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Besieged Life: Subjecting Liberal Muslim Women in the War on Terror

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Shareef, Amina 


This qualitative inquiry examines the subjection of young British Muslim women in a northern, post-industrial city in Britain. Research has established that Muslim women are constructed by security policy, popular media, film, television, and the news as abnormal, suspicious, and lacking agency. This racialised and gendered construction limits their access to, for example, employment and educational opportunities, and subjects them to verbal and physical violence on the street. Research has also shown that Muslim women are responding to anti-Muslim racism by modifying their sartorial practices and crafting their amiability, sociability, and respectability. While crucial for understanding the centrality of gender in the production of anti-Muslim racism and its impacts on Muslim women, the existing research has two tendencies that this dissertation seeks to redress. First, this scholarship tends to take a liberal perspective of racism and approaches anti-Muslim racism as a relationship between perpetrators and victims. And second, this scholarship tends to interpret Muslim women’s response to anti-Muslim racism as the creative identity work of affirming, managing, and navigating their Muslim identities. These tendencies mean that a view of anti-Muslim racism as a biopolitical project that exposes Muslim populations to premature death is missing. By premature death, I not only mean the uneven distribution of the loss of life as a result of racism, but also the unmaking of Muslim women as tawhidic subjects—subjects who are forged in relation to an Islamic worldview in which there is no god but God. Put otherwise, this view of anti-Muslim racism recognizes how it threatens Muslim people’s lives as tawhidic subjects. Tawhidic subjects become liberal subjects to protect themselves from actual violent threats to their lives as a result of extreme and everyday acts of anti-Muslim racism. This qualitative study with 76 young British Muslim women between the ages of 12-18 illustrates young British Muslim women’s subjection as liberal Muslim women. Muslim women in my study report self-regulating their Muslimness by conforming to secular and normative models of femininity, citizenship, and religiosity. My study allows me to offer a conception of a figure that I am calling besieged life. Besieged life is a biopolitical subject that faces death on two fronts: a biopolitical front characterized by exclusion from education, employment, housing, healthcare, and so forth and a subjective front characterized by the devitalization of her tawhidic subjectivity. More than just facing death, besieged life is life that faces a deathly dilemma: biopolitical death or death of the tawhidic self.





Denmead, Tyler


War on terror, Anti-Muslim racism, Muslim women, Hijab, Racialisation, Subjection, Bare life, Biopolitics


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge