Geographies of Inclusion/Exclusion: British Muslim Women in the East End of London

by Halima Begum
Former Research Associate, Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics

Sociological Research Online 13(5)10

Received: 16 Jun 2008     Accepted: 24 Sep 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


This paper takes a look at the place-based multicultural construction of ‘Banglatown’ in the East End of London, and asks what meaning it offers for young Bangladeshi women growing up in Spitalfields. It begins by bringing together theoretical debates on identities, youth, gender and space, and goes on to ground the discussion on Bangladeshis and Islam in the East End. The conclusions suggest that there are new challenges to place-based constructions like ‘Banglatown’ that show such places to be masculine and subtly prohibitive for Bangladeshi women. The limits of multiculturalism are thrown wide open from two unlikely quarters – from young women who are pressurised into vacating that space, and others who take issue with its secular, Bengali based identity, preferring a transcendental identity like Islam.

The growing attention on Muslims in non-majority Muslim countries (e.g. Britain) has sharply focused on women’s mobility and the visibility in veiling practices, and progressively over time visibility has come to denote multiple meanings and perceptions in spheres of representations. How does this growing visibility sit with the pressures and practices of selling ‘places’ and the representation of commodities and multicultures as the East End competes for mega city status? Building on geographic thinking on space the research charts some direction towards a gendered understanding of regeneration processes taking place in the East End of London, and more widely in different parts of the United Kingdom. The arguments made in the paper point to the limits of multiculturalism in accommodating young feminine identities in Spitalfields’ redevelopment.


1.1 Feminists writing on difference these days find themselves in an awkward space arguing for negotiated identities in an environment where discussions on difference seem bruised by the perceived failings of multiculturalism. This paper is concerned with gender and space and how this relationship is played out in a particular context of place. Multiculturalism in Britain has been caught in a perilous state since the late 1980s and has suffered new wounds in the context of the post-September 11 geopolitical war games. Today, its fortunes are intertwined with public concerns over the growth of organised religion and its potency for igniting disaffection with the state. The visibility of Islam, in particular, in everyday spaces such as schools, streets and superstores is the subject of public policy discussions on the nature of ‘integration’ in European society. Visibility has become problematic in so far as it crystallises fears in people’s minds about seemingly irreconcilable differences between religious values and a shared civic culture. This paper takes a look at the place-based multicultural construction of ‘Banglatown’ in the East End of London, and asks what meaning it offers for young Bangladeshi women growing up in Spitalfields. It begins by bringing together theoretical debates on identities, youth, gender and space, and goes on to ground the discussion on Bangladeshis and Islam in the East End - in other words moving beyond multiculturalism. The conclusions suggest that there are new challenges to place-based constructions like ‘Banglatown’, that show such places to be masculine and subtly prohibitive for Bangladeshi women. The limits of multiculturalism are thrown wide open from two unlikely quarters – from young women who are pressurised into vacating that space, and others who take issue with its secular, Bengali based identity, preferring a transcendental identity like Islam. The arguments made in the paper point to the limits of multiculturalism in accommodating young feminine identities in Spitalfields’ redevelopment.

1.2 British Bangladeshis are increasingly visible and active in shaping political discourses relating to space in cities across Britain. In the past ten years a notable difference has been a valorisation of religion and tradition, leading to an increasing visibility of Islamisation at the street level. This growing visibility is problematic in so far has it has thrown into the open the right to challenge the private/public boundaries of religion which form the bedrock of secular nation-states, including Britain. Analogously, the dichotomy between private/public spaces has in the past legitimised and entrenched women’s subordination in public spheres. The growing attention on Muslims in non-majority Muslim countries (e.g. Britain) has sharply focused on women’s mobility and the visibility in veiling practices, and progressively over time visibility has come to denote multiple meanings and perceptions in spheres of representations. The study of British Bangladeshis invariably includes trans-national and diasporic linkages, but more importantly, the negotiation of women’s Islamic identities in the public sphere sheds light on issues of space, minority identities and gender in contemporary post-industrial cities.

1.3 The promise of inclusion for young, working-class Muslim Bangladeshi women remains an unfulfilled project in contemporary Britain. Inclusion here is defined as active participation in public life and not simply being the passive subject of an objectification process where the culture and identity of such woman are commodified for representation and consumption. Notwithstanding the popularity of publications on Muslim populations in northern and southern countries following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, few studies have engaged with issues of space and urban citizenship relating to young Muslim women. Their exclusion from the public sphere has implications for thinking through pluralist and multi-cultural spaces – and pose challenges for feminists and multiculturalists equally concerned with this promise of inclusion and equality.

