Archive for the ‘women’ Category

Divine will of God or just men’s opinions?

Monday, December 26th, 2011

My Youtube talk exploring strategies used by some scholars to control Muslim minds so they can condition people in accepting patriarchal and conservative interpretations of Islam.

You can view other videos on my Youtube channel here

Feminism – is it Islamic and do we need it?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

My Youtube talk on feminism and also specifically on Islamic feminism:

I explain why those holding conservative and traditional views about Islam feel threatened by feminism and therefore try to portray it negatively and criticise it.  I also explain how Islamic feminism is about bringing attention to God’s words and not changing them and therefore challenging patriarchal interpretations of Islam instead of continuing to be held hostage to them.

You can view other videos on my Youtube channel here

Banning and burning burqas is not the way forward

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Hamra alam at LFW Feb 2011 @ strand palace Hotel.
Photo taken by Yarik Baranik

What on earth has got into Dr. Taj Hargey, imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation and the Chairman of Muslim Education Centre of Oxford? I could not believe my eyes when a received an email about their ‘burqa banning celebration’ event which included burning of the garments. It was held on Saturday evening in support of the French laws banning face coverings that came into force yesterday. Although I disagree with face veiling, I do not support his response. One cannot claim to protect the rights of women and then dictate their dress. To ban clothing is just as appalling as it is to force the wearing of it.

Also, anyone burning a symbol cherished by another group or population whether that is, religious books, flags or even clothing is deliberately being provocative, as Pastor Terry Jones was by burning the Quran. Offensive tactics are not going to curb the minor phenomenon of veiling. In fact, igniting burqas, is likely to have the opposite effect – historically when any group feels threatened, it reacts by defending its culture or faith, becoming more attached to it.

Hargey is no stranger to controversy as he openly performs marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men and has invited females from abroad to lead a mixed congregation in prayer. I respect his courage to challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam, but these latest actions make no sense. While I agree with freedom of speech, these rights should be exercised responsibly.

The current environment is already very hostile towards Muslim women; their bodies are serving as a battleground for every debate. Hargey’s stunt is likely to further intensify these debates. Muslim women are under intense pressure to conform rather than make autonomous choices about their lives. Their attire is given disproportionate level of attention. Mainstream society views the various forms of Islamic dress as a threat to Western culture while increasingly religious Muslim communities are maintaining tradition by advocating the headscarf and face veil. So Muslim women are either, not integrated enough, or not Muslim enough. They are being viewed as one monolithic group by all sides; their diversity and the way they want to practice their faith is being ignored.

Like many others, Hargey also appears misinformed about the reasons behind why women veil. In the statement he sent out, he only mentions women who have been convinced that it is a religious necessity. However, the reasons why some women adopt the covering vary widely. Some feel it is a religious obligation while others admit it isn’t but want to take an extra step to feel closer to God. There are those who want to make a political statement or do it for reasons of fashion or culture or are simply going through a fad. And yes, there is a minority who are forced or coerced into covering. Many have told me they feel liberated in the veil. I can’t see how it is liberating, but that does not matter. It does not matter that some people find it intimidating and frightening because of its unfamiliarity, as my eight years old daughter, once described in her blog. None are sufficient reasons to justify banning it or burning it, activities that are only fueling tensions in society. What right do any of us have to tell those women, who are choosing the niqab out of their own free will, not to wear it?

The way forward is to address this topic within Muslim communities and engage directly with Muslim women. The debate should include the negative impact of particular types of dress on Muslim communities living in the West and the importance of women’s involvement in every sphere of British society and how the veil prevents participation. Women need to be made aware of the economic impact on their lives of not being able to access the job market. As youth are very impressionable, it is important to expose Muslim girls to a range of interpretations on dress so they are able to make informed choices. That is why I condemn the three independent Islamic schools that have a uniform policy that forces girls to wear the face veil to and from school – they are being held hostage to one interpretation on Islamic dress codes.

Muslim girls and women should have the right to make choices about their bodies, no matter how controversial that may appear to others – whether this is to cover the face or have a bare head. I receive emails sometimes criticising me for not wearing a headscarf – I am accused of being a bad Muslim or not one at all! It is interesting to note that it tends to be mainly men, whether in the Muslim world or the West, telling women how to dress. No one, whether it is politicians or religious clergy have the right to tell us women what to wear or what not to wear – it is our body and should be our choice.

Unveiled: Britain’s most feminist Muslim

Monday, March 21st, 2011

I was featured in the Times newspaper on 21st March 2011.

Women Must be Leaders in Faith

Monday, June 14th, 2010

(Published in Guardian  (Comment is Free) here

A woman led Muslim prayers in Oxford last week. Her actions and those of others like her, across faiths, deserve our support.

Only Muslim women from abroad dare lead men in Friday prayers in the UK. Canadian, Raheel Raza, became the second Muslim woman to do so at the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford last week. African American convert, Amina Wadud, was the first Muslim woman to lead mixed prayers at the same centre in 2008. It’s not surprising that British Muslim women are not brave enough to follow their footsteps – both have been demonised, labelled as heretics and have received death threats after leading men in prayers in their own countries.Why is the idea of female imams so controversial amongst Muslims? When Amina Wadud initially shocked the world in 2005 by leading mixed-gender Friday prayers in New York, I must admit even I felt uncomfortable. I had been brought up to believe only men could be imams, something I never questioned up until recently.

