International Women’s Day brings calls for Muslim women to be more involved in mosque governance and leadership, amid discussion of breaking religious glass ceilings

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body, has launched the ‘Women in Mosques Development Programme’, “a 6-month pilot training and mentoring programme designed to support talented upcoming female leaders navigate their way through the boardrooms of mosques and other third sector organisations”. The programme will run between July and December 2018[1].

The MCB says it regularly receives complaints that mosques have few or no women involved in their management, and cite research by the Charity Commission last year to show that men outnumber women in all charity trustee boards generally[2].

Speaking at an event on 7 March to mark International Women’s Day, MCB Secretary General, Harun Khan, said, “Whilst the under representation of women in mosque management has been acknowledged for some time, it’s time that more tangible action is taken to ensure women are given equal and fair access in all aspects of mosque life”[3].

Bana Gora, the chief executive of the Muslim Women’s Council, commented in 2015 on the issue of women’s governance of mosques based on an audit she commissioned of prayer facilities in Bradford. She said, “We found the majority of mosques follow a patriarchal model with poor access for women, and women’s representation on mosques’ governing structures was non-existent”[4].

A 2011 consultation from the Muslim and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) also found that “only 22 per cent of mosques had women representatives at the Mosque Management Committee and trustee level that they were aware of, and only 17 per cent said that women played some kind of role in their organisation”[5].

The MCB’s programme is part of an ongoing effort to promote female governance, and general involvement, in mosques. The ‘Women Led Mosque’ initiative aims “to create a place of worship for communities founded on the principles of the Prophets Mosque in Medina. A space for the community demonstrating how women can lead and be included in places of worship, impacting positively on their families and communities. We want a space that is fully accessible to all communities (Muslims and non Muslims) and welcome all schools of thought. A safe space for women and a centre for learning and promoting shared values”[6].

Its website states, “Muslim women have been marginalised for many decades by mosques in the UK. This has led to a frustration amongst women who would like to be included in religious spaces. The marginalisation of women from UK mosques has far reaching consequences. Research carried out by MWC [the Muslim Women’s Council] highlighted the need for women to engage in genuine critical scholarship which can grapple with challenges facing Muslims living in the UK and help to contextualise Islam for the 21st Century. This highlights a lack of scholarship amongst women. Our research has clearly highlighted a lack of female scholars, who are prepared to engage in public and cascade their knowledge”[7].

It adds, “Sadly, the alienation that women feel has profound consequences for younger generations, who are taught that Islam treats both men and women as spiritual equals … Our mosque is also unique in that it will be led by women and governed by women. Currently, no such structure exists anywhere in the UK to our knowledge”[8].

A panel of women faith leaders met at the University of Birmingham on 8th March to mark International Women’s Day, where they reflected on “how their religion has involved them in their religious institutions and communities, but also [to discuss] how their religion and faith has allowed them to play an integral and active role in their own community, as well as the wider community, to promote mutual understanding guided by their religious principles, will facilitate greater literacy concerning religion and gender across the faiths”. Speakers from the Muslim tradition included Senior Muslim Chaplain, Rehanah Sadiq, and Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Network, Faeeza Vaid[9].

General themes that emerged during the discussion included;

  • Women do have a valuable religious identity.
  • Invisibility of women in religious leadership and activism is a big problem.
  • Women are continuously told what they cannot do by religious leaders and accepted interpretations of scriptures, and not what they can. Women must thus create their own space and interpret religious scriptures through their own experiences in order to break religious glass ceilings. As a minister in the ecumenical tradition put it, this means women can reconcile their authentic selves and their daily lives with scripture and teachings.
  • Along these lines, it was commented that religion as an institution does not lead to empowerment, empowerment is a personal journey informed by personal religious growth, which is vital for women’s health.
  • Women have to constantly negotiate multiple identities (religious, cultural, female, professional, motherhood), possibly more-so than men, which can be very challenging and tiring.
  • However, this ability to straddle identities can also be an empowering experience both as a woman and as a religious person.
  • Women also encounter struggles to prove themselves in religious communities, especially when they want leadership positions and when they want to ask questions, because they can initially be seen as troublemakers.
  • It can be difficult to reconcile traits such as power and assertiveness with women. Women assume we do not have authority but we have to assume we do and put ourselves forward, being wary of our tendency to suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Women cannot run away from religious leadership when it gets tough, staying and asserting ourselves, and pushing boundaries, is the only to break religious glass ceilings.
  • The questioning of scriptures, teachings, and community issues by women can be done with evidence of how these issues affect women. For example, when questioning male religious leaders about forced marriage, women should present male religious leaders with statistics and evidence that it is a significant issue for women.
  • Scriptures often speak of equal roles for women and men in religious governance and leadership, yet cultural norms and “old wives’ tales” mean that these are often not accepted in practice. This is why religious interpretation and open discussion plays such a large role in breaking the religious glass ceiling and building resilience.
  • The situation is perhaps different for Western women who join religious movements because they are able to join the tradition without the “cultural baggage” and thus may be able to live more authentically according to religious teachings.
  • But religious women also have to fight against misconceptions of religion from the white community as well. For example, the white community often carry misconceptions about the Muslim headscarf, viewing it as a symbol of oppression. Yet for many Muslim women it is a symbol of empowerment.
  • Religious belief can be one of the most empowering factors allowing women to break the glass ceilings they encounter in life.
  • Glass ceilings which are broken are sometimes replaced with new ones but we cannot let them break us.
  • We have to acknowledge that breaking these glass ceilings is intimidating and that doing this takes time, both for women as a whole and for the individuals involved in the efforts.
  • Women need to be advocates for other women, but also men. We should not question one another’s abilities in front of men, and we must raise our children to treat women with respect.

[1] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018.

[2] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018.

[3] Muslim Council of Britain, 2018.

[4] Sanghani, 2015.

[5] Sanghani, 2015.

[6] Women Led Mosque, 2016.

[7] Women Led Mosque, 2016.

[8] Women Led Mosque, 2016.

[9] Birmingham Museums Trust, 2018.

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Birmingham Museums Trust. (2018) ‘Breaking the Religious Glass Ceiling’. [Accessed 9 March 2018].

Muslim Council of Britain. (2018) ‘MCB encourages mosques to recruit more women with launch of development programme’. [online] 7 March. [Accessed 7 March 2018].

Sanghani, R. (2015) ‘The truth about ‘patriarchal’ mosques and their women problem’. [online] 7 March. [Accessed 7 March 2018].

Women Led Mosque. (2016) ‘About the Women Led Mosque’. [online] [Accessed 9 March 2018].