Anthropology and Sociology
20 September 2019

A Portrait of Julie Billaud, Political and Legal Anthropologist

The Department of Anthropology and Sociology welcomes a new faculty member this autumn: Associate Professor Julie Billaud, a legal and political anthropologist coming from the University of Sussex and the author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan (2015). In this interview, she speaks of her research on international governance, humanitarianism, gender and Islamic legal cultures, and more especially of her recent article for Contemporary Islam on Muslim marriages in England. As paradoxical as it may sound to Western ears, she finds that in both Afghanistan and England, Muslim women embrace Islam as a source of empowerment.

In your latest article, “Marriage ‘Sharia Style’: Everyday Practices of Islamic Morality in England”, you talk about the boundaries of the moral community and the types of knowledge considered authoritative – vertical – in comparison to everyday habits and experiences – horizontal. How did you become interested in everyday practices of Islamic law in the United Kingdom?

Julie Billaud
Julie Billaud, new professor at the Department
of Anthropology and Sociology.

As a political and legal anthropologist, I am interested in law as an object of study. But my interest in Islamic law is incidental: when I returned from my fieldwork in Afghanistan in 2008, I was often asked questions about the place of Islamic law in contemporary Afghanistan. I observed that, indeed, Islamic law is important there, but not as important as for Muslims who live England. In Afghanistan, Islam is part of people’s daily lives and they do not think about it as much. However, the meaning of Islam is quite different for those who are part of a religious minority living in Europe. If you are a European Muslim, you are constantly asked about your religion, about your religious practices, especially since 9/11 when suddenly Muslims have become associated with terrorism. In the United Kingdom, an important controversy emerged around the place of Islamic law in British legal system.

This controversy was triggered by a speech given by the archbishop of Canterbury in 2008 in which he said that there was a place in British law to incorporate certain elements of Islamic law. This idea immediately raised an uproar in the media, because in the West, shariah law is usually associated with negative images of brutal corporal punishment and discriminations against women. 

At the same time, controversies erupted over certain institutions called by the media “sharia courts”, which in reality are not courts, but rather “sharia councils” dealing mainly with family disputes and Islamic divorces. These institutions, which have been established since the 1980s, are interesting because they are perceived from outside as fundamentally misogynistic and conservative, when many British Muslims consider them as a means for Muslim women to exercise their Islamic rights, e.g. obtaining divorce.

I therefore started to study these sharia councils, but I soon realised that the new generations of Muslims did not necessarily make much use of them. Young British Muslims want to live a life that follows the sharia (the path to God). Simultaneously, they are disrupting this notion of vertical authority by continuing to practice their religion and cultivate their “moral selves” in a more horizontal manner through everyday forms of sociality such as the practice of halal speed-dating that I document here. 

Why did you decide to focus on “marriage”? What is special about Muslim marriages in the United Kingdom?

I decided to focus on marriages for the simple reason that during my fieldwork I noticed a large number of events specifically designed for Muslims organised in London around the issue of marriage. These ranged from courses on how to organise a Muslim wedding to waqueel service providers (the waqueel is a male guardian figure in charge of protecting the fiancée), Muslim wedding fairs and law firms specialising in Muslim marriage contracts. England is an interesting case because the public sphere has largely been privatised over the past forty years. A market niche has therefore opened up for the Muslim marriage industry. 

Also, what I found interesting is that whereas the older generations used to seek spouses for their children within their own family circles, the new generations no longer want to follow this model. For them, what matters most is Islam – in this sense, they are more Islamic than their parents, they are Muslims in a different way –, they are more cosmopolitan, they are more transnational, and the market offers new opportunities for them to find a Muslim partner within the boundaries of the permissible in Islam.

While the new generations seek to remain in line with the principles of Islam, at the same time, they reinvent what Islam is through their everyday practices. “Halal speed dating” could appear as an oxymoron because it brings together liberal notions of fast consumption (speed dating) and the Islamic legal referent “halal”, which means “authorised”… and dating is not authorised in Islam. It is therefore a wonderful cultural assemblage that disrupts both the moral foundations of Islam and liberal conceptions of the public sphere in the West.

