, political actors associated with radical municipalist politics have attempted to reclaim and reinvent participatory governance since coming to city office in May 2015. In the paper we explore how these changes were implemented. We move beyond a static and dichotomous understanding of top-down and bottom-up participation and instead we document their dynamic relationship as part of broader processes of political and institutional change.

From governance-driven democratisation to democracy-driven governance

Our paper begins by conceptualising two forms of participatory governance: Mark Warren’s  “governance-driven democratization” and our own concept of “democracy-driven governance”. While it might sound like a tongue-twister, we believe that this distinction is important to capture recent developments in participatory governance. Warren’s governance-driven democratisation describes elite-led participation, which aims to respond to the crisis of trust plaguing representative institutions and help public agencies reach better decisions to increasingly complex issues, while defusing possible conflicts arising from such decisions. Democracy-driven governance, on the other hand, reflects social movement-led participatory governance, which reclaims the spaces of governance-driven democratisation and transforms them into something that can respond to bottom-up demands.

These two concepts are neither fixed nor mutually exclusive. Building on past work that has categorised spaces of participation and begun to theorise their fluidity, we set out to examine more precisely how governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance emerge, develop and interact through a longitudinal analysis of governance changes in Barcelona from the 1980s to the present. We do this in three steps:

· First, we define the shared and divergent characteristics of both concepts. They are both forms of softly institutionalised citizen participation, or what we call routinised participation, but they differ in the reach and scope of the participatory governance they envisage. Governance-driven democratisation seeks to preserve and improve existing institutions by incorporating participation. Democracy-driven governance also seeks institutional improvement but draws much of its inspiration from the prefigurative and effervescent forms of bottom-up democracy that we see when social movements challenge existing arrangements.

· Second, we move beyond presenting a dichotomy by theorising that both forms exist in a dynamic relationship with each other. It is well established in the participatory governance literature that just as “claimed” spacescan close through assimilation, top-down spaces can open “new fields of power” and new opportunities of democratisation. We theorise that regime change, from governance-driven democratisation to democracy-driven governance, can occur at “tipping-points” whereby external shocks, or crises, interact with agential variables such as political leadership and institutional and structural variables such as political and economic context and associational density.

· Third, we put some empirical meat on the bones of this theoretical discussion, through a longitudinal analysis of changes in participatory governance in Barcelona.

The case of Barcelona

Following the democratic transition from Fascism in the 1970s, Barcelona’s participatory governance institutions developed into something closely resembling governance-driven democratisation. Over the 1980s and 1990s, a centre-left leadership oversaw a relatively successful process of post-industrial conversion into a tourism and service-based economy. The participatory infrastructure that had developed as a reaction to Franco’s regime was made functional to this growth model, with opposition placated trough incorporating actors from neighbourhood assemblies. Counter-hegemonic spaces began to flourish where social movements collaborated with critical public servants to develop alternative regeneration models. In what is clearly characteristic of a kind of coexistence and interaction between governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance, Ismael Blanco foresaw that this “alternative network” could prefigure a more radical future approach to urban governance.   

The 2008 financial crash and the ensuing period of austerity marked the tipping point that shifted the governance trajectory. Social movements such as the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH) and the Indignados emerged nationally, and in Barcelona they led to the formation of the “movement-party” Barcelona en Comú (BeC) which won the 2015 Municipal elections on an ambitious platform, developed through direct forms of citizen participation and calling for social change and the rollback of neoliberalism. Once in government, the new administration embarked on an ambitious reform programme that ranged from public service re-municipalisation to the promotion of co-operative enterprises. Its policy agenda continued to be informed by citizens and social movements, through interlinked online and offline channels of participatory governance that built on and transformed the pre-existing participation infrastructure.

What can we learn from this case?

BeC’s attempts at institutional change faced fierce opposition from a “pro-status quo coalition”, with influence over, and allies in local and national media as well as within the machinery of government. The limited regulatory powers of the City council constrained capacity for radical reforms, and this highlights the importance of democratic decentralisation to enable local projects for democratic deepening.

One of the major strategies followed by BeC to maintain momentum behind its reform agenda was the continued mobilisation of social movement allies. While important tensions arose as policy delivery failed to live up fully to expectations, empirical research highlights that critical social movements continue to see BeC as an ally, though maintaining their contentious capacity. But the stability of these alliances is by no means guaranteed.

We chose Barcelona as a paradigmatic case of the kinds of processes we want to theorise, but we think that the concept of democracy-driven governance travels just as well to contexts that are not as directly linked to the material fallout from capitalist crises. During the COVID pandemic, we witnessed an outpouring of bottom-up social action, not least through autonomous mutual support networks, providing a stark contrast with the more visible centralisation of power as governments entered crisis management. Will the post-Covid-19 world also generate opportunities for transition towards more radical democratisation? Given the connection between COVID and environmental destruction, might we expect calls for democracy-driven governance to arise from environmentalist groups? Further research into the conditions of emergence of democracy-driven governance might also help us to develop understanding of its resilience in the face of constraints and co-optative pressures.

