Listening to Muslim women on sharia divorce could change it for the better

November 1st, 2016

Published on Guardian website (Comment is free) here on 1st November 2016.

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Muslim women continue to be the focus of public debate and are constantly being spoken about and for, usually relating to their dress or integration. This time it is on their treatment by sharia councils. Not one, but two inquiries have been launched to investigate this issue. Although I welcome them and have already given evidence to the independent government review and will be speaking to the home affairs select committee today, I wonder if anyone is actually listening to what Muslim women have to say about the subject.

Everyone wants to listen to Muslim women when highlighting their terrible experiences of using sharia divorce services, such as domestic violence victims being pressured to mediate with the abusive husband. However, when it comes to the solutions, whether it is politicians, sharia councils or secular activists, everyone seems to think they know what is best for Muslim women.

However it is essential that Muslim women are at the forefront of informing the solutions that work for them. Their voices can already be heard in the most comprehensive report on Muslim marriage and divorce in Britain, which we at the Muslim Women’s Network UK published earlier this year. The report provides information on the challenges Muslim women face and what steps they can take to protect their rights, including recommendations on how sharia councils can raise their standards and what the government can do to strengthen civil law.

Muslim women also want to inform the debate when it comes to solutions. We are so fed up of being used as a political football that, in an unprecedented move, more than 100 Muslim women from across the religious spectrum from 34 towns and cities, and from different professions ranging from lawyers, academics, health professionals, community activists to students and homemakers, have signed an open letter. Two-thirds of the signatories know someone, be it a family member, friend or client, who has used a sharia divorce service; 25% have used one themselves and others want the option, should they ever need it. Despite the sometimes traumatic experience of being questioned by male scholars about their domestic abuse, most Muslim women do not want these sharia services to be abolished. I know this is not what many people want to hear because it does not suit their political agendas. In fact, Muslim women are alarmed that some feminists are pushing their own anti-faith or anti-Islam agendas through the guise of women’s rights. They view Islam in a reductionist manner, regarding all faith practices as discriminatory and conflating misogyny and patriarchy with religious fundamentalism and extremism.

Human rights do not only have to be discussed in secular terms, they can also be addressed within the framework of religion. Muslim feminists here and abroad have long been promoting enlightened interpretations of Islam that are compatible with democracy, human rights, freedom and pluralism. So those who advocate the immediate shutting down of sharia councils are no friends, because this would result in Muslim women being trapped in abusive marriages and drive sharia divorce services underground, leading to even less transparency, higher fees and more discrimination.

This does not mean Muslim women support sharia councils that claim that discrimination does not take place by pointing to the positive experiences of women while disregarding those who are subjected to unfair practices. They have had long enough to self-regulate and raise standards but have not done so. We continue to receive complaints about their services on the Muslim Women’s Network helpline. So what do Muslim women want? They want the government and religious authorities (whether they are mosques, sharia councils or individual scholars) to take measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and divorce. For religious authorities this means practising the many provisions in Islam that allow women to obtain a religious divorce quickly, without duress and discrimination. Remedial action must include recognising civil divorce as an Islamic divorce and not putting Muslim women through the trauma of another process to make money or to assert authority and maintain relevance in Muslim communities.

The government also needs to step in and ensure that sharia divorce services raise their standards while strengthening civil law. Changes could include making a civil marriage compulsory prior to a religious marriage, as not all Muslim women are in legally recognised marriages. In most cases a civil divorce can then be recognised as an Islamic divorce. Making a civil marriage compulsory could also reduce and eventually eliminate polygamy. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 could be amended so that it includes Muslim women as it currently only applies to Jewish women. This would remedy the unbalanced bargaining power of the husband in some divorce cases where there is pressure to agree to unfair custodial and financial demands during the civil divorce in return for not contesting a religious divorce. The judge would be able to withhold finalising the civil divorce until the woman receives her religious divorce from the husband.

If these solutions are implemented, Muslim women will increasingly use the British justice system at their own pace for divorce and become less reliant on sharia councils, making most of them naturally redundant in the future anyway.

50 Shades of Extremism – Muslims Policing Other Muslims

March 31st, 2016

Published on Huffington website here on 31st March 2016.

