This is an archive of the Inspire Women CIC website. The CIC no longer exists but the Inspire website as seen here, provides a historical account of the ground-breaking work delivered by Inspire from 2008 to 2018.  Sara was a co-founder of Inspire, and a co-director during that time.
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0 2666

If it wasn’t bad enough (particularly for us!) that Al-Qa’ida launched its English language magazine Inspire 9 months ago, on Monday they published a 31 page glossy, Marie Claire style magazine for Muslim women entitled Al-Shamikha, roughly translated as The Majestic Woman.  The front cover shows a niqab clad women, a gun and headlines such as “meeting a jihad wife” and “pages from the pen of a female jihadist.”  The contents reveal that articles include “the female martyr” and “your house is a kingdom,” an article providing tips on how to maintain your home.

At first I found it bemusing and to a certain degree amusing that on one page a woman can learn about the “pros and cons of honey masks,” only to turn over to read advice about how to find the perfect man, nothing less than mujahideen.  But then I realised it was clever.  Why?  Because what Al-Qa’ida are skilfully doing, in a perverse kind of way, is normalising acts of terrorism.  A vulnerable young lady, angry about what is happening in Muslim countries and who feels a sense of resentment towards the foreign policies of Western countries, is made to believe in an ordinary way, that reading about acts of murder and terror is just as normal as reading or talking about beauty tips.  According to the Independent “analysts say the idea is to market global jihad with the same slick feel as Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire who push Western culture to young women.”

What I did find amusing however, was the perception that all women are interested in learning about beauty and fashion tips and the all important, how to achieve the perfect complexion.  Whilst trying to impress on women the ‘lofty’ ideals of ‘jihad’ they then stereotype and reduce her into the typical “I am a woman so I MUST be interested in beauty, fashion and shopping” sexist mantra.  How patronising.

But how does Al-Shamikha address the contemporary concerns facing Muslim women across the world?  It’s clear it views female jihadists as the ideal role model but in the same vein, it reinforces the conservative view that “women should not go out except when necessary.”  The diverse views on Muslim women’s role in the 21st century are being advocated by many Muslim ideologies; whether it is the jihadists, traditionalists or progressives.  But who will appeal to Muslim women?  Who will emerge as being most relevant and able in providing solutions to the huge challenges facing Muslim women?

Instead of empowering women to contribute to humanity and to construct societies, Al-Shamikha encourages them to destroy societies and spread hatred amongst humanity.  Rather than motivating women to address the global concerns of the day; poverty, climate change, human rights for example or inspiring her to become part of a much needed solution, it dehumanises her and makes her become a part of the problem.  Contrast this to the work of Muslim women like Daisy Khan, a woman who found herself in the furore over Park 51 or the so-called Ground Zero mosque.  She took it upon herself to fight not only for the rights of American Muslims but for the rights guaranteed to all by the American constitution itself.

Three days ago Daisy spoke at a ‘Women, Peace building and Islam’ conference at Arizona State University where she spoke about both violent extremism and domestic violence as corruptions of Islamic doctrine.  She then went on to talk about denouncing violence against women and the need for more Muslim women peace leaders who could help build a better future for everyone.  What an empowering message for Muslim women.  To become global leaders of peace.  This is what we need more of, not the debilitating message of destruction of Al-Shamikha.  We need more Muslim women, like Daisy to lead our communities in breaking the cycle of mistrust, misunderstanding and fear that exists between Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly in the Western world.

Now, more than any other time are Muslim women needed to take centre stage and help build, rather than burn, bridges between all of humanity.

0 1890

Today marks one hundred years of International Women’s Day and what great achievements have been made.  The very first IWD was honoured by 4 European countries; today numerous nations across the globe will be celebrating the huge strides made in fighting inequality and discrimination.  Whilst celebrating these great achievements, we will also be honouring the women and men, both past and present, who rose to those challenges and against all the odds campaigned and fought for rights that many of us have now taken for granted.

