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Islamic feminism – what’s it all about? Here’s seven reasons why Muslim women are demanding faith-based change

Islamic feminism is a term that for some may seem like an oxymoron. Isn’t feminism a secular movement? Aren’t feminists often fighting religious orthodoxy? Well the truth is that feminism is about women’s choice, women’s empowerment and women’s equality – for women of all faiths and none. 

For women like myself who identity with a specific faith tradition, we don’t see God as patriarchal, we don’t believe that our divine Creator is a misogynist and we don’t see our faith at odds with gender equality. Of course not! I certainly for one wouldn’t be a Muslim if I ever thought that was true.

However, what is true, is that just as in secular spaces – women of faith are often ignored in mainstream narratives and face a range of discrimination simply because of their gender. As a Muslim woman, hand on heart I can say that Islam has been interpreted into patriarchal spaces and according to the socio-cultural norms of certain societies, to the point that women are not always given an equal space, voice or allowed to progress and enjoin in their full spiritual, social, economic, political, cultural, sexual and emotional rights. 

Abhorrent practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage represent a host of gender-based violence and discrimination, stemming from social and cultural attitudes and norms which are often used in the name of Islam. When it comes to gender equality practices like these are often denounced within religious circles but the story sadly doesn’t end there in acknowledging what is and isn’t ‘Islamic’. These practices represent the worst forms of gender-based abuse that some Muslim (and non-Muslim) women and girls face. On that scale of misogyny, there are still a host of others problems in more faith-based spaces which affect the daily lives of Muslim women. These relate primarily to a lack of inclusion and diversity and the inability of the community to allow women to enjoin in their rights as enshrined in Islam itself. 

These issues of course all stem from the same culture of misogyny, sexism and misogynist interpretations of Islam (whether interpreted as ‘culture’ or ‘faith’). 

However, as feminists, egalitarians and seekers of justice, this is where Islamic feminists come in. Islamic feminists such as Amina Wadud and Sherin Khankan are re-interpreting and refreshing Islamic theology, Qur’anic readings and Muslim narratives to be more egalitarian. This is of course not to change Islam into something new but to follow its true original egalitarian form relevant in today’s modern context and to re-establish the role of Muslim women in Muslim spaces.  It involves working to eliminate socio-cultural practices within Muslim communities which harm women and girls (and society as a whole) to ensure that our rights are fulfilled through the provision of critical services. 

Beyond the violent, often-denounced cultural (non-Islamic) practices such as FGM and child marriage, I’m going to explain the more subtle issues which stem from the same core but are so often ignored. Let’s see why we’re fierce and proud Islamic feminists, and what the issues on the ground are. Read on to find out! 

1. We often have no visible prayer space

The sad truth is that for Muslim woman, both here in the UK and abroad, adequate prayer space is often lacking. Some mosques literally have no space for women at all, whilst other spaces remain much smaller and often ‘out of sight’. (Of course it is acknowledged that men are obliged to pray at the mosque on Friday unlike women.)

As journalist Remona Aly reports, research has found that here in the UK for example, out of a total of 1,975 mosques, a staggering 28% of do not offer space for women. What’s more, 50% of all South- Asian run mosques (South-Asian being the largest ethno-cultural grouping of Muslims in the UK) do not allow women in their space. 

According to Aly: “When mosques do offer it [a space], the access is restricted, and often does not even include a prayer space, but rather a teaching space, such as a girls’ madrasa (religious school).” 

This is a shocking problem and what’s more, when it does come to prayer space, I personally object to being separated by a screen or hidden away in a smaller room on the floor above or an area hidden away behind the men’s space. I would prefer to be in the same physical wider space but with designated areas for men and women. However, even for the most conservative of Muslims, the current facilities on the whole are not adequate. 

This is where Open My Mosque was born. Striving to open up mosques to women, to enable mosques to be less male-dominated and to let the message be known. This initiative is spreading the message that we want to pray in mosques and that we want to also have a greater role in these spaces too! It’s our right and we need not only decent physically existent spaces but inclusive, adequate, welcoming spaces. Find out more about the crucial campaign here.

2. Female faith leaders are few and far between

When I was studying Islamic Feminism for my Master’s degree, I came across the incredible Amina Wadud – a Muslim scholar and imamah (female imam). She has led prayer in mixed spaces and sadly come under fire by many Muslims for it. However, she is leading the way in a very small field. 

Whilst women back in Prophet Muhammad’s era were far from being relegated to the private sphere, excluded from spiritual spaces, sadly the same cannot be said for the Muslim world today as a whole. In addition to often having limited/no prayer space, women are almost entirely excluded from leadership roles, from grassroots level on mosque committees to further up the ladder in wider-scale national committees. 

