The Trustees at Inspire are proud to confirm that Sara Khan, Inspire’s co-founder and CEO, has been appointed Lead Commissioner for the newly created Countering Extremism Commission. This inevitably means that Sara must leave her post at Inspire but this appointment is well deserved recognition for the critical work that she has been doing at Inspire for over ten years. We have implemented an interim strategic plan and are in the process of appointing an interim CEO.
During 2017, Sara, assisted by an organisational development consultant (funded by Unbound Philanthropy) undertook a comprehensive review of Inspire’s structure. The conclusion reached was that in line with Inspire’s focus and remit of work, the current Community Interest Company model no longer served the organisations’s best interest and that, instead, acquiring charity status was the most appropriate way forward for the organisation.
We are pleased to say Inspire received charity status in November 2017 and we are the inaugural board of Trustees for that new charity.
We are currently in the process of transferring the funding, assets and projects from the Community Interest Company to the Charity.
Sara will leave Inspire on the 23rd February. After that date, Sara will not have any operational or management involvement with Inspire Women. Sara, as is required, will retain director status within the CIC but only for the purposes of closing it down and filing its final set of returns (a process which may take up to three months).
We look forward to working with the new interim CEO and staff to continue building Inspire and continuing the incredible work led by Sara. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank Sara for the hard work and effort she dedicated to Inspire over the last ten years and in often difficult circumstances. The achievements made, as noted in the previous update and her final blog is testimony to the important contribution Inspire played in our country and we wish her all the best in her new role and future work.
Some final words as Director of Inspire
By Sara Khan
As I wrote in my very first Inspire blog back in 2010, the reason why Inspire was created was borne out of a sense of sheer frustration. In 2007, a small group of us as women activists met in Slough. Recognising the reality of gender inequality in all aspects of our society, we shared our deep resentment with the lack of work being done by many of the larger and “representative” Muslim organisations. We had every right to say and come to this conclusion because we had spent years trying to implement positive change in organisations like Young Muslims UK, the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain. We knew just how bad the problem was because many of us from that small group were the ones appointed to senior positions in those very organisations.
The pushback, denial and lack of will to address gender inequality reached a personal boiling point for us; we could no longer tolerate such blatant attitudes and practices. I could not stomach any longer being told to accept the status quo or the argument I heard the most often, usually being made by men, “you must have patience with your situation” and “we must first eradicate Islamophobia, that is the priority – only then can we address gender discrimination and abuse.” A straw man argument if I ever saw one, which also ignored that both issues are sometimes interlinked, as I elaborated in a Guardian piece in 2013.
Everyday in my role in these organisations, alongside the amazing stories of achievement, resilience and courage, Muslim women and girls would share stories of abuse, discrimination and attempts to eradicate their humanity, the extent of which, as I would discover, mainstream feminists struggled to comprehend. These stories sometimes left me awake at night. I will NOT tolerate or “have patience” to such gender injustice. To do so would be an act of injustice on my part.
Alongside this in the shadow of the London bombings we knew the problem of Islamist extremism within British Muslim communities was growing. Young activists had regularly been exposed to Islamist beliefs, preachers and the lionising of Islamist ideologues. Conflicting with my own egalitarian interpretation of Islam, the widespread active propagation of Islamist ideology in Britain perturbed me. Then 7/7 happened. I felt many of these organisations were not prepared to address extremism or gender inequality; despite being, what I call, the two elephants in the room.
So we did what female activists are so good at doing. Instead of waiting for men to take the lead, we rolled up our sleeves and did something about it ourselves. We set up Inspire. With no money. No resources. No manpower. No office. What we did have was an idea and something that even money can’t buy: commitment, a sense of burning injustice, thankless activism and the right to represent ourselves, our views and our voices, loudly and publicly. In those early days, turning Inspire from an idea into a tiny organisation was led by Tahmina Saleem and I. Both of us had been former Presidents of the female wing of Young Muslims UK – we’d already had years of experience of empowering women.
In the early years we approached a number of Muslim charities for potential funding. Many of these charities had a healthy bank balance, relying on the generous donations of ordinary British Muslims. We argued for support in the form of funding; addressing these two elephants in the room were critical issues for Muslims – the societal harm to Muslim children, families, women and even communities was evident. It was Muslims who were victims of both these societal problems. Nor did these issues help wider community cohesion in our country; on the contrary it undermined it.
