A Letter from sister Y Ahmed, UK.

Inline with the governments recent push to “empower” Muslim women headed by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears,  an event was organised by the North West Regional Assembly, Friends of Islam (All Party Parliamentary Group), it was held on Monday 21st January 2008 at Bolton Town Hall, and was entitled; REALISING OUR POTENTIAL: PROMOTING THE TALENTS OF MUSLIM WOMEN.

The government have invested £70m for Muslim womens projects, which has been allocated over the next 3 years; £45m will be given to local authorities for work on “preventing violent extremism”. Some of this money will go towards efforts to give Muslim women a bigger role in creating “strong, resilient communities”.

In the attentive audience was a mixture of people from the private, public, and voluntary sector; and, as it was a public event, there were members of the community in attendance curious to know what the latest government led initiative meant for the Muslim community. The event which had been described as “ground-breaking” was well attended by Muslim women, of which I was one. Amongst the invited guest speakers was MP of Salford, Hazel Blears.  Unfortunately?! Ms.Blears was unable to grace us with her presence on the day.

Amongst others in the first section entitled ‘Success in Public Life’ was Hackney Cllr. Nargis Khan, a former member of The Commission on Integration and Cohesion. She addressed her audience as a role model of a politically active Muslim woman.

In her talk she highlighted how she is an exception to the rule, as she believes that generally Muslim women are not involved in politics.  She passionately spoke; “In order to make a difference to public life, it is crucial that Muslim women get involved in local and national politics, and this needs to be encouraged”.

In the next section we were presented with three “exceptional” & “successful” Muslim women; Shamshad Khan – a Manchester based poet; Khalida Begum – a structural engineer with Airbus UK; and Huda Mamoun – Personal Development & Support Worker for Women’s Enterprise.  The event had already been running for a couple of hours at the close of this segment.  The woman sat next to me, (who until this point had chosen to completely ignore me), leaned over, smiled, and excitedly asked; “Did you enjoy that?!  What did you think of it? Weren’t they inspiring? I bet it encourages you to break down the barriers that are stopping you from moving forward”.  Her preconceived ideas and comments summed up what this was supposed to be achieving….the Muslim woman who is perceived as the poor, oppressed, submissive being, who walks ten paces behind her husband/father/brother needs to be liberated from her shackles; she needs to aspire to be a “great; exceptional; successful” woman; and she can only achieve this by following the Western model, the one that her ‘Western sisters’ have adopted.  And who defines this success?  Why, its the civilised nation of course!

I did enlighten my smiling neighbour as to how these women who had been presented were far from “exceptional” as far as Muslim women go, as Islam encourages the woman to excel in all aspects of her life.  She was interested to learn about Khadija (ra), the first woman in Islam who was a highly successful business woman.  I also added how one of the major barriers facing the Muslim community today is the constant media attack which is misrepresenting Islam, and the Muslims; and how in particular the Muslim woman is under the spotlight and is stereotyped as either on the one hand; “poor, oppressed, submissive” and Western freedom is her ‘knight in shining armour’; and on the other; “a fundamentalist/terrorist”, who maybe carrying a bomb up her scarf/has potential bomb making equipment in her home,  (ie; attah -the flour used to make chapattis, or the fertiliser she uses for growing organic herbs); and hence she is potentially a national security threat.  My neighbour wasn’t smiling as patronisingly anymore, as she began to think about the “valid points” I’d just made; and possibly, for the first time she’d been presented with an insight into Islam and the role and status of the woman in Islam ‘straight from the horses mouth’, as opposed to from the government propaganda machine.

The final segment presented us with some existing projects which were already actively working with Muslim women.  Interestingly, ‘The Enlightened Project’ is based in Bolton University.  The three young Muslim women heading the project are based at the university – yet work within the community!  They proudly relayed how successful the project has been due to the fact that an educational establishment like the university, has been able to integrate more women than the local community centres – simply because of the standing the university has in the eyes of the community.  They work closely within community based groups for support in promoting diversity, and also with Bolton Council of Mosques.  They have supported no less than 400 women into education.  This project was seen as a very positive, sucessful pilot project, and other towns and cities are to follow suit.

The Ethnic Minority Foundation which is a nationally recognised charity runs the ‘Equal Project’.  It is funded by the European Social Fund and is run entirely by Muslim women.  To get it off the ground they initially took key influential
women from the community, knocked on doors and managed to get others out.  The women took part in various courses tailor made for them.  From just a couple of key women to begin with, they now nationally have 250 volunteers.  The project is now moving onto its next phase.  The push now is to get as many Muslim women into employment.  The target that has been set for the next 2 years is to get 10,000 Muslim women into work.  They will be working in 9 key locations, amongst which are Bolton, Manchester and Leicester.

The representatives from both the projects highlighted how important it is to educate the women from the Muslim community, as by doing that, you are then effecting and educating the next generation.