Starting Points: Multiculturalism and Negotiating Difference

2.1 The theoretical standpoint for this article is located beyond multiculturalism; and multiculturalism has often failed to address gender related issues. However, it is worth drawing links with multiculturalism to explain the concept of negotiated identities. Britain is a multicultural society where there is considerable resistance to it becoming a multicultural state. The Parekh Report (2000) characterises multiculturalism as:
‘people have competing attachments to nation, group, subculture, region, city, town neighbourhood and the wider world. They belong to a range of different but overlapping communities, real and symbolic, divided on cultural issues of the day. Identities, in consequence, are more situational. This makes Britain, contrary to stereotype, more open’ (The Parekh Report 2000: 25).

2.2 Multiculturalism’s implied threat to national homogeneity has brought with it perceived risks to a homogenous national culture which is frequently played out at the local and neighbourhood level. In addition multiculturalism has come under pressure from the internal left for failing to distinguish diversity and disadvantage, and for undermining social justice and structural reform, and as an ideology it has not been able to refract such criticism levelled against it, even in its more progressive definition used above. The choice of analytic strategy is explained by the research purpose to examine how the identities of excluded groups (in this case young women) are mapped and represented in local regeneration of ‘place’. Feminism and multiculturalism have enjoyed a marriage of convenience over the past twenty years, reflecting tensions in the Left over whether ‘class’, ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’ or ‘race/ethnicity’ matter more to an individual’s life chances. Black and Asian feminists have negotiated their identity as women in different ways from white feminists recognising the impact of racism on their lives; and more recently the influence of religion, notably Islam, suggests that the negotiation of identity(ies) is far from over in Britain’s neighbourhoods. Feminist geographers have attempted to climb out of this impasse by exploring power relations behind people’s identities which they suggest give insights into the way in which competition for identity, resources and rights to citizenship and space are framed in and through difference(s) that are variously constituted and are also determined by the context in which they take place. In other words, location and situation matters: one person can exercise power in one situation and still feel powerless in another. This framework helps locate the place of Islam in debates on feminism and multiculturalism and entry points to understanding young British Muslim women. Unpacking their identity invariably throws open the old impasse of ‘race’/gender/class – adding religion in the mix. This negotiation of identities is illustrated in my findings and points to the value of understanding neighbourhood level contestation to wider debates on identity and multiculturalism and place.

2.3 The above analytical framework is useful particularly because a lot of research on Muslim women has tended to navigate from older depictions of oppression and regulation to young women torn between the competing cultures of a fictitious ‘East’ and an even less definitive ‘West’. More recently writing has improved beyond these stereotypes to show the multiplicity of Muslim women’s identities (Dwyer 1999; Falah and Nagel 2005). Building on a progressive notion of space (cf. Massey 1994) in geographic thinking helps to illustrate the way in which young Bangladeshi Muslims, with roots from rural Bangladesh and urban London, can articulate, express and perform gendered and religious identities, and thus contribute towards a gendered understanding of multicultural history in the context of the United Kingdom. Social attitudes to mobility and place-based identity are significantly influenced by the experience of place at multiple scales – local, national and the global scale, each interrelating and shaping relationships and conflicts – from village, city, regions, and trans-nationally. Within these different scales, it is possible to view the negotiation and contestation of space for minority women as shaped by class and religious identities in a predominantly white/British nation-state.

Situating Gender, Youth and Spatiality

3.1 Feminist writers have long pointed towards the real and imaginary constructions of public/private divisions of space, arguing that maintaining this distinction has been critical in preserving the power of masculinity (and men) over the years, but equally these divisions might lead to a tactic for feminist resistance. There is a significant literature on the ways in which women experience public space; for example, frequently women undergo fear, anxiety, harassment and sometimes physical attack. This originates from a Victorian morality, which defined women as ‘out of place’ in the streets – except for the figure of the prostitute who was always a public woman (Watson and Bridge 2000: 370). It is also the case that a fear of public spaces in women’s minds is also disproportionate to the level of violence committed against women in private domains such as the home. It is commonly accepted that most crimes committed against women occur in domestic spaces and yet the perception is that women are more at risk outside the home. Another emerging body of literature on women’s use of spaces shows paradoxically how public spaces of the city have provided significant escapes from male dominance and restricted gender roles in the home (McDowell 1999: 148, see also Wilson 1991; see Bondi 1999 on women gentrifiers). This cumulative literature on feminist geographies of spaces can demonstrate how public spaces can be simultaneously threatening and disarming for women at the same time. Public spaces, especially the streets, are contradictory sites of the public for many women as they represent both danger and potential spaces for liberation from stereotypical gender roles (Watson and Bridge 2000: 370). Finally, others have demonstrated the way in which women’s bodies have been used to uphold and maintain boundaries of migrant and ethnic communities, placing upon women significant burdens of representing migrant/ethnic group identity (Yuval-Davis 1997).