EXTREMISM red stamp text on white

Glasgow shopkeeper, Asad Shah, was murdered by another Muslim for what appears to be a religiously motivated crime. Mr. Shah had wished Christians a Happy Easter. This event is significant because it marks the levels of intolerance Muslims themselves are facing from a fringe minority within their own communities. I worry this minority is growing. How have we ended up in this situaton? Muslims are now regularly castigated online by other Muslims for expressing greetings such as ‘Happy Birthday,’ ‘Happy Christmas and even ‘Happy Mothers Day!’ It never used to be like this.

Who influences these bigoted Muslims? Is it (pseudo) scholars such as Zakir Naik who promotes his propaganda through his Satellite station, Peace TV? He is popular amongst South Asian Muslims and was banned by Home Secretary Theresa May in 2010. Or is it those who have their own slots on the various Asian and Islamic UK based satellite TV stations, some of whom are also invited to speak at University Islamic Society events? Or is it the growing number of international celebrity scholars online with huge social media followings?

Of course people should be free to express their views providing they don’t incite violence. If they think it is against their faith to say ‘Happy Easter’ or ‘Happy Diwali’ then they should be able to say so. However, it is important to try and identify why some are policing other Muslims and think it is acceptable and perhaps even their religious duty to punish them because they have a different religious perspective. The attacks can be verbal or physical. In Islam we believe only God declares what is lawful (halal) and what is unlawful (haram). It seems now to be a regular occurrence being told things are ‘haram’ and therefore against Islam. We have good scholars who are moderate in their views but unfortunately those with hardline opinions often drown their voices out. In fact they are also attacked and maligned in an attempt to discredit them so their views don’t gain traction amongst Muslim youth.

Islam has a long tradition of recognising differences of opinion and debating with respect (Quran 16:125). The fringe that claims to be an authority on Islam are devoid of the most basic Islamic etiquette and blatantly ignore the Quran’s spirit of mercy and tolerance. Muslims who express views regarded as too moderate and therefore against their narrative (and according to them against Islam), are often bullied and smeared including incitement of hatred. Many Muslims have been subjected to such aggressive behaviour regularly through social media. The Online trolls who go after Muslim men and women in this manner are often connected to each other and sometimes operate in packs. Muslims like myself are also regularly referred to in derogatory terms such as ‘House Muslims,’ (derived from the term House Negro) ‘Uncle Toms,’ and ‘Sell Outs.’ It is used to dehumanise any Muslim who disagrees with their worldview. They are portrayed as traitors pandering to the interests of White people, especially those in media and government. This is arrogant, dangerous and also bigoted rhetoric. Contrary to what they may believe and want, Muslims are diverse in their religious and political views and can think for themselves and engage with people in power on their own terms. We are a part of British society and should be engaging on every level and not shouting and whinging from the margins.

These bigots can disagree and move on but they don’t. They want to harass in an attempt to silence and shut alternatives voices down. They want to enforce one religious and / or political ideology. They will stop at nothing to achieve their aim including accusing Muslims of changing Islam and refusing to accept that Muslims are diverse and believe in different interpretations. This deliberate tactic now being employed against British Muslim is a sinister one because the consequences of implying that someone is a heretic or is committing blasphemy can be fatal. It is a subtle and covert form of extremism. There are 50 shades of extremism and this is one of them.

Unfortunately I am now on this hit list of Muslims to target. After being trolled on Twitter recently, an anonymously written article appeared online criticising a number of Muslims. Interestingly the article was called, Deformist Subversions: British Islam Architects and Shaista Gohir. It is clear the intention of this piece is to promote that we (and especially me) are distorting Islam. I have even been given my own Islam and it is called Gohir’s Islam. The next step can easily be accusing me of heresy and blasphemy or hope that others will do that after reading the article. Perhaps the author wants to remain anonymous to avoid responsibility of any consequences from this article.