Yet the charities turned us down. Both the issue of extremism and gender inequality were just too “controversial” for them they told us. I couldn’t help but see this as a lack of bravery, long term and visionary thinking and poor leadership; too much of wanting to be led as opposed to lead. Today however, there are a number of great organisations doing vital work who I support.
Back then though we refused to allow this to deter us.
Through local government funding and even private donations we ran yearly conferences and training programmes on gender equality and countering extremism often in partnership with local authorities. We began focusing on Islamist extremism long before the launch of our anti-ISIS campaign Making a Stand in 2014. As part of our counter-extremism programmes from 2008 onwards, we were already delivering sessions to Muslim women on the narrative of Al-Qaida inspired and other Jihadist ideology and taught vital theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology. We outlined how radicalisation took place, how women could safeguard their children and the vital role women play in tackling extremism.
Whether we delivered our programmes over 2 weeks or 4, the response was the same. Hundreds of women felt empowered and confident – and as they told us in the vast majority of cases, no-one had ever taught or explained to them what Islamist extremism was. It was precisely the vast expertise we had built up over the years of delivering these programmes to Muslim women that equipped us to run our local programmes in 9 cities as part of Making A Stand.
In 2010, angry at the deliberately provocative attempts by Al-Muhajiroun and Anjem Choudary to sow division in our society by threatening to take empty coffins through Royal Wooton Basset, a group of us decided to organise a memorial service for our Armed Forces at the National Memorial Arboretum. It was left to a small band of Muslim women to take the lead. The simple but poignant service which we organised with the Muslim Armed Forces Association included the laying of wreaths and was also attended by the mother of Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, whose British Muslim son had died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan four years earlier.
Our motivation as so aptly described by, Kalsoom Bashir (who later became a co-director of Inspire) was simple:
Despite the threats we received from some British Muslim extremists – both male and female – and the worries which plagued our minds about organising such a public service, we knew our contribution on that warm sunny afternoon in July was highly significant in not only undermining the narrative of both far right and Islamist extremists but in reinforcing the important role played by British Muslims in service to our country.
In the ten years I’ve served as director of Inspire there are far too many moments that I will cherish as I leave this organisation to recount. Despite our continuous struggle for funding over the years and the lack of manpower, quite simply we were punching above our weight compared to organisations three times our size. Our 2011 conference, Speaking in God’s Name: Re-examining Gender in Islamattended by Khaled Abou el Fadl, Mukhtar Mai and others was a monumental success in pushing forward the boundaries of debate within Muslim communities about gender equality. At that same conference we launched our Jihad Against Violence campaign; the JAV declaration was signed by people from over 32 countries.
If fighting gender discrimination within minority communities was enough of a battle, I soon discovered that we also had to fight for our rights against British state institutions. I was outraged that having experienced enforced gender segregation at Muslim events in our country, these institutions which had a legal duty to uphold the Equality Act, were now prepared to forsake their obligations of gender equality in order to appease the demands of Islamists. Inspire bravely put its head above the parapet to voice our anger and to push back.
As has always been the case, our voices were minority ones. Universities UK in 2013 sought to approve gender segregated events on campus if that was to be requested by an Islamic speaker no matter how misogynistic he was. In 2014, the Law Society published a practice note which if left unchallenged, would have also discriminated against Muslim women; read our legal proceedings against them here. More recently Inspire in 2017 challenged the gender segregation policy of Al-Hijrah school, submitting expert evidence in partnership with Southall Black Sisters. We argued such a policy was a violation of the Equality Act 2010. Three Court of Appeal Judges agreed.
Each and every time we intervened, we, unlike our critics, proved that we were on the right side of history and even the law (Equality Act 2010). Yet each and every time we did put our head above the parapet we found ourselves in the firing line of a barrage of abuse, threats of violence, racial and religious bigotry and character assignations. We got the usual “get out of our country” bigotry from the far right, and while not acknowledged enough, we also received anti-Muslim abuse from the hard Left decrying us as “state-sponsored Islamophobes” and “token brown Muslim women.” As a Muslim human rights campaigner, a woman of colour and a victim of physical anti-Muslim attacks this was indefensible.
The overwhelming abuse however, came from Islamists and Muslim activist groups fixated with identity politics who threatened us and our children and who spread abhorrent lies about our characters in order to intimidate us into silence. They fuelled new and wild conspiracy theories about Inspire over and over again in an attempt to scupper our counter-extremism work.
The unfortunate truth was that Inspire, like so many – in an era of social media and fake news in our post-truth society – became a victim of these unfortunate times that dominate our world today. But it is precisely these dangerous conditions and our blind unwillingness to verify fact from fiction, which has allowed extremists of all persuasions to move from the fringes into the mainstream.