Many argue that ‘feminism’ is no longer relevant in the 21st century and that it has achieved its aims.  I believe the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights is just as pertinent today if not more so.  The challenges facing women are old and new.  The gender gap between men and women still exists.  Working women in the UK earn on average 23% less than men.  1 in 4 women in the UK will suffer from domestic violence.  2/3rds of the world’s illiterate people are women however women do 2/3rds of the world’s work, yet only receive 10% of the world’s income.  These are statistics we are all familiar with.  But there are new challenges facing women.  Here in the UK, many feminists acknowledge the huge problem of the over-sexualisation of women.  Women have become objectified at almost every level of society and the effect this is having on young girls and boys is a worrying development.  At the other end of the scale, politics, culture and even religion are being used as tools to punish women in the worst possible ways.

Since the late 20th century, Zina (fornication/adultery) laws which were hardly applied in practice, have now become part of the penal laws for many Muslim countries.  Fiqh based penal laws can be found in a codified form in Libya since 1972, Pakistan and Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1983 and Yemen since 1994.  The punishment for zina has included stoning, lashing and death but who have been the target of these laws?  It has been predominately women where in many circumstances non-state actors, communities and even family members appoint themselves as judge, jury and executioner.  Who can forget the case of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow?  A 13 year old Somalian girl who in 2008 claimed she had been raped by 3 men only to find herself being found guilty of adultery and in breach of ‘Shariah law.’  In front of a thousand people she was dragged to a hole in the ground, buried up to her neck and stoned by 50 men.  10 minutes later she was dug up to see if she had died but was found to be still alive and was stoned again till she died.  There are many cases like these; not fictional stories but truths testifying to the appalling reality for many women.

What about the barbaric murder of 14 Saudi schoolgirls by the mutawwa’un (committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) in Mecca in 2002?  A fire had started in their school and as parents arrived at the scene, they described how the mutawwa’un forcibly prevented girls from escaping the burning building and also prevented firemen from entering the school to save the girls.  Some of the girls were even beaten by sticks and kicked by the mutawwa’un.  There was some evidence that the religious police even locked the gates of the school trapping the girls inside.  What was the reason for this madness?  The girls were not properly veiled.  The mutawwa’un yelled at the girls to go back into the burning building and come back ‘properly’ dressed.  Many did so, only to be found dead.  Every great principle of Islam – justice, sanctity of life, respect for women to name just a few, burned within that building alongside those young girls.

Both these cases took place in the 21st century and there are many more like them.  One hundred years of International Women’s Day have helped highlight the cause of women but I cannot help wonder what the next one hundred years will bring.  Such hideous and brutal attacks against women are rising particularly across Muslim countries.  Much of it is due to the misplaced and erroneous notion of a woman’s ‘honour’ which is illogically placed above everything including life itself.  Even more troubling is the view that many Islamist organisations insist on singling out the role of women in society as the ultimate test of authenticity of an Islamic order.  The less visible women are in society, the greater the legitimacy of having established a ‘true’ Islamic state, culture or society.

Regardless of the ugly truths we see in many countries, I live in hope for what the next one hundred years will bring.  My faith teaches me despair is not the answer and in a strange way, I take comfort from the responsibility placed on my shoulders as one who calls herself ‘Muslim.’  How can I not live in hope when I see women like Dr Hawa Abdi, Ann Njogu, Mukhtar Mai, Buthayna Nasser and organisations like Sisters in Islam and Southall Black Sisters fighting such injustice?  How can I not be filled with confidence and optimism when I see ordinary women in Egypt and Tunisia not only joining the protests but actually leading the revolution in their respective countries?

Fighting for women to live in dignity and freedom is a responsibility on us all.  By playing our part, we can work towards establishing hope, justice and equality for women in the next 100 years.  The future generations of young girls depends on it.

0 2290

Ibn al-Qayyim in his I’lam al-Muwaqqi’in argued that whatever causes hardship and misery cannot be part of the Shariah even if people believe it to be so.  As a 12 year old, who had little knowledge of Islam, I refused to accept that the misery many Muslim women were experiencing was part of Islam.  Having left the Muslim bookshop with books on ‘women,’ I was eager to get home to read what I thought would be material that would change my life.  Instead I experienced despair, that wretched emotion which would continue to haunt me throughout my teenage and adult life.  I dread to think how many other young girls today experience those feelings of despair and resentment as I did those many years ago.