However, there is hope. In addition to Amina Wadud and her inspiring work, other leading figures such as Sherin Khankan are creating crucial change. Sherin is a Danish-Syrian imamah,offering new narratives on Islam. She critically launched the Miriam Mosque to offer female-led Friday prayers, an inclusive community space and critical access to services for women. Sherin is vocal in declaring that ‘Women are the future of Islam in her latest book, and has growing support.

Meanwhile in Morocco, whilst not recognised under the title of imamah, the government commissioned morchidat (female spiritual leaders) to help empower women across the country and re-establish a more tolerant, open and egalitarian form of Islam. You can find out more about these incredible women in the film ‘Casablanca Calling’, which I definitely recommend seeing.

3. We are critically lacking in female scholarship

Again, whilst we’re lacking in female imams, we’re also lacking in female scholarship. As women, this means that when we wish to seek spiritual advice and practical guidance on everything from periods or fasting and prayer to marital advice, we are forced to seek male counsel. 

Now there’s obviously nothing wrong with male scholars but within such a narrow range of scholarship, we are lacking a nuanced, diverse range of teachings and opinions. At the same time also failing to offer adequate understanding and safe spaces to sometimes incredibly vulnerable women affected by sensitive, often gender-specific or incredibly complex issues across genders. We are simply pushing women out of the main sphere. The result is a narrow range of scholarship and a lack of nuanced understanding of a gender and culturally diverse faith community. 

This is completely at odds with Islamic tradition. Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha was a renowned scholar and for every Muslim, regardless of gender, it is our duty to learn and to access the means to learn and educate ourselves throughout our lives. Male-dominated scholarship fails to address the needs of the community and leads to a gendered-hierarchy of power. This is where scholars such as Amina Wadud – a fully identifying Islamic feminist – are reclaiming this space. However, we need more! For an insight into her work I would definitely recommend her book ‘Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam’. This book gives a great overview of the real message of tawheed (oneness of God – monotheism) and where Muslim women stand theologically in comparison to the socio-cultural reality today. 

4. Violent interpretations aren’t being challenged

Whilst we’ve come a long way in denouncing certain practices as un-Islamic, there are still some issues being swept under the carpet. The issue of domestic violence and verse 4:34 of the Qur’an is one clear issue that is not being adequately addressed. Now, whilst no level-headed Muslim following the teachings of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would ever hit a woman, we’re still not really getting to grips with this verse.

It’s all a matter of interpretation and logic. For example, the violent interpretation of Surah 4:34 declares:

“The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.” (Translation: Talal Itani)

Now, in an attempt to supposedly correlate the clear non-violent example of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) regarding his wives in reference to this translation, varying interpretations continue to permeate discussions around the topic. Of course, no level-headed scholar condones beating one’s wife. However, some scholars claim via interpretations of this surah and related hadith, that hitting which is ‘not harsh’ or does ‘not cause injury’ or carried out using a ‘light’ object such as a miswak (traditional toothbrush/stick) to offer a ‘warning’ or form of ‘metaphorical hitting’ are acceptable. This is clearly morally (and theologically) wrong and normalises unhealthy dynamics between husband and wife. Yet I’ve heard it in conversations at lunch tables.

The fact remains; if we are to take God’s message seriously and if we believe in mutual respect between husband and wife (and men and women as a whole), then we must address these issues. In relation to the topic, in the book ‘Leaving Faith Behind’, co-author Aliyah Saleem (now an ex-Muslim), describes how even a ‘metaphorical’ form of hitting as a response to the meaning of Surah 4:34 to her, constitutes emotional abuse. Threats of power, domination and violence in any form are wrong and do not exemplify a relationship of respect, love, understanding and tolerance. As a Muslim I can wholeheartedly understand why she found this unacceptable and am angered that such apologetic interpretations are presenting such an abhorrent view of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims. God is simply greater than this.  

Within the Muslim community however, Islamic feminists, rather than trying to explain such translations, have however offered their own more appropriate translation to help address such inconsistencies. In her translation The Sublime Quran ‘(2007), Iranian-American Muslim author, translator and psychologist Laleh Bakhtiar translates the Arabic word ‘daraba’ (the term in question often translated to mean ‘beat/hit/strike’) as ‘go away’. This crucially and logically refers to a last commandment of eventual separation during conflict with your spouse after everything else has failed. This naturally fits into the verse and its increasingly separatist stages: first advising, next not sharing the martial bed and then ‘daraba – walking away. 