Your academic research covers international governance, Islamic legal cultures, Islam in Europe, gender, human rights and humanitarianism. Why did you focus on England as a case-study? What role does globalisation play in the circulation of Islamic norms in the United Kingdom?

I am French and in France, the public sphere, in the sense of the people who have public visibility in the media and in politics, is very white, masculine and elitist. From this perspective, in France there is not a lot of room for diversity – despite the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity. The model of universal republicanism is inherently colonial and therefore exclusionary. Coming from France, where diversity is repressed in the name of equality, it was refreshing to observe that in England the public sphere is more colourful, diverse and open. 

Also, British society is very complex. Like France, British society has a long colonial past and continues to bear the traces of that past in its politics. In the context of Brexit, we can see how nationalist discourses are coming back and racism has not been erased. However, in their colonies, the British established a system of indirect control over their colonial subjects and left a lot of room for people to deal with their family issues on their own. They did not try to control their colonies through the use of the law, as it was the case for instance in the French colonies where the law was used as an instrument of control and domination. This is reflected in the British legal system since the common law enables the law to emerge from “below” through the use of precedents. The British legal system enables people to take part in the production of the law. For instance, British lawyers specialising in Islamic law try to establish correspondences between British contract law and Islamic family law, so that women can obtain their mehr (bridal gift) from their husbands once they are divorced. In England, it is possible to observe some legal terms, such as the mehr, directly coming from Islam and entering the public sphere through the practice of these legal entrepreneurs. British Muslims who have the knowledge and the financial means can therefore obtain marriage contracts that are in line with both British and Islamic law. Lawyers work to translate in British law the rights of women according to the sharia.

Globalisation enables the circulation of these Islamic legal referents not only via the practices of the diaspora, but also via the market. England has become a very competitive and attractive place in the global market of identities!

In the article, you refer to the transformations of gender relations and the collective redefinition of norms of gendered behaviour. In this respect, are there correlations between your research on halal dating and your work on gender politics in Afghanistan?

With my work in Afghanistan, I was trying to understand how women manoeuvred the new public space opened by the intervention of the coalition forces after the fall of the Taliban regime. On the one hand, Afghan women were encouraged by the international community to become public, to participate in politics, and to be visible in the media since, in the Western imagination, women’s liberation is generally framed as a question of visibility. On the other hand, the presence of foreign troops created anxieties within Afghan society, this presence being experienced as a form of cultural occupation. The emphasis put on women’s rights exacerbated these tensions and in fact drastically reduced women’s room of manoeuvre, forcing them to adopt various strategies to preserve their cultural legitimacy. I was interested in understanding how women moved through this minefield. I was rather impressed by their creativity and resourcefulness, by their capacity to subvert and resist both conservative religious discourses and liberal ones imposed by NGOs and the international community. 

What I discovered in Afghanistan was also true in the British context: in both countries, Muslim women embrace Islam as a source of empowerment. In the West the dominant view is that religion and women’s emancipation are mutually exclusive. What my research shows is that British Muslim women subvert this idea in their everyday life. By making use of Islamic institutions (such as sharia councils), they try to be good Muslim women, but they also exercise their Islamic right to divorce. And in doing so, they disrupt both the underlying masculinist bias of most Islamic institutions (as most councils are exclusively composed by men) and the secular foundations of the hegemonic Western public sphere (for which a religious woman is necessarily oppressed). 

My UK and Afghan researches demonstrate that the colonial condition shapes women’s subjectivities in powerful ways, forcing them to be extremely reflexive about their position in society. Both cases can be described as manifestations of the “colonial” in the sense that Afghans have little say with regard to the future of their country, while in England, especially since 9/11, Muslims are increasingly portrayed as subjects who have to be kept under close watch. 