We know what happens to those deemed as heretics and blasphemers in some Muslim countries. In fact a few UK imams have been glorifying Mumtaz Qadri who murdered a Pakistani politician, Salman Taseer, who stood up for Christians and questioned the blasphemy law, which is often abused and used to persecute minorities. Muhammed Asim Hussain, an Imam from Bradford called Qadri a martyr and that he had honoured the Prophet. His comment was liked nearly 136000 on his Facebook. Muhammad Masood Qadiri, who presents a weekly programme on Ummah TV, also told his Facebook followers that Qadri was a martyr. Most recently Maulana Habib Ur Rehman of Glasgow Central Mosque has also praised the extremist. I can’t help but wonder given such comments, was the Glasgow shopkeepers murder a copy cat killing especially considering that the victim is believed to be from the Ahmadiyyah sect of Islam who are often vilified both in the UK and abroad and often routinely declared as not Muslim.

 

Media scares about ‘sharia marriages’ miss the point

July 11th, 2015

Published on Guardian website (Comment is free) here on 6th July 2015

Recent press coverage on Muslim weddings no longer describes them as religious, Muslim or even Islamic marriages. Instead they are being referred to as sharia marriages. The negative connotations associated with the word “sharia” allow dubious links to be made to extremism, as in an article on the front page of the Times on Friday: “Young Muslims fuel huge rise in sharia marriage”. The article quotes a Muslim lawyer, Aina Khan, who says Muslims are opting for the Islamic ceremony (and not the additional civil marriage that would make the marriage legal) because of increasing religiosity, which the reporter connects to influence from the Islamic State militant group.

This dubious argument is further bolstered by the unverified statistic that 100,000 Muslim couples are in marriages not recognised under UK law. Other media – including the Telegraph and the Mail – have promoted the story and added further statistics, such as a claim that there are 20,000 polygamous unions in the UK. These statistics are extremely difficult to verify, given that such marriages are not registered, and appear to be little more than opinions. For example, the original source of the statistics on polygamous unions is a personal view given to a reporter by two social workers in 2011. The government’s official estimate, by contrast, is just 1,000.

Another questionable statistic quoted is that up to 80% of young Muslims are in unregistered marriages. This ignores the fact that many Muslims were married abroad, and so do not need to register their marriage. When someone gets married abroad, the basic rule is that the marriage is valid under the law of that country (providing it was registered with the appropriate authority) and it is therefore also valid under British law. I am not saying there isn’t a problem with legally invalid marriages or polygamous marriages – there is. But it is frustrating when such flimsy statistics are used to scaremonger and misinform.

At the Muslim Women’s Network UK, the charity I chair, we come across numerous Muslim women who have had only the religious ceremony in the UK and are regarded as cohabitees. However, it is difficult to quantify the extent to which this is a specifically Islamic problem. Regardless, it is significant enough to warrant action due to the consequences women face when the marriage breaks down such as homelessness, loss of assets and not being able to claim financial support from the spouse. This is especially traumatic when children are involved.

To address the issue, we need to identify the reasons for unregistered marriages. In our experience, it is not, as these articles suggest, because young Muslims are becoming more religious. A key motive in the cases we see is to prevent women from claiming assets should the marriage end. It boils down to young Muslims opting to live as cohabitees (but with the Islamic blessing to comply with religious obligations) so they can safeguard their financial interests.

And while in most cases it is men and their families pressurising women to accept this arrangement, I know of successful professional Muslim women who have married men earning less than them and who have also preferred this set-up. In many ways this is no different to the average cohabiting couple in Britain today that chooses to live together without formalising their arrangement through marriage – so that if they break up, it’s not expensive.

However, when such unions, whether Muslim or not, do break down, it is mostly women that face financial hardship. So it is time the law was reformed in England and Wales to remedy the injustice faced by cohabiting women of all backgrounds. Scotland has already provided greater protection to cohabitees in the area of maintenance and property. As for Muslims that want to get married, they should not cherry-pick parts of marriage that benefit them. They should accept their full responsibilities as spouses by also making a legal commitment and registering the marriage.

Campaigns to simply get more Muslims to register their marriages will have a limited impact because they will only speak to those who want to be in legally recognised marriages. Instead we should follow France and make it illegal for anyone to conduct a religious wedding ceremony without a prior civil marriage. Combining such a policy with greater protections for cohabitees would help solve a great number of problems – which are faced by many Muslim and non-Muslim women alike.

Veil Ban in Europe – Gender Equality or Gendered Islamophobia?

