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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