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Wonder Women: an interview with Founder of ‘Sisters in Business’ Hanifa

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At SSWH we are keen to promote upcoming everyday women who are following through their passions and dreams by doing great things, in a particular area of their lives – work, life, campaigning, business or the creative sector. These women are making a difference, changing lives, and their actions are like ripples in a pond, causing a cascade of change.

October 11 2017, marked the fifth year of the International Day of the Girl and to celebrate we are launching our new series ‘Wonder Women’ which will feature everyday diverse women, who are all in their own right trail blazers.

Our first Wonder Woman is Hanifa, who had an idea a year ago to bring together her passion for business and her faith. She soon founded ‘Sisters in Business’, click on the link to follow their Instagram page.

SSWH: Please tell us about yourself.

Hanifa: I am a revert, mother to 3 kids and a wife Alhamdulilah, I reverted (converted to Islam) 13 years ago from Christianity. I currently work within the NHS sector and have been for the last 10 years within the maternity field as a qualified breastfeeding consultant, Alhamdulilah. I am a sister who has skilled and qualified myself in many things e.g. Hijama, (cupping) and hairdressing.

SSWH: Why did you start the ‘Sisters in Business’ network? How many events have you had so far and what types of women attend your events?

Hanifa: Sisters In Business was an idea that I wrote down one year ago, but finally put it all together this year, Alhamdulilah. As a business owner myself I was always faced with going to networking events that were contradictory to my faith; I either was amongst men, music and alcohol and it just didn’t sit right with me being in that environment. Not to mention how boring networking events can horribly be.  As someone who has always planned parties and gatherings for sisters ( those who know me, know what a fab party I throw down lol) I knew that having an outlet is very important. I knew there were many sisters who would love to attend networking sessions but unfortunately couldn’t due to whatever reason, I also saw to many sisters start but always stopped running their businesses due to lack of support and connections I wanted to create a platform that was specifically for sisters who wanted to run their businesses to the next level.

Our recent launch event saw women bakers, bloggers, corporate women, mix-tresses, those who have business ideas as well as those who just wanted to meet new sisters. As always I am always looking for ways to make the events fun, as the business world can be boring, as well as lonely. And I wanted the events to be engaging whilst also a space for learning. It is important that these events are social too.

SSWH: What do you hope to achieve with the network?

Hanifa: My overall achievement is to create a hub for sisters from sisters all over the world with tips, advice and best if all opportunities to connect with one another.

SSWH: What motivates and inspires you?

Hanifa: My children are always my motivation, my husband inspires me as he never gives up whatever he has his hands on. I am just a combination of someone who always wants to help women achieve their best, as well as being someone who is always striving to achieve the best too.

SSWH: Do you have any tips for anyone wishing to start-up their own network or turn their idea into reality?

Hanifa: My tips are simple yet effective:

  • Start by writing your thoughts and ideas down – you cant run from what is down in front of you.
  • Never doubt your potential – sometimes we seek validation from others before we put things into action.
  • Gain as much knowledge as you can from those within that field – knowledge is a cure for ignorance.
  • Trial & error – be prepared to fail, stumble and not reach that particular goal. Its ok, just reframe and re evaluate your route to success.

SSWH: How do you motivate Muslim women and help them to realise their entrepreneurial goals?

Hanifa: How I motivate women is giving them the confidence to be in their own element, for example why limit your product to the pound shop when you can aim to have your product in oxford street? Giving them a platform to seek business knowledge without feeling judged or compromising their faith. I help them to unlock their potential – it is easy for women to think they can’t when in fact they can.

Our sincere thanks to Hanifa for answering our questions!

Interview by Akeela Ahmed (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)

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He said, she said: why are the Nouman Ali Khan allegations of impropriety, so difficult to believe?

“I will never engage in victim blaming.”

My heart feels so heavy at the news of the Nouman Ali Khan scandal. It leaves me disappointed, angry, but not surprised or shocked. We live in a patriarchal world, and the status quo supports the oppression and misuse of women, so it comes as no surprise that a man in a position of considerable amount of power (fame, money, influence) has been accused of inappropriate behaviour. I have such a low level of trust of men (especially men of religion) that I am not shocked nor do I want to jump to blindly defending Khan nor is it something that seems far-fetched or impossible, is a testament to my lived experience as a woman and the saddest part of this ordeal.

I should be livid, but ironically I’m not; as I’ve come to expect very little of men in our society.