3.2 Space, then, can be experienced, ‘felt’, ‘smelt’ and ‘seen’ differently by different social groups. There is a rich literature on young people’s use of public space, and like gender subjectivities, these earlier accounts focus on fear and regulation, but very little of this animates our understanding of space used for protest or social change. Studies of the geographies of youth, for example, have until recently been limited in scope, even though subcultures are a very popular theme in cultural studies of youth (Skelton and Valentine 1998: 9). Commentators on cultural politics have added new ethnicities (Hall 2000) against this body of literature on relational identities, producing a nuanced understanding of the lives of young people and their cultural practices, relationship to ‘home’ and belonging. It is useful to view young people as active subjects, in making femininities and masculinities plural and addressing young people’s identities as relational (Frosh et al. 2002). Alexander’s account of Bangladeshi young men stands out as a lone contribution in ethnographically grounded studies on socially constructed identities and moral panics about the ‘underclass’ and the ‘Asian gang’ (2000). Taking these developments together, it is possible to analyse the use of space by young Bangladeshi women in a particular context. It is important to point out that a declining lack of youth facilities in Spitalfields has led to more young people being highly visible because they are spending leisure time in public places. The literature on youth identities and new cultural political development in much of the 1990s, along with the more anthropological and community-minded studies on Bangladeshis, has tended to miss the capacity for women to disrupt and de-stabilise feminine/masculine boundaries of space, and for women to show the dynamism that emerges from relational identities.

Geographies of Exclusions

4.1 The East End of London has been written about at great length in academia, novels, television and film. The area’s history is a tapestry of local and global economic narratives about the building of the British nation, and within it, London’s role in the international economy. Traditionally the area has illustrated geographies of poverty and prestige operating side by side; showing a contrast between high levels of poverty, unemployment persistent in its working class populations and the expansion of financial services in the nearby City of London, which is an engine of growth for the national economy.

4.2 Physically it lies on the City of London’s fringes. It has traditionally been a settling place for immigrants arriving to the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s onwards the area has seen migration from Bangladesh, predominantly from rural north-eastern parts of the country. According to the 2001 census, there were 283,063 Bangladeshis living in the UK, about half of whom resided in the East End of London. It is a predominantly young population and very poor, often measuring income levels lower than the average Briton. Three out of four Bangladeshi children in Britain live below the UK poverty line (Clark and Drinkwater 2007). The women interviewed for this study are the daughters of families who came from the rural district of Sylhet in Bangladesh. In the early twentieth century, imperial ties pushed large numbers of Sylheti men to work in British ships leaving from Kolkata, which eventually facilitated the migration of their families to the UK. The arrival of Bangladeshis in Spitalfields led to a sporadic growth of community and voluntary organisations dedicated to supporting the new migration and welfare-related needs of housing and health. This community infrastructure remains strong today, and has acted as a platform for the population to make in-roads into the area’s representational structures. At the time of writing, the Labour Party of the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency had selected a British Bangladeshi woman as its candidate for Parliament.

4.3 Inequalities of wealth and access to power are deeply felt by ordinary people of all backgrounds. The loss of manufacturing jobs in East London since the 1970s following large-scale factory closures in British cities had the net effect of wiping out jobs in the clothing sector – which were also one of the few sources of employment for the immigrant workforce. Researchers have examined the impact of industrial restructuring on white working-class boys and pointed to an emerging ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the problem of white working-class young men in being unable to hold down jobs (McDowell 2006). Bangladeshi men who traditionally relied on the clothing sector for wages saw their livelihoods vanish without much prospect for retraining. The impact of economic restructuring on Bangladeshi women is less clear – it was certainly true more women were pushed to seek education and training but a swelling home-working, low-pay sector absorbed many women. However the greater participation of Bangladeshi women in the labour market has not translated into gains in levels of representation in public spheres or led to more sensitive gender planning on the built environment.

4.4 Public spaces are an important means of framing a vision of social life in the city and people’s participation within it. A pressing concern for city planners is to ensure specific groups are not excluded from participating in the public sphere and that they recognise themselves in the landscape of the city (cf.Zukin 1995). The implication of these ideas is that the politics of space is fraught with contestation at the everyday level and it is necessary to appreciate the everyday rituals and encounters as providing insight into the politics of the margins and ultimately, city politics. Groups less represented in the landscape of the city – the young, women, the elderly, and minority ethnic groups – have traditionally remained excluded groups in society, and predominantly fail to access public services effectively.