Of course, for the sceptics out there (including native-Arabic speakers), it’s also worth pointing out that Laleh’s translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was even adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Yet why are we not talking about this instead of ‘lightly touching’ with tissues and miswaks or emotionally abusive power dynamics? Indeed, we’ve still got so far to go.

5. We’re tired of the hijab-hype

Image credit: https://www.freepik.com/index.php?goto=74&idfoto=3033344

Hijab, niqab, headscarves, veils – yes, the issue of covering is perhaps one of the most talked about with respect to Muslim women, in Muslims and non-Muslim spaces. Now, whilst this an issue of Islamic theology, the issue of how much a Muslim woman should cover, from which age and how she should or should not cover her body (and in particular head) is one that is over-dominating discussions on Islam. 

Firstly, despite the mainstream dominant narrative that women are obliged to cover their heads and bodies (with other interpretations mandating or encouraging the use of the face veil) there are various interpretations on head coverings. Secondly – and it should go without saying – this is a private matter between a Muslimah and Allah Almighty. The choice to cover or not cover should remain the woman’s sole decision devoid of outside influence or pressure. However, we continue to be inundated with talks of hijab and covering, with males often dominating the conversation. 

Not only is such behaviour a frank example of mansplaining on behalf of laymen in the context of non-scholarship, it’s also a clear example of (un-theological) double standards. Whilst men are also commanded to act and dress modestly and ‘lower their gaze’, we often hear a lot less of this in comparison! In fact, in her book ‘Inside the Gender Jihad’, Amina Wadud describes this reality perfectly. She outlines how the concept of hijab (head and body covering) has become a form of unofficial ,over-dominating ‘sixth pillar’. 

As both a hijabi and non-hijabi (I am now an ‘ex-hijabi’), it has honestly pained me (and continues to!) to see a lack of respect in some circles around the issue of women covering, not covering or no longer covering. We only need to think of the abuse that Muslim fashion blogger Dina Tokio received after removing her hijab to understand this. 

The sexist attitudes monopolising an area of personal observance and religious interpretation can again be fully observed in comparisons such as these of ‘good pure covered Muslimah’ versus ‘unveiled impure Muslim’ which make my blood boil.

I have myself seen such examples across social media, which are not only shared and pushed by men but also women. With male leadership, male scholarship and a male-dominated public sphere, both men and women are subject to such bias. Yet we’re also seeing clear examples of mansplaining amongst this policing of women’s bodies in relation to covering and hijab. 

Regardless of the perpetrator, this exemplifies a clear unhealthy policing of women’s bodies which we know is not only present in faith-based contexts. As Muslim women, we must reclaim our agency, our privacy and our right to choose to cover or not cover with full respect and independence (from men and women alike). 

6. Our sexuality is closeted, sensualised and shamed

Just as our bodies are policed in the name of modesty regarding hijab and body/face coverings, with modesty related to how we behave with the opposite sex (although a spiritual commitment), Muslim women are also subjected to ‘shame culture’ in relation to their sexuality and sexual behaviour. 

Think about how often we’re taught about a women’s right to sexual pleasure? Ask any scholar and they’ll make it clear that it’s our right. They do indeed encourage healthy sexual relationships for both spouses but it’s just not acknowledged enough in Muslim spaces. What however is talked about with another mansplaining double-standard is women’s virginity. 

Yes, again; what should remain between Allah and his follower (and is relevant to both men and women), has become the ‘ticking time bomb’ of shame, honour-related loss and ‘decency’ and causing fathers to want to marry their daughters off as soon as possible in some cases.

Just take a look at this tweet by a Muslim male: 

Yes, a tweet, that has (as of 9th March 2019), over 3,000 likes and 1,619 re-tweets written by a Muslim brother who seeks to shame women into submission through yet another reminder of how we should wait for marriage. Yet, as a Muslim woman I resent being compared to a juice carton. As a Muslim woman, I ask why are you talking about this? As a Muslim woman, I ask again: why the constant emphasis on a woman’s virginity on behalf of Muslim males? Why the double standards? Why the singular narrative? Why the publicising of women’s virginity yet the closeting and shaming of women’s sexuality (in halal settings)? 

It’s simply not good enough! It’s not good enough to believe in equal standards for women in regards to chastity and the right to sexual pleasure, it’s actually now time to talk equally, to share equally and to have a healthier narrative around these issues. Women, as human beings and Muslims have sexual needs and rights, and as Muslims, we (regardless of gender) submit to Allah alone in heart, body, mind and soul. 