My stance on this on this scandal is that:

  1. I will never engage in victim blaming.
  2. There is sufficient evidence leaked against him yet his die-hard fans still continue to defend his alleged behaviour. In fact, they are unwilling to even accept that such a thing could have happened. This evidence could very well have been doctored, but let’s not be 100% positive that such abuse could not have occurred.
  3. Many are shutting the conversation down by claiming that this is slander. Let’s be clear, that this is NOT slander, especially if true. Slander would be that it was just a false case built against him.  Our religion asks us to be just, even if it is against our kin. Our religion also teaches us to search for the truth and hold those in places of power accountable. Khan being a public figure and a religious teacher/leader, is prone to more scrutiny than an ordinary person. If he is being framed as he claims; a due course of the law must be followed and insha Allah truth shall prevail. I do not say that we presume guilt before proof, but what we need is to be open to the possibility that he too could have fallen, as after all he is human and prone to flaws.
  4. This is not backbiting. Our religion teaches us to stand for the oppressed and to always stand up for justice. Many argue that this is an act between two consenting adults and that it may be immoral behaviour, but it isn’t a crime, nor are the women involved, victims. We must recognize why this is problematic. He is a teacher and in a place and position of power, he had a greater onus of responsibility than his students who might be adults but there is a power differential between him and the women involved. There is a reason why there are strict rules of conduct between therapists and their clients, doctors and their patients, professors and students, coaches and athletes etc. The same also applies to clergy such as Priests and Imams.
  5. If the relationships were consensual and the two were in a legitimate Nikah (muslim marriage), then the marriages didn’t need to be secret. They needed to be publicly declared because the very act of Nikah safeguards the right of a woman to be publicly known as the legitimate wife of an individual. Allah is aware of our fitrah, He knows, a woman wrongfully attached to a man, will be slaughtered by our tongues and hands.
  6. There is also the issue of there being multiple marriages. Some argue this may not be islamically immoral, (although there are near impossible criteria around polygamy); however, it is legally prohibited in the country of his residence. We need to adhere to the lawsof our adopted homelands. A man, who is a man of religion and owns a public platform accessible to everyone, has a greater responsibility to lead by example to not break the law of the country. Yes, the law of Allah trumps the law of the country, but the law of Allah also prescribes us to follow the law of the land. If we all decided to not follow the law of the land we live in, the world would be in absolute chaos and there would be no checks and balances in place.
  7. I don’t believe the story because other so called reputable and religious men are sharing it. I believe it, because in cases of abuse, I choose to believe the victims. I recognise this is my bias, but the statistics suggest that very rarely do people lie about being victims of abuse. It is a difficult task to come out and speak about being a victim and the repercussions are usually for the victims as our patriarchal culture will place more trust in the oppressor than on the victim.
  8. We need to accept that no one is above inappropriate behaviour. You could have the book of Allah in your heart and still fall from grace (how else do you explain imams involved in child abuse)? The whispers of shaytaan and the tug of our nafs, makes us prone to sin. None of us can claim perfection, nor can we claim to be without sin. Let’s at least accept the premise that the allegations being a reality is a possibility before jumping to an absolute defence of Khan.
  9. We should make 70 excuses and verify the accusations against someone before believing them to be the absolute truth. The die-hard fans have refused to extend that courtesy to the victims of this ordeal. It seems the 70 excuses are only for the accused (man) here.
  10. We need better checks and balances within our systems. We need equal spaces for women with qualified religious and social counsellors where women can go and discuss their personal difficult circumstances.
  11. Personally, I do not need to know the victims’ names to believe the truth, anyone demanding to know the victims are purely doing this to satiate their own curiosity. The way the blind herd is following Khan, no amount of proof will convince them otherwise. Exposing the names of the victims will only vilify and further victimise them. We can already see that the response from members of our community is not only vile, but often violent. Imagine the risk to the safety associated with disclosing the identity of the women.
  12. The biggest issue in my opinion has been the way this was disclosed by reputable members of our community. The allegations are vague, with enough being said indirectly on the topic (without naming Khan) by other religious figures such as Navaid Aziz, Yasir Qadhi and Omer Suleiman, leading us all to the worst possible conclusions. This is not a sign of wisdom, or good for community cohesion or development. The silence since last Friday from our leaders is deafening. If anything is slanderous, it is this behaviour. It does little to protect the victims or increase our understanding of abuse.

I pray that Allah protect us all. There is a lot we need to do as a community. This is a difficult conversation to have, but a conversation that is a MUST. We are supposed to be the best of examples, and to follow the footsteps of the best of Creations, Muhammed (SAW).

In order to do that, we need to be balanced in our approach especially when searching for the truth. Let us weigh what has been presented without making judgements either way. Let’s demand the leaders to be more transparent, and forthcoming than they have.  The evidence needs to be presented without the need for exposure of the victims. If this is a matter that cannot be dealt within the confines of our community, we must follow the process of law of the country.

“We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community.”

The leaders have a public responsibility to squash these rumours and be clear in their allegations. Khan, has every right to defend himself and to offer his narrative. But, we as a community also need to learn that if this can be an elaborate plan to trap/defame Khan, that it is an equal probability (if not more) that the allegations against him are true and that there are victims. We need to afford that same level of opportunity to speak their side of the story to those he allegedly has wronged. We also need to learn and understand abuse, grooming, harassment and how power dynamics play a role in that as a community. We need to actively engage in learning, and teaching this cycle, if we want to protect and safeguard those who are vulnerable in our society before perpetuating the cycle of abuse through blind following. The biggest lesson from this scandal is that we must not place any human being on a pedestal nor should we idolise them to the point where we assume no fault on their part. Idol worship comes in many forms, and this falls under that category. The word of Allah is true and perfect, but the vessel through which it is delivered can be imperfect and be full of flaws. This is a reality we must thoroughly accept.