4.5 The concentration of groups pushing against the seams of the dominant representation of space in the city have led researchers to treat places like the East End of London as spaces of resistance. Multi-cultural identities, opposition to large scale corporate development, conservationist projects, and entrepreneurial migrants are all depicted by researchers as attempts by local people to resist hegemonic spaces produced by big business or institutional racism, and most visibly the privatisation of public spaces. As a result there is a relatively rich empirical literature on contested places and the role of marginalised groups such as the poor, minority groups, and the homeless and dispossessed under urban redevelopment schemes (see for example Smith 1996 on gentrification of cities; Jacobs 1996; Eade 1997 on British Bangladeshis; and Foster 1999 on the London Docklands). The perspectives of young women, and the voices of Muslim youth, are missing from many of these accounts of brave resisters.

Multiplicity of Islam

5.1 The practice of religion by British Bangladeshis in the East End was benign until the early 1990s when the resurgence of Islamic identities in British cities grew, together with a larger concentration of British born young people with parents from Pakistan and Bangladesh. This was partly due to the growing confidence of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in London, Birmingham and Oldham to live their lives in ways that respect their cultural and religious values. The previous generation, while still religious and spiritual in its mindset, placed less emphasis on making religious aspects of its identity public, not because they wished to assimilate with mainstream society and its values but instead they were motivated by a desire not to stand out in the crowd. The reverse is true of children of immigrants who are more comfortable to demonstrate cultural belonging in public spaces.

5.2 The process of Islamisation referred to in the introduction of this article describes a growing trend towards a visible expression of Islam and an identification with religion as a predominant definition of identity – above social, ethnic and political affiliations. This was made possible with migration flows in an increasingly inter-dependent world with globalised economies of representation. A growing Islamic political identity was being facilitated by a global flow of ideas, people, and traffic from Muslim majority parts of the world (Garbin forthcoming).

5.3 Islam in this context is specifically understood as a social, religious and cultural process located in modernity. The religion has inspired ideas in British Bangladeshi families on how to modernise young people, how to encourage youth to challenge parents and realise their rights. Today Islam has taken the peculiar shape in East London of progressing modernist ideas about family and rights and responsibilities towards state and society. It is more about modernity as opposed to what the children understand as ‘backward’(such as the socially stratified norms of a rural, agricultural expression of Islam associated with the time of migration in the 1970s). For many young British Bangladeshis, Islam in the United Kingdom is more about bringing the ‘modern’ back from Bangladesh into East London’s communities.

The Contestation of Space in Banglatown

6.1 The Spitalfields ward (popularly known as Banglatown) in Brick Lane remains the symbolic centre for British Bangladeshis. The emergence of a new ethnically place-based identity known as Banglatown in the 1990s illustrated the contestation of space among British Bangladeshis. There were conventional objections to the development of the ward from Spitalfields to Banglatown. Heritage based organisations with established roots in Spitalfields wished to see Spitalfields retain a pluralist heritage, and the historic home of immigrants to London. Among the multiple reactions to the redevelopment of this space, there was a swell of opposition which included new Bangladeshi Muslim voices. What is interesting to observe among the new voices is a new Islamic femininity being articulated as a challenge to the public identity of ‘Banglatown’. On the one hand, this public identity is seen as secular, nationalistic and a monolithic identity of Banglatown. On the other hand, Banglatown is also regarded as a gendered ‘masculine’ space. Both public identities appear to be rejected by the women in the study as one preferred not to stay out of public gaze as is expected of a Bangladeshi woman by her family and the other preferred to reject the regeneration based construction of a public identity around ‘Banglatown’ as it was too nationalistic.

6.2 The landscape of Spitalfields and Brick Lane is the myth of fiction and the national and international imaginations, notably by the success of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. Against a backdrop of the East End’s declining economic competitiveness, Banglatown started as a racialised discourse with the complicity of Bangladeshi businessmen who would benefit from the Banglatown ‘product’ (Jacobs 1996). The motivations behind its construction were very political, and although the restaurant trade and economic rationale underpinned it, for many elder Bangladeshis, its creation was bound up with the defence of ‘home’ and ‘community’. For others, particularly the leaders of local community organisations and statutory officers, many who were prominent in the Bangladesh independence struggle in the 1970s, this space was intimately bound up with the preservation of Bengali secular identity, and presented to the outside world the most important proof of ‘community’ success against racism of previous decades. The idea of minority groups using essentialist discourse or stereotypes for the strategic negotiation of power is not new in cultural studies. The re-appropriation of stereotypes to invert negative othering is a strategic resource that minorities have used to resist their (mis)representations. For example, for some groups of young people Banglatown becomes a carnavalesque or transgressive space, activated a few times in the year with meals and festivals; for others it is a space to consume otherness through an ongoing process of exoticisation and commodification of South Asian culture. The multiple construction of Banglatown indicates the discursive nature of place-based identity and the competing claims to its success. It highlights the intensely contested nature of space, pointing to complex intersections of place and politics, Islam and gender.


