Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture

Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture

Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture

Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture


Debates over the headscarf and niqab, so-called 'sharia-tribunals', Female Genital Operations and forced marriages have raged in Europe and North America in recent years, raising the question - does accommodating Islam violate women's rights? The book takes issue with the terms of this debate. It contrasts debates in France over the headscarf and in Canada over religious arbitration with the lived experience of a specific group of Muslim women: Somali refugee women. The challenges these women eloquently describe first-hand demonstrate that the fray over accommodating culture and religion neglects other needs and engenders a democratic deficit.

In Refugee Women: Beyond Gender versus Culture, new theoretical perspectives recast both the story told and who tells the tale. By focusing on the politics underlying how these debates are framed and the experiences of women at the heart of these controversies, women are considered first and foremost as democratic agents rather than actors in the 'culture versus gender' script. Crucially, the institutions and processes created to address women's needs are critically assessed from this perspective.

Breaking from scholarship that focuses on whether the accommodation of culture and religion harms women, Bassel argues that this debate ignores the realities of the women at its heart. In these debates, Muslim women are constructed as silent victims. Bassel pleads compellingly for a consideration of women in all their complexity, as active participants in democratic life. The book will appeal to students and scholars throughout the social sciences, particularly of sociology, political science and women's studies.


While working in emergency outreach with asylum seekers in Paris, I often experienced a strange disconnect between what I had learned as a student of political theory and the harsh daily situations I was confronting. One day I encountered a colleague musing in her office about the nature of persecution faced by refugee women. ‘Should we speak of persecution, or persecutions?’ she asked me. While she pondered this question, several families waited for her to sign a piece of paper so they could have something to eat that night.

These experiences and this feeling of discomfort have shaped this work.

The aim of this book is to challenge what I argue is an exclusive and disproportionate focus on culture and religion through debates over the real or perceived oppression of Muslim women in Europe and North America. The book focuses on two ‘opposite’ contexts: republican assimilationist France and multicultural Canada. I juxtapose two debates, over the headscarf in France and religious arbitration in Canada, with the experiences of a specific group of Muslim women. The Somali women who are the focus of this study are Muslim but also sub-Saharan African refugee women fleeing civil war and negotiating new hierarchies of race, class, gender and legal status in France and Canada. Their definitions of their needs and priorities and their political actions at the intersection of multiple social justice agendas diverge sharply from the stark opposition of gender and culture/religion that emerges in these ‘republican’ and ‘multicultural’ debates. This book explores the political, and more importantly, the democratic significance of this divergence, the challenges it raises and the transformative potential it evokes.

Before explaining how the book goes about achieving these objectives, I would like to reflect on how my professional, academic and personal experiences informed this work.

First, as mentioned above, I was a full-time emergency outreach worker in Paris for three years in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector. I worked with asylum seekers, refugees and homeless people in providing legal, social and humanitarian assistance and often quietly bending (and even breaking) rules when facing desperate situations. Through these experiences I was forced to confront the gaps between theories of citizenship and agency I had previously studied and the realities of exclusion and border control.

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