Most of all, in our defence for Nouman Ali Khan, let us not engage in victim blaming and shaming. How we behave tells other victims (of physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence), that it is better to stay silent if ever abused. Through our actions, we also signal that we side with oppressors and abusers. This would be the biggest irony given that it is the month of Muharram-a month that commemorates the greatest injustice of our Islamic history. We have a choice to make, are we with the oppressor or will we be a voice for those who are wronged in our society and I choose to be the latter.

By Maheen Nusrat

Maheen Nusrat is a Pakistani born Canadian currently residing in the UK. She has also lived in Bahrain and in New York. She has a degree in Communications. Her portfolio includes working in politics, print and broadcast media, life sciences and the public sector. Maheen is the co-founder of Uplift Connections-a platform for women from all faiths and ethnicity to come together, and to help them succeed in business. Follow them @Uplift_connect.  Maheen has a real passion for social justice, equality and believes that our talents are meant to be shared with the world. Follow her @fireyfury1 

Image credit: https://www.pinterest.fr/pin/99994054199930669/
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the websbite


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70 years on, Partition deeply impacts my life.

“Partition. An event that would drastically transform the South Asian landscape forever.”

August 1947 – a month that not only saw the division, murder and separation of thousands of people, but the creation of two new nation states in the region. 70 years on, I discuss my experience and understanding of Partition – as an Indian-Pakistani British Asian – and how an event that happened long before I was born has had a significant impact on my life.

Partition. An event that would drastically transform the South Asian landscape forever. With the end of British rule in India, tensions had been rising within the region, with various groups fighting for recognition and representation. The creation of Congress saw the rise of individuals like Mahatma Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru, but also others like Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who were key figures of the Pakistan movement. After protesting that Muslim voices, which formed a large part of the population in India were being repressed or even ignored, these individuals rallied for the creation of ‘Pakistan’, which initially was not meant to be a separate state, but rather a movement that would allow the voices of the Muslim community to be heard.

It should be pointed out that these tensions had been rising for many years prior, however their culmination fell on these two days, which saw large amounts of bloodshed. Neighbours turned on each other, parents were separated from their children and familiar faces became strangers over night. Even today, the South Asian community suffers from grief as many individuals still have no idea where their loved ones went. Home was no longer home for many millions of people.

But 70 years on, how did this come to affect the South Asian community? And how is partition viewed amongst the diaspora, especially here in the UK?

As a woman who can claim heritage to both nations, I believe that my experiences as a half – Pakistani and half – Indian can help shed some light on this. Anyone who has grown up with a mixed heritage will always tell you how hard it is to formulate an identity. Add to that the scars of a large political event like Partition, ultimately formulating your identity becomes even harder. Either you are not ‘Pakistani’ enough or you are not ‘Indian’ enough. Growing up was hard because ultimately you faced criticism from both sides. Aside from being called names from both sides, such as being a ‘betrayer’ or a ‘fake Indian/Pakistani’, there was this feeling that on either side, I was never truly accepted.

The biggest pain that is felt however, is the idea of travelling to my homelands. Due to the stringent visa requirements, India can refuse entry to those who have visited Pakistan or hold a Pakistani national identity. With the rise of the far right Hindu nationalist party in India, not only have hate crimes against Muslims become more prominent in India, but the idea of going to India to see my own family is a process that makes me nervous. As a half – Pakistani, I have to fill out extra forms, provide more details than my non – South Asian counterparts, and even then there is all the chance that I may be rejected for a visa. It means that any holiday I make is a decision to choose between two countries and two parts of my family. Tell me, how does one make a decision between two homes? If I visit my family in Pakistan I miss out on visiting my family in India. And this isn’t just me, seventy years before me, thousands of families were ripped apart as a result of partition. However my pain and trial is nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of families that are still living today with no idea where their husband, wife, daughters or sons are after the horrors they went through during the month of August in 1947.

However, my mixed heritage has allowed me to experience some wonderful things. As a Indian – Pakistani Muslim I have had the pleasure of seeing how Islam is practiced on both sides. I have been able to witness amazing architecture and I have the opportunity to visit both countries, even if it is difficult. I have seen that the underlying South Asian culture that exists throughout the region, which whilst having its differences and its fair amount of issues, also shows some incredible amounts of similarity. As Indians and Pakistanis, there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Today more than ever, the South Asian diaspora is coming together to put aside our differences. The British South Asian community is a perfect example of how individuals, regardless of religious beliefs, come together to celebrate a common culture. Even within cricket, better sportsmanship and communication is taking place between players on both sides to show how we can remain united, despite our countries being stuck in political turmoil and opposition to one another. Bollywood is starting to push its boundaries across the physical borders that exist and showcasing up and coming talent from Pakistan. Not only that but its increasing criticism and attempts to show the unity between these two countries though movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan gives hope to those of us who believe that one day, despite the political, social and cultural problems, our countries will become friends.

by Zahraa A

Zahraa A is currently going into her final year of my International Relations degree. She loves anything and everything political or historic, with postcolonial theory, feminism and anything surrounding political movements from the PoC/BME community, Muslims and her own South Asian culture being her key interests. She blogs at ‘The Muslim Diaspora‘.