As a teenager who had dreams of changing the world and standing up to injustice, I definitely did not get much encouragement from those predominately Salafi books which continue to dominate many Muslim bookshops today.  I read that my worth as a woman was to please my husband.  That domesticity was the role for me.  That as a woman, the burden of preserving morality fell on my small shoulders as I was more likely to entice men to commit illicit acts.  Chapter after chapter focused on polygamy, divorce, marriage and even zina (fornication.)  My voice was awrah (private body parts to be covered by clothing.)  I couldn’t travel without a mahrem and I definitely could not be a leader of any kind.  Not wearing the hijab meant I lacked morality and worse still I could not possibly be a practising Muslim who loves Islam dearly.

Over the next 18 years or so I constantly heard and reheard the same lectures by different organisations and circles on what I as a woman could and could not do.  I vividly remember a woman lecturing a group of young 18 year olds that no matter what time of day, we should always ensure we are sexually appealing for our husbands.  I even remember her saying that a good Muslim wife would be one who would make sure that nothing would disturb her husband after his long hard day at work.  A good wife, she said, would ensure that the children were quiet and that even the washing machine should be switched off as the noise might ‘disturb him.’  I laugh now at how unrealistic and derogatory these expectations of women are but I know it is no laughing matter.

Fundamentally, the reasoning behind many of these ‘rules’ was that women were a source of fitnah (sexual discord) in society.  That I am a sexual being.  Full stop.  Everything about me is reduced to this point.  My dreams, hopes, aspirations or rights are irrelevant.  What mattered was that I could cause men to ‘lose control’ of themselves, so society should be protected from women who would seduce men.  This view can be found in many strands of Muslim thought which make up Muslim communities in the UK today.

I find this to be one of the most offensive attitudes to hold about women and even more offensive when people try to cloak it under the banner of Islam and actually attribute this view to the Almighty Himself.  To reduce me to a one dimensional creature, violating my dignity and entire self-worth, is in my mind a great crime committed by those in ‘authority’ who claim to speak on God’s behalf.  What I find amusing is when this same self-appointed ‘authority’ claim Islam dignifies and liberates women.  Ah yes, I am liberated from some chains but then find myself only to be shackled by a different set of chains.  However, I don’t believe the chains are Islam, far from it.  Rather, many women find themselves shackled by the chains of patriarchy and misogyny.

As much as the puritanical and literalists try to convince us otherwise, these views are considered to be conservative in Islam.  The classical jurist community differed vastly on these issues with some holding the view that women can lead a prayer in a mixed congregation or that women could be judges.  Not that radical then, but strangely enough, views which are considered far more radical now.

However, what I find shocking now, almost 20 years later, is how these conservative views are still so dominant amongst many Muslim organisations and communities, Muslim TV channels, mosques, Muslim bookshops and even amongst university educated Muslim men and women.  Go to the section on women in many of the Muslim bookshops today and see what kinds of books are being stocked.  The chances of you picking up books by Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud or anyone for that matter with a differing view point, is rare to say the least.  When a significant number of mosques exclude women, university Islamic societies deny women the chance of becoming president and even puritanical Wahabism though present in many Muslim circles, is there any wonder why such views are so dominant and dare I say it, that they have become part of the Muslim psyche?  Mixed into this melting pot is culture from ‘back home’ which can be, but not always, misogynistic.  We end up with a rather ugly looking creature; one that loathes women but tries to justify it by using Islam.  Unfortunately misogynistic views are far too rife amongst our communities and many Muslim women suffer for it on a day to day basis to the detriment of British Muslim communities.

Even organisations that are considered ‘progressive’ in relative terms, I have found that when the topic of women comes up, we hear the same conservative views.  Sometimes, it can be quite subtle.  I remember a women’s event where they were highlighting role models but funnily enough the role models were women who were at home and who did not have a public life, emphasising the belief that the ‘best’ Muslim women are those who stay confined to the private sphere.  Laying on the guilt for those women who had no choice but to work.