In such contexts, women play a central symbolic role and therefore cannot express horizons of desire beyond the boundaries of their culture and religion without being perceived as traitors to their community. Their adhesion to Islam should therefore not be read as a manifestation of cultural conformism but rather as a form of resistance to Western liberal domination.

Can you tell us about your current research projects?

After having carried out research in Afghanistan and the United Kingdom, I developed an interest in human rights and in humanitarian organisations. I feel it is time for anthropologists to look at the “powerful”, to study “up, down and sideways”, to use Laura Nader’s famous sentence, to observe the various machineries that constitute the current global governance regime. 

The question that is guiding these researches is related to what are the implications of doing the good in the world today. Together with Jane Cowan, I have been studying the relatively new United Nations human rights monitoring mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review. Through this work, we have sought to reveal the social dimension that is often kept out of view in representations of international organisations and that is nevertheless so central to their functioning.

More recently, I have been hired by the ICRC as a researcher to study the diplomatic culture of the organisation. The aim of this research was to document the various ways in which ICRC delegates implement their role as guardians of the Geneva Conventions.

I am particularly interested in understanding the phenomenon of quantification and evidence-based programming that cuts across international organisations today. Numbers are supposed to be neutral and reveal “the truth”, but I think we need to unpack how numbers are produced, by whom, what they say, and what they leave outside of the picture.

What courses are you teaching during your first year at the Institute?

This semester I teach a course on the anthropology of human rights which is open to everyone wanting to study human rights from an anthropological perspective. We will be looking at how human rights are practised from the very bottom to the very up. The idea is to analyse how various people (activists, NGO representatives, experts, lawyers, international civil servants, state functionaries) mobilise human rights to do various things. It is a course that looks at the actors working within the field of human rights, whether they are indigenous people or women’s rights activists, or people at the very top of the pyramid in charge of making the system work. A central part of this course is related to the politics of culture and the relationship between culture and rights.

During the Spring semester, I will teach a course entitled “Comparative Humanitarianism: Anthropological Perspective”. The idea is to look not only at the dominant secular form of Western humanitarianism, but also at vernacular forms of humanitarianism such as Islamic humanitarianism or volunteerism, forms of aids which are at the margin of humanitarianism and philanthropy. This course draws inspiration from my research at the ICRC as well as my experience as a humanitarian worker.

What recent books would you recommend to your students – and to non-specialists?

One of the books that I recommend to my students in my course on comparative humanitarianism is the one by Liisa H. Malkki The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. This is a fabulous piece for anyone interested in humanitarianism either as a field of study or as a future career path as it questions the idea of “the need of others”, which is supposed to guide humanitarianism. Malkki carried out research among Finnish nurses and doctors who have worked for the ICRC as well as among Finnish volunteers doing a kind of domestic work of knitting “trauma bears” for people “in need”. After reading this book, one wonders whose “needs” humanitarianism is trying to meet.

Another book that I really like is Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France by Miriam Ticktin on the humanitarian treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in France. It is a book that questions notions of “humanity” and “universalism”, highlighting the various hierarchies that are produced in the process of identifying worthy subjects of aid.

Do you have any special memory related to your PhD years that you would like to share?

My PhD supervisor was Jane Cowan. She became a very good friend and a colleague, we carried out research on the Universal Periodic Review together. One of the things that I learned from her is that the best way to supervise PhD students is to let them free to do what they want, to listen to their ideas, to brainstorm with them and to avoid being prescriptive. A key aspect of supervision is to be a good listener. Being able to create this kind of intellectual relationship with a student is extremely rewarding. So, this is the model that I would like to reproduce with my students: not a hierarchical relationship but rather one based on mutual respect and intellectual stimulation. 

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Full citation of the article:
Billaud, Julie. “Marriage ‘Sharia Style’: Everyday Practices of Islamic Morality in England.” Contemporary Islam 13, no. 2 (July 2019): 217–32. doi: 10.1007/s11562-018-0430-1.

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Interview by Ana Beatriz Balcazar-Moreno, PhD candidate in International Law; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: excerpt of the original by Vivaystn [CC BY-SA 4.0].