Partition image credit: RaghulDev
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the websbite


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What I’ve Learned From My Miscarriage

In mid-May I shared Hadley Freeman‘s heart-breaking account of her miscarriage, with the plea that we talk more openly about women’s health, miscarriage, infertility. I had no idea that two days later, I would suffer a miscarriage myself at 11 weeks.

In the Jewish youth movement world, we have a concept called ‘dugma ishit’ – leading by personal example, or acting in such a way that allows others to follow your lead. It’s a core principle by which I lead my life to this day. After thinking long and hard, I have decided to be open about this because after the experience, I can categorically say that a culture of silence still exists around this common, natural but traumatic side of fertility. As a friend of mine wisely said, ‘It’s sad, but it shouldn’t be shameful.’ So, in the spirit of ‘dugma ishit’, ‘talking about miscarriage more openly’ and giving the finger to out-of-date taboos, here are three things I’ve learned from my experience.

NB Of course I can’t speak for Eyal, or other women, or their partners who have been through this grief. These are my own personal reflections…

1) I wasn’t prepared for the physical rollercoaster of miscarriage.

While the grief, sadness and anger were devastating, it was the physical symptoms and aftermath that floored me most. With various complications, it took me 8 weeks to make a full recovery and receive the all clear. That’s two months of fear, pain and medical uncertainty. (I should say that the care we received at St Thomas’ Early Pregnancy and Acute Gynaecology Unit was mostly excellent.)

I have never felt so exhausted, drained and imbalanced as during my recovery period. It tested my self-care practice to its limits. My biggest lifeline (hard to achieve in practice) was surrendering to whatever was happening at that moment, whether it was fear, pain, grief, tears, laughter or rage. I did a lot of art and crafting from my sofa, a physical practice which I could thankfully do even while I ached everywhere. I spent much of this time off work or working from home. While all experiences are different, I honestly don’t know how women who go through this can ‘push through’, go back to work and act normal. I know that not all workplaces are as understanding as mine was. It’s not right that women should feel they have to ‘keep calm and carry on.’ We need more understanding around the physical aspects of miscarriage and recovery, as well as the emotional ones.

2) No-one should have to go through this alone.

We had told a few close friends that we were pregnant, breaking with the common ‘wisdom’ that you shouldn’t tell until 12 weeks
– because heaven forfend you have to burden them with the news of a miscarriage! It’s always struck me that this was more for other people’s benefit than the expectant parents, who would need support if ‘the worst’ were to happen. When we went for that first scan and they told us I would miscarry, I decided from the beginning that I was going to be open with friends about what we were going through. As we shared our heartbreak, our friends and family rallied to support us. The visits, texts, calls, meals, flowers, sweet treats and words of support came thick and fast to remind us that we were not alone in this dark place. You wonderful people, you know who you are. I love you so much, and am forever grateful. Special mention should go to Eyal who supported me staunchly even as he grieved and struggled himself, and our family, my mum, brother and Eyal’s auntie in particular, who supported me amazingly with an apparent inability to be phased by even the goriest aspects of the process. I described the feeling at the time as being like crowd-surfing when I couldn’t walk. I also told people in a work/voluntary context where I felt it appropriate. It felt wrong to lie and say I had the flu, like being complicit in perpetuating the taboo.

Yes, sometimes people said things they hoped would be helpful which actually hurt. People often don’t know what to say to those grieving and in pain, and try to ‘make it better’ with platitudes and clichés, instead of just listening, being there and admitting things are shit. I know most of it came from a place of love and care.

I know that some of my friends have struggled with toxic narratives of blame and shame – even the idea that they should stay away from pregnant women in case miscarriage is ‘catching.’ Some of these narratives come from misguided individuals, some are deeply embedded in traditions and cultures. Of course, despite growing up in Turkish culture where the evil eye or ‘nazar’ is constantly referenced and feared, I know that my experience can’t be ‘transmitted’ to someone else. My nurses reiterated time and again that miscarriage is no-one’s fault, and nothing I had done had caused this. It makes me so sad that women are having to suffer this salt being rubbed into their open wounds. No-one needs that added guilt and humiliation.

Personally, I still don’t regret sharing while I was going through it. The result was definitely net positive – on us as a couple, and on the wider conversation about miscarriage. I recognize too that’s also a testament to the amazing, loving people Eyal and I have in our lives.