What my experience with Inspire has given me is a first hand insight into how extremists operate in our country today and the methodology they use to help normalise their toxic conspiratorial worldview within the mainstream. It has also shown me how extremists and their supporters purposefully target counter-extremism voices; and the lack of assistance and support these vulnerable voices receive from our authorities or civil society. I am determined, in particular, to redress this.
Being hemmed in from all corners, there were many times when we felt we couldn’t go on. It was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Who would have thought for example running Making A Stand, an anti-ISIS campaign, (I repeat: an anti-ISIS campaign) which was supported by the Home Office would bring us so much backlash and abuse?
At that time, when hundreds of British Muslims were travelling to Syria and Jihadi John was beheading British aid workers, many were arguing that Muslims leaders needed to do more to speak out and challenge extremism. Vocal Muslim groups and politicians were arguing that the Government should be supporting and working with organisations in order to safeguard Muslim children. Mothers were telling us they feared their kids could be radicalised. Action was urgently required.
Yet despite this, we found ourselves being repeatedly denigrated and cast in a suspicious light by Muslim groups who themselves had done very little to counter extremism, or who once upon a time had themselves received Prevent funding. We found ourselves not only stuck between a rock and a hard place but between the hypocrisies of this wider debate.
Our MAS campaign and Home Office funding for that campaign ended in 2015. We did not receive any Home Office funding before or after that campaign. To our complete surprise, Inspire’s work was praised in a 2015 Number 10 Press release announcing the Government’s new Counter-Extremism strategy and fund of £5 million to help build a national coalition against extremism.Once again conspiracy theories and myths were abound. Our detractors claimed this was proof that we were and that we would be in receipt of millions of pounds of government funding. Yet we have never received a penny from the Home Office’s Counter-Extremism fund, and like many not for profit organisations – funding – throughout Inspire’s entire existence remained a constant struggle. Every year, we simply did not know if we would exist the following financial year. Operating on a shoestring, it hampered our ability to carry out the counter-extremism projects we were eager to deliver.
Yet despite this, Inspire regularly received a disproportionate level of abuse and focus compared to other organisations. I believe that all too frequently the true motive was a firm opposition to our values and beliefs: equality, human rights, a liberal and progressive outlook. All of which we see as being compatible with Islam. We were prepared to call out anti-Semitism, anti-Ahmaddiyah hatred, Islamist extreme groups and preachers and other forms of sectarianism and hatred. We were also prepared to stand up for women’s rights, gay rights and other minority rights. Nor did we hold an anti-Western or anti-state view and yes we were prepared to work with state and non-state agencies. This in particular enraged both hard Left and Islamist ideologues. It of course didn’t help that we were women who regularly voiced our “opiniated” views in the public domain! All of this made us the “wrong” kind of Muslim, and certainly the “wrong” kind of Muslim women – unworthy of support or defence. It was precisely this experience which inspired me to write The Battle for British Islam. While others often critiqued our work through the poorly constructed prism of “good Muslim/bad Muslim,” for me, Inspire’s prism quite simply, was human rights.
Despite the hard times I will forever look back at my time with Inspire as life-changing. I learnt much from women like Tahmina, Kalsoom, Yasmin and others who I had the fortune of working with directly. My conversations with Muslim women, men and young people in cities like Leeds, Burnley or Birmingham were always eye opening. The training I gave to thousands of teachers over the years and the real stories they shared with me always made me realise just how important counter-extremism work is and why it should be invested in. Frank and honest conversations with ordinary Brits over the years about their fears of Islamist extremism in their towns and cities, always made me sympathetic to the anxiety of helpless onlookers. Training I delivered to public bodies – and working groups I sat on, hammered home the huge challenges our authorities face in pushing back against extremism. The cries of help from parents who feared their children were vulnerable to radicalisation will forever live with me.
These are the ordinary people’s voices we don’t hear, we don’t pay attention to and frankly we don’t want to listen to. But during all the challenging times I endured with Inspire, it was precisely these people who encouraged me to continue struggling. And it was their lived experiences that encouraged me to keep on fighting.
It has been an absolute pleasure to serve Inspire and as I move on and Inspire transforms into a charity, I wish the new board of trustees and the new team all the best for the future. I hope they develop Inspire further, transforming it into an even bigger and better organisation.
