British Muslims and the gender question
Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
This is the second in a series of three articles on the British Muslim community. The first was a review of the progress made against the preventing extremism together recommendations of 2005. This is the second on gender as a cross-cutting and important theme. And the third will be looking forward to what needs to be done next.
The gender question is the most important question facing British Muslims, and if it is not, then it is the second or third most important question. We are deeply uneasy about it. There are some very serious and major issues at stake but we don’t know what to do. We, Muslim men, are scared of feminism and gender equality. What will happen if we open the floodgates? Where will this lead to? And with this fear, we have held back on key areas of progress. It is time to make some changes. It was time, in fact many years ago, but we are still dragging our feet. And when I say ‘we’, I mean Muslim men aged 35-60 in the British Muslim community i.e. those in a position of power to change things. Many Muslim women have been speaking out on this for years now. One recent example is an excellent article by Khadijah Elshayyal which was recently published on amaliah.com.
Let us begin with feminism and racism. The fear is that if we grant equality – and this is what we are doing – agreeing to share power, then we will open a door to who knows what. Look around us, look to where liberal society has got to? Will we get there as well? But these same men – the 35-60 years who hold the reins of power make exactly the same case for their rights when speaking against racism. And we know that shouting and raising our voices makes no difference in the fight against racism until someone in power (usually white) decides to become our allies. The balance of power shifts and the gains are made.
The same applies to the issue of gender, Muslim women in the United Kingdom have been speaking out on issues of gender for many years, but ultimately, until the men who are in power agree to share it, little will change. We – Muslim men – have to acknowledge our power and think about how we are going to improve things.
Why is this a problem? Essentially, the majority of our community-run organisations – let us call this the Muslim public space – are male-dominated. At the national level and the local level. At the local level, in places like East London, Leicester, Blackburn, Birmingham and Bradford there are very few opportunities for Muslim women to succeed in Muslim organisations. Let us take the example, of a talented sister who graduates from university and returns to her city to work in the council. The council recognises her talent, and gives her a good portfolio to work from. She does well. She is promoted and then five years later she is managing ten people and a budget of 750,000 pounds. She wants to practice her faith and to do so publically but there is no way that she can do that in her city because the mosques don’t have space for her and the Muslim organisations are male-dominated. She must practice her faith privately. She reads about Islamophobia in the press and hears about the suffering in the Muslim world and wants to do something – but there is nothing that she can do. She has to resort to online activism as she is excluded from getting involved in her local city. This is not a hypothetical scenario, this has happened with many sisters, especially those that come from some of the more conservative communities: the Pathans, the Gujeratis and others.
I will be specific in this piece, and this will include naming names because it has got to the point where generalisations are no longer enough. There are sisters from some of the more conservative communities that feel suffocated in them. Eventually, they are faced with two choices: either stay with your family in your city and remain quiet, or leave the city and find work elsewhere. Many leave the city with a huge sense of disappointment. Many of the people reading this will know of their sisters or cousins who have been faced with this choice.
We need to recognise that we all have been raised in a country that experienced feminism half a century ago! This means that the whole culture – schools, films, books – is deeply affected by the values of feminism. Our sisters have been challenged on this throughout their lives, and yet there is no feminist movement amongst British Muslim women because they have tried to persuade us men privately and patiently. But things need to change fast.
We know that there is first generation, second generation and third generation feminism and we need to understand the origin of the critique. But this is not about feminism, it is about what is normal and healthy for us and our future generations in this country. We are in certain cases seeking to impose the public/private distinction of gender in a way that is simply no longer feasible.
There are two matters which have brought this to the fore for this writer. The first is the case of Tariq Ramadan. His legal case remains ongoing, and I wish to state that it seems quite clear that normal legal procedures were not followed by the French authorities in the way that they have conducted his case and that France has in general a massive problem with anti-Muslim prejudice. Nevertheless, Tariq Ramadan as one of the most influential European Muslims, if not the most influential European Muslim, admitted to consensual extra-marital sex after initially denying it. This was totally shocking. There has been very little comment in the Muslim public space about what this means, that a man at the very top of our public life – a leading advocate, had compromised himself in such a way. How did this happen? How did we allow it to happen? And how is it even possible?
His case is not unique. Imam Asim, a young Imam from Bradford and a leading national public speaker, has withdrawn from public religious duties because of inappropriate relations with women after being held to task by a group of scholars. Imam Asim was one of the most popular Muslim speakers in the United Kingdom. Again, how did this happen?