7. Divorce is our God-given right

Divorce is another God-given right that must be obtainable and freely accessible in both theological and legal settings (yet not undertaken lightly). However, getting a divorce for Muslim women isn’t as easy and accessible as it should be. Cultural attitudes, ‘shaming’ those who wish to leave their husbands and those who have indeed divorced, mean that actually accessing divorce is incredibly difficult for some Muslim women.

At the Miriam Mosque, Sherin Khankan works to ensure that all Muslim women have access to divorce if they need it. Yet with male prompted divorce or divorce notification via text message or WhatsApp in Saudi Arabia or India for example, things are far from equitable, rational and fair for many Muslim women. 

Even here in the UK, many Muslim women also have difficulty obtaining a divorce. With a society that prizes virginity, one twice-divorced Muslimah journalist Saima Mir explains that despite the Islamic permissibility (with Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadijah being a divorcee herself), this wasn’t enough to “stop the gossip as her ‘value’ had ‘fallen’”. When the early women of Islam had no stigma or shame attached with being a divorcee or requesting a divorce, where are we as a faith-community when women nowadays continue to suffer in abusive, loveless marriages or are deemed ‘used goods’ unworthy of re-marriage? 

Logic and God’s words state that divorce is our right and we must ensure that not only is this rightful service available to all women but that men cannot and do not continue to abuse their right to divorce at the detriment of women. 

Now of course there are many, many more issues which could have been covered here, but the underlying narrative of women being the ‘bearers’ of honour and the public sphere being a place for male dominance is what continues to perpetuate these practices, problems and trends which on a higher more severe end of the scale lead to some of the abuse highlighted earlier such as FGM and child marriage. As Muslims, both men and women, we must reclaim the rights of women within faith spaces and our wider lives and for this reason, the work of Islamic feminists is critical.  

God is neither male or female – of course God is not human – but we must stop interpreting and living out Islam through this male-dominated, misogynistic lens. Women are being excluded, women are suffering and last of all, we have narrowed, boxed in and misrepresented the beautiful message of Our Creator – The Most Merciful, The Most Compassionate, The Loving and The Wise, into something that is lacking His beauty, justice and mercy. 

Actions speak louder than words. We must reclaim the narrative, preach and live a more inclusive, egalitarian form of Islam – the original Islam of times ago, nuanced and perfectly adapted into the modern era, which clearly puts women firmly at the centre, not on the sidelines. 

By Elizabeth Arif -Fear

Elizabeth Arif-Fear is one of our regular contributors and author of ‘What if it were you?’ which is available to buy on Amazon.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website. The images used in this piece have been sourced and chosen by the author.


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1400 years on is Islam anti-Feminist?

Have you also had your muslim uncles and aunts ask you why you don’t wear a hijab ? Has it made you want to punch them ? Has it made you want to scream out loud and wish eternal sufferage on them ? Yeah, welcome to this post where we can collectively rage about this ish and rejoice in the company of like minded people !!!

I started wearing a hijab around four years ago and since then, the pressure to cover up has been ginormous on my mother and sister as well. WHICH IS SO POINTLESS. It’s never enough that one of my mom’s daughters decided to wear hijab, her younger one needs to wear one too ! What is this pressure ? Why does it exist ? You know what the worst part is ? THAT NONE OF THEM WEAR A HIJAB THEMSELVES !!!!!

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As I was growing, the idea of Feminism was catching on (yeah, that’s how young I am.) There was also another idea catching on… that Islam is Anti-feminism. THIS idea, unlike the first one, did not sit well with me. I belonged to a muslim family ! And my muslim parents had sent me alllll the way to the Land of the Free, while they chilled in Bahrain ! To study. All alone ! No questions asked, despite the worries of the society (we are Indians by birth) and despite knowing the crap that they would have to deal with, in the coming years.

I was at full liberty to do whatever I liked, dress however I wanted to, basically everything people claim muslim women can’t do. This is probably the MAIN reason I started Hijab. One fine day out of the library, I thought to myself… what must it be like to actively LOOK like a muslim in this post 9/11 world ? Is it time to conduct yet another social experiment ? Though what might have started as an experiment, stayed on because of the extensive research that went behind the idea, until I was convinced that this is how I want to look – like an educated MUSLIM woman, in everyday life. Leading a normal life, quite contrary to popular belief. Proving people wrong when they say “All muslims ever think about is world domination !” Hell yeah I think about World domination – excuse me if I want to be Beyonce (Who run this mother-?)

To me, Hijab was my own idea of Feminism. No woman in my family covered her hair when I started. I was deliberately making the choice of wearing the Hijab. Just like women everyday decide what to wear, what to do with their hair and how to accessorize every outfit. Hijab was going to be my accessory. If you really think about it, it IS just a scarf ! And I don’t even want to get into the whole ‘modesty’ debate. Or the whole candy wrapper and flies comparison.

