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Sumaiyah Kholwadia

Law and Legal Studies, University of Birmingham

Thesis title:

Legal and Policy Barriers Impeding Muslim Women's Right to Spiritual Equality

Legal regulation of Muslim women’s dress has gained traction in both the Global North and South over recent years. The practice of veiling has been a contentious issue, forcing Muslim women under the spotlight of public scrutiny. Discursive frameworks on veiled Muslim women, however, have remained relatively constant as legal regulation on religious dress develops in line with the fast pace of modernity, globalisation and migration. For example, quite often themes such as autonomy, neutrality, paternalism, identity/belonging, marginalisation and assimilation etc. are used to frame social, legal and political discussions on veiling. Whilst these themes are certainly useful and necessary, the subjectivities of Muslim women are not placed at the centre of these discourses, especially in law.

My research proposes a novel paradigm of understanding the interaction between law and religious practice through the concept of ‘spiritual equality.’ A recurring theme within qualitative studies on Muslim women’s veiling links the practice with what I categorise as ‘spirituality’ i.e. women veil because they see it as the fulfilment of a religious obligation and as a means of ethical self-cultivation. Frequently this tenet of lived experience is ignored by legal discourses on veiling, often being obscured by orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as embodying victimhood through submission to patriarchal forces, as exotic fantasies seeking to tantalise the coloniser or as sinister agents of fundamentalism. Centring spirituality in litigation on veiling allows us to more accurately understand the extent of harm caused by regulations on dress; as not just being rooted in material, tangible disadvantages but also metaphysical interferences with an individual’s personal journey of ethical self-cultivation and spirituality. This makes room for substantive equality frameworks to be applied to this realm of life to scrutinise and redress discriminatory treatment.

A working conception of ‘spiritual equality’ is a novel approach to understanding the interaction between law and religion. Whilst I use the case study of Muslim women’s veiling to illustrate how this concept works in practice, this concept has the potential to be adapted to local contexts to address spiritual discrimination faced by other minority groups. My aim for this research is to go one step towards the law understanding the totality of religious people’s lived experiences, agencies and subjectivities as the complex, multi-layered and nuanced processes that they are.

Research Area

  • Law and Legal Studies



University of Greenwich, A Decolonial and Anti-Racist Approach to Legal Education and Pedagogy (SLS-funded), 'Decolonial and Anti-Racist Approaches to Legal Pedagogy: Moving Beyond Adversarial Assessments' with Dr Rehana Parveen and Dr Shaimaa Abdelkarim (2023)

Durham University, Critical Legal Conference, 'Veiled Muslim Women's Spiritual Entanglement with Resistance and Criminal Law' (2023)

University of Exeter, Apocalyptic Times: Spirituality in Global Revolt, 'Legal Regulation of Spirituality in the International Human Rights Domain: Muslim Women and the Veil' (2023)

Ulster University, Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual Conference, 'The Limitations of Autonomy in Understanding Muslim Women's Veiling and Religious Subjecthood: The Case of the Karnataka Hijab Row' (2023)

Melbourne Law School, 15th Annual Doctoral Forum on Legal Theory, '(Re)representations of Veiled Muslim Women in the French Legal Imaginary: The Case of S.A.S. v France' (2022)

Leicester Law School, Postgraduate Research Conference, 'How can intersectionality be used to protect Muslim women's spirituality in the workplace?' (2021)

Teaching Experience

Criminal Law

Decolonising Legal Concepts: A module which critically examine the role of empire and colonialism in the development of key legal concepts learnt across the LLB programme. Examples include, deconstructing the reasonable person in Tort and Criminal Law, situating colonial notions of statehood within its historical contexts and examining the role of power in the rule of law.

Legal Solutions: A practice-focused module where students are offered a selection of real-life legal problems and are tasked with working in groups to develop and present a legal solution to the problem. 

I am keen to collaborate with other researchers working more broadly in the field of human rights, critical legal studies, law and religion, and equality and non-discrimination. Please get in touch if there are synergies between our research interests!