Archive for September, 2011

Muslim women finding empowerment despite the hostility after 9/11

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

As we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, it is also an ideal time to take stock of how this tragedy has impacted on the lives of Muslim women in Britain during the last decade. The events of 9/11 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.

One unintended legacy of 9/11 and the London bombings has been a dramatic rise in the number of Muslim women wearing the headscarf and a minority adopting the face veil. This phenomenon is not surprising because when any population feels threatened, it reacts by defending its culture or faith, becoming more attached to it. By assuming a public Islamic identity, Muslim women suddenly became more visible. However, this visibility also made them easy targets of discrimination because their faith was constantly being associated with extremism and terrorism – even though Muslim women are law-abiding citizens.

Muslim women are now under intense pressure to conform rather than make autonomous choices about their lives and their bodies. Mainstream society uses their dress to highlight they are not integrated enough while increasingly religious sections of Muslim communities accuse women of not being Muslim enough if they do not wear the various forms of Islamic dress. All sides are victimizing them, and this negativity is manifesting itself in the form of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Muslim women are being viewed as one monolithic group – their diverse cultures, ethnicities, dress and the way they want to practice their faith is being ignored.

This obsession of what Muslim women wear needs to stop – the vast majority of the 1 million Muslim women in Britain, do not even wear the face veil. Why is attention not being given to those Muslim women who are participating in a range of professions and various aspects of British life? There are Muslim female policewomen, magistrates, lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers etc. I wonder how many people know that Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive of the MITIE Group PLC, is the first and only Muslim woman to run a FTSE 250 company. Then there is Salma Bi who works as a nurse and plays for Worcestershire Women’s Cricket Team and also teenage golfer Sahra khan who represents Wales and Britain in international tournaments. Another successful woman is London based Zaha Hadid. She is a globally renowned architect who has won a plethora of awards, including the Pritzker Prize, becoming the first woman to be given this award. Many such female role models have been highlighted on the Big Sister website to raise the aspiration of young Muslim girls. Such achievements should be applauded instead of constantly complaining about the face veil.

These accomplishments show that despite all the barriers, it is still empowering to be a Muslim woman in Britain today – it would be much harder to be socially and politically active and take up leadership roles anywhere else in the world. Last year Muslim women even made history – one made it into the cabinet (Sayeeda Warsi) and three were elected as MPs (Shabana Mahmood, Rushanara Ali, Yasmin Qureshi).There is also a steadily growing band of women who are reacting against what is happening in their communities. So one advantage of Muslim women becoming more conscious of their religion has been better knowledge of their Islamic rights and interpreting faith for themselves. Activists are now using Islam as a tool to challenge culture and patriarchal interpretations of religious texts.

A British Muslim women’s movement has emerged spearheaded by the Muslim Women’s Network UK. Muslim women may be trying to stamp out inequalities within their communities, but they need to have equal life chances in mainstream society too. They are still one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, disproportionately experiencing adverse socio-economic conditions such as high unemployment rates; low academic achievement; experiencing mental health problems; and having the poorest general health. Within their communities they experience further inequality due to culture and sexist interpretations of their faith – examples of abuse encountered include: forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour based violence, polygamy, domestic violence and isolation.

When they are given the opportunity, Muslim women are integrating, participating in civic, economic and social life while raising children who are productive members of society. In the last decade, Muslim women may have developed their religious identity, but it is now time to strengthen their national identity. Tackling poverty, discrimination and high unemployment rates as well as providing them with information about their rights is the way forward now.

Parents becoming complicit in the sexualisation of children

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

Last week, four-year-old Maddy Jackson appeared on the US reality show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ wearing a padded bra. Her mother also gave her a padded bottom and made her don a peroxide wig in an attempt to make her look like Dolly Parton. I am disgusted by this mother – the lengths that some people go to for a few minutes of fame has really hit an all time low. Where is Maddy’s father – why is he not stopping this?

I am disturbed by some mothers in Britain too – the one who gives her 4 year old a spray tan, the one who teaches her 7 year old pole dancing and the one who injects her 8 year old with botox. And these are the cases that we know about through media. I wonder how many more parents are encouraging their little girls to grow up too quickly. Television, magazines, music and clothing are already sexualising children, so when mothers start joining in, then things have just gone too far!

At the other end of the spectrum, I am also troubled by a minority of conservative Muslim parents who are making girls as young as three, four and five wear hijabs (headscarves) despite it not being a religious obligation for them. It may be unintentional, but they are also sexualizing their children because the purpose of the hijab is to prevent unwanted male sexual attention. By wrapping little girls in headscarves they are being treated as sex objects, who apparently need to be covered up. A healthy balance can be struck on children’s appearance without going to such extremes.

Many of us would be critical of the parents mentioned so far. But how many of us are also sending the wrong messages to our children through inappropriate choices that we are making unconsciously. I blame the mothers because women are making majority of the purchasing decisions. They are buying high-heeled shoes, provocative underwear and sexy clothing. Kids wear adorned with slogans that are sexist or have sexual innuendoes are also regularly being bought. Here are some examples of the types of slogans that have appeared on girl tops: “Future WAG”, “Future Porn Star”, “So Many Boys, So Little Time.” Babies have not been spared from sleaze either and wording has included, “I love boobies” and “Mother Sucker.” A couple of years ago there was outrage in New Zealand when babywear featured, “I’m Living Proof My Mum is Easy”, and “The Condom Broke.” I know sex sells, but this is ridiculous!

Last week, another T-shirt caused controversy for being sexist. It was covered with, “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me.” JC Penney, a national retailer in the US, discontinued the ‘Too pretty’ T-shirt within 24 hours of a petition going viral on social media. However, another T-shirt is still being sold in their stores, which says, “My best subjects are boys, shopping, music and dancing.” When I asked my 9-year-old daughter about her views on these, she said, “boys have superheroes on their clothes who are strong and powerful, why can’t girls be told they have girl power.” She has written a blog titled ‘Pretty Clever’ on the topic. I wanted a male perspective too so I asked my 10-year-old son for his opinion and his response was interesting. He said: “the slogans are unfair on both girls and boys because girls are being told they are dumb and they won’t learn anything while boys have to do double work!”

Some people will view these slogans as harmless humour – but sleazy and demeaning messages are no joke. Not only do they undermine women’s fight for respect and equality, the accumulative effect is damaging. Girls are being prevented from reaching their full potential because they are being conditioned into believing they are not clever and to focus on appearance, boys, and sex. Why are parents buying into these stereotypes? If we don’t stop now, the obsession with looks will lead to problems later such as body image dissatisfaction, wanting plastic surgery, eating disorders, low self esteem and depression. If kids are looking and behaving like mini adults, then they are also more likely to engage in sexual behaviour at an earlier age. It’s no wonder that the US has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world and the UK has the highest rate in Western Europe.

Now that the government is clamping down on retailers, magazines and broadcasters, we should see less sexualized products and imagery. This will mean less pressure by children on parents. However, recommendations in the Bailey Report on the ‘Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood’ are only being enforced through voluntary regulations and not legislation. Major British retailers may have signed up to comply but they will always try and constantly push the boundaries.

The only beneficiaries to the sexulisation of children are the corporations and of course pedophiles – after all, sexualisation, whether through adverts, music or products, is a form of grooming. Parents have been helping the very companies that are profiting from the exploitation of their children by buying from them. If we continue then we will be complicit in the sexualisation of our own children. Let’s stop right now and not rob them of their childhood.