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WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS EVEN MEAN ? How did this manage to make it to the list of top forwards by muslim uncles on whatsapp ? Why is this okay to propogate ? How dare you call women lollipops – covered or uncovered. In a normal situation, I would even protest calling men flies, but I mean just for this post… they deserve it !

Just as you have no right to tell a woman to not wear a headscarf, you have no rights telling her to wear one either ! This shouldn’t be so hard to understand ! Don’t believe me?  Maybe Prophet Mohammad will help convince you otherwise.

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Islam does not oppress women, muslims do. Islam, gives women the rights to education, work and even driving (I know right ?) Just to name a few of the things women are ‘allowed’ to do in Islam. Where has this regressive mentality come from ? Why are we, as a community, so hell bent onto proving to the world that we stand for anti feministic principles ? Where is the pride in that ?

We are a religion coming from a man who married his widowed boss, after she proposed to him, despite being 15 years older to him – if that doesn’t scream feminism, then I don’t know what does.

by Sharmeen Kidwai

Sharmeen is a 25 year old medical graduate, which makes her a doctor. She graduated in 2016 and has since moved to India, with her husband (2017). She is a Canadian by nationality, but was raised in the middle east for most of her life. She has always loved to write. Only recently though she has realised she can make a difference by choosing her words just right. She says she is “trying to do my bit for the world and those in it, little by little!” 

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website
If you would like to submit a blog post, sharing your experiences or perspectives, then please email us on shespeakswehear@gmail.com. You can submit poems, short stories or any other type of post! You can also submit anonymously too.


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Ladies: Beware of the fake (male) feminist

man-2819044_1920Feminism. The word’s got a bit of a bad reputation, hasn’t it? Mention you’re a feminist in a crowd of people and they may think you’re a man-hating “modernist” out to take over the world and crush all menfolk.

Now mention the word equality and you might be onto something. We all want to treat each other fairly and equally, don’t we? Or, so we think…

See, whilst we all know how to spot an out and proud “anti-feminist” and the worst cases of discrimination and furthermore violence against girls and women (FGM, child marriage, eradicating female education and so on), an equally worrying dilemma is that of the fake feminist.

Now, when I say feminist, let me be clear from the word go. The men I’m talking about in particular (like many people in fact) won’t call themselves feminists. “Feminist” is a “Western”, quirky word apparently…. No, definitely not. But they do quite openly believe in women’s equality – despite cultural and traditional pressures both behind the scenes and out in the open. So, how do they do this you might ask?

Well, here are some examples:

  • They encourage their sisters to go to university
  • They openly state that men and women are equal
  • They’re repulsed at and denounce child marriage, FGM and other forms of gender-based violence
  • They believe that women should (if they wish) be active in the workplace and their female relatives often work
  • They claim to be looking for a “partner”, an equal or a love-match – not simply a “wife” (in his words: a submissive maid with whom he’s got nothing in common)

Right, sounds good so far. So, what’s the issue you may ask? Well see, feminism i.e. gender equality isn’t (simply) about women going to work and not being locked up at home. It’s not just about being safe from violence, it’s about equality: financially, sexually, spiritually, socially, culturally and emotionally.

Here’s the definition from the Cambridge dictionary just to clarify:

feminism

See, it’s there in black and white: “the same rights, power, and opportunities as men…”

Now – whilst I’m not trying to tar all men with the same brush – the fake feminist will do all the things I’ve already pointed out but at the same time:

  • He won’t help out with the housework/equally share chores when both partners are working (or even see it as his responsibility)
  • He won’t encourage his wife in her career and community pursuits
  • Equally so, he could also be demeaning to his wife who decides to stay at home and care for her children (a full-time job in itself!) when the family are in no financial hardship
  • He won’t prioritise his wife’s sexual needs

In short, the fake feminist hides behind sexist outdated stereotypes, attitude and norms. In reality, the male fake feminist actually feels intimidated by a successful, independent, confident woman. When challenged as to why one standard exists for men and another for women, he’ll simply say: “Well, my sister is happy doing it” or “It’s just the way it is”.

So, to these men I ask: why do you feel do intimated by women? You know what equality is surely? Or do you…? It’s quite simply (on a basic level) what you have and enjoy! It’s the things you do, the places you go and the dreams you pursue. Yet, such men appear to be so engrained in their socio-cultural bubble, so threatened by the reality of female equality that they struggle with the very concept – just like all openly proud misogynists who’d automatically denounce feminism and female equality in all terms, regardless of semantics.