7.1 The research for this paper was conducted in Spitalfields. The methodology used for this study was qualitative and was informed by feminist research practices, taking the form of interviews, focus groups and participant-observation. There were ten focus groups in total with four to five young women participating in each session. The names of the respondents have been changed to ensure anonymity. The interviews were carried out between 2003 and 2004, and the age of respondents ranged between 15 and 21 years; almost all the women were pursuing training, or education. The choice of the methodology was made to reflect the complex ways in which people negotiate their identities in and through place and also to help with unpacking the burden of representation that people in the East End have to live with. I approached the research with an understanding that research takes place at the intersection between the personal, the political and the academic. The respondents were drawn from the local area where I had grown up in Brick Lane. Over the years through involvement in community organisations I had built up a good knowledge of the neighbourhood and the young women visiting and using local facilities - many of which had recently been regenerated and funded by public agencies. The women involved in the study were born in London to parents who had migrated from rural Bangladesh. They had attended the local schools in a borough where single-sex school provision was the norm, not the exception; and where the in-take of pupils were majority Bangladeshis, even though they were not the majority population in the borough. This was partly the result of an artificial divide in the borough’s schools where the Catholic and Church of England schools drew from mainly white families, and the non-faith denominated schools drew from Bangladeshi families. The faith identity of the Christian schools, coupled with the uniform requirements of girls to wear short skirts, prevented Islamic-leaning Bangladeshi parents from sending their children to these schools, leading to de facto social segregation. Their parents had worked in the declining clothing trade, known colloquially as the ‘rag’ trade, and the buoyant restaurant trade of the 1980s. The young women had aspirations and ambitions to participate in different jobs that would be open to them after attending college and university in the future. Their formal skills and qualifications were commensurate to their white and Afro-Caribbean counterparts in the borough. They also had a lot in common with the old East End working class networks – family and social ties, close kinship, sense of belonging to wider community, and a practical need for families to stick together (see Young and Willmott 1957; Dench et al. 2006).

7.2 The views presented here are representative of the larger sample of respondents where the young women tended to divide into two groups: those more conscious and assertive of their religious identities and those concerned with keeping up appearances for cultural conformity. These are not deviant case study analysis findings but reflective of other findings in the larger group of participants. Age did not seem to be a determinant in these divergent views. In analysing the interviews and focus group transcripts, I reflected on whether my proximity to the research site and growing up in it compromised my independence. But, in the end, the understanding that feminists have long questioned the nature of the research process, and the claims of impartial knowledge being a fiction helped me work through such concerns. I was guided by thinking on ‘home’ and ‘away’ and the ‘field’ and not so much in terms of the insider and outside debate but by thinking about the impact of location, context, and the practicalities of research as embodied research. When speaking to the women my conversations took an interesting turn and led to frank exchanges once I disclosed my personal interest in actively listening to voices, so often marginalised in official debates on regeneration.

Findings I: Bringing Gendered Bodies Back in Banglatown

7.3 The limits of Banglatown can be gleaned from diverse reactions of young, Bangladeshi women. These voices begin to point to common ways in which young women’s bodies in ethnically inscribed public spaces can be used to legitimise oppression of women – and uphold conservative values and ideas about women’s roles in society. The young women encountered in this research are actively re-moulding their femininities in ways that challenge dominant views of minority young women as caught between cultures and the influence of secular and religious tradition on their lives.

7.4 Reba, aged 18, one of the young women interviewed in a local community venue known as Brady Arts in Spitalfields, is a committed British Muslim who is typically interested in youth diversions such as dressing in high-street fashion, music, books and cosmetics. Her peers, relatives and neighbours heavily invest meaning into Reba’s self-expression, appearance and most of all, physical mobility. Reba’s views were not uncommon by any measure. In the passage below she explains how people make moral judgements from her dress and visibility in public spaces of convenience such as the post-office, grocery and the market. Her ability to get on with the business of everyday life, however, seems circumscribed. She describes a probing source of pressure and regulation when walking down an ordinary street in her neighbourhood:

‘You have that tension, if I were to walk down the street, you have that tension, so I prefer to live down the West End, [upmarket, mostly white residential neighbourhood] somewhere where you can walk freely, where you feel comfortable and related [The tension is] People. Coz it’s just one culture here. It’s just Asian people here. You know the way I dress is quite modern for Asian people here, elderly Asian people just look at me, just the way I am dressed, young boys will look just coz I am Asian, and you can’t walk down the street in peace. Whereas if I was to walk down the West End area no one’s gonna bother me, I can do whatever I want to do. It makes you feel uncomfortable, you know that look, and it’s sorta like a dirty, bad look, sort of like they’re breathing on you. It’s like I shouldn’t be the way I am. Their expectations of me are different to how I am [Expectations are of a] traditional Asian girl with a salwar kameez, headscarf, no make-up, staying home cooking and cleaning basically. Their expectations are too extreme, see they like to assume things, like, yeah, I am probably a hoe [prostitute] or something like that but I have my beliefs and at home I am at home, I do take care of my parents and people don’t see this.’