Of course, not all mosques and organisations promote such views; I am slowly starting to see discussions and debates around different and alternative interpretations.  But here is the dilemma.  Where is that 12 year old, that young girl, who is interested in learning about what Islam offers her, in the 21st century, where does she go?  What books does she read?  Who will give her a contextualised understanding of Islam relevant to the globalised, modern and fast paced life she is living in?  How are we, as British Muslims who run Muslim channels, are presidents of organisations, editors of newspapers, Imams of mosques dealing with this challenge?  What are we afraid of, of rigidly sticking to conservative interpretations on women when there are indeed a multitude of opinions?  Why do we not respect differences in opinions that are part and parcel of Islam’s rich history?  Since the age of the Companions, classical Muslim jurists maintained long established tradition of disputation, debate and disagreement.  Acceptance and reverence was given to the idea of ikhtilaaf (disagreement and diversity.)  The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) himself said the disagreement of the Ummah is a source of mercy.  Why do Muslims insist on their being one opinion when clearly this is a lie?

This blog is not about contributing to the impression that Islam is uniquely oppressive towards women.  It is about understanding what role patriarchal reading of Islam’s sacred texts have on the lives of Muslims today.  This critical analysis needs to take place so that women no longer suffer gender based violence or discrimination.  It is time we woke up to the reality of the dominance of conservative views about women in British Muslim communities and how ultimately this contributes to a great gender injustice for both men and women.

0 1986

Yesterday, somebody sent me this clip from the Big Questions which was recently aired on BBC1 and having watched it I couldn’t help but cringe.  Those 13 minutes were definitely uncomfortable viewing but what I did like about it was how it encapsulated some of the key debates within the discourse around women’s rights and Islam.

As a Muslim woman who is passionate about the rights of all women, I find it disappointing that within western feminist discourse, which is essentially pro-choice, some feminists undermine the rights of Muslim women whether in choosing to become a Muslim or in deciding how to dress.  Increasingly and rather aggressively, I have seen feminists describe Islam as “a misogynistic faith” and “illogical superstition.”  This can only be described as patronising and insulting to Muslim feminists across the world who are actively campaigning for the rights of women through an Islamic paradigm.  The universalism V cultural relative debate will continue to rage on around the world, but feminists need to appreciate there are indeed many ways of securing women’s rights.  The areligious or even the irreligious version of feminism isn’t the only narrative nor is it necessarily the most effective one, in securing rights for women particularly for Muslim women.  One of the most compelling ways in securing the rights of Muslim women is doing so through an Islamic framework.  It is sad that feminists who feel so passionate about women’s rights clearly have little knowledge around the challenges facing Muslim feminists as this anti-Islam approach only ends up in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The apologetic language being used by many Muslims neither helps the discourse around Muslim women and rights.  By arguing that in the 7th century, Islam gave rights to women which were only given to women in the 20th century in Britain is factually true, but as much as it pains me to say this, it is irrelevant because everyone knows you are ignoring the elephant in the room.  It is a fact that many women in some Muslim countries are denied fundamental freedoms.  It is a fact that half the women in the Arab world are illiterate and in all but four Arab countries less than 80 per cent of girls go to secondary school.  Yes, Islam did shine over the rest of the world in the 7th century with regards to women’s rights, but we are in the 21st century now and sadly that light glows very dimly today.  It is for us to relight that original message of respect and human dignity that Islam gives women.  This will not happen if we continue to ignore the violations many Muslim women experience.  We need to admit that crimes are committed against women in the ‘name of Islam’ but it is not the faith which prescribes such unjust treatment but rather a twisted and fundamentally a misogynistic interpretation of Islam used by men and societies for a number of reasons including denying women access to power and leadership.  It is this reality which drives many Muslims to fight discrimination and violence using an Islamic paradigm to help secure rights for Muslim women around the world.  I predict it is this battle, the gender jihad, which will ultimately become one of the major struggles facing Muslims in the 21st century.

0 1928

I, like many other Muslim women in Great Britain have had to struggle with limitations placed upon me by less enlightened members of society. My parents were brave enough to stand up against cultural restrictions to enable their daughter to have the opportunities they were denied, but I find even now, as I am reaching my half century, young men and women are increasingly adopting far more restrictive and intolerant interpretations of scripture.