Yes, the fake male feminists I’m talking about claim to want an independent woman but in reality, what they’re really looking for is often an educated woman that will still do all of the housework, that will still put him first and that will still take full or primary responsibility for the childrearing.

The question I’d therefore propose to these men is: are you ready to handle a woman who demands to be treated as your equal? Are you ready to share the housework? Are you passionate about encouraging your wife to follow her interests? Are you ready to feed the baby and change nappies? Are you ready to put on an apron if you come home early from work and your wife’s still on the way home from the office?

See, a confident, self-assured man who truly believes in female equality doesn’t feel intimated by his wife’s success. Like a jealous, insecure “fake friend”, such behaviour reveals more about such men (not women) than they realise. Remember, if you truly believed in equality of the sexes, what you wish for yourself if what you’d wish for you wife.

So, ladies: watch out for the fake feminist. Put him to the test before you dedicate your life to him. Actions always speak louder than words… And gentlemen: don’t be a fake feminist. Be the man she deserves and encourage her to be the woman she so proudly is

By Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Elizabeth Arif-Fear is a writer/blogger, development professional and human rights activist. As founder of “Voice of Salam” (Voice of Peace), Liz writes on a range of social, political, human rights, intercultural and interfaith issues, aiming to spread a message of peace, tolerance and unity. Liz is particularly passionate about addressing key issues affecting women, children, refugees, migrants and ethnic minorities and addressing both extremist and Islamophobic rhetoric.   You can follow her on Facebook @VoiceofSalam and on Twitter @Voice_of_Salam

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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Religion and Faith: Important Allies in the fight against Gender-
Based Violence?

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UK Faith leaders call for Istanbul Convention

“You cannot be a feminist and believe in religion”, a respected colleague who works with women from Middle Eastern and Afghani backgrounds, declared to me two weeks ago, a statement that hurt me a little but wasn’t surprised by as I have often heard it before. The following week I chaired a conference on intersectionality as part of the Strategic Partnership between the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls. The conference discussed the importance of taking account of the differing facets of our identities, and where they intersect as a starting point of the support and service survivors of domestic and other forms of gendered abuse, receive from specialist organisations and charities.

“You cannot be a feminist and believe in religion”

It therefore follows that tackling any form of violence and abuse requires a nuanced and holistic approach that should be led by the needs and safety of survivors. Many of whom identify and align themselves with faith and spirituality.

Historically the women’s sector and those who work in supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse or so called honour-based violence have been, at best and with good reason, ambivalent to engaging with religious and faith actors and or institutions that are part of a survivor’s social network and form and support a component of their sense of self. This failure, I believe, is leaving an unmet or misunderstood gap in supporting women who may view their faith or spirituality as a source of empowerment.

Conversely there is a sense of confusion and a real lack of awareness about the forms of support and practical help available to women experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of gender based violence, which can lead to suspicion and mistrust from community groups, community advocates and faith leaders that women turn to for help and advice. Often these women come from ‘hard to hear’ communities that experience multiple barriers such as gender and or racial discrimination, disability, poverty and ill health. Therefore, their local Imam or Pastor is the only source of support, who are unlikely to be the most qualified or knowledgeable about risk or appropriate and safe support for women and their children. On many occasions religious and faith leaders can knowingly or inadvertently collude with the abuse or abuser(s) and provide the veneer of religious justification for abuse.

“…those advocating for equality and an end to gender based violence can make faith and religious institutions relevant and important allies in the fight against violence against women and girls. “

It was therefore a welcome and important step for the campaign group ICChange to host ( along with Faith Action and Restored) and secure the support of UK Faith leaders in the call for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention which was launched at the House of Lords on 5 December. It brought together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu faith leaders to call on the UK government to ratify the Convention on violence against women and for MPs to support the Private Member’s Bill by voting for it on 16 December. The launch is a great example of how those advocating for equality and an end to gender based violence can make faith and religious institutions relevant and important allies in the fight against violence against women and girls.

The Istanbul Convention, described as ‘the best thing you’ve never heard of’ is a set of life-saving minimum standards on tacking violence against women and girls that states should ensure when tackling this widespread phenomenon. If the UK government ratifies the convention it will enable a root and branch change in its response to support and protect women suffering violence and abuse. It will also be duty bound to prevent and tackle the root causes of violence as well as hold perpetrators to account through the criminal justice system. Four and a half years on from the government’s promise to make the Convention law we are still waiting for this to be realised.