But to all our supporters, funders, donors, friends, mentors, colleagues and to each and every person who kept our spirit going either through words of encouragement, sharing a supportive tweet or fundraising for Inspire by running a marathon (!)– words will never be able to express my gratitude to each and every one of you. For your support, kindness and help; and often from complete strangers. In particular I would like to thank our funders: Sigrid Rausing Trust, Unbound Philanthropy, Barrow Cadbury, Mama Cash and all those Brits who set up monthly standing order forms. Inspire would not have survived as long as it did, had it not been for your core support and belief in the urgency of our work.
I could write pages and pages of the work and causes Inspire championed and delivered over the last ten years. But for anyone interested the Inspire website is a recorded account of some of our work and the issues we spoke out about.
It has been an honour; and the lived and eye-opening experience I gained during my time at Inspire will come in great use as I move on into my new role as Lead Commissioner of the Commission for Countering Extremism.
Inspire is very excited at the airing of “Next of Kin”- a new six part ITV drama that imagines the stories of the families of terrorists. Created by BAFTA nominated Paul Rutman, who wrote Channel 4 period drama Indian Summers, and his author wife Natasha Narayan, Next Of Kin was inspired by the attack in Paris in 2015 when 12 people were killed by Islamist terrorists who burst into the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “Next of Kin” stars Emmy award winner and Golden Globe nominee Archie Panjabi and Jack Davenport.
To ensure the subject was treated with the appropriate levels of sensitivity and accuracy; Sara Khan, Director of Inspire was invited to provide advice and expert guidance on the script alongside Kalsoom Bashir, Muslim Chaplain and an ex Co-Director of Inspire.
Creators Paul Rutman and Natasha Narayan say “during extensive research for this show, we’ve talked to many experts in the field. We’ve been particularly helped by two courageous women who’ve devoted much of their lives to combatting radicalisation among young people: Sara Khan of Inspire and the Muslim Chaplain, Kalsoom Bashir”.
“Next of Kin” starts on Monday 8th January 2018 on ITV and is also available on ITV Hub. You can read more about the plot here
The symbiotic relationship between Islamist extremism and far-right extremism is well established. Sharing a common narrative of hate, intolerance and sometimes violence, both feed off each other, validating each other’s existence. Following every Islamist inspired terrorist attack in Western countries, we see a spike in anti-Muslim hate both online and offline, against innocent law abiding Muslim citizens. This is then capitalised upon by groups such as ISIS for whom anti-Muslim hatred is a key recruitment tool in convincing Muslims to believe their message that the West is a hostile place for Muslims and an enemy of Islam. Breaking this cycle is one of the challenges of our time; yet as was demonstrated yesterday, there remains a complete failure to understand this.
President Trump claims he wants to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” yet part of his misguided strategy appears to legitimise extremists by retweeting Jayda Fransen, the Deputy Leader of the far-right, racist and anti-Muslim party “Britain First.” This is not only irresponsible but incredibly dangerous. What Britain First stands for is not a hushed up secret. Jayda herself is convicted of religiously aggravated harassment of an innocent Muslim woman in front of her children. Britain First, like all extremists, seek to amplify their messages of hate by relying extensively on fake news to generate fear and justify their hate-filled politics. The video shared by Fransen and Trump, which apparently showed a “Muslim migrant” beating up a Dutch boy has already been debunked by Dutch officials as fake. Despite the damage done in feeding anti-Muslim hate and bolstering far right hate groups like Britain First, this hasn’t resulted in Trump undoing his tweet which was shared to over 42 million of his followers or offer an apology.
On the day POTUS retweeted Jayda, she gained upwards of 15000 new followers and numerous mainstream media interviews where smilingly, she appealed to Trump to intervene in her conviction. David Duke of the KKK, tweeted to show his approval. However Trump’s actions were not just a gift for the far-right, who he has continually validated since he came to power. It’s also a boost for Islamist extremists, who can now use Trump’s retweeting to evidence that the West is indeed a hostile place for Muslims whilst ignoring the fact that so many of the public expressed disgust and Government officials, including Prime Minister Teresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd who explicitly condemned the President as “wrong”.
According to a report published in August by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and The Centre for Investigative Reportings, there were almost twice as many terrorist incidents by right-wing extremists as by Islamist extremists in the U.S. from 2008 to 2016. Looking at both plots and attacks carried out, the group tracked 201 terrorist incidents on U.S. soil from January 2008 to the end of 2016. The database shows 115 cases by right-wing extremists ― from white supremacists to militias to “sovereign citizens” ― compared to 63 cases by Islamist extremists.So whilst Trump lectures us about dealing with Islamist terrorism, his silence on far right extremism demonstrates his complete inability (or unwillingness) to tackle far right extremism.