3) As a society, we are NOT talking about miscarriage.

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People tell you repeatedly, presumably as an attempt at comfort, that 1/4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. I couldn’t name more than three people in my network who I knew had had one before this. I felt so alone and singled out in those early days. ‘Why is this happening to me when everyone around me has had healthy pregnancies and children?’ And then, as I shared what was happening to me, slowly slowly, the friends to whom it had happened came forward in a multitude. Some with children, some still trying. Many of them I had seen soon after their miscarriages, and I had no idea what they’d been through until I now. With silence and shame comes the risk that women, even close friends, never find out about and share their common experience of miscarriage, that can serve to deepen support, friendship and solidarity.

Of course, it’s every woman’s right to choose how they deal with their loss. But I would argue that in our culture, the choice is heavily weighted towards the default of ‘keep quiet, move on, try again’ (as if trying to conceive again is on your mind when you’re in the depths of that grief!). There are still lots of unspoken associations with miscarriage – shame, guilt, a sense of failure as a woman. I felt all these things in the darkest hours, but by bringing them into the light, I see them for what they are. A mixture of the natural emotions of grief, and some serious patriarchal bullshit around women’s value being associated with a) fertility, and b) outward perfection. Some of the specious beliefs that prevent people asking for the support they need in all kinds of grief come to mind- ‘I don’t want to burden people’, ‘I don’t want people to see me in this state’, ‘What will they think of me?’ When we say these things out loud, it’s clear what bullshit they are. I don’t know how I personally would have got through this ordeal without talking about it with people I loved and trusted.

I am deeply grateful to all the friends who opened up to me about their experiences, helping me gain perspective and retain hope when it felt like the ordeal would never end. I hope that if friends in my network are suffering with miscarriage and its aftermath, they know that there’s one more person they can reach out to who’s been there and can support them – not with platitudes, but with a listening ear, advice if they want it, holding a light for them in the darkness. I hope I’ve opened the way for others to be open about miscarriage in future, to the extent that they want to.

A word about partners, be they male, female or non-binary. They are going through the immense grief of losing a pregnancy/child, while watching their partner suffer devastating physical pain and grueling recovery. While it’s understandable that much attention is on the partner who physically miscarries, the supporting partner also has their own grief and struggle that needs to be allowed to air. A word to the wise – when enquiring how someone is doing after a miscarriage, do ask how their partner is too.

How am I now? Physically, finally back to myself more or less, thanks especially to my body’s amazing ability to heal and a wonderful holiday. Emotionally up and down, sometimes especially tender with news of pregnancies and births. But I have hope now, where I didn’t before. I’ll get there, with a little help from my friends.

Here’s Hadley Freeman’s article, still heartbreaking and affirming to read…

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/13/hadley-freeman-miscarriage-silence-around-it

The Miscarriage Association offers advice, resources and counselling:

https://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

And I found this graphic artist’s story of her miscarriage very moving:

http://www.charipere.com/blog/miscarried

Post Script:

I put this post on Facebook, on 31st July. Although I expected (and hoped!) people would be kind, I was blown away by the stream of loving and supportive responses I received. And my PM box brimmed with yet more stories from friends… Some recent losses being mourned today; some which happened 20+ years ago or more and still left their mark.

The same themes emerged again and again from friends’ testimonies… isolation; shame; not knowing how to be around pregnant friends and babies; well-meaning sympathy gone wrong; discovering new bodily intuition through and after the process; handling the anxiety of ‘trying again.’ There are clear parallels with grief and bereavement – one friend told of how hurt she was when people crossed the street to avoid her, as they didn’t know what to say. Reading response after response, I thought to myself 1) It’s not just me, I’m not alone, and 2) How awful that this still happens! We have such a long way to go.

This has confirmed to me how needed communities like ‘She Speaks, We Hear’ are, which help women share their lived experiences and find support and solidarity at these difficult times – especially if they are living in a culture where miscarriage is silenced, misunderstood or maligned. Sisters, I see you and hear you. We’ll get through this together.

By Debbie Danon

Debbie is a freelance facilitator, trainer and leadership development expert, with life-long passion for building community and creating brave spaces for transformative conversations. After her degree at Cambridge University in Theology and Religious Studies in 2007, Debbie joined intercultural NGO 3FF (Three Faiths Forum), where she designed and delivered interfaith learning experiences for single-faith and community schools, and subsequently for other professional sectors. The programmes she designed grew to reach 10,000 young people and 800 educators a year, and won a UN Alliance of Civilizations Award. Debbie spent two years with award-winning immersive learning consultancy The Smarty Train, where clients included The Bank of England and Accenture. Until recently, she served as Director of Education for two youth leadership organisations, The Unreasonables and Blue Chip Leaders. Debbie volunteers with the Grassroots Jews community, and youth charity The Advocacy Academy. Her passions include arts & crafts, hosting (meals, discussions, games nights), meditation and dancing.

