British Muslims and the gender question

Analysis by Atif Imtiaz.

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The gender question is the one of the most important questions facing British Muslims. With some Muslims feeling deeply uneasy about it with some very serious and major issues at stake. Muslim men, are scared of feminism and gender equality, questioning what will happen ”if we open the floodgates?” With this fear, key areas of progress have been held back, however Imtiaz argues that it is time to make some changes. He explains Muslim men aged 35-60 in the British Muslim community i.e. those in a position of power to change things, have been the ones holding back progression with issues surrounding the gender question.

Many Muslim women have been speaking out on this for years now. One recent example is an article by Khadijah Elshayyal which was recently published on amaliah.com.

Imtiaz explains that Muslim men know that shouting and raising our voices makes no difference in the fight against racism until someone in power (usually white) decides to become their allies. The balance of power shifts and the gains are made.

The same applies to the issue of gender, Muslim women in the United Kingdom have been speaking out on issues of gender for many years, but ultimately, until the men who are in power agree to share it, little will change. ”We – Muslim men – have to acknowledge our power and think about how we are going to improve things.”

 Imtiaz exemplifies his argument, explaining that ”essentially, the majority of our community-run organisations – let us call this the Muslim public space – are male-dominated.’‘ At the local level, in places like East London, Leicester, Blackburn, Birmingham and Bradford there are very few opportunities for Muslim women to succeed in Muslim organisations. Let us take the example, of a talented sister who graduates from university and returns to her city to work in the council. The council recognises her talent, and gives her a good portfolio to work from. She does well. She is promoted and then five years later she is managing ten people and a budget of 750,000 pounds. She wants to practice her faith and to do so publically but there is no way that she can do that in her city because the mosques don’t have space for her and the Muslim organisations are male-dominated. She must practice her faith privately. She reads about Islamophobia in the press and hears about the suffering in the Muslim world and wants to do something – but there is nothing that she can do. She has to resort to online activism as she is excluded from getting involved in her local city. This is not a hypothetical scenario, this has happened with many sisters, especially those that come from some of the more conservative communities: the Pathans, the Gujeratis and others.

Imtiaz reflects upon this and upon the culture within the Muslim community, suggesting that the whole culture – schools, films, books – is deeply affected by the values of feminism. ”Our sisters have been challenged on this throughout their lives, and yet there is no feminist movement amongst British Muslim women because they have tried to persuade us men privately and patiently.’‘ 

There are two matters which have brought this to the fore for this writer (Imtiaz) . The first is the case of Tariq Ramadan, his legal case remains ongoing, as one of the most influential European Muslims, if not the most influential European Muslim, admitted to consensual extra-marital sex after initially denying it. This was totally shocking for the Muslim community, however there has been very little comment in the Muslim public space about what this means, that a man at the very top of public life – a leading advocate, had compromised himself in such a way.

His case is not unique. Imam Asim, a young Imam from Bradford and a leading national public speaker, has withdrawn from public religious duties because of inappropriate relations with women after being held to task by a group of scholars. Imam Asim was one of the most popular Muslim speakers in the United Kingdom.

Imtiaz argues that these two cases should make all Muslim men in authority stop and think. ”What does it say about our public life that two of our most popular speakers acted unislamically in their relations with women?” These are two of the cases that have come to light in this country. There have been reports of others, but they have not been made public. ”I would like to claim that these are not aberrations but rather the proof (burhan) of something that is very wrong. We worry and speak so much about gender relations (cf. various talks and books on the role of women in Islam for example) and yet things like this are happening” Imitaz stated.

The second matter explored by Imtiaz is the involvement of Muslim women in decision-making in Muslim community organisations i.e. the sharing of power. The most prominent Muslim women in the United Kingdom: Sayeeda Warsi, Naz Shah and Salma Yaqoob are all talented and have been standing up for the community for years. ”Willing to lift their heads above the parapet, take the heat and continue on nevertheless. And yet, they have acquired their public prominence through mainstream institutions: the Conservative party for Warsi, the Labour party for Shah and Stop the War for Yaqoob.’‘ None of them till today hold any position of authority or decision-making power in any Muslim organisation. Essentially, if you are a talented Muslim women who wishes to help our community you have to do it outside of your community.

The three main sectors in the British Muslim community are schools, charities and the mosques. Muslim women hardly feature in the running of any mosque in this country, including the most advanced ones. ”They could at least be on the trustee board, but even that hasn’t happened yet.” The Council for Mosques structures are all exclusively male and yet Muslim women now are business leaders, health professionals, academics, teachers etc. etc. ”We celebrate the history of great female scholarship in the past, but what happens today if we have a thirty-year old mufassir. Where would she be employed?”

The charity sector employs women but mostly in lower grade jobs. It is most likely that the majority of donations coming into the charity sector are from women and yet they are under-represented across the sector. There are very few female leaders in the charity sector though some charities have been going for decades and so have had ample opportunity to develop a whole generation of leaders. The majority of the charities don’t tell us who their senior executives are so we can’t tell how fair they are as employers. But we can tell from the trustee boards as these are all available on the Charity Commission’s website. Again, there is severe under-representation on the trustee boards of charities including the largest ones.

The schools sector provides an interesting counter-example. The largest Muslim run academy chain in the country is Star Academies. This is run according to government guidelines though as an academy network it has a measure of independence. Nevertheless, if one works through the schools on their website and checks the leadership of the different schools then it is clear that there are many Muslim female senior managers. So the talent can be found and given the opportunity to shine.

Imtiaz argues, ”there needs to be some Muslim Women’s National Association (the Muslim Womens Network cannot take on this task according to this writer) or even a small Council that is set up, to be led by Baroness Warsi, Naz Shah MP and/or others which does the following.” A lead for safeguarding needs to be appointed and advertised, anyone at risk of exploitation from a person in religious authority should be able to contact this person at least for personal safety reasons. So if for example, an Imam is trying to convince a young student to enter into a secret marriage with him then this person can contact the safeguarding lead to tell her that the Imam or scholar is exploiting her vulnerability. This consideration demonstrates a clear need within the Muslim community for such an outlet, as highlighted by Imtiaz.

Secondly, Imtiaz explains this Council or Committee should write to every major Muslim organisation in this country: Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Human Appeal, Star Academies, Muslim Council of Britain, MEND, MINAB etc. and ask for the immediate appointment of women onto governing councils and for an action plan for the appointment of women into senior roles in the organisation within the year. This is a suggestion that is being put forward to the British Muslim community, it may need some refining, however what is required is some female-led auditing mechanism which checks progress made in community organisations on the question of gender.

Councils for Mosques should become Council for Mosques and Muslim organisations (as in Leicester, one of the most conservative parts of the country) so that women can join the leadership bodies of their cities. Large mosques will be required to bring women on to their trustee boards. Large mosques should also be required to create a position or positions ‘Resident Female Scholar’ who would be responsible for the education of females in the mosque.

Imtiaz recognises that things are improving, ”we are in a better position compared to ten years ago, but we have a lot more work to do and it is for all Muslim men in powerful positions in British Muslim society to check our own power, to hold ourselves and our colleagues to account for the situation as it is and then to collectively make those decisions that are required to improve matters.”

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