That was one of the main reasons for creating Inspire.
Tahmina and I felt frustrated that after having spent almost 20 years working with numerous British Muslim organisations and institutions to promote gender equality, we knew very little had been achieved. Time and again we found ourselves being boxed in and told what activities were acceptable and what were not. If there was any one topic to cause a commotion within these organisations it was more often than not, the issue around women.
Having engaged with countless number of women in those years we knew the challenges facing British Muslim women today. More importantly we knew what needed to be done and so to cut a long story short Inspire was launched in 2009.
The position and role of Muslim women has drawn up passionate debate, wide ranging differences and opinion since the very beginning of Islam. These arguments continue to rage on today in the 21st Century across the world. This however, is not a theoretical debate. The ‘position’ of women in Islam is used to empower some throughout the world and yet at the same time oppress others in the worst possible way. How can such huge dichotomies in theological understanding cause such diversity in the quality of life for Muslim women around the globe?
I’ve met Muslim women who are surgeons, lawyers, directors, business managers, housewives, professors, activists and so on. However, I’ve also met many women who are denied fundamental rights and basic freedoms. Women who tell me their husbands and families refuse to allow them to have an education or employment. Women who endure domestic violence, forced marriages and cultural crimes. I’ve met women who tell me their families don’t even allow them out of the house quoting Islamic sources to justify their actions. I’ve met men who are working to empower Muslim women but I’ve also met plenty of Muslim men who truly believe Islam accords them a higher status and who use patriarchal interpretations of Islam to suppress women.
Is it no wonder then, that one of the biggest concerns Britons have of Islam is the belief that Islam oppresses women? Over the years I’ve heard many Muslims give talks on how Islam back in the 7th century afforded great rights to women. But what relevance does that have on the lives of Muslim women today? What relevance does it have for the woman who is denied an education? Or for the woman who is a prisoner in her own home? Unfortunately such talk tends to ring hollow for many Muslims and fellow non-Muslims. It is true that the media are keen to report negative stories about Muslim women but let’s be honest here. It’s not all unfounded is it?
Inspire aims to address this dichotomy through our campaigns and projects. Here at Inspire, we passionately believe in two things. Firstly we feel that we can no longer just talk about ‘reform.’ The discussion around intellectual reform has been taking place for years in British Muslim communities, yet very little has changed practically on a day to day level for Muslim women. This must change. The debate must move on from talking about reform to implementing and securing much needed change through different mediums.
Secondly, we need an honest and open debate around the lives of Muslim women today. Having worked within Muslim communities for the last 20 years, we are painfully aware that many are extremely sensitive around different or alternative opinions on women. Many women activists and scholars are crudely labelled as western feminists, and/or liberals with the hope of closing the debate and discrediting those different viewpoints. I have seen this tactic being used for decades yet what are the consequences? Many women continue to face unacceptable injustices just because of their gender. Oh and of course, it does nothing to counter the widely accepted belief that Islam oppresses women.
Inspire’s vision is one where we are creating real reform in women’s lives and encouraging them to reach their full potential in life. Our philosophy is a simple one. We passionately believe that women are key to the development and prosperity of any society. An examination of the contribution of women today and throughout history clearly highlights that when women are influencing and participating in all sections of public life, society prospers. When women are side-lined, ignored and forced into the private sphere, society declines. Those that suggest that women only have a role to play in the private sphere and men in the public sphere, are carrying out a disservice to the very religion they claim to represent.
By addressing the theological debate we hope to remove ‘theology’ as a barrier which is used to prevent women from playing a full and active life in both the private and public sphere. We also envisage that the debate around the role of men in the private sphere will also progress. This goes hand in hand; we cannot advance the lives of women without developing the role of men. This is crucial in the debate around the advancement of women.
We are of the opinion that Islam does empower women (and men) to reach the peaks of human contribution. The time has come for Muslim women to challenge injustice and to step up to the issues of the day; from climate change, poverty, erosion of human rights and terrorism to name a few. Muslim women working alongside her neighbours can help lead the way as active citizens by contributing to the welfare of all communities and being at the heart of global change.
It is not only her right to do so but it is her duty too.