To date, far right extremists have been reliant on sophisticated social media strategies to push out their hateful narratives and recruit supporters and followers, including the use of Bots and fake accounts. However, this seems no longer necessary when the supposed leader of the Free World appears to be actively legitimising and promoting far-right extremism. And if he continues down this path, he makes Islamist extremism that much stronger and harder to challenge for the rest of us.
Finally just imagine if Mayor of London Sadiq Khan had retweeted Islamist extremists; Trump – and the entire world for that matter, would be the first to publicly rebuke him, yet the US President has defended his action of retweeting extremists and many more have stayed silent. While lecturing our government to solve the problem of extremism in the UK, he is unwilling to address white supremacism in his own country while he himself legitimises the far right extremist worldview. Our country does not need to take lessons from President Trump on how to defeat extremism.
Despite the global rise of Islamist extremism, the response to it here has been unfortunately predictable and highly counter-productive. Partly because of widespread ignorance around Islamist ideology, coupled with the active deflection by Islamists themselves and their sympathisers, the debate around Islamist radicalisation in our society is nothing short of regressive.
Rather than acknowledging the threat it poses, time and effort has been spent on the downplaying and denial (even the existence) of Islamist ideology, coupled with a complete lack of pushback by civil society. Worse still, some anti-racist groups have partnered with and supported Islamists. This sorry state of affairs has in some quarters become virtually normalised in British society, in particular within certain Muslim apologist activist circles, the liberal Left and even amongst the authorities.
Which is why these very same people, who care about upholding human rights and our democratic values, should watch this recent video put out by 5Pillars , a British based Islamist website. In their 1 min 45 second video, they helpfully expose their own anti-Western agenda and support for the Islamist worldview by neatly summarising the central tenets of Islamist extreme ideology which include support for a caliphate, Islamic penal codes and physical jihad.
The same extreme Islamist worldview which was actively promoted for years by the now proscribed Al-Muhajiroun – ALM (led by the infamous Anjem Choudary).
The same Islamist ideology which also played a part in radicalising some British Muslims to leave the UK in support of ISIS’s caliphate.
Tellingly, the purpose of the video was to name and shame those British Muslim groups who 5Pillars believe threaten Islamist ideology and beliefs; I am proud to say Inspire being one of them. Adopting the Islamist old age tactic of charging these Muslim groups of seeking to “change Islam” which needs “defending,” 5Pillars have repeatedly sought to denigrate and vilify counter-Islamist Muslim voices who support human rights, gender equality, and believe in the modern day norm of democratic nation states.
For decades, defending and promoting Islamist ideology has unsurprisingly been a key focus of British Islamist groups. Their Islamist outlook however is totally at odds with leading Muslim theologians. Prominent scholar, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah for example has highlighted how outdated religious laws must always change and has done so since early Islam. While claiming to ‘represent’ and ‘defend’ Islam, Islamists themselves expose their own opposition to the Islamic tradition and Islam’s own historical record!
This is certainly the case with the outdated notion of a caliphate, or as scholar Wael B. Hallaq calls it “The Impossible State” because of the inherently self-contradictory notion of an “Islamic State. ” Today, leading theologians have argued that the caliphate is an outdated concept and that Muslims should adopt the idea of the nation state and equal citizenship .
Islamists regularly bemoan the end of the Ottoman Empire, idealising the last caliphate. They do so with selected memory. Their claim to establish a global caliphate is utterly at odds with the historical record.
It is well known during the 19th Century, how the Empire adopted secular laws and reformed it’s practiceswhich included the decriminalisation of homosexuality. (5Pillars also attacked the normalisation of LGBTQ ‘lifestyles’ in their video.) Ottoman society in this period of time began to move away from punishments such as stoning; and the death penalty for apostasy was not implemented. These laws ironically were hardly applied in practice in Muslim history; Syrian scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (d.1328) remarked that there has never been stoning in Syria up till his time. Imam al-Burzuli (d.1438) rejected stoning and lashing and replaced them with financial penalties and incentives in the 14th century.
Yet here we are in the 21st Century where Daesh carried out such practices and where British Islamists continue to support and call for these extreme practices. Telling us the dire state of debate among some British Muslims and the failure of our country to confront Islamist extremism.