Here at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, we have long advocated for a more coordinated community response to gender based violence and domestic abuse in particular. The most effective and lasting solution is one that brings together as many agencies, services and civil society groups including community and the family to support the needs of survivors; puts them at the centre of the response to abuse and holds perpetrators to account.

Through our Safety Across Faith and Ethnic Communities programme (SAFE) we aim to address a gap in the response to domestic abuse. We know that most survivors of abuse will likely reach out to friends, family and community networks for help in the earliest stages of abuse.  The SAFE Communities project will ensure that domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are tackled holistically by targeting support to those who will be most likely to be the first approached by survivors for help. We believe that working with and empowering communities to understand, recognise and address domestic abuse is essential. Grassroots communities and faith groups have the power and potential to make a real difference in the lives of survivors and hold perpetrators to account.

Looking at the wider context, the current political climate promises long and protracted negotiations over our divorce from Europe and the rise of nationalist right wing politics across Western nations in America and Europe, the Private Members Bill which calls for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, presents an important and narrow window of opportunity to safeguard more than thirty- years’ worth of advocacy, activism and hard fought battles to get us to the very lacking and imperfect state we are in today.

It is precisely when the perfect storm of fear, economic and social instability, and the rise in regressive politics that the threat of hijacking faith for intolerant or oppressive rhetoric and purposes must be repelled by all people of faith and non.

*If you would like to see the U.K. government ratify the Istanbul Convention, then contact your MP now and ask them to support it by attending the debate on Friday 16 December, and voting for it – details here. And you can sign this petition.*

By Huda Jawad

Huda has worked for over 21 years in the Third Sector. She has held various positions in local government, national and international NGOs and charities tackling a wide range of issues relating to social exclusion, justice, equality and conflict resolution.  Huda currently works as a Domestic Violence Housing Coordinator at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence. Read more about her work and achievements on her website.

Image courtesy of IC Change
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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An Interview with feminist Huma Munshi

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This month we have interviewed inspirational fabulady Huma Munshi, who started the #fuckhonour hashtag, which trended on Twitter. Huma is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing on feminism, forced marriage, mental illness, films and her activism. She is a regular contributor at the F-Word and Black Dog Tribe amongst others, find her @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.

SSWH: Huma, how would you describe yourself?

Huma: I am a Londoner of Indian and Muslim heritage, a feminist, writer and activist. I work for a large trade union on equality policy, organising major conferences, researching and publishing policy papers and working with trade unions, public and voluntary sector and other organisations.

SSWH: What motivated you to work for a trade union?

Huma: There isn’t a history of activism or trade unionism in my family as far as I am aware. But becoming a trade unionist was a critical part of my evolution as an activist and working for one full time was a (bit of) dream. I was initially interested in organising in the workplace on issues of women’s equality such as the gender pay gap and sex discrimination. That’s how I became active.

One of my earliest activities was holding a recruitment event with staff showing the film, Made in Dagenham and using that as way to stimulate a discussion about women trade unionists who fought for equal pay.

I then started representing members in my workplace to help them get justice. I represented members who were disabled and were being put capability procedures due to disability related sickness absence or similar, or fighting different types of discrimination. I also helped develop policies on workplace support for women fleeing domestic violence and a mental health policy.

I am passionate and committed to the union movement because it is about organising, fighting and campaigning knowing we are stronger as a collective and that every employee deserves dignity and equality in the workplace.

I also research policies, write article in the press and blog, work with different groups and sometimes with politicians responding to government consultations. It builds on my time working for the Mayor of London which was a very tricky job but really challenged me, built my confidence and shaped my politics and values.

“For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour.”

SSWH: As a woman of colour and a feminist do you feel represented by mainstream feminism? If not what could mainstream feminism do to bridge this gap?

Huma: A tricky question!

I think a large part of my recovery as a survivor of a forced marriage was helped by understanding the structural inequality women face. Learning from other women, I developed the language and finally an understanding of the oppression I had experienced. This was very significant for me.  For the longest time I blamed myself for my oppression and I found being an outcast intolerably painful and thought of myself a source of shame, a source of dishonour. It was only as I read and listened to other women did this abate. It’s still not entirely gone, but women, and in particular women of colour, have helped me immeasurably. I realised it was never my shame.

I have many concerns about the wider feminist movement. As a woman of colour, my feminism must be grounded in race equality, (this blog by Claire Heuchan, a Black radical feminist, is really good on addressing racism within feminism), disability equality and an analysis of the impact of class. To not take that into account perpetuates many of the oppressions that the feminist movement should seek to remove.

I also find the silence of feminists who see marginalised women being oppressed or bullied utterly abhorrent. Their silence gives the actions of a few legitimacy to continue.