July 11th, 2015
Published March 2015
I was asked by the renowned International Georgetown Journal on Inequality to write an article about the face veil ban in Europe. In my contribution I examined the reasons routinely provided to justify face veil restrictions.  I questioned whether the motivations were genuine and whether Muslim women were denied procedural fairness during the process leading to legislation and whether any legitimate  concerns could be addressed without legislation.

Satirical Cartoons on Issues Facing Muslim Women and Girls

December 27th, 2014

I had this series of cartoons produced to challenge attitudes regarding the treatment of Muslim women and girls.  These were produced by a Muslim female illustrator Zaufishan, however I own the copyright to the cartoons. So if republished and shared, please acknowledge!

Inside Muslim Minds

Women are allowed in Mosques!

No, Men Can’t Beat their Wives although some Scholars try to Justify it

So Men think it is Women that belong in Hell fire….

So Women are not Allowed to be Leaders…..

My Body, My Dress and My Choice

What is Equality?

Child Marriage is Child Sexual Abuse

Sex Education Muslim Style

Patriarchy Competition

The Struggles of Lesbian Muslim Women

May 24th, 2014

Published on the Channel 4 website to go with their short documnentary  here on 24th May 2014

Muslim Women’s Network UK has always engaged with Muslim lesbians and included them in its membership.   However, most Muslims will argue that it is not possible to be gay and Muslim because homosexuality is against Islam.  Such attitudes ignore the Quran’s spirit of mercy and justice. There was more tolerance to homosexuals in Islamic history than there is now because they were not cast out of the folds of Islam.

Muslim lesbians are diverse in their dress and religiosity.  Some wear Western clothes and don’t cover their heads, while others wear the hijab, jilbab and even veil their faces.  I have met Muslim lesbians who are more steadfast in their 5 daily prayers than ‘straight’ Muslim women. If having their faith attacked is not bad enough, there is the added trauma of repercussions from families. Muslim lesbians have been beaten, forced into marriage or disowned.  Until mindsets change within Muslim communities gay Muslims will continue to live in turmoil, leading double lives just to please their families.

Muslim Women Can Help Stop Youth From Going to Syria

April 24th, 2014

I haven’t spoken on the issue of ‘preventing violent extremism‘ for a number of years. I became disengaged because I was not happy about the way in which government officials sometimes handle this issue. However, I have decided to break my silence after seeing media reports of British Muslims who have either moved to Syria to join the anti-Assad rebels, have got killed in Syria or have been arrested on their return to the UK. I feel it is important to raise awareness about the dangers of getting involved in the conflict and Muslim women can play a key role in helping to safeguard young people. I am supporting the national police campaign today and will speaking at the event organised by West Midlands Police. I will be urging Muslim women in Birmingham and also members of the Muslim Women’s Network UK to spread the message that anyone who wants to help the Syrian cause needs to ensure they are doing this safely and legally. This issue is very relevant locally – since January a number of people have been arrested in Birmingham and are currently awaiting trial.

Suffering of Muslims overseas has always been a powerful recruitment tool. Graphic images of civilians being killed will make people emotional and angry. We all get angry and upset over the Syria crisis but most of us will not be consumed by it and continue with our daily routines. Unfortunately there are individuals out there who will exploit these emotions by trying to get some youth to become preoccupied with the Syrian conflict. This will make them more susceptible to radical ideas, which could include getting involved in violence and other activities to support opposition groups.

However, some British Muslims may think there is nothing wrong or illegal about going to Syria to fight because they are opposing Bashar Al Assad. They may think ‘well we can’t get into trouble for this because we are on the same side as the British government.’ Our government’s inconsistency over being prepared to join the war against Assad and therefore siding with the ‘rebel’ fighters one minute and then calling them extremists the next, is no doubt causing confusion. The government needs to explain this and so far have failed to do so.

I do believe most people going out to Syria are doing so for charitable purposes, either to deliver aid or to do humanitarian work. However, conflict zones are dangerous places. Even if people manage to keep safe, emotions will run high after witnessing human suffering. Extremist groups operating in Syria will be ready to exploit this vulnerability to get people to join as combatants. Young women can also be manipulated and recruited to these groups in supportive roles such as transporting food, cooking, medical care of the wounded, fund raising and to pray for the fighters. Women may also be encouraged to marry fighters and by glorifying this role of wife. They may be told that it is honourable, and a privilege to be married to a man who will be a martyr.

