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Muslim European Women: Challenges
and Opportunities

conference report

On February 24, 2009, the New York University Center for Dialogues hosted a panel discussion on “Muslim European Women: Challenges and Opportunities” in partnership with the Consulate General of Sweden. Observers see Europe as an ambivalently welcoming space for Muslims generally and especially so for Muslim women. Yet several recent studies have confirmed that Muslim European women are actively engaged in multiple spheres of European life and are becoming leading agents of change within their local and national communities. Although many still operate under some form of constraint — whether due to ethnic or religious expectations or simple prejudice — they have become instrumental in infusing a new vitality into “old” Europe.

The NYU Center for Dialogues convened this panel discussion to examine the challenges and opportunities that Muslim European currently face — at work, at home, at school, and increasingly in the political sphere as well. Speakers examined the prevailing pessimism — particularly in the media and political arenas — that surrounds Muslim women, and considered the policy implications of Muslim European women’s increasing are engagement in their communities.

The panel included Habiba Boumlik, Guest Professor of French at Sarah Lawrence College and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at SUNY Purchase, and Ann Dismorr, former Ambassador to Turkey, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan and author of Turkey Decoded (Saqi Press, 2008). Andrea L. Stanton, NYU Center for Dialogues Assistant Director, moderated the panel. Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, and Ulf Hjertonsson, Consul General of Sweden, offered welcoming remarks.

Welcoming remarks

Mustapha Tlili began by welcoming the audience and by referring to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, “old Europe.” Tlili stated that this would be an accurate designation for Europe’s former colonial powers. After the collapse of the colonial enterprise, the Muslim communities in Europe that began as groups of unmarried male workers were transformed into Muslim European communities of families and citizens.

The tension between tradition and progress is a major identity marker of minority groups in Europe, Tlili noted. This should not undermine some of the major obstacles that Muslim European women confront today, including honor killings; nevertheless, public opinion today pays less attention to the majority of Muslim European women and how they conduct their lives outside these marquee issues. Muslim European women today are engaged in the educational process and attend primary and secondary schools where they live. They are increasingly visible in business, and as public servants — even serving in the military. (Tlili referenced a March 4, 2006 special issue of Le Monde magazine that highlighted the accomplishments of Muslim European women in various countries.)

Yet, Tlili added, European governments do not know the exact number of Muslim women living in their countries or in Europe overall — in fact, the exact figures is widely debated. Regardless of their number, Muslim European women, and their position in and contributions to society, have been a focus of the NYU Center for Dialogues’ work for some time. Part of the blueprint for the Center’s May 2007 Salzburg conference on “Muslim Women and Youth in Europe: Source of Concern or Source of Hope?” was to highlight how Muslim European women have brought a new vitality to “old Europe”, and in doing so have defied many stereotypes. The Salzburg conference was followed by a one–day high–level meeting of European ministers, held in Slovenia, which affirmed a commitment to the formulation of a new “citizenship pact,” in which European Muslims will be fully accepted.

Tlili concluded his remarks by introducing the Consul General of Sweden, Ulf Hjertonsson, a career Foreign Service officer who previously served as Ambassador to Finland and to Spain. Ambassador Hjertonsson expressed his gratitude to the audience for their interest, to the panelists for their time, and to Tlili and Dr. Andrea L. Stanton for the NYU Center for Dialogues’ efforts in organizing this discussion on a subject he described as dear to the hearts of Swedish people. He noted that one part of the dialogue on this issue is dependent on the work of the United Nations–affiliated Alliance of Civilizations, in which the Center plays a key role. The Swedish Consulate is also active in the effort to foster dialogue, and recently hosted an “Abrahamic dialogue” between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Hjertonsson returned to of the phrase “old Europe,” noting that to him this phrase refers to a different Europe: the era of Al Andalus in Spain, when there was a peaceful symbiosis between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities, and Arab architects, artists, and scientists flourished. .

Hjertonsson also suggested that Rumsfeld’s idea of “old Europe,” does not reflect contemporary realities in Sweden. Of the country’s nine million residents, four to five hundred thousand are Muslim; in 2008 alone, the government accepted 45,000 Iraqi refugees. Although the personal stories of Muslim women in Sweden are not unanimously positive, Muslim Swedish women are increasingly prominent in politics, the media, and in business.

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