Image Credit: Debbie Danon
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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The Top 7 Expectations On Young Muslim Women And How To Overcome Them.

For many Muslim women in the UK, we are expected to achieve a top 7 definitive ‘checklist’ where marriage and children have been the ultimate goalpost for generations. Thankfully, the walls have begun to crumble and we have seen many wonderful examples of fellow Muslim women who have worked hard not to attain the perfect rishta, but who have worked hard for their own development and growth.

Those in the public eye include Ibtihaj Muhammad, Ayisha Malik and Nadiya Hussain to name but a few. They have demonstrated that Muslim women everywhere are intellectual, free-thinking, creative, strong, funny as hell and can be anything from an Olympic fencer, to an author, to the undisputed queen of cake. And yes, we are also daughters, sisters, mothers and wives – in this day and age our identities can no longer be defined by a singular adjective or milestone.

While our own communities have certainly begun to see positive change and progress, I believe that we are still subject to what I call “The Checklist”, something which has been entrenched in the lives of Muslim women for far too long. It goes something like this:

  1. Study hard for exams.
  2. Progress academically throughout school.
  3. Ace that university interview
  4. Get those three A’s in front of you on the UCAS screen.
  5. Graduate with a First.
  6. Outshine the competition during those rounds of job applications.
  7. Get married and have kids.
    The end.

Seem familiar?

Growing up, we put in years and I mean years of hard work whilst enduring copious amounts of pressure and stress moving from one life milestone to the next be it A-levels, university, internships, placements, graduating and first jobs. But there is still this unspoken rule that all that grafting serves one sole purpose: appearing as a desirable candidate for potential husbands and in-laws.

Sure, having a degree and a brilliant job which you love doing is a sure-fire way to gain you a good match but what happens once the wedding is over?
Traditionally speaking, we eventually find ourselves leaving behind all that we have worked for along with our interests in order to be wives and mothers.
This makes absolutely ZERO SENSE.

If a woman decides to get married the union is something that should become a wonderful part of her life, not something that defines her life. She has worked too hard and gained too much just to leave it at the door for the sake of being called a “good wife” or “dedicated mother”.

Why do we need to sacrifice one in order to have the other?

In the UK today young Muslim women are at the forefront of education, with the Guardian reporting last year on how there are more of us outperforming boys, more of us attending universities and more of us entering and surviving the job market. We possess ambition, drive and determination to succeed at whatever we do. With education and life experiences that come with growing up, we are beginning to value the idea of self-growth which extends beyond the stereotypes that have plagued us for so long.

The harsh reality is that these stereotypes come at us from both inside and outside of our communities and relate to “The Checklist”. Firstly, Muslims from both previous and current generations who uphold the patriarchal and quite frankly backward view that women shouldn’t be encouraged to grow as individuals through education, work or just experiences in general limit young women to aspire only to what’s on the checklist and nothing else. On the other end of the spectrum, because these stereotypes of who a Muslim woman is and should be are so openly projected throughout society it becomes a surprise to everyone else when we supposedly ‘deviate’ from the checklist.

The result is usually the following questions and statements (some of which have actually been said to me by Muslims and non-Muslims):

“Wait, you’re not going to have an arranged marriage?”
“You’re really outspoken for a Muslim woman”
“Did you sneak out to get here?”
“You’re allowed to move out for your year abroad?”
“I bet your parents lost it when you didn’t get top grades right?”

And the classic one-liner: “You’ll quit once you have kids, work will be too much for you”.

But here’s the thing, I know that we are smashing it in all aspects of life be it education, work and raising a family because I’ve seen it with my own eyes: women with children putting in 150% at work and loving every second of it, women who have recently married being promoted and women pursuing their own interests for the sake of their own happiness and development.
We should not be made to feel as if we have to choose between the things that make us who we are. Instead, we need to support and encourage one-another within all spheres to go beyond the checklist that is expected of us and create our own.

By Raisa Butt

Raisa is a London born -Hong Kong raised – Pakistani currently working as a secondary English teacher but her love for writing both creatively and academically has never wavered. Her particular interests lie in exploring concepts of gender, feminism and multiculturalism in works of fiction, non-fiction and in the pieces she writes about wider societal issues which affect young Muslim women today.

Image credit: Muhammad Faizan

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.


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More needs to be done to protect the mental health of young British Muslims

In a society where Muslims are constantly placed under the lens, examined, picked apart and policed for their views, it can be argued that the chances of young Muslims developing and suffering from mental disorders is increasing. From anxiety to depression, the mental and physical health of the Muslim community is deteriorating, with there being a lack of support and recognition of this issue within our local communities and groups. But more than anything, the increase in such disorders demonstrates how the current narrative that is prominent in society is becoming increasingly problematic to the growth of young Muslims across the world.