SSWH: Sharing your own personal story of forced marriage cannot have been easy. Why did you decide to share and write about your personal experiences?

Huma: I didn’t immediately share it with my name. For a while I wrote anonymously  nervous about the backlash  and my families reaction (though we haven’t been in contact for a long time).

I first started writing for the F Word blog and Media Diversified  on other issues such as film or theatre reviews or current affairs. I also wrote fiction and poetry .

When I started writing with my name it was a deliberate choice, it was in the knowledge that other women shouldn’t feel the shame I have felt. And someone has to stand up to the bullies because that’s what the perpetrators are. Like all bullies they continue because they expect victims to stay silent.  Unsurprisingly victims do stay silent because we are not believed, we are attacked, we have not been brought up to expect justice. I want to change that. All my campaigning has been about overturning this unjust system.

So I did it for women and I did it for myself. I wrote with my name after I returned from from a trip to India. This trip was almost 10 years after I had last been to India and gone  through the charade and trauma of my forced marriage. That journey was extremely triggering and scary but I realised I was a different person and I had worked tremendously hard to get better.

“Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.”

It felt empowering and it fell right to write that piece. It’s been tough since but I’ve never regretted it as it helped women and may go some way in shifting attitudes and bringing  about a wider change in service provision and attitudes.

Writing my comment piece in the Guardian addressing the comments made by George Galloway was another step. It addressed his victim blaming and sexist campaign.

SSWH: What advice would you give other women who have had similar life experiences to you?

Huma: Don’t give up. Even when it overwhelms you, even when your spirit feels like it cannot continue, don’t give up.

Remember: you are not alone, you matter despite what you’ve been told. Your thoughts matter, your desires matter, your intellect matter, your choices matter.

Seek out other women, read, listen and share. Get support through therapy. Don’t suffer your pain alone.

Finally: the biggest “fuck you” to the perpetrators is you leading a good life. When you’re ready, embrace that thought.

SSWH: Finally what helps you to feel empowered and confident?

Huma: Writing, speaking out and being an activist.

Letting love into my life (both with my partner and with other good friends who provide love and care) and cherishing that.

Remembering all I have achieved despite circumstances which may have broken me. Knowing that I worked tirelessly for my survival and acknowledging – on my good days – my victories.

Our sincere thanks to Huma for answering our questions!

Interview by Akeela Ahmed (follow her @AkeelaAhmed)


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It’s Because You’re Ugly

'Ugly Betty' TV Series, image courtesy of KOUTA

‘Ugly Betty’ TV Series, image courtesy of KOUTA

Setting the scene. It’s breakfast. We all silently munch away. Silence is broken.

“Did you know that another girl has taken her hijab off”

The Females pipe up.

Sighs

Tuts

“And from such a respectable family”

More sighs

More tuts

I stuff another piece of toast in my mouth. Best keep quiet.

The Misogynist of the family speaks up.

“It’s because she’s ugly. She’s desperate to get married”

Can’t keep quiet any longer.  Swallow and I draw a breath to speak up. I get a sharp glance from The Matriarch. When The Misogynist speaks, nobody can argue. The sharp glance turns into pleading eyes.

“Please; keep the peace”. 

Begrudgingly, I continue munching, unable to swallow from the shear rage burning inside.

That’s why, she’s ugly and wants to get married. 5 years on, she is still not married. 5 years on, she works for the UN? Travelled the world, even has her own flying license. Why is it all about marriage? Why is she such a disgrace? She took off her headscarf? And the critics include the women?  Where is the sisterhood? I often think to myself – how did we get to this situation?

Judging and critising each other is easy. We don’t live each other’s lives and face each other’s problems. The decision to remove your headscarf, especially in our community, where it’s been on since the age of 9 mustn’t have been an easy one.  We underestimate that decision this one woman took – and in fact hundreds of others have taken like her.  Spending most of your life covered under a veil then removing that is the equivalent to deciding to go out without your top on. You feel naked.   But there must have been good reasons. Yes, these girls are respectable and educated. Maybe they realised, like others have, that the hijab is becoming obsolete. Its meaning diluted? Its feminist ideals indoctrinated in our early Islamic education a lie?  It’s now a homing device, the “X” that marks the spot. The visible invisible. You are a muslim, everyone knows it, there is no denying it covered up like that. And in this day and age, where the anti-muslim sentiment is growing, maybe people don’t want to be labelled as such? Maybe I don’t want to be beaten up on the way home? Maybe, just maybe, I will be looked at and judged less if I didn’t’ have it on.

by The Undercover Feminist

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

Image Courtesy of KOUTA on Flickr