7.5 While the sexism embedded in this narrative should not be downplayed, the full explanation of incidents and the swell of frustration in Reba’s comments are rather more complex than it first appears. Even from the briefest explanation it is clear that women use varying tactics to avoid ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ spaces during different times of the day. I am moved by this passage because it conveys Reba’s feelings that she does not care what people say and wants her independence, and yet she confirms some features of the idealised female carer and wants to manage social expectations of care. Reba’s apprehension is related to risks women encounter regardless of class and ethnicity but her explanation of her own vulnerability is expressed in terms of shared norms and values in her moral ‘community’, around notions of ‘izzat’ (concept of honour in South Asian communities), maintained and produced by local networks of extended family kinship and an ‘imagined’ community of Bangladeshi links. Her frustration at the social control exercised on her by her peers is contrasted by her attempts to assert beliefs about her domestic role as a duty bound daughter. Here an emergent contestation of values is manifesting in ways where Reba is less caught between different ‘cultures’ but positively asserts and rearticulates her own beliefs and attitudes towards family and kin. Reba’s attitudes both confirm and contest feminist writings which on the one hand challenge the private/public division of space where women’s identities are relegated to the domestic and the private, and men’s spaces are more appropriately public. Yet she does not completely move away from social norms relating to the idealised female role in the household. Nevertheless her behaviour challenges gendered spaces ascribed in expectations and attitudes around female bodies by her peers. The extract also illustrates how gendered practices are being detached from social systems inscribed from South Asian countries. In Bangladeshi society a form of social organisation is denoted by the word samaj which implies a cultural concept of an imagined and constructed ‘community’. The idea of samaj in South Asia is rooted in the notion of ‘going together’ although in its modern usage, it is rightly translated as society in general or, in more limited context, association. Samaj continues to regulate social relationships from friendships to marriages and appropriate behaviour at home and in public, and nearly everywhere for Bangladeshi Muslims with strong sense of cultural identity the samaj form is both a symbolic and organisational reference for the political and religious community. Its leadership consists of a sort of council of elders, a group of men from different homesteads, perhaps different villages, under whom a subgroup of other homesteads is at least nominally united in loyalty and under whose sponsorship various religious activities take place. In Spitalfields the leadership in British Bangladeshi communities is reproduced in the form of social hierarchy and structure relating to former life from Bangladeshi life and/or prominent households with social prestige from education and/or religiosity. In everyday language it has come to translate into the term ‘what will people say’.

7.6 Ideas about social control reoccur in the interviews with other young women. Sultana, aged, 23, describes her experience of hanging out in evenings in the bustling bars and clubs that have sprung up in the popular consumption belt in the Brick Lane area:

‘I was out in Brick Lane with another friend. This [Bengali] cabbie was standing near his car and instead of saying do you want a cab he said do you want a man. Some boys [working in the restaurants] were standing and they laughed. I ignored them. It is the same when you come out to the Vibe Bar the cabbies won’t ask you if you want a car. They ask how much instead as if you are a prostitute.’

7.7 The taxi drivers in this passage are recently migrated men with less familiarity with Brick Lane. According to Sultana, the men tend to poke fun in broken English, often in the guise of sexually demeaning jibes if they spot Bangladeshi women walking after dark. The jibes could easily have been made in Sylhet or Dhaka in Bangladesh, where the visibility of women after hours is associated with ‘loose’ sexual morals and promiscuity which is discouraged by wider society. The way in which the street is organised in Brick Lane – adjacent rows of restaurants, a mosque, retail shops selling Bengali produce, with a steady flow of men passing through to go home, reflects the diversity of Bengali socio-economic and religious landscapes. But it is anything but gender-neutral. Women both stand out and are at the same time ‘out of place’. This renders it impossible for Sultana to stay invisible to the public gaze of the samaj that consists of informal codes of social control, among other things, the regulation of female behaviour in public spaces. Highly gendered notions of acceptable public behaviour and mobility are expected from young people, and transgression leads to low, albeit unpleasant, levels of harassment on the streets. As Rosario has written, these behaviours follow the codes of conduct required from the South Asian concept known as shorom, which has two meanings. The first one is shame and punishment of guilty behaviour, and the other meaning is modesty and shyness. While in theory codes of honour and shame refer to the behaviour of both women and men, honour is seen more as men’s responsibility and shame as women’s burden. This division of honour and shame is related to the fact that honour is seen as actively achieved while shame is seen as passively defended, resulting in different expectations of behaviour from men and women. It is through their role as protectors that men’s honour is determined and maintained. Women’s honour or status is related to their having shame or preserving their purity voluntarily. By voluntarily preserving their shame women can retain what Abu-Lughod refers to as ‘honour of the weak’ (hasham). (Rozario 2001: 86). On the one hand shorom is a good quality for households to posses but equally it can bring shame and has a negative connotation. Young women tend to manipulate these qualities to maintain good relationships in everyday situations with family and friends, or even maintain a wider sense of honour. Reba and Sultana use different tactics to conform with, and challenge expectations linked to modesty and shame in the everyday sphere. The pressures and burdens from shorom, the samaj, and izzat all play on the women (and men) and they do not seem to be free from these inter-related cultural concepts. The politics of space becomes imbued with cultural concepts imported from South Asia which on closer inspection might show similarities with notions of women’s virtues and propriety in the past in the United Kingdom.

