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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On 23rd July 2013, Channel 4 News ran an exclusive report about British Muslim women going abroad to Syria to support jihad. Sara Khan tells Jon Snow that although shocking, in her experience, it is not surprising. She explains possible reasons why some British Muslim women are supporting jihad abroad, including the strategic tactics used by terrorist organisations to recruit women to their violent cause. Watch the debate here.

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Muslim women have always experienced higher incidences of anti-Muslim violence than men. This is confirmed by Tell Mama, the government-backed helpline which measures anti-Muslim violence, which states that 58% of incidents are experienced by women. Victims have ranged from a five-year-old girl who was run over, to an 89-year-old pensioner. Seventy-five per cent of perpetrators are male and 54% of all cases are linked to supporters of far-right groups, such as the British National party and English Defence League.

Supporters of organisations such as the EDL highlight their hatred of Islam by attacking Muslim women. And yet the EDL’s mission statement asserts its belief in “equal rights for Muslim women” and opposes the denigration and oppression of women. This calculated yet hypocritical effort to focus on “oppressed” Muslim women who need saving has always been a key strategy of the far-right, anti-Islam counter-jihad movement.

From Pamela Geller’s deceptive narrative on honour killings, to the BNP’s distortion of Islamic theology, this focus serves a tactical purpose: recruit members to their cause, and cement the idea that Islam oppresses women – believed by 69% of the British public.

Ironically, the counter-jihad movement sings from the same hymn-sheet as Muslim extremists by promoting a literal, decontextualised and patriarchal interpretation of Islam. Radical Muslims preach the importance of women being confined to the private sphere; the only possible praiseworthy role, we are told, is mother and wife. By persuading them to withdraw from public life, these extremist preachers disempower women by denying them their economic self-determination, and ultimately silence them through their invisibility.

This ideological view has no basis in the Qur’an and is rejected by the majority of British Muslims. While at pains to state their opposition to Muslim extremist preachers, counter-jihad organisations are keen to regurgitate this version of Islam to reinforce the argument that Islam treats women badly.

Unfortunately, there are serious challenges facing many British Muslim women today. Seven in 10 Muslim women are economically inactive; Muslim women have worse health than any other faith group; they can be victims of culturally based crimes, such as forced marriages and honour-based attacks; and there is a lack of female leadership among British Muslim organisations and mosques. None of this is condoned by Islam, but often arises from socioeconomic barriers and unreconstructed cultural practices.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, some vulnerable Muslim women experience victimisation on multiple fronts: they face violent anti-Muslim attacks at the hands of racist bigots, and encounter gender discrimination from within their own communities. Worse still, some women refuse to speak out against gender-based discrimination fearing this would only fuel anti-Muslim hatred – of which they’d be the likely victims.

Having worked with a number of British Muslim organisations over the years, it is disheartening to hear the deafening silence on gender issues. It is imperative that Muslim organisations and mosques do more to tackle gender discrimination experienced by female members of their communities.

Muslim organisations not only need to speak out more, they also need to actively begin to tackle this socioeconomic and cultural discrimination and to challenge Muslim preachers who promote unacceptable and extreme views about the role of women in Islam.

Anti-Muslim hatred and gender discrimination are two sides of the same coin; they are unjust, unBritish and undemocratic. My organisation works on the premise that we cannot speak out against anti-Muslim hatred while remaining silent about Islamist extremism and cultural crimes experienced by Muslim women.

The misplaced notion of “not offending cultural sensitivities” at the expense of Muslim women cannot be defended. As a country that values equalities legislation, this protection must extend to all British women.

Yet in these testing times, we must allow Muslim women to speak for themselves. Their voices need to be heard. We need to recognise Muslim women’s agency and their right to live in dignity, free from being politically exploited in the name of hate.

Extremist views from both sides blight the lives of British women and weaken our country. As a country that stands for equality, justice and women’s rights, we cannot allow extremists of any kind to deny British women their rights.

 

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“Above all, we need to ask why so many males, both young and old, think it is acceptable to treat both girls and boys as objects to be used and abused. We need to consider why professionals still miss the signs of abuse, and also to consider the impact of pornography on children,” wrote Sue Berelowitz on the release of the Office for the Children’s Commission interim report in Child Sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. The report was disturbing; around 16,500 children were deemed to be at high risk of child sex exploitation yet much of the response to the report was on whether it under-played the representation of Pakistani men in child sex exploitation (CSE).

As much as I agree with Berelowitz that Pakistani men abusing girls is one model among many models of CSE, the statistics in the report, which does not include data from all police forces, suggest there is an over-representation of Pakistani men working in groups guilty of on-street grooming, as opposed to acting alone or online which is predominately carried out by white men. Out of 77 recent convictions for on-street grooming by gangs, 67 have involved men of Pakistani origin. Further limited figures of this over-representation can be read here. However, finger-pointing at either under-emphasising or over-emphasising the ethnicities of the perpetrators do not help the victims who insensitively become political pawns.

