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.

Paedophiles exist in every community

September 16th, 2013

Published on Open Democracy here on 16th September 2013

Racial stereotyping puts children at risk. The greatest threat to children of any culture, race or faith is familial child sex abuse.

I am the Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK, which is the only national Muslim women’s organisation in Britain. We have a membership of 500 with a collective reach of tens of thousands of women across the UK.  Through our network, we gather and share information relevant to the lives of Muslim women and girls.  While media and public attention focused on White British female victims of sexual abuse, our members raised concerns that Asian and Muslim girls were also being sexually abused — within the family and by other men unconnected to the family including groups of men. They felt no one was talking about them because there was an assumption that Muslim girls are safe from sexual abuse because they are confined to the home with little or no interaction with men.  We decided to investigate the matter and managed to collect 35 case studies over 5 months. Most were collected from either Black Ethnic Minority third sector organisations or from friends and relatives of victims.

Last week Muslim Women’s Network UK launched Unheard Voices: Sexual Exploitation of Asian Girls and Young Women. Our report challenges the stereotype that Asian offenders target White girls only. The majority of the victims in our study were of Pakistani Muslim background. They were tortured, raped and trafficked by men from their own communities. I wonder what the EDL, BNP and the Sikh Awareness Society will say now? They have all been very confidently claiming that Pakistani Muslim men are deliberately targeting White girls and Sikh girls because they are of a different ethnicity and faith.

Our research reinforces the evidence that girls and women are most at risk of being sexually exploited by men from their own backgrounds. We already know that the majority of victims and offenders are White.  In the study, the vast majority of perpetrators were men of the same ethnicity and faith as the victims. Two thirds of the victims were of Pakistani background and in most of these cases the offenders were also Pakistani. When victims were Bangladeshi, the offenders tended to also be Bangladeshi. Other offenders included Afghani, Indian (Sikh and Hindu) and White men (including mixed heritage). In the few exceptions where the sub ethnic group varied, there was a shared heritage between victim and offender such as being ‘Asian’ or having the same faith. Paedophiles are therefore not only targeting the most vulnerable but also the most accessible girls.

If an investigation were conducted of the sexual exploitation of girls from different backgrounds e.g. Black Afro Caribbean, Chinese, Eastern European etc., most perpetrators are therefore likely to be from their own backgrounds. However, there is a tendency to talk about one type of offender / victim model, that of Pakistani men grooming White girls. Those who portray sexual exploitation as a ‘Pakistani only’ problem can only be interested in furthering their own agendas. They don’t really care about the sexual abuse of girls.  If they did, then they would criticize all offenders with equal vigor regardless of background.  If they really cared they would speak out against all forms of sexual abuse whether carried out by individuals, online, within families, in religious institutions or by groups – not just focus on sexual exploitation by gangs and groups by one ethnic group.

Claiming the moral high ground is not only unhelpful but also dangerous: it is resulting in both victims and offenders being missed.  Some sections of the media, some politicians and right wing groups such as the EDL and BNP portray sexual exploitation as an ‘Asian or Muslim only’ problem. Meanwhile the Indian Sikh and Hindu communities challenge the Asian label and claim it’s a Muslim problem.

There are divisions within the Muslim communities too. Some Bangladeshis will tell you, it’s not all Muslims – it’s the Pakistani Muslims. For example, Bangladeshi imam, Ajmal Masroor wrote an article about Pakistani grooming gangs, Sex Grooming – Who Is Responsible for It? It was clear from his piece that he did not think Bangladeshi men were involved in group exploitation and at worst held only negative views about girls.

The Unheard Voices report highlights case studies involving Bangladeshi victims who were sexually abused and passed around by Bangladeshi men.  The report also highlights the story of an 11-year-old White girl passed around and raped by Bangladeshi men (which is not included in the 35 case studies but mentioned in the body of the report). During the research, we were told about many other cases involving Bangladeshi victims and male offenders — we did not have the capacity to collect all the stories.