Fundamentally what 5Pillars’ video did so well is a) expose them and b) highlight the existence and support for Islamist extremism among some British Muslims. The comments on their Facebook page is proof of this. Despite the regular playing down of non-violent extremism, the video is evidence of how Islamist ideology and the ideas behind it are central to groups like ALM and Daesh.
Yet as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the British counter-terrorism and counter extremism community, I am tired of those within that community display blinkered thinking and policy. Too often colleagues and partners exclusively focus on Daesh, while ignoring the radicalisation that is taking place right here under our noses by UK based Islamist groups and the brazen promotion and support for Islamist ideology. It has become apparent to me that even for many well intentioned activists, faith leaders and authorities, challenging this ideology – and the British groups who promote it – has been placed in the “difficult box” leaving it to a few handful of people who are repeatedly vilified as demonstrated in 5Pillars’ video.
The authorities would do well to heed the words of Jason Burke. The author, writing about the fall of Daesh’s caliphate, forewarns the next Islamist threat and has argued that Islamist militancy follows the same trajectory; the first a slow, unnoticed period of growth.Many of us are only too well aware of the growth of those ideas in our country, but the truth is nobody is prepared to do anything about them. Which is why, at our peril, countering Islamist ideology will continue to remain in the “difficult box,” unless there is a sea change in our thinking.
History, as they say, repeats itself. We, however, never seem to learn. Just as we look back now and wonder how as a society we defended and condoned FGM, forced marriages and even CSE (and ignored the voices of the then campaigners), we today are witnessing the same inability and unwillingness to challenge and counter Islamist extremism. Another self-fulfilling prophecy which has already led to devastating consequences and will lead to more.
The need for robust due diligence procedures and consistency when hosting or sharing platforms in Parliament
Inspire deplores last week’s event “Tolerating the Intolerant” hosted by Rt Hon Bob Blackman MP on the 18th of October 2017, which was addressed by the anti-Muslim extremist Tapan Ghosh in the House of Commons. Whilst we welcome Bob Blackman’s statement that he does not endorse Mr Ghosh’s views, it remains the case, as can be seen on Mr Ghosh’s website, that the event was used by Mr Ghosh to give himself a level of credibility and legitimacy he would not have otherwise had. As a counter-extremism organisation committed to working towards building a pluralistic and tolerant society, we are deeply concerned to see such an individual invited to speak in Parliament
We urge MPs to ensure they have robust due diligence procedures which are fit for purpose when deciding who to host, invite or share platforms with and be consistent in their approach. Just as an MP would not have invited far right anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson to speak at Parliamentary events, they should not invite anyone who promotes extremist views regardless of their nationality or religion.
As our society struggles to deal with all forms of extremism, it is imperative that MPs do not legitimise groups and individuals who seek to divide us and attempt to undermine the very fabric of our society. We will also be writing to the Charity Commission to register our complaint against the National Council of Hindu Temples who invited Tapan Ghosh as a key speaker.
On Friday, in a landmark judgement, the Court of Appeal ruled – as Asian and Muslim feminists have long argued – that gender segregation in co-ed schools is unlawful sex discrimination and is a violation of the Equality Act 2010.
The ruling overturned a previous verdict where Justice Jay at the High Court had suggested that “separate is equal” and that neither boys or girls were being discriminated against. Three Judges at the Court of Appeal unanimously disagreed and stated both boys and girls were being discriminated against. As a result, 20 other schools (Jewish, Muslim and Christian schools) are now going to have to change their unlawful policy so that it is in line with the Equality Act 2010. It is worth remembering that schools have a statutory obligation to uphold the Equality Act.
Having taken OFSTED to court, the school in question whose practice of gender segregation was found to be unlawful was Al-Hijrah, a voluntary aided co-ed school based in Birmingham. Founded in 1988, by the Al-Hijrah Trust, it openly publicises its practice of gender segregation which it says is a defining characteristic of the school and one of the main reasons why some Muslim parents choose to send their children there. This is irrespective of the inadequate Ofsted reports Al-Hijrah has received alongside having been placed in special measures.
The segregation enforced was extreme. From Year 5 onwards (age 9), boys and girls were segregated throughout the entire school day; during classes, break-times, lunch-times, afterschool clubs and so on. It no longer mattered to the school if for example, Muhammad since the age of 4 had been friends with Maryam and had played with her everyday. As soon as both children entered Year 5 they were now abruptly denied the ability to play and socialise together purely on the basis of their sex. This, was, rightly so, deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal.