These two cases should make all Muslim men in authority stop and think. What does it say about our public life that two of our most popular speakers acted unislamically in their relations with women? These are two of the cases that have come to light in this country. There have been reports of others, but they have not been made public. I would like to claim that these are not aberrations but rather the proof (burhan) of something that is very wrong. We worry and speak so much about gender relations (cf. various talks and books on the role of women in Islam for example) and yet things like this are happening.
The second matter is the involvement of Muslim women in decision-making in Muslim community organisations i.e. the sharing of power. Let us take the most prominent Muslim women in the United Kingdom: Sayeeda Warsi, Naz Shah and Salma Yaqoob. All talented. They have been standing up for the community for years. Willing to lift their heads above the parapet, take the heat and continue on nevertheless. And yet, they have acquired their public prominence through mainstream institutions: the Conservative party for Warsi, the Labour party for Shah and Stop the War for Yaqoob. None of them til today hold any position of authority or decision-making power in any Muslim organisation. Essentially, if you are a talented Muslim women who wishes to help our community you have to do it outside of your community.
The three main sectors in the British Muslim community are schools, charities and the mosques. Let us take the mosques first. Muslim women as we all know hardly feature in the running of any mosque in this country, including the most advanced ones. They could at least be on the trustee board, but even that hasn’t happened yet. The Council for Mosques structures are all exclusively male. And yet Muslim women now are business leaders, health professionals, academics, teachers etc. etc. We celebrate the history of great female scholarship in the past, but what happens today if we have a thirty-year old mufassir. Where would she be employed?
The charity sector employs women but mostly in lower grade jobs, signifying collectively their value to us. It is most likely that the majority of donations coming into the charity sector are from women and yet they are under-represented across the sector. There are very few female leaders in the charity sector though some charities have been going for decades and so have had ample opportunity to develop a whole generation of leaders. The majority of the charities don’t tell us who their senior executives are so we can’t tell how fair they are as employers. But we can tell from the trustee boards as these are all available on the Charity Commission’s website. Again, there is severe under-representation on the trustee boards of charities including the largest ones.
The schools sector provides an interesting counter-example. The largest Muslim run academy chain in the country is Star Academies. This is run according to government guidelines though as an academy network it has a measure of independence. Nevertheless, if one works through the schools on their website and checks the leadership of the different schools then it is clear that there are many Muslim female senior managers. So the talent can be found and given the opportunity to shine.
These two ends of the spectrum – involvement in decision-making and impropriety in personal relations – are two ends of the same culture, a culture that is misogynistic. It should not be tolerated. Things needs to change.
There needs to be some Muslim Women’s National Association (the Muslim Womens Network cannot take on this task according to this writer) or even a small Council that is set up, to be led by Baroness Warsi, Naz Shah MP and/or others which does the following. A lead for safeguarding needs to be appointed and advertised, anyone at risk of exploitation from a person in religious authority should be able to contact this person at least for personal safety reasons. So if for example, an Imam is trying to convince a young student to enter into a secret marriage with him then this person can contact the safeguarding lead to tell her that the Imam or scholar is exploiting her vulnerability.
Secondly, this Council or Committee should write to every major Muslim organisation in this country: Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Human Appeal, Star Academies, Muslim Council of Britain, MEND, MINAB etc. and ask for the immediate appointment of women onto governing councils and for an action plan for the appointment of women into senior roles in the organisation within the year. This is a suggestion that is being put forward to the British Muslim community, it may need some refining, however what is required is some female-led auditing mechanism which checks progress made in community organisations on the question of gender.
Councils for Mosques should become Council for Mosques and Muslim organisations (as in Leicester, one of the most conservative parts of the country) so that women can join the leadership bodies of their cities. Large mosques will be required to bring women on to their trustee boards. Large mosques should also be required to create a position or positions ‘Resident Female Scholar’ who would be responsible for the education of females in the mosque.
Today, we have the situation in which in one family we can have three sisters: one could be employed in a Muslim school and be an assistant head. Another could hold a ‘head of’ position in the local council but only be able to volunteer for her local charity as they won’t appoint her to a ‘head of’ position. A third could be a scholar who trained in the Islamic sciences but finds that she has to offer her classes privately as none of the major mosques in her city are willing to employ her as a teacher. This is an amalgamation and paints a worst-case scenario. Things are improving, we are in a better position compared to ten years ago, but we have a lot more work to do and it is for all Muslim men in powerful positions in British Muslim society to check our own power, to hold ourselves and our colleagues to account for the situation as it is and then to collectively make those decisions that are required to improve matters.
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