7.8 Both these passages show how every day decision-making about mobility takes place at the inter-sections between gender, social norms, and economic processes. The perspectives provided by the interviewees both confirm and challenge feminist writings on the use of public spaces in the city. Moreover, the compression of time and space in London’s design as a 24-hour city makes possible for a greater degree of women’s mobility through the extensive transport network, which enables its citizens to become invisible and anonymous in the city. The women’s mobility in particular, illustrates, the ambiguous possibilities that city spaces can open up, intensifying an individual’s capacity for self-expression. The same possibility for anonymity and escape would not be possible in Oldham in the north of England or in Dhaka in Bangladesh where similar imagined communities of British Bangladeshis exist.

Findings II: Out with the Old, in the New: New Islamic Femininities

7.9 The most stringent critics of Banglatown came from an unlikely camp of young Muslim women, who saw this place-based identity as a secular challenge to a growing Islamisation of the East End. Bengali nationalism in their eyes was a ‘backward’ phenomenon, which was at odds with the idea of a global space of the Islamic ummah. The ummah is understood by Muslims to mean the community of believers and describes both individual communities and the worldwide community. Garbin’s contextualised account on territoriality in Banglatown (Garbin 2004) provides evidence of this challenge to secular and nationalist sentiments associated with older generations of Bangladeshis who are seen by the younger people as ‘un-modern’. These narratives from Waheeda and Sayda, show the typical attitudes of newly Islamisied young women – vocally confident and visibly wearing traditional Islamic clothes and hijab.

Waheeda: ‘Again it’s nationalistic isn’t it ? They say they want to improve the area and make the Bengali culture more diffused...but you see why call it Banglatown? They promote nationalism and it stops the Muslims to think Islamically ... Muslims start to identify with Bengali rather than Muslim.’
Sayda: ‘They got this festival [the baishakhi mela] coming up, it’s nationalistic ... I don’t see that as a good thing, I think it causes racism all this nationalist stuff ... ’cause in the end, for the average community person it’s called ‘Banglatown’ because that’s from Bangladesh ... but for me I don’t see that as a good thing...why just for Bengalis? ..... It’s not my culture, my culture is totally different. Every single thing that I do is dictated by Islam, not by Bengali culture . . It’s not compulsory for me to be Bengali... there is a feeling of pride ... I see the Bangladeshi flag and I feel the huge emotion, or if there was a Bangladeshi team in the World Cup I would support them patriotically because they represent Bangladesh ... No way! You see nationalism is so destructive to the Muslims, that’s why I hate it so much, Muslims fighting each other, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, everywhere and it’s so destructive … For Banglatown, it could be intimidating for a lot of people. If you study the roots of nationalism, it’s about setting out a territory and this is it, like cats do, human beings are similar; they tend to stick together... It’s different with Black people, when they came here they adopted the culture, took on English names, they went to the pubs...Here they didn’t, they retained that culture and they want to retain it, you know, by calling it ‘Banglatown’, or whatever, having their cultural meetings etc ... they tend to hold on to the culture a lot more ... I don’t see that as a good thing...’