Experts maintain that sexually-exploited children are not always identified and under-reporting by victims many of whom live in fear remains a big problem. Many children feel they won’t be believed and some don’t even recognise they are being exploited. BME women and girls are even less likely to report as they face an additional barrier of having to deal with a cultural enforced silence which is imposed on by their communities and families. Working within these communities, it is frustrating that there still remains a great deal of denial and defence over the concept of honour which exists within some Asian communities. Some of the parents of the victims in the Rochdale case talked about how they felt let down by statutory agencies. My experience with young Asian girls has shown how it is the parents, mothers in particular, who prevented their daughters from reporting familial child sexual abuse to external agencies. What is desperately needed are bespoke strategies with specialist interventions for combatting different models of CSE whether online grooming by white men or on-street grooming by men of Pakistani origin and equally developing policies that understand the constraint of cultural attitudes which prevents victims from reporting, otherwise many children unjustly will remain forgotten victims just because of their ethnicity.

Yet as a society we don’t feel comfortable in answering serious questions as asked by Berelowitz above, about prevailing attitudes towards women and girls. It’s too easy to point the finger at a minority community, as the other, but as a British Pakistani I see the objectification of women in minority and majority communities. After the Rochdale case in May, I wrote how at the heart of some British Pakistani communities, particularly those who came from rural, poor villages, patriarchy is the norm, and women, whether white or Asian are viewed as second class citizens but at different ends of the objectification spectrum. White women are dehumanised by being perceived as sexual objects. Asian women including those within one’s own family are dehumanised by being denied agency, autonomy and basic rights. The common thread between both attitudes towards women however is control and domination and that women are there to be used and abused.

Yet at the same time how can we possibly ignore prevailing attitudes towards women and girls in wider British society? Over the past three decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery of women and children in advertising. Pornography is normalised and unlike previous generations, it has become easily accessible by our children through the use of smart phones and the internet. A Home Office report in 2010 suggests that online pornography is increasingly dominated by themes of aggression and control and that exposure to pornography is related to male sexual aggression against women and a tendency to view them as objects. Young people not only have warped expectations of sex but are replicating what they have seen, including sexual violence. Is it really surprising therefore that teenage girls between 16 and 19 are now the group most at risk of domestic violence, closely followed by girls aged 20-24? This teacher’s graphic account of what she witnesses at school on a daily basis should make anyone question what our society says about women and girls.

The Savile case highlighted how only thirty to forty years ago, a misogynistic “groupie culture” was part and parcel of life. I can’t help wonder how just as today we stand aghast at the cultural attitudes that prevailed then, we too in 30 years’ time will stand aghast at why we didn’t tackle the normalisation of violent pornography and its impact on our children. Changing cultural attitudes is no small feat but we need to have a robust yet sensitive debate on this issue where we all take collective responsibility for CSE. Ingrained misogyny within sections of the British Pakistani community cannot be defended but it is imperative that policies are developed to tackle harmful cultural attitudes wherever they exist in society

 

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“All I want is education and I’m afraid of no one” said an 11 year old Malala Yousafzai, whose comments three years later cost her with a bullet to the head. What was her crime? Nothing more than defending her basic rights. Malala’s refusal to climb down in the face of death threats from the Taliban not only challenged their gender based discrimination, but broke the ancient code of silence (the ‘shut up and put up’ code) enforced upon girls. Despite the danger, she refused to be unvoiced. Malala demonstrated that nothing is more powerful and influential against the misogynistic and extremist narrative of the Taliban than the voice of a young girl.

Malala’s struggle for equality resonates with many British Muslim women in the UK too, where some face cultural, ideological and societal barriers. Two thirds of Muslim women are economically inactive compared to a quarter of all UK women. 33% of working age Muslim women have no qualifications and only 9% have a degree. As a Muslim woman activist having worked voluntarily within communities for 20 years, it is clear that there is a culture of misogyny within some traditional and conservative communities. It disheartens me that today, despite Britain having some of the best equalities legislation in the world; some British women are denied basic freedoms including the right to choose a marriage partner or to pursue further education due to restrictive cultural beliefs. During a visit to Britain, Samar Minallah, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker and human rights activist who supported Malala’s work, was shocked at how entrenched many of the same negative cultural beliefs were being practiced right here among some Pakistani communities.

There is also an increasing extremist ideological narrative. A discourse that bars women from leadership roles and discourages her participation in public life. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been a lack of Muslim women’s leadership within British Muslim organisations and mosques and why they remain one of the most under-represented politically. The lack of women’s rights and the code of silence imposed on women doesn’t just exist in tribal villages in Pakistan, it is alive and well, in some communities in Britain and I can’t help wonder what Malala would think if she discovered that such attitudes can also be found among British Muslim communities too.

Malala who is currently receiving medical treatment in the UK is an inspiration to young British girls, she has become an icon and a role model by challenging negative cultural practices and a narrow interpretation of faith that have remained unchallenged for decades. Malala’s message is a powerful one: we don’t have to accept gender based inequalities, there is always an alternative, but it is up to each and every one of us to speak up and to break the code of silence.

Here at Inspire we hope Malala not only encourages a generation of girls to advocate for their rights but that we, as a country also lend our voices too and fully support their campaign of equality and justice. Extremists despise women’s voices, freedoms, and autonomy and we should support young girls and women who challenge this and who are fighting to reclaim their dignity. Together we must all work towards ensuring that the rights of women, whatever their cultural or religious background are never compromised.

 

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