When co-ed schools have segregated boys and girls for particular lessons e.g. maths to help build girls’ confidence and improve understanding, Al-Hijrah made clear there was no educational reason for its policy of segregating the sexes throughout the day. The motivation was entirely religious based on a particular interpretation of Islam which is not practiced or accepted by all Muslims.
Inspire alongside Southall Black Sisters acted as interveners in this case alongside the Equality Human Rights Commission and the Department for Education. We made clear in our written evidence that the practice of gender segregation as seen in Al-Hijrah was not a benign practice. On the contrary, the practice of sex segregation should be seen in its right and proper context. Since the latter half of the 20thC, with the rise of Political Islam, religious fundamentalists in line with their ideological worldview, have aggressively sought to restrict and control women’s rights.
Over the decades, it has been clear that Britain has not been immune to the growing populist trend from the Muslim religious right and in almost every country, where-ever there has seen a rise of religious fundamentalism, women’s rights have come under assault. These new norms have been manifested most clearly through the imposition of gender segregation, dress codes, and the strict policing of women’s sexuality. Supporting the notion of the patriarchal family and traditional gender roles, they forcefully seek to remove women from the public sphere and relegate them to the private sphere which is deemed to be their only legitimate space.
Education has become a key battleground for fundamentalists. As the UN Rapporteur on Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune notes “Fundamentalists everywhere target education in different ways. In some places, they kill teachers or carry out acid attacks on students. Elsewhere they attempt to impose gender segregation in schools or to exclude women and girls altogether. In other places, they seek to change the content of education, removing sex education from the curriculum or censoring scientific theories with which they do not agree.”
When understood in this context, it is fundamentally clear that gender inequality lies at the heart and is a root cause of gender segregation; and whenever it is manifested it is almost always linked to other sexist and gender discriminatory attitudes and practices.
It was no surprise to us then, to learn about some of those manifestations at Al-Hijrah. Library books, some of which were prominently displayed on racks condoned violence against women, marital rape and teachings that included “women cannot leave their homes without their husband’s permission.” These messages about the subjugation of women promote chauvinistic rules and expectations of life in the modern world. They were written in our lifetimes; some of these books for example were published in 2009 and they contained intolerant views about women. They did not promote equality of opportunity.
Excerpts from work written by children and approved by the teachers showed highly gender stereotyped views being expressed and condoned within the school as well as regressive gender roles which sought to confirm that the role of women should be confined to the private sphere rather than the public sphere. These were just some of the deeply worrying findings. But serious enough for Lady Justice Gloster to declare it to be an issue “of such importance that it requires to be determined.”
And of great importance they are because Al-Hijrah is voluntary aided. For those of us who care about gender equality, it is nothing short of outrageous that the state ends up endorsing such teachings in a state school. Where once again Muslim girls are treated differently and their potential in life is curtailed because of the practices and teachings enforced at such schools.
For many longstanding Asian and Muslim campaigners, this ruling was long overdue. However not everyone was thrilled that the judgement would now act as a bulwark against those who have no interest in tackling sex discrimination. Some parents did not recognise sex segregation to be discrimination while others saw the judgement itself to be discriminatory against Muslims despite the fact that schools of other faiths would be impacted. Others argued that the parental choice for their children should be respected. Not so, said the Judges. While the Education Act 1996 provides for the accommodation of parental choice “this cannot negate the statutory right of each child to be educated in a non-discriminatory manner as required by the Equalities Act.”
In what can only be described as a Daily Mail tactic (remember “Enemies of the people”?) some Muslims even profiled each and every one of the Judges’ background pointing to what they saw as hypocrisy that they themselves had attended elite single sex schools. Lady Justice Gloster was ‘accused’ of having been educated at the single-sex Roedean School for Girls.
Firstly, this case was not about single sex schools. It was about segregation in co-ed schools and Parliament did not envisage or intend segregation by sex in co-educational schools. Secondly, the
failure to appreciate what a school like Roedean is trying to achieve and Al-Hijrah is incomparable. Take a look at the website of schools like Roedean whose aim for girls is to fulfil their potential and to break glass ceilings. Lady Justice Gloster is evidence of this! Roedean does not believe that gender is a reason to hold girls back from any profession or from playing a full and active role in public life. Nor would they have books promoting terrible views about women, domestic violence or reinforce restrictive views that the role of women is in the private sphere. Religion would not be used as an excuse to limit or deter women’s potential. Single sex girls’ schools in a patriarchal world, have played a critical role in empowering women and girls, not disempowering them and restricting their capabilities as Al-Hijrah sought to do. Rather than promoting equality of opportunity, Al-Hijrah end up enforcing the message that girls are different to boys.