An honest study of Islamic texts reveals that women are not forbidden to lead men in prayer – the Quran does not even address this issue. In fact the conditions required are Islamic knowledge, skill and piety – none of which are gender related. However, the mostly male scholars, fanatically maintain there is consensus on the impermissibility of women leading men in prayer despite lack of evidence to substantiate their position. In fact this issue is not even open to debate, yet centuries ago it was discussed without controversy and diversity of opinion was respected. According to female scholar, Halima Krausen, a number of male scholars such as Abu Thawr al-Kalbi, Abu Isma’il al-Muzani, al-Isfahani, at-Tabari and Taymiyya, had nothing against women leading mixed prayers. Also one woman, Umm Waraqa is known to have led men in prayers in her household during the time of Prophet Mohammed.

Male clergy often cite questionable hadiths or take them out of context to criticise women such as Wadud. However their main argument is about women’s bodily movements arousing desires in men. Are men really so weak that they can’t keep their eyes off a fully covered woman’s posterior during prayer? I believe men have invented arguments about their sexual excitement – it is only their ego that prevents them from praying behind a woman.

Popular notions of sexuality casting women as temptresses and men as weak and dominated by sexual urges must be challenged. The Quran does not even remotely suggest that men are sexually more excitable than women. In fact I have discovered the following hadith which is conveniently ignored: “God has created the sexual desire in ten parts and he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The same narration goes on to say, of shyness, women have been given nine parts of that too. So if women can control all nine parts of their desire when men are bending in front of them, sometimes wearing the tightest of jeans, it’s about time men took responsibility for their own urges too, and not hold women responsible.

Despite these powerful arguments supporting the permissibility of women leading mixed congregation prayers, I doubt this practice will become widespread in the near future as religious institutions are controlled by men. Also most Muslim women are more concerned about fighting for equality on basic grounds such as education and economic empowerment. I don’t think leading prayers is a battle that most are ready to fight, even if they believe in it. At least Wadud and Raza are paving the way for more female imams to come forward to lead other women in prayer. Last year Hawaria Fattah became the first female imam in Europe after being recruited to a mosque in Belgium which is a pioneering appointment even though she only works with Muslim women.

Restricting women’s role in religious structures and practices is not exclusive to Islam. Historically all the world’s major religions have been instrumental in doing this. For example, the first female rabbi worldwide was Regina Jonas, who was only ordained privately in 1935 in Berlin. Then it was not until 1972 when the next one, Sally Priesand was ordained by a reform movement in the US. Since then, all branches of Judaism, except the Orthodox, have found a way to ordain women. However there are still other barriers to overcome – Jewish women are still forbidden from wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (leather box with straps that Jewish men wrap around their arms during prayers) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Recently a Jewish woman, Noa Raz was physically attacked by a man after he noticed her arm bore the imprints of tefillin straps.

Female priests may have been ordained in various branches of Christianity. However its largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently refused to ordain women and those ordained unofficially are often excommunicated. This status quo continues to be challenged – last week a group marched to St Peter’s Square demanding a debate on this issue. Opening the doors to priesthood would mean women could ascend to the papacy – and perhaps the possibility of a future female pope is too much for the Catholic Church.

Women are suffering the consequences of oppressive misinterpretations of religious texts in all faiths. Its time more women question their legitimacy and no topic should be out of bounds for discussion including women religious leaders. Women wanting to break down the last barriers to female participation, sends an unequivocal message about equality.

Muslim Women are not political pawns

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Published in Guardian (Comment is Free) here

The National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group was little more than a tick-box exercise, which is why I had to resign

This week, I resigned from the government’s National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG), which was launched by the prime minister more than two years ago. We were supposed to influence policies by advising on empowering Muslim women; on issues affecting them; and on their role in preventing violent extremism. We did very little of this and instead were side-tracked into overseeing the delivery of projects, which was not our job. Whenever I raised concerns, my views were ignored by both the group and government.

My frustration turned to anger in recent weeks when NMWAG suddenly took steps to be more visible and active after a long period of inactivity. I felt that this move was linked to concerns over a new government disbanding the group due to its lack of impact. I felt extremely uncomfortable about the timing of this renewed interest to empower Muslim women.

I felt that I could no longer remain on NMWAG as a matter of principle. It was not an easy decision because I knew my resignation could mean my links to government being severed and damage my relationship with individuals on the group. However, I was compelled to stand up for what I believed in and sent a letter to the current minister for communities and local government, John Denham stating the reasons for my departure. My criticism was directed at NMWAG as an institution and at government policy rather than the individual women on the group. There will be relief that my dissenting voice will no longer pose a problem. However, the messages of support that have poured in since my resignation should tell the group it lacks credibility.

By creating a structure that served no purpose, except contributing towards a political agenda, the government have missed an opportunity to empower Muslim women which could have contributed to Gordon Brown’s election pledge on strengthening fairness in communities. Muslim women are one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, suffering the highest levels of economic inactivity, worst health and discrimination on multiple fronts. We were never consulted on these issues. I urge the future government to explore ways of genuinely consulting the wide array of women’s organisations and community activists through credible mechanisms and not restricting engagement through a particular group.

After initial interest in the group, the subsequent lack of enthusiasm should not have been a surprise. The government has always employed a strategy of elevating a Muslim organisation before replacing it with another and NMWAG suffered the same fate too. The government diverted its attention towards the Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG), which they launched a year after NMWAG. They were provided resources for a website, a national conference and will be launching a magazine. NMWAG was never promoted in this way.

The failure of this initiative highlights that the government is not serious about the role of women in influencing public policy. For example, initiatives are often launched to encourage women into public life, but are not matched with resources to support them. Women’s empowerment ends up becoming a tick-box exercise.

If NMWAG survives, mechanisms are needed to ensure that members are replaced, allowing an influx of other knowledgeable and talented women to constantly increase the diversity of women being engaged with. However, empowerment means giving away power, which may be difficult to let go when one has access to the corridors of power. It may not matter anyway because if David Cameron wins the election he has promised to reduce the number of quangos, so the writing could be on the wall for NMWAG.