Social media is a wonderful tool that allows us to stay connected to millions of people from all over the world, from different backgrounds and communities, thus providing us with stories, both good and bad, from all over the world. However, for all of its benefits, social media has also developed an ugly side where racism, xenophobia, sexism and bullying of all types has become prominent. With the rise of videos portraying attacks on visibly Muslim men and women circulating across platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and with organisations like Tell Mama and CAIR reporting that ‘2017 is to be the worst year for anti – Muslim hate crime’, it is becoming harder for Muslims to ignore the rising anti – Muslim sentiment.

As a young Muslim, I constantly find myself in conversation with other Muslims who talk about their struggles with mental health and the constant pressure and dread they feel whenever terrorist incidents happen. Creating a focus group, I asked some young British Muslim students about their experiences and views when discussing the mainstram narrative in the media. As one young Muslim woman, aged 20, explains,


“The reaction of Muslims is no different to that of any individual, the first thought that rushes to our minds is that we hope that people are okay.’ As she explains, ‘Despite being Muslim, we are also British – these aren’t two mutually exclusive identities, but rather one – I am a British Muslim, and as a result I care for those living within my community.”

This idea was supported by others within the discussion, with many explaining how the backlash of the media coverage causes them to worry as it ‘gives the far-right fuel to attack us’. Many also expressed their discontent at the response of the local authorities, with one individual making reference to the acid attack in East London which saw a young Muslim woman and her cousin suffering severe burns and the felt reluctancy of the authorities to proactively seek out the perpetrator.

When asked about how they felt leaving their homes as visible Muslims, or how they felt about loved ones who did observe religious wear, many expressed their concerns. One woman, also 20, explained how it ‘felt dangerous to be brown’, with many agreeing given the current climate and rise in acid attacks they felt as though they were more likely to be victims, even if they weren’t wearing religious attire.

This has also raised the question over the racialised aspect of Islamophobia, with many pointing to individuals like Tommy Robinson for solely attacking the South Asian, but also more generally, the BME Muslim community and their failure to ‘integrate’. Many Muslim women have also expressed their concerns over travelling alone, as many feel afraid to look ‘too Muslim’ in public for fear that they may be attacked or harrassed. The men within the discussion also raised concerns that when dressed in Islamic clothing they felt ‘on edge’, but also expressed their sympathy as they believed Muslim women were more at risk of being victimised.

Many young Muslims have also taken to Twitter to criticise the ‘apologetic culture’ that has become prominent, where Muslims have to rush to defend themselves online whenever news breaks of a terrorist attack, with this happening before it is even confirmed that the perpetrator was a Muslim. Many argue that such actions not only emphasise the alleged relationship between Islam and terrorism, but that the only people who should apologise are the perpetrators, not the entire Muslim community. However, some have argued that condemnations are needed, as without these they feel they (Muslims) would be more ostracised from society.  This also shows how within this spectrum of opinions, Muslims are conscious of their image and how they come across within society.

Not only are young Muslims being exposed to the hateful discourse online, but many are starting to doubt their own faith and are taking steps to disassociate themselves from their religion in order to escape the hate they may receive. Some Muslims have explained how there is a ‘sense of anxiety surrounding the Muslim community’, with others explaining how many Muslims ‘feeling ashamed of their own religion’. This sentiment not only demonstrates the alienation they experience virtually, but also from their own local support system, as pulling away from the religion causes personal relationships to break down, thus making more Muslims prone to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Many individuals have explained how they have taken their hijabs off or shaved their beards in order to look less Muslim or shorten their names in order to ‘blend in’. As one individual explains,

‘We shouldn’t be excluded from society because we choose to practice our faith’.

Therefore, it becomes clear that the current discourse surrounding Muslims is proving detrimental to Muslim mental health. Stuck between constantly apologising to not apologising enough, to being Muslim or ‘not Muslim enough’, the current Muslim generation is growing up in a time where they are placed under the critical lense, leaving them in a complex paradox. Add this to the existing issues young people face whilst growing up, it can be argued that young Muslims are finding it harder to hold onto their religion and their own identity. More must be done within the Muslim community to tackle the issues surrounding mental health, anxiety and to nurture the spiritual growth of our youth. Whether that be through self help workshops or mindfulness and counselling at our local community centres or mosques, we must be more proactive in creating a generation of Muslims who are confident with their identity and can be strong minded individuals.

by Zahraa A

 

Zahraa A is currently going into her final year of my International Relations degree. She loves anything and everything political or historic, with postcolonial theory, feminism and anything surrounding political movements from the PoC/BME community, Muslims and her own South Asian culture being her key interests. She blogs at ‘The Muslim Diaspora‘.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the websbite


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Breastfeeding shaming needs to stop

https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8

Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, and yet again there are reports that the UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Breastfeeding is one of those topics that any blogger should be terrified to write about. It is so controversial, so politicised, yet it really shouldn’t have to be so complicated.

It’s controversial because mothers are routinely shamed for “not trying hard enough”. But the reality is, women are just not supported enough. There is so much pressure to breastfeed without an adequate support structure in place. Breastfeeding seems to be about NHS quotas and targets these days; but, you can’t expect more women to breastfeed without supporting them properly.

