Anyone who has worked in British Muslim communities will tell you the very notion of women’s rights is still considered a taboo subject. Like many women who have spent years challenging gender-based discrimination, I know how much resistance there is to equality. Recently, there has been talk about an explosion of grassroots feminist organisations – and there is also a new generation of confident, articulate Muslim women who are at the forefront of fighting inequality, which has become part and parcel of everyday life for many British Muslim women.
As diverse as Muslim women are, many face cultural, ideological and societal barriers that affect their social mobility. Cultural barriers can include forced marriages, female genital mutilation and honour crimes – with recent figures indicating 2,823 honour attacks took place last year. Campaigners tell me these numbers are rising not decreasing, and although these attacks are not based on religion, it is undeniable that vast numbers of victims are Muslim women.
Asian women are also more likely to suffer from depression then the rest of the British population, yet are least likely to seek help. Rates of self-harm and suicide are higher among south-Asian women then white women and generally Muslim women report poor health. Increasing ideological and theological narratives have included the idea that Muslim women are barred from holding leadership positions and are confined to the private sphere. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been a woeful lack of Muslim women’s leadership within mainstream Muslim organisations and university Islamic societies – let alone women taking an active governance role in mosques.
Research by the Muslim Council of Wales concluded that 90% of UK mosques fall short of provisions for women and children. With unemployment rising faster among women than men and cuts to benefits that women depend on, this will affect Muslim women in particular where currently two-thirds of Muslim women are economically inactive, compared with a quarter of all women. Polly Toynbee recently wrote that “intentionally or not, a male breadwinner with a dependent woman carer at home is the model on which the cuts are crafted, removing the supports to independence and sending women home”. The government’s policies will lead to many British Muslim women being even further confined to the home and will have an influence on important decisions. Women have contacted my organisation saying these policies, for example, would make them think twice about leaving an abusive marriage.
It is not surprising, then, that Muslim women are actively beginning to challenge the inequalities that face them. Increasingly, Muslim women know they are able to exert their rights through the British equalities and legal framework. Despite differences in education, profession and income, what many of these Muslim women have in common is the belief that they cannot allow these barriers, which existed in the previous generation, to continue into the next generation. Although their mothers grew up in traditional patriarchal villages in south-Asian or Arab countries, these women ensured their daughters had opportunities that they themselves were not given.
Many Muslim women who previously would not have been so vocal are now openly speaking out at being told by sharia councils that in order to get a divorce they have to pay double the amount their husbands would if they had applied for a divorce. They have had enough of being told by the local imam that they’re “not allowed” in the mosque and are rejecting the impractical ideological narrative that removes them from contributing to public life.
Whether ensuring their vote is a decisive one or creating their own organisations, a new movement is being driven by passionate and fearless British Muslim women. Women’s organisations such as the An-Nisa Society have been doing fantastic work for years among Muslim communities, yet it is heartening to see a proliferation in Muslim women’s networks and forums right across the UK, such as Bristol Muslim Women’s Network, Barnet Muslim Women’s Network, Henna Foundation, Forward, Musawah, Somali Family Support Group and Inspire to name just a few. This new face of Muslim activism and leadership is taking shape in the form of women who emphatically believe that without women’s equal participation we, as a society and as a democracy, are weaker for it.