The projects 

The Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham is hosting two British Academy-funded projects on Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Europe and the Middle East lead by Dr Yafa Shanneik together with various academic and non-academic partners in the private and public sector.


The projects investigate the impact of the refugee experiences on marital relationships and family structures among both Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Taking the UK and Germany as examples of European hosts and Jordan as a country in the Middle East which has received a significant number of refugees from both Iraq and Syria, the project examines how these ‘new’ citizens negotiate their politics of belonging in relation to their social relations and integration into their new ‘home’ and what impact this has on their own family lives.

According to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ‘[…] a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality between men and women’. Within this context, the project Negotiating Relationships and Redefining Traditions: Syrian and Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan examines to what extent Iraqi and Syrian women are:

a)     re-define gender orders and ideologies, regarding sexual and conjugal relationships in particular, through the re-interpretation of Islamic normative discourses around Muslim marriage and divorce practices following their migration and re-settlement experiences; 

b)    develop a new understanding of gender socialisation and construct new models of masculinity and femininity that accommodate a greater diversity of ways of living by establishing novel forms of matrimonial practices in their new diasporic contexts and thereby contribute to a re-definition of their religio-cultural heritage. 

Narratives of Displacement

The project’s aims address the following three levels:

a)     Grassroots level: Women and men will be offered awareness sessions on gender socialisation that are culturally sensitive and contribute to particularly refugee women’s changing perceptions of gender orders and family structures. Using visual art and VR productions, women will be offered a space and a tool to reflect on their lives and identify the challenges they face within their new refugee context. In exchange with the research team, they will learn how to find sustainable ways to solve problems of gender inequality among refugees alleviating thereby their mental stress and increasing their wellbeing and resilience. 

b)     Community level: The project will contribute to raising public and civil society awareness. The aim is to promote pro-social actions among Jordanian society in form of increasing public interaction with refugee groups and improve inter-communal relations in order to change public perceptions of refugee women in particular and their alternative ways of living in new forms of sexual and conjugal relationships in Jordan.

c)     Structural level: The project will provide roundtable discussions with jurists, religious leaders and other stakeholders and also social workers who have direct contact with refugee women. The aim is to discuss an understanding of new models of masculinities and femininities that serve the creation of a judicial and social platform in support of refugee women’s lives in Jordan.

This project is a continuation of a pilot study conducted in Europe entitled: ‘Reconsidering Muslim Marriage Practices in Europe: The Case of Iraqi and Syrian War-Widows. This project focuses on Iraqi and Syrian war-widows who have not received much academic attention despite their growing numbers in Europe. This interdisciplinary project offers a multi-perspectival view on Muslim marriages. It moves away from gender-specific notions of female vulnerability and examines how and to what extent women employ agency in negotiating and modifying existing Muslim marriage practices.

The project aims at investigating the role, perception and recognition of unconventional Muslim marriage practices among Iraqi and Syrian war-widows who have sought asylum or have obtained refugee status in the UK and Germany since 2003.

The project has the following objectives:

  • To provide a comparative analysis of a) the main legal challenges in German and English family law by examining two very recent legal case studies in each country and b) other existing support mechanisms for women to avail of their marital rights. To analyse the ways women, use, interpret and reform normative religious marriage discourses to construct a religious and social system which supports the needs and requirements of their migratory experience and new European diasporic contexts. 

  • By combining top-down and bottom-up research approaches that include legal case studies, ethnographic fieldwork and participatory research approaches, the project offers alternative gender-specific narratives of displacement and Muslim marriage practices within European spaces.