In the final segment of the day; ‘The Way Forward’ we were informed that in the coming weeks the government is also formerly launching the newly formed Muslim Women’s Advisory Group. The specific remit of the group will be to:
* act as ambassadors for Muslim women at grass roots and represent their views and concerns to Government;
* provide leadership to communities and act as positive role models for Muslim women in society;
* empower Muslim women to engage on a wide range of issues, including a greater role in tackling the ideology spread by extremists, and help dispel myths around the role of Muslim women in society;
* meet in the form of a round table to discuss issues and concerns that are affecting Muslim women e.g. breaking down the barriers to the progression and participation of Muslim women in mosques and wider society.

It was mentioned how one of the initial major obstacles facing the project – especially in the North are the ‘gate keepers’ in the community i.e.; the Imams/other key community leaders  (they hastened to add how the gate keepers are always men).  The panel laughed at how they need to get past the gate keepers in order to achieve what they need to.

During one of the breaks I collected a bag full of ‘goodies’; – literature, pamphlets and leaflets etc which were on display at the various stalls stationed around the hall. I decided to decline the offer of the free pen and lure of considering a career with the RAF at their stall; however I did come away with some bedtime reading for Muslim women on education, apprenticeship, training and career advice; lessons in community cohesion; information on a support group for women who identify as Muslim and are lesbian/bisexual/transexual; forced marriage help organisations; and practical advice of existing government led groups/projects/funding packs, which aim to put Muslim women at the forefront of tackling extremism, as well as the promise of having a hand in shaping the future.

As well as my bag of goodies, I came away with many questions.  Firstly, why is it that such a huge amount of money is being allocated to such a project?  (I mean, only a couple of weeks ago did we not witness the police force, out on the streets of London, protesting because the government were unwilling to release an agreed pay rise)!  And why is it of such high importance that Muslim women are brought out of their homes and involved in training, education and out in the work place?  Why is it that Muslim women are key in encouraging integration and ‘community cohesion’?  Why is the government so determined to ensure that Muslim women politically participate? (nearly half the population didn’t vote at the last general election; yet strangely its the small – by comparison, section of the female Muslim population who have been singled out to become more politically active);  What is this ideology spread by so called ‘extreamists’ that Muslim women need to have a greater role in tackling?  And lastly, why is it that its crucial that Muslim women are at the forefront of preventing ‘violent extremism’ and creating ‘resilient communities?’ 

In my opinion, the money being pumped into Muslim women’s groups aims to dilute the identity of the Muslim woman.  It endeavours to assimilate the Muslim women into Western society – a society which believes that an individual is free to conduct herself as she pleases, without any concern of the consequences and disregard her accountability to Allah swt. Subsequently she has the freedom to express her sexuality – so there is no problem in being a lesbian/bisexual/transsexual. She ought to feel “liberated” so the hijab becomes an issue of choice, regardless of the obligation set by Allah swt. She is presented with the false idea that Islam is a religion where the men take charge – it has no room for women; So it propagates the Western alternative which welcomes the Muslim woman with open arms to melt her into their secular ways, which will give her perceived status. Muslim arranged marriages are scrutinised and often equated with forced marriage. Muslim women should “spy” on their brothers, sons and husbands, for “telltale” signs of “radicalisation”. The Muslim woman should question and re-look at her role as the home maker – she should strive in her chosen career/academic path at the sacrifice of her role as a wife and mother. She should aspire to be a “successful” individual in her own right.

I propose to the Muslim woman to hold onto her Islam firmly – the Islam that was revealed in the Quran to the Messenger Muhammad (saw), and as understood by the scholars. My experience of being born and raised in Britain shows “Western Woman’s” experience is one of lone parents, teenage pregnancies, high rape statistics, domestic violence, low self esteem, depression, low pay and many other issues.

Many women have turned to Islam as a true liberator. If the government is sincere, it should come to our communities and see how many Muslim women are leaders in their fields and are raising well rounded children. The government should not see money as a solution to the ills of society but look at it’s own value system – the West has much to learn from the values enshrined in Islam.

Muslims living in the West are increasingly rejecting Western Democracy.  There is a desperate need by the West to reform Islam; to get the Muslims to redefine Islam, so that it becomes palatable to the Western taste buds; an Islam which conforms to, and doesn’t stand in the way of the West’s worldly interests, and the Muslim woman is a key ally in ensuring political Islam does not return.It is infact true, that to educate a woman, you have effected and educated the next generation.  Hence, I have a message for all my dear sisters in Islam – we have a heavy responsibility to educate ourselves, our families and communities, and to strive to live by our doctrine which comes from non other than our noble aqeedah.  We have to remain firm in rejecting anything less.
“By the declining day.  Man is in a state of loss.  Except those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance”.  Al-Asr 103

For further reading on the Governments project for Muslim women, the document ‘Empowering Muslim Women: Case Studies’ can be found at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/communities/empoweringmuslimwomen

by Sis. Y Ahmed, UK

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