It was reported that the Muslim Council of Britain were not happy with the ruling either. This is hardly surprising. In 2007 the MCB produced written policy guidance on Muslim pupils in state schools. Called “Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools,” the guidance discouraged many mixed gender activities, music, art, drama, dance and sex education and sought to normalise gender segregation as an essential aspect of Muslim identity. The absence of any reference to gender equality in the document is particularly significant given its claims to support the “Every Child Matters” agenda. And who provided the expertise and support for this guidance? None other than the Al-Hijrah Trust. Gender equality for Muslim girls and boys has not been a priority for the MCB and their opposition to the ruling has reconfirmed this.
This is why the judgement by the Court of Appeal was so important. The Judges were right to give a telling off to OFSTED and the Department for Education for allowing schools (and others like it) to have allowed such gender segregation to occur for years. However the law on this issue has now been strengthened and is a victory for those of us who subscribe to human rights and gender equality. The policy of gender segregation as practiced by Al-Hijrah and other co-ed schools across our country is unlawful and has no place in our multicultural and multi-faith society. I hope this serves as a reminder that equality and the rights of women and girls especially from minority communities cannot be sacrificed in the name of culture or religion, whichever culture or religion that is.
To read Inspire and Southall Black Sisters evidence click here.
COURT OF APPEAL FINDS THAT GENDER SEGREGATION CAN AMOUNT TO UNLAWFUL SEX DISCRIMINATION- October 2017
In a landmark judgement handed down today, the Court of Appeal found that ‘separate but equal’ treatment on the basis of gender at a school can amount to unlawful sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA).
The Court (Etherton MR and Beatson and Gloster LJJ) had been asked to consider gender segregation at the Al-Hijrah school, a voluntary aided Muslim co-ed school in which boys and girls are completely segregated from the age of 9.
The Court found that the school’s policy of strict segregation was discriminatory since it had an adverse impact on the quality and effectiveness of the education given by the school to both the girls and boy pupils respectively, and could not be justified under one of the exceptions set out in the Equality Act.
Moreover, Gloster LJ went further and accepted the submissions of SBS and Inspire that the effect of gender segregation, in the specific context of this Muslim school, was not gender neutral but informed by particular precepts and practices of certain Muslim communities.
Drawing extensively upon the ‘Casey Review’, which was referenced in SBS and Inspire’s submissions, Gloster LJ concluded that the school’s policy was particularly detrimental for girls in that it reinforced the different spaces – private and public – that men and women must occupy, and their respective stereotyped roles which accord them differential and unequal status.
This is an important judgment with far reaching consequences for the rights of minority women and girls to equality and the freedom to participate in public life as citizens.
To read Inspire and Southall Black Sisters evidence click here.
Pragna Patel of SBS said: “We very much welcome the judgment and its recognition that gender segregation can be unlawful and discriminatory, especially in contexts where the practice is tied to the rise of religious fundamentalist and conservative norms. For over three decades, we have seen how regressive religious forces have targeted schools and universities as a means by which to control and police female sexuality in minority communities. The imposition of gender segregation, dress codes and sharia laws are just some means by which gender inequality is legitimised and promoted despite the serious and harmful consequences. This judgment is a vital step forward in our effort to persuade the courts and state bodies to take account of the reality of the misogyny and gender stereotyping that is promoted in our schools and universities in the name of religious and cultural freedom. We are delighted that the court has seen through this and upheld the equality principle.
Sara Khan of Inspire said: “I am pleased the Court of Appeal has recognised that in the context of co-ed schools which apply gender segregation throughout the school day, separate is not equal. Inspire have long argued that the practice of gender segregation is discriminatory and is a violation of the Equality Act. Over the years, religious fundamentalists in our country have aggressively sought to normalise the practice of gender segregation in our schools and institutions; and unfortunately we have witnessed a growing accommodation to it in particular by local authorities. This landmark ruling can now act as a bulwark against this. The Court of Appeal’s judgment makes clear that the policy of gender segregation as practiced by Al-Hijrah and other co-ed schools across our country is unlawful and has no place in our multicultural and multi-faith society. I hope this serves as a reminder that equality and the rights of women and girls especially from minority communities must not be sacrificed in the name of culture or religion.”
Read about Southall Black Sisters and Inspire’s intervention at the Court of Appeal in July 2017 here