Leaving these groups will not be easy because they will escalate involvement to make new recruits think they are in too deep to break away. Another commonly used tool to maintain loyalty involves getting members to take a pledge of obedience in the name of God. This tactic makes members believe that disobeying orders or leaving the group amounts to committing a grave sin.

So what can Muslim women do to stop young Muslims from going abroad and getting involved in the Syria conflict? Well women can be the first to see behavioural changes amongst family members including a preoccupation with the Syria crisis. They can warn of the dangers of going to Syria including tactics used to recruit and how even helping with humanitarian work can result in being drawn into activities that could be considered illegal under British law. These conversations can be essential in the early prevention process. Women can also help manage the emotions of young people by directing them to channel their energies in supporting established and recognized charities with their work. Many individuals are now fund raising for Syria. Although their efforts may be well intentioned, there is no way of really knowing where this money will end up. Only donating to internationally renowned charities already operating in Syria, such as Islamic Relief, should be encouraged. Humanitarian efforts should also be left to these charities, which are experts in operating in conflict regions.

Summer holidays are approaching and some students may be thinking of going to Syria to try and help out while others may be going to seek adventure so they can return to college or university to boast about their experiences. Whatever the reasons, they could end up getting killed or find themselves on the wrong side of the law when they return home. So now is the right time to start having these conversations.

Many British families are oblivious to would-be jihadists.

April 24th, 2014

Published in the Telegraph here

I am supporting the national police campaign, launched on Thursday, which calls on women to stop loved ones heading to Syria. Today, I am speaking to members of the community – families and women – at an event organised by the West Midlands Police to raise awareness about the dangers of getting involved in the conflict and highlight how Muslim women can play a key role in helping to safeguard young people.

This issue is very relevant where I live – since January, five people have been arrested in Birmingham because of their involvement in Syria and are currently awaiting trial.Muslim women in Birmingham must spread the message that anyone who wants to help the Syrian cause must make sure they are doing so safely and legally.The suffering of Muslims overseas has always been a powerful recruitment tool. Graphic images of civilians being killed will no doubt make people back in the UK emotional and angry. Unfortunately, however, some individuals are using these stories to exploit these emotions, by trying to get some young people in Britain to become preoccupied with the Syrian conflict. This makes them more susceptible to radical ideas, which could include getting involved in violence and other activities to support opposition groups to the Syrian regime.

Some British Muslims may think there is nothing wrong or illegal about going to Syria to fight, because they are opposing Bashar Al Assad. They may think that they cannot get into trouble because they are on the same side as the British government.On the other hand, I believe that most young Britons going out to Syria are doing so for charitable purposes, either to deliver aid or to do humanitarian work. Even so, conflict zones are dangerous places. Even if people manage to keep safe, emotions will run high after witnessing human suffering. You can only imagine the thoughts and feelings they might experience if they saw innocent women and children getting killed.Extremist groups operating in Syria will be ready to exploit this vulnerability to get people to join as combatants. They may start out with innocent intentions to offer aid, but get caught up in the conflict once they are out there.

It’s important to note that young women can also be manipulated and recruited to these groups in supportive roles, such as transporting food, cooking, medical care of the wounded, fund raising and to pray for the fighters. Women may also be encouraged to marry fighters, glorifying the role of the wife. They may be told that it is honourable, and a privilege to be married to a man who will be a martyr.

Leaving these groups will not be easy because extremist organisations will make new recruits think they are in too deep to break away. Another commonly used tool to maintain loyalty involves getting members to take a pledge of obedience in the name of God. This tactic makes members believe that disobeying orders or leaving the group amounts to committing a grave sin.

So what can Muslim women say to loved ones?
A lot of families in communities are oblivious to this, or to their loved ones thinking about going overseas. But, mothers, sisters and girlfriends can often be the first to see behavioural changes among family members, including a preoccupation with the Syria crisis.

Women can warn their brothers, sons and husbands of the dangers of going to Syria, including the tactics used to recruit fighters and how even helping with humanitarian work can result in being drawn into activities that could be considered illegal under British law. Having these conversations early on can be essential in the prevention process.