Many in Sikh communities believe that Pakistanis pose the biggest threat to the safety of Sikh girls.  According to them ‘grooming Sikh gangs do not exist because no such cases have been highlighted.’ I am not doubting their claim that some Pakistanis are targeting Sikh girls, I know they are.  But to claim that Sikhs do not sexually abuse girls is absurd.  I wonder if anyone is bothering to look for them? Probably not — it would undermine the popularized stereotype that Sikh girls are only being sexually exploited by Muslim men.  Since the launch of the report one Indian girl said: “I remember Sikh men passing girls around 20 years ago but no one wants to talk about them.”

It is all very well trying to protect Sikh girls from Pakistani men but who is protecting them from men in their own communities? There is an obsession with group sexual exploitation and a blindness to other forms of sexual abuse. It is a well-known fact that most sexual assaults are by offenders known to the victim.  The greatest threat to children (girls and boys) of any culture, race or faith is familial child sex abuse. It is therefore very worrying that some people are only concerned about paedophiles from outside of their backgrounds.  This sends the message that sexual abuse by one of your ‘own’ is considered a lesser crime and viewed as more acceptable.  Such attitudes will allow men to continue operating with impunity further fueling sexual violence against girls and women.

The reason often given for focusing on Pakistani men has been that they are over-represented in the group exploitation networks in cases that have come to light. This may well be true judging from the many arrests over recent months and those already prosecuted.  However, is this because of a unique factor related to their background? Or because police are now looking out for them due to the media attention they have received? Either way, this should not absolve any community from the responsibility of addressing the involvement of their own. We all have a responsibility to address sexual exploitation. That is why as a British Pakistani, I have not been afraid to ‘wash our dirty laundry’ in public.  I carried out the research knowing that our greater reach into Pakistani communities would mean uncovering more case studies involving Pakistani victims and offenders putting them back in the spotlight.  It is time everyone prioritised the safeguarding of children over the so-called reputation or honour of one’s community and carried out similar investigations.

Muslim Women’s Dress: Let’s use common sense and proportion

September 16th, 2013

Published on MSN News website on 16th September 2o13

I welcome the judge’s decision today – the Muslim woman who refused to remove her face veil in court can stand trial in her veil but must remove it to give evidence.  He will allow her to be screened from public view but she has to be seen by judge, jury and lawyers.  I believe this is a very reasonable common sense approach.

Although I vociferously oppose a ban on the face veil, I believe there are particular circumstances in which it is necessary to show one’s face.  Giving evidence in a courtroom would be of those situations.  Studies show that much of communication is nonverbal. That means it’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it.  When being questioned in court the face therefore becomes an essential part of the communication process and should be seen to ensure justice is done.  This is not just about making an assessment on the truthfulness of an individual but also for their protection. For example, it would be important to know if the person being questioned is getting upset or being put under unfair duress.

Jeremy Browne MP has called for a national debate on face veils and wants them banned in schools and public places.  We do not need a national debate on such a minor phenomenon.  Let’s put things into perspective.  The Muslim population in Britain is 2.8 million and there are about 1.4 million Muslim women, the overwhelming majority of who do not wear the face veil.  No one has carried out any research on how many actually wear it and the figure could vary between a few hundred to perhaps a couple of thousand. So any kind of ban would be a disproportionate response to this issue.

Although I agree that girls in school should not be wearing the face veil because it would interfere with learning, I am concerned about the timing of Jeremy Browne’s comments and for wanting to see a ban in all public places.  Is this really about political point scoring? Muslim women’s dress is often used for that.  I question whether such rhetoric is really about the protection of Muslim girls and women as he claims. In fact, they are facing unprecedented levels of discrimination and hostility, which includes verbal abuse and physical assaults. I don’t hear politicians rushing to their defense when this happens.  It feels like that there are people who simply don’t like the look of the face veil, and finding excuses to ban it.  I am a Muslim woman and I don’t like the face veil either but that is not a good enough reason to ban it.