My father has always maintained that the best protection for daughters is an education; empowering daughters with the knowledge to improve their understanding of faith and the world so that they are able to analyse, think critically and apply logical reasoning to the choices they make. It’s only when they have this knowledge that they will be able to stand alongside men as equals and have confidence in their individual strengths, support others in their weaknesses and challenge negative practices and regressive interpretations of faith. Until we learn to respect the breadth of opinion within Islam, and not just adopt one inflexible interpretation, we will be constantly judged and misjudged from those within our communities.

As a mother who is trying to do the best for her children and their future, I have to speak out and say that sadly, Muslim faith leadership in this country is not equipped nor understands my children and the support they need in applying the principles of Islam to their everyday lives. Those that run our mosques have not provided an environment in our places of worship where young people can explore being ‘themselves’ or to discuss the challenges that they are faced with in everyday life. Recently, in my city when an Imam was asked to give a sermon on women’s rights the reply was ‘brother, if women are told their rights, who will cook and clean for us?’ Is this a place I should send my children to for guidance in creating a just society? The sad thing is, for many years I did just that!

I sent my children to an environment where they were taught that mixing with ‘non Muslims’ was forbidden other than when was absolutely necessary, as was chess, the arts, and speaking to any member of the opposite sex that they weren’t related to. Men and women could only be in a room together if there was a screen separating them. In fact other than on a Sunday morning, when they were in an ‘Islamic environment’ they were walking bags of sin. We complain about over-sexualisation of children in the media and within fashion but surely we are doing the same? I am not a psychologist, but I shudder to think of the effects on the minds of my growing children. Sadly in my day to day work I see the consequences of such unrealistic demands on our young people. Faith leaders however, when confronted with these issues seem only too keen to brush these sensitive topics under the prayer mat. ‘Sister make dua (supplication)!’ I am told.

I took my children out of this environment when I reflected upon what it was that had brought me closer to Allah. It was not actually any Islamic school or mosque (far from it), but the stories of Jesus that I had heard in my formative years in school and the Christian family friends that I had been exposed to as a child. I envied my friends going to Christian Sunday school and the activities that they did. Faith was taught in a beautiful and meaningful way-it was a verb that had to be actioned everyday in real life. There is so much that we can learn from our Christian friends and together help address common problems. They too struggle with the same challenges that I face as a parent; a society that places increasingly little emphasis on the worship of God, spiralling use of drugs, alcohol and underage sex.

My son I am pleased to say, come to a closer understanding of what Islam is recently, with the help ironically of a Catholic school friend and a reading of Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Prophet Muhammed. He was visibly taken aback at how her objective portrayal of a beautiful man that slaved to bring about peace in a corrupt society was so different to what he had been taught and what he sees portrayed as Islamic by local Muslim leaders who preach downright intolerance and suspicion of other faiths and cultures. He is only twenty, but he is searching for spirituality in his life. He should be encouraged to question and challenge rather than follow blindly and be taught that emulating the Prophet is far more important than following blindly.

My daughters too have few role models that they can aspire to. Muslim women are painfully underrepresented at all levels, and coupled with this are the misogynist interpretations of faith that they have to contend with. We come across regular postings on Facebook by young men in our community; ‘pious’ young men who in the Name of Islam, condone acts of violence against young women for what they choose to wear or not wear. These are the same young men that have been denied by families the right to have a say in their own marriage. The consequences are that my community is in a state of crisis.

Inspire is about commitment to bringing about a deep and profound change, a change that will help women and men make informed decisions and to challenge the narrow minded self proclaimed religious leaders that undermine human rights in the name of Islam. This is not my Islam. I will follow my heart and I am determined not to dig a trench, refusing to engage with those around me. My faith instructs me to have a sense of social responsibility. The Prophet of Islam said ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty’ therefore in my mind anything that is not beautiful is not from God.

I do not wish my children to live in isolation but amongst all people and our worship amounts to nothing if the people around us and our environment are not touched by our good conduct. I want to be part of that change and Inspire is ready to meet the opposition that we will undoubtedly face.

0 1961

Frustration.

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.

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