Dr. Adrian Bua is Lecturer in Urban politics at De Montfort University
Dr. Sonia Bussu is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Manchester Metropolitan University

After the “Age of Austerity”: From COVID-19 to a New “Social Contract”? 

This article comments on findings from a survey of 1,151 respondents undertaken during July/August 2020 by the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value (IAESV) and Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) at De Montfort University, Leicester. It explores a notable theme in the survey, the desire for a new programme of government with a more progressive, egalitarian and democratic character than the UK has seen perhaps for decades, and certainly since the global financial crisis of 2008-9. Whilst there has for some years been evidence of such a trend in public opinion, alongside a shift towards socially conservative values (also captured in the survey), the experience of the pandemic appears to have amplified the public appetite for change.

Asked whether government should return to business as usual, or introduce a new programme, 81.4% thought there should be a new programme of government. We then posed a succession of questions about what should happen in future, and what public governance priorities should be. Asked whether we should be placing a greater priority on socialism or free market capitalism, respondents were ambivalent. They were also ambivalent about the extent to which austerity had contributed to Britain’s lack of preparedness for COVID-19, with many neutral on the question and only a slight bias towards the view that it had been harmful. Nevertheless, there was pronounced support for a raft of measures that diverge from the austere public policy priorities of recent years.    

Spending in the Pandemic: We identified overwhelming public support for the increase in public spending in response to COVID-19 (88.9%), with further majority support for continuing higher spending for as long as the virus is a threat. There was less clarity about whether higher spending should continue longer-term regardless of whether the virus remains a threat. However, there was considerable support for increasing taxes on wealth and high incomes, along with a desire for greater social equality.   

Forward Priorities: As to what Britain’s national priorities should be in the coming decade, driving economic growth and funding world class public services topped the list, especially more funding for the NHS. Greater equality was a high or medium priority for a large majority, so too preparing for future crises – perhaps unsurprisingly given the pessimism also expressed about long-term prospects for the UK and the world. Tackling climate change was a high priority, though support for government investment in a “green new deal” was not as high as this level of concern might have suggested. Asked about how views had changed since the pandemic, respondents indicated that they were more in favour of NHS investment, infrastructure spending, higher taxes and spending than they had been beforehand. 

Work and Workers: A significant majority indicated that all workers should be paid a decent living wage and investing in job quality was a priority. Respondents saw class inequality as a significant problem and held positive views about essential and key workers, indicating that improved pay and conditions should be a priority for this group. Views towards overseas workers accessing free health care were positive, and a significant percentage of respondents indicated they had gained a new appreciation for the role of foreign workers during the pandemic. Perhaps surprisingly, a majority reported that they were more in favour of government spending on welfare and benefits than before, with nearly 50% saying they favoured payments regardless of individual need.   

Given common demographic and political biases in surveys, the findings should be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, it is clear enough that there is no appetite for a return to austerity, and that there is an appetite for a new political-economic order. Politicians and commentators have tried to capture this sentiment, summoning the ghost of Roosevelt and the New Deal, while the Financial Times, fearful of rising alienation and social fracture, calls for a new “social contract”. The survey tacitly supports the view expressed by Dominic Cummings, that a majority would happily fleece the bankers and invest the money in the NHS, while also supporting socially conservative policies. 

However, for a Conservative Party long wedded to preaching the evils of big government, tax and spend, the public demand for economic progressivism is likely to be extremely divisive, unlike the social conservative impulses with which many of its MPs and members in any case sympathise. However, as the Conservatives at least gesture to a more expansive role for the state in “levelling up”, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is left with a puzzle about how to position itself. How can it plausibly oppose an agenda that it also espouses, albeit in a different form? What distinctive political ground can a party committed to moderating its post-Corbyn offer plausibly claim? How does Labour fight to reclaim the progressivist ground that it used to own?  If Boris Johnson is the unlikely face of a 21st century “New Deal”, does it oblige Labour to try and set out its own distinctive view of what this could mean under a Starmer government? Perhaps Labour strategists believe the party is better off keeping its counsel in the hope that a tired and lacklustre PM, heading a fractious party in a terrible public health and economic crisis, will eventually be hoist on his own petard. Electoral success for any party in the near future will depend on the ability to shape, challenge and respond to a new political conjuncture, crystallising at a most extraordinary point in the UK’s history. 

Professor Jonathan Davies

Professor Edward Cartwright

Dr Arianna Giovannini

Dr Jonathan Rose