The summer holidays are approaching and some students may be thinking of going to Syria to try and help out. Sadly, others may be going to seek adventure so that they can return to college or university to boast about their experiences. Whatever the reasons, they could end up getting killed or find themselves on the wrong side of the law when they return home. So now is the right time to start having these conversations. All young people may not listen, but it’s worth trying as it can result in a life-changing decision.

Women can also help manage young people’s emotions by directing them to channel their energies in supporting established and recognised charities with their work – rather than taking it upon themselves to fund-raise. Eighty per cent of the £25m raised so far for the Syrian conflict, through established charities, has reached people in Syria.

Many individuals are now fund raising for Syria. Although their efforts may be well intentioned, there is no way of really knowing where this money will end up. Only donating to internationally renowned charities already operating in Syria, such as Islamic Relief, should be encouraged. Humanitarian efforts should also be left to these charities, members of which are experts in operating in conflict regions.

Several reports in recent weeks have told of British Muslims who have either moved to Syria to join the anti-Assad rebels, have got killed in Syria, or have been arrested on their return to the UK. Let’s try to prevent young British Muslims getting caught up in the conflict in the first place.

Women, your country needs you.

Feminism is the light in the darkness of patriarchy – Quotes by Shaista Gohir

January 11th, 2014

General

Our beliefs and principles are what define us. Never give them up for anyone! – Shaista Gohir

Feminism


Feminism is the light in the darkness of patriarchy – Shaista Gohir

Islamic feminism is not about changing God’s words but about bringing attention to them – Shaista Gohir

Muslim women have the right to evaluate what they are told – we have been in the darkness about our rights for too long – Shaista Gohir

Islamic feminism is needed because Muslim societies expect women to take responsibility for men’s desires – Shaista Gohir

Women’s Power

Women have the power to control the world from the outside with their votes & purchasing power – Shaista Gohir

The next emerging powerful emerging economy is not a country but women – Shaista Gohir

Women must not be scared of men’s ‘war of words’ – Shaista Gohir

Religion


I will hold on to the rope of Allah while others hold on to the robes of clerics – Shaista Gohir

Men  play God with women’s lives without any fear from the Almighty and hold us hostage to their version of Islam – Shaista Gohir

No matter how respected scholars are from past to present, their words are not protected from error; they are only telling us what they think God means –  Shaista Gohir

Because of the anti-women narrations it contains, the hadith has become a manual for the enslavement of women – Shaista Gohir

Reviewing religious texts does not mean changing text, it means reviewing our understanding of it – Shaista Gohir

Women have every right to carry out our own rational investigation of religious sources – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – Shaista Gohir

Religious clerics create fear, men exploit fear but women should only fear Allah – Shaista Gohir

Empowerment


Men want to keep us powerless and voiceless so we do not challenge them and it is really up to us to change it that – Shaista Gohir

Muslim communities and societies will not prosper until they give women their dignity – Shaista Gohir

Women will need to challenge the status quo  and push boundaries, if they want a better future for their daughters and future generations of women – Shaista Gohir

When you are caught in a patriarchal system of lies – it takes courage to tell the truth but also to accept the truth – Shaista Gohir

Should full-face veils be banned in some public places?

September 16th, 2013

Published on BBC website here

Women and girls should not be pressured to conform – it’s important they make autonomous choices about their lives and their bodies including what to wear and not wear. For this reason I oppose a complete ban of the face veil.

However, there are circumstances where the face should be seen – for example, pupils and teachers in schools, and in the courtroom when giving a testimony or being questioned. Communication without any barriers is paramount in these situations. Also it is important to show one’s face to verify identity for security reasons.

The vast majority of the 1.4 million Muslim women in Britain do not even wear the face veil, as it is not considered a religious obligation. The tiny minority that do are probably happy to remove the veil when required.

It is unfortunate that sometimes the odd Muslim woman is unreasonable and refuses to remove it. Such attitudes are contributing towards portraying their own faith negatively – Islam is not rigid and is flexible.

I wonder if their stance is really about religious freedom, or about making a political statement? The debate has now become so polarised that those people who didn’t care what Muslim women wore are now turning against the veil.