7.10 The contestation of space and the articulation of Islam for young Muslim women is partly illuminated by debates about globalisation and the understanding the ‘local’ sphere as something that is produced through and global and vice versa (Swyngedouw 2003). Their comments navigate between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ scales, and offer a pronounced critique on the secular and time-specific notion of ‘culture’ – the charge that it is ‘backward’ and static. Women’s use of space, their bodies and religious identities are used as tactics to liberate the idea of Banglatown from a monolithic and national space into a global and heterogeneous space grounded in Islam. It is reminiscent of women’s tactics to domesticate public space but here they are using their bodies in public to argue against secular ideas. This is a departure from conventional feminist accounts which see spaces of religion domesticating their gender. Religion and Islam are valorised as fluid, ‘modern’, lacking boundaries, and with having limitless possibilities for these young women. It is also interesting to learn that the women regularly used the East London mosque, and not the older, historic mosque in Brick Lane. The former is regarded as a modern space compared with the Brick Lane Mosque, which lacks an equitable space for women’s prayer or welfare services. Inequality in these women’s eyes is associated with the older, nationalist space of the Brick Lane mosque which doubles up as a ‘community’ hub replicating social structures around somaj, izzat and shorom from the rural districts of greater Sylhet in North-East Bangladesh. What is also clear from meeting these young women is that their religious identity, epitomised externally in the veil, has allowed them to re-negotiate space and un-hinge gendered expectations and social control associated with somaj in ways that their secular counterparts such as Reba and Sultana are unable to do so. Their bodies and outwardly religious appearance has enabled them to negotiate more space – and inversely domesticate public space to promote women’s rights. Massey (1994) has argued that local places are open to global influences and this has the effect of destabilising claims to essentialist spaces, local cultures or thwarts attempts to preserve place from immigration. Massey’s argument was mainly focused on showing that colonialism did not happen elsewhere but was intertwined with the politics and architecture of London. The women in Banglatown disrupt claims to a diasporic culture in the heart of an imperial city in favour of a global, inherently modernist culture, based loosely on the concept of the Islamic ummah. Nationalism and the boundaries of the nation-state, which are being celebrated in the concept of ‘Banglatown’, are rejected as inherently un-modern.

7.11 These intersections between gender and religion show how Islam is posing a challenge to bounded notions of space. Islamic identities are having a positive effect on the re-negotiation of gender inequality in domestic and social practices, and have thus helped to push out the private expression of religion into the public realm.


8.1 The distinction between a private and public space was once a powerful tool for regulating and disciplining gender relations. This paper has highlighted the role of British Bangladeshi women in negotiating and transforming the nature of space in unexpected ways. Space in Banglatown is inherently constructed and reproduced as a masculine territoriality; and Bangladeshi women have shown different responses to dealing with its prohibitive nature. Some individuals chose to negotiate space in conventional ways that women use to avoid threatening spaces and play it safe, by walking around or simply taking a longer route. But others have chosen to politically oppose the space by contesting its secular identity using their Islamic values as a source of inspiration and strength. As Muslim women or British Bangladeshi women they are playing dangerously with the rituals and rules of space within hybrid traditions of the multicultural British state and their Muslim/South Asian values. British Bangladeshi Muslim women’s attempts to draw attention to their right to difference (against a backdrop of populist suspicion against Islam) can be articulated as transgressions which achieve two ends: they challenge a secular political discourse by transposing private religion practices into a public gaze, but in doing so, they are reclaiming Islam in their own terms, and ultimately challenge hegemonic representations of Islam in the national imagination. The women also challenge the idea of Banglatown as a nationalism discourse, which does not sit comfortably with their trans-national identities or the dominant narrative of ‘regeneration’ in the new East End.

8.2 The women’s voices show a range of contestations – against values, notions of ideal space, home and belonging, their physical environment and the nation-state. These contestations are more complex than a straightforward rejection of valorisation of the ‘West’ or Islam or ‘Asian culture’. The contestations, particularly against secular notions of ‘private’ religion (or personal) space and ‘public’ civic (or political) space and women’s roles within these boundaries, point to a fundamental dilemma for women. In revising the old feminist statement that the personal is political, Muslim young women are relying on religion as a progressive force to further their goals. Traditionally religion might not have made for a convenient bedfellow for feminists. This makes for an unconventional alliance between British feminists and the Islamists but is nevertheless a very modern translation of religion into the contemporary debates on rights and responsibilities.

8.3 The attempts to simplify or romanticise the relationship between culture and religion often misses the agency and the ability of subjects to speak and explain their own predicaments in their own words – and not filtered through the politicisation of others where religion and culture are posed as messy, complicated or indeed exotic. This work has demonstrated how the geographies of youth work by contextualising young Muslim Bangladeshi women’s spatial relations and their capacity to disrupt and challenge space, and activate a politics of difference. It has taken a growing body of literature on women and space and contextualised the role of religion – in this case Islam – within its analysis to show how religious identities can activate a re-negotiation of politics and space in the East End in unpredictable ways. The unpredictability is powerful in so far as it disrupts British liberal perceptions of the prescribed role of women under Islam but it also contests the traditional view of Islam in British Bangladeshi perceptions where women’s roles are relegated in the domestic space, not too dissimilar from the women’s mother’s roles in rural Sylhet. The lived experience of these young women illustrates dynamism underway in women’s everyday experiences in moving from one place to another in a temporal and spatial way. These gendered experiences of public space in Spitalfields is bounded and rebounded, oscillating between static and fluid moments, pointing to the contradictory coping tactics women needed and used to negotiate rights to public space.


Thanks to David Garbin, Shamser Sinha and Max Farrar for reading earlier drafts of this paper.


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