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Despite Barriers, it is Empowering to be a Muslim Woman in Britain by Shaista Gohir MBE

Introduction (About Muslim Women’s Network UK)

Up until recently I was actually the Executive Director of Muslim Women’s Network UK but left that post and started my new role as the Global Campaign strategist for Oxfam.  However, after working so hard to build up the network, I wanted to continue supporting it so I am a board member.  MWNUKis the only national Muslim women’s organization in Britain. Members are diverse in terms of age, profession, ethnicity and are across the religious spectrum.  Members are a mixture of groups or individuals who are able to reach other Muslim women.  Although the majority of members are Muslim women, we also have female members who are not but either work with Muslim women or are interested in Muslim women’s issues.  In fact we tried to reflect this diversity by co-opting a board members recently who was not Muslim.

In the last four years I turned an informal group of about 30 Muslim women to a membership of about 400 who between then have a reach of more than 40 000 Muslim women.   What do we do? We do not deliver a service but rather an advocacy group involved in raising awareness of issues, lobbying government and providing information to our members.


The events of 9/11 and 7/7 and the subsequent intensification of anti-Muslim sentiments has been a double-edged sword for Muslim women – on one hand they have suffered immense hostility and on the other, they have found a voice and are more visible now than they have ever been before.  In the last several years many Muslim women’s groups and activists have emerged.  About 4 years ago MWNUK decided to link up to them and connect them to each other. I believe that a British Muslim women’s movement is emerging.   For more information on MWNUK, visit www.mwnuk.co.uk

Empowering to be a Muslim woman in Britain

Muslim women face many barriers.  However, despite this, it is still empowering to be a Muslim woman in Britain.  Why am I choosing to be so positive?  Well too often when we all think about Muslim women, there is a tendency to only focus on the problems they face.   Little or no attention is paid to their successes and achievements.  However, I believe it is important to celebrate and highlight these as it can also be one strategy to advance their rights.  And this also helps to:

  • To raise aspirations of young girls
  • To show girls and woman change is possible
  • To break stereotypes

The barriers

However, before I provide examples of positive experiences of Muslim women, I want to give some background information to put things into context. Muslim women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Britain – they have the poorest health, live in the poorest housing, have the highest unemployment rates and face discrimination on multiple levels because of their gender, ethnicity, religion and the way they dress.  They also face internal community problems linked to their culture such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour based violence.  In addition to this, their bodies have become battlegrounds for extremists on both sides – on one side you have a rise in religious extremism and conservative Muslims are criticizing women like me who do not cover their heads – they tell us, ‘you are too westernized, too integrated and are bad Muslim women.’ Even girls at school are being bullied to cover their heads.  There is an intense pressure to cover.  On the side, right wing politicians and right wing extremists are telling Muslim women who choose to cover that they are not integrated enough.  They get harassed and even attacked for covering their heads and sometimes their faces.

Muslim women are being viewed as one monolithic group by all sides – their diverse cultures, ethnicities, dress and the way they want to practice their faith is being ignored.It is also important to remember that Muslim women are diverse and not all Muslim women face all those problems listed.

Muslim women making history in politics

However, despite all of these problems, Muslim women in Britain have also made history.  Last year in the elections, we saw for the first time a Muslim woman being included in the government cabinet. For the first time we also saw three elected members of parliament.   Muslim women have not even been able to achieve this type of success in other Western countries or even in many Muslim majority countries.   As a Muslim woman I would not wish to be anywhere else in the world.

Other Muslim female role models

Politics is not the only arena where Muslim women are breaking barriers. Muslim women are participating at all levels in civil society and in diverse sectors.  For example, we have Muslim women in the police force, in the army, as district judges, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers and bankers.  There are also Muslim female actors, TV presenters, comedians, writers and even participating in sports. All of these examples show that when Muslim women are given opportunities, they are taking them – so more opportunities need to be given to them.  Inequalities need to be tackled because Muslim women are still very under represented in all sectors.


Some examples of good practice

Next I want to highlight some examples of good practice, but I will only focus on initiatives promoting role models.


a)      A couple of years ago the national human rights body partnered with a national newspaper and identified the 50 most powerful women in Britain which helped break some stereotypes

b)      There have been a number of initiatives, which have involved sending Muslim female role models into schools to speak to and mentor Muslim girls.

c)      The Muslim Women’s Network UK (www.mwnuk.co.uk)developed exhibitions showing role models, which they now lend out to schools, libraries, and women’s groups. They have also developed role model posters and sent them to schools.  They have also produced booklets highlighting role models.  I have two examples here. One aimed at girls and the other aimed at women.

d)     I launched a website last year called Big Sister, the website address is www.bigsister.org.uk in which I highlighted Muslim female role models from past to present, from around the world and from diverse sectors. To this website I also added a myth busting section on women’s rights in islam where I included satirical cartoons and provided arguments to challenge extremist rhetoric which is often used against women.  I made my challenges from within an Islamic framework and used Islam as a tool.  This website was aimed initially at Muslim girls in the UK.  However, since its launch, I have been contacted from Muslim women around the world who are telling me they are using it as a resource in schools, universities and empowerment workshops.  The myth busting section has proved so popular that I recently set up a Youtube channel called Muslim feminist where I now plan to deliver lectures on Muslim women’s rights.  I uploaded my first lecture last week on Islamic feminism.   I have already received emails from women from other countries.  In fact one women’s groups from South Africa who had seen both the Youtube lecture and the Big Sister website asked me if I would deliver a talk via Skype to a their members – and I did this last Saturday.  I already have another request to do one for women in Pakistan.  The point in telling you all this is that when women are give the information they need, it is used and it does have an impact – so we need to get better at ensuring they have the right information.

Next Steps

Based on what I have said, I want to conclude with the next steps that I would like to see happen to help Muslim women become more empowered and attain their human rights:

1) There needs to be a concerted effort across Europe to tackle the rise in racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.  Efforts have been made to tackle Islamic violent extremism but little has been done to tackle right wing extremism. Last week I attended the UN Human Rights Forum on minority women.  This forum has been set up to address the discrimination and inequalities faced by minorities across the world. However, the inequalities mainly focused on how non-Western countries are treating their minority women.  We all know that Muslim women are suffering from a huge amount of Islamophobia across Europe particularly in Holland, France, Italy and Germany to name a few.  However, not a single Muslim woman was present from Europe to tell the forum about the inequalities they are suffering from.  I was there and I spoke but I was invited to speak the positive aspects of Muslim women in British life.  What does this tell you - that even the UN does not recognize the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women? Of course I did point this issue out at the forum and said that inequality needs to be tackled wherever it is and must include Western countries too – they must also be held accountable.

2) I also think those national Muslim women’s NGOs and activists living in Europe need to be connected to one another so they can share knowledge about how to address the I mpact of both Islamic religious extremism and right wing extremism.  No one is currently helping them link with one another.

3) More Muslim women need to be empowered with information to be able to challenge religious extremist rhetoric. This could involve connecting them to activists who have the knowledge and who can train them.

4) Resources need to be made available and policies put into place to ensure that minority women are not marginalized further.  We all know that government cuts are hitting women the hardest.  Well there is a hierarchy within this.  BME women’s groups will be hit even harder and as for Muslim women – well they will be right at the bottom of the pile and are likely to be hit the hardest of all.  The current government is undermining all the empowerment work that has been done so far and my feeling is that Muslim women will have less opportunities -  so all the role models I have mentioned so far – well that may not be the case in the future.