Researching the experiences of middle-class British-Pakistani women: Visual piety

In the third post from Dr Noreen Mirza, she discusses how her research challenges stereotypes about Muslim women, particularly around wearing the hijab.

Reflecting on my own upbringing and experiences of being a second-generation middle-class British-Pakistani Muslim prompted me to want to understand what was happening among other socially mobile British-Pakistani women in Manchester. I was puzzled by the growing trend in ‘visual piety’ – a public and evident expression of religious affiliation among British-Pakistani women, such as wearing the hijab (headscarf), to signify commitment to faith and Islamic identity.

I decided to speak about visual piety to two of the women in my research, Amber and Syrah, who both wore the hijab. Their friendship blossomed when they realised that they both shared a similar lifestyle and religious outlook. More importantly they share a love of fashion, and they exchanged ideas and tips with one another about how to combine style and modesty.

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Muslim Fashion. Source: Shawn Sun (www.flickr.com/photos/abayatrade) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Researching the experiences of middle-class British-Pakistani women: Being a native anthropologist

In her second post Dr Noreen Mirza reflects on the challenges of being a ‘native anthropologist’. 

It seemed a common assumption among the people I came across that studying my own society would be an easy task because of my familiarity in terms of language, customs and values. Many were also under the impression that people are more accommodating, open and trusting towards those who share a common background. These assumptions were greatly misleading. The fact of the matter was, in my case at least, that being a native anthropologist meant people were reticent about divulging information because of the fear of confidential information being leaked, leading to gossip in the community.

I began fieldwork in October 2012 in South Manchester which involved following the lives of a core group of twelve women over a period of fourteen months. These women became the participants in my study. Initially I had interviewed approximately 80 women, including friends and family of my participants, as well as other women who could not commit to participating because of longer periods of time involved.

Participating in my research gave the women an opportunity to express their views and concerns about issues such as prejudice and inequality, and to share their experiences of being middle-class British-Pakistanis in Manchester.

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Courtesy Noreen Mirza

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Researching the experiences of middle-class British-Pakistani women: My background

This is the first in a series of posts from Dr Noreen Mirza, sharing stories from her research into the experiences of middle class British-Pakistani women in Manchester. First, how her own formative experiences underpin her research.

Being a second-generation British-Pakistani and Muslim woman growing up in 1980s Manchester, in a predominantly white neighbourhood, I remember the deep desire to be the same as the other children I played with in my neighbourhood and at school. I was aware of the difference in my skin colour, heritage and religious background, as all the children I played with were white British Christians. The yearning to be the same stayed with me into my teenage years and later influenced the subject of my PhD thesis, on middle class British Pakistani women in Manchester.

As I embarked on my research, I felt that the image of British-Pakistanis in the media was a misrepresentation and not a true reflection of a lot of British-Pakistanis like myself. I wanted to explore class identity and show the diversity among British-Pakistanis. We are not a homogenous group and our experiences and upbringing has a profound impact in shaping who we are.

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Noreen as a child and her mother. Courtesy Noreen Mirza

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