I’m writing this as a woman, who has one child who was formula-fed after two weeks and the second who went from combination feeding to eventually being exclusively breastfed. I don’t feel shame for how I fed my children because I know I tried my best both times around, and I don’t care about judgment from others because nobody knows my experience apart from me. But my experience of being a first-time mother was so different from doing it the second time around.

The guilt and shame started during pregnancy, when in an NHS ante-natal class, a group of nervous first-timers were fed the mind-numbingly stupid idea formula was akin to giving your baby McDonald’s. This is the last thing a first-time mother needs to hear; it is not helpful and most women know the benefits of breast milk versus formula.

The nightmare continues after birth: the midwife (who in some cases, has no real personal experience of her own) expecting you to feed, feed, feed all night without a break, and that’s after you’ve just spent a good few hours, maybe even days, bringing a human being into the world. It’s relentless.

Breastfeeding is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise. When we are pregnant, we are often told that breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural experience that will come easily to us, that we were made to do this, and made to feel that it is our God-given purpose as women. We imagine ourselves as glamorous as the super-model, Gisele; feeding while glowing like a Goddess, while simultaneously being pampered by a team of hovering beauty experts. And then, our babies are born, and reality hits home. I’m not going to go into the gory details, but you all know what I’m talking about. We persist, and sometimes it works; other times, we try and try and it doesn’t. And that’s okay.

When I couldn’t breastfeed my first child, I went through a period of mourning because for a long time, I did wonder if I could have done more, even though I knew deep-down that I had made the right decision. I took time to read Suzanne Barston’s book, “Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.” Barston is the writer behind the formula-centric blog, Fearless Formula Feeder. The book explains that for various reasons, not everyone can breastfeed, and women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it.

Like it or not, formula isn’t poison. Formula fed a generation, and many of us are here (healthy and happy!) because of formula. Let’s not forget that many women also had wet nurses, so clearly, not everyone was miraculously able to breastfeed a hundred years ago.

If women weren’t made to feel that feeding their baby was an exclusive choice between pure poison or nature’s golden milk, then maybe they wouldn’t put so much pressure on themselves to feed.

Breastfeeding is tied to hormones and stress. When you are anxious, you produce adrenalin, which can affect your production of prolactin, the hormone that is trying to help you to produce milk. Nursing can help to reduce stress, but there are also some studies which show that physical and mental stress can cut the flow of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for stimulation of milk ejection (milk letdown) . If oxytocin is low, this can affect your supply of milk.

In simple terms, relaxation is really important for a breastfeeding mother. So maybe, just maybe, if formula was presented as an option to fall back on, more women would be able to relax and try hard to breastfeed, without the psychological fear of not filling up their baby’s tummy.

Because many women want to breastfeed. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they are human. Motherhood is bloody difficult. You have to do whatever it takes to survive, to get through one day after the next, to keep going, and pick yourself up every time your child doesn’t eat, or refuses to sleep, or throws the mother of all tantrums in public. If that means giving some formula to help you survive, so be it. If women don’t want to breastfeed, or want to mix-feed, let’s not shame them for their choices.

I truly believe that if a happy mum means a happy child. Motherhood is messy and complicated, and the happiness and intelligence of your child rests on far more than just the milk you feed them in the early years of their life.

But the real crux of this post is to ask why more women don’t breastfeed, and I think part of the reason is the overtly sexualised culture in the UK. We seem to have forgotten somewhere down the line, that breasts are intended for feeding babies and that is their primary function.

Why, in the 21st century, is there so much controversy about public breastfeeding? A couple of years ago, the luxury hotel Claridge’s came under fire for insisting that a baby breastfed at afternoon tea was covered up with a napkin. Yet, this is the same country where up to 2015, newspapers would routinely publish totally uncovered breasts on Page 3. The practice was only dropped two years ago. Lingerie models are on display in every public shopping centre that sells underwear, but God forbid, that we see a tiny bit of skin for a millisecond while a baby latches on. And you could always, you know, not look.

We need to remove the stigma around public breastfeeding, because this is partly the reason why women stop.  Because our society doesn’t prioritise the baby’s needs, and because there are some who would give more importance to their discomfort over the sight of a woman nurturing her infant. It is not always easy to find a private space, and although, legally you can breastfeed anywhere, women are often made to feel uncomfortable with public feeding.

As a society, we need to give more importance to the needs of the child and to increase the importance of the family. Not only are breastfeeding rates low, but England also has some of the unhappiest children in the world. Across the pond in Europe, the culture is centred much more around family life and the needs of children in particular. It’s something the UK could certainly learn from.

Breastfeeding has a whole host of additional health and social benefits for babies, and it would be somewhat naïve to deny this. But rather than judgment, shame and pressure, let’s make it easier, not harder. The culture needs to change to boost women’s confidence and give them the support they so vitally need to achieve successful breastfeeding.

Image credit: Breastfed graffiti, https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8 – Eli Duke via Flickr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.