Archive for the ‘women’s rights’ Category

Media scares about ‘sharia marriages’ miss the point

Saturday, 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?

Saturday, 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.

Only Two Saudi Female Olympians but Another Victory Over Hardline Clerics

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Published on Huffington Post (Sports Section) here


As a women’s rights activist, I am really pleased that the London 2012 Olympics will be the first to include female athletes from every competing nation. Brunei and Qatar had previously held out on female inclusion but will now have women representing their countries. This left Saudi Arabia as the lone nation not sending women up until they reversed their decision last week when they announced that Sarah Attar would compete in the 800m race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim in judo.

Although they are only sending two athletes, who actually live outside of the Kingdom, I think this is a very important breakthrough considering Saudi Arabia is one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world. Some critics argue that this decision changes little for women inside the country. I disagree because progress is already underway and women are a part of that change. King Abdullah, who has been the most progressive monarchy so far, has already started planting the seeds of change for his successor to build upon.

Last year the King opened the largest women’s university campus in the world to boost women’s higher education. He has promised to allow women to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections and is permitting women to now work in clothes and cosmetic stores. King Abdullah is even trying to reign in the notorious morality police because the public has openly started to accuse them of being too aggressive and overstepping the mark. So earlier this year, he replaced the head of the ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ with a more moderate cleric. Two months ago, he went even further and dismissed one of his most hardline advisers, Sheikh Abdelmohsen al-Obeikan.

These measured steps cannot be ignored. The control exercised by religious scholars over state matters is slowly being decreased. So the decision to include women in the Saudi Olympics team is another victory over the hardline clerics. Judging from King Abdullah’s recent track record, he may well have wanted women from within the kingdom to participate in the London games contrary to what the clergy wanted, who don’t want women involved in sports at all. They claim it leads to immorality and that excessive movements and jumping may also cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. I have to say these religious scholars seem obsessed with sex – ‘protecting virginity’ tends to be the most commonly used excuse to curb the rights of women and girls. It has even been used to ban women from driving. So under the circumstances perhaps the best compromise for now was sending two sportswomen who lived outside the kingdom.

I know the rate of progress is frustratingly slow but a gradual approach is more likely to achieve women’s rights that are sustainable. We must remember that the monarch is fighting a constant ‘tug of war’ with the religious establishment who impose strict gender segregation and prohibit women from doing most things, unless they are granted permission by a male relative, such as husband, father, or son etc. They are very influential in Saudi Arabia and if the pace of change is too rapid, the public will probably side with the clergy.

With regards to sports, Saudi Arabia will be making history by sending a mixed gender Olympics team. They have set a precedent now – it will be hard to reverse this commitment in four years time. This decision now paves the way for women activists to demand internal policy changes, enactment of laws and provision to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within and outside the kingdom. Currently they have little opportunity to get involved in sports because physical education is not allowed in girl’s schools and there are no sports facilities for women. Also, most of the 150 or so sports clubs that are officially registered with government do not allow females into their sports grounds. So for these Olympic games, there may not have been females inside Saudi Arabia at the appropriate standard to participate anyway. However, there will be no excuses next time – they have plenty of time to train Saudi women for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Where Is the Justice for Afghan Women After Spending $60-Billion in Civilian Aid?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Published on Huffington Post (World Section) here

When I saw the horrifying footage of 22-year-old Najiba being publicly executed the first thought that came to my mind was, are Afghan women and girls ever going to get justice? Clearly not, considering the lack of interest shown by the Afghanistan government in women’s rights. The majority of men who have beaten, raped and killed women go unpunished. In April, Young Women for Change defied safety fears and came out in a public protest to highlight these cases. However, no government official could be bothered to come out and listen to their concerns. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider what the Minster of Justice thinks about vulnerable women. Last month Habibullah Ghaleb claimed those living in women’s shelters are prostitutes. Despite calls from women’s NGOs, President Karzai has refused to fire the minister.

There should be zero tolerance of such attitudes amongst decision makers, particularly if they are in charge of spending budgets on improving the rights of women. Donor countries had the perfect opportunity to intervene. They had every right to demand the removal of Ghaleb. The U.S. alone is spending $110 million annually on the Afghan judicial system and this minister is making decisions on how some of these funds are used, which includes improving women’s access to justice. When he has shown he cannot be objective about women, why have all aid donors accepted that Ghaleb remains in charge of how their money is spent?

Despite such vast sums going into the judiciary, the rights of Afghan girls and woman continue to be abused both in national and local courts. Most are unaware of their legal rights and lack support to defend their rights through the judicial system. So what on earth is the money being spent on? The fact that the Taliban had the audacity to carry out Najiba’s execution so publicly (with 150 or so men watching) and only a few miles from the capital city of Kabul shows lack of government control. It raises the question, do the Taliban control everything outside of Kabul or are some government officials colluding with them?

So the only hope that women and girls have is the international community, and by that I mean all of us. We need to question our governments on why our money is not improving the safety of women and girls and providing them with justice. These questions should have been asked a long time ago, because “Afghanistan has received nearly $60-billion in civilian aid since 2002.”

Perhaps the image of Najiba kneeling down in the dirt and being shot several times at close range has finally outraged us enough to speak out. Stories of Afghan women suffering violence regularly make it into the news. How many times have we just ended up sharing them through social media and done little more than that? I have been guilty of that, too — but this time I was so angry that I felt compelled to do something and contribute in some way. Within hours of watching Najiba’s murder, I set up a petition calling on the governments of the UK, U.S., Germany and Japan to ensure the Afghan government not only bring Najiba’s killers to justice, but do more to protect Afghan women. You, too, can join in and take action by signing and sharing the petition.

I have targeted UK, U.S., Germany and Japan in particular as they will be the largest donors of the $16 billion of civil aid pledged to Afghanistan over the next four years. They should be ringfencing sufficient aid to ensure it is spent on measures that will increase women and girl’s safety and security and access to justice. Hollow pledges and public statements by senior government officials, particularly by Hillary Clinton, should no longer satisfy us. She has said, “Afghan women will not be abandoned” and “women’s rights must be an integral part of Afghanistan’s future” — but these are very broad statements. She has failed to back them with specific measures, firm action and stringent conditions to make them a reality.

Recently, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also made a public statement. He said he was “shocked and disgusted” by Najiba’s murder. He has even publicly called upon the Afghanistan government to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, once the publicity subsides, he and other world leaders will forget her. Najiba will just become another Afghan female statistic. We can make sure that world leaders do not forget this Afghan woman — her death can be used to help other women and girls get justice. Powerful images can turn history and perhaps Najiba’s video may do the same. In a country where demonstrations are rare, dozens came out in Kabul to protest against her killing and demand that the government take serious action to prevent violence against women.

The Afghan government depends almost entirely on foreign aid and I think it is time to say “if you want the money, you must show how you are protecting women’s rights.” The global public needs to ensure donor governments make that happen. If women’s rights are not improved over the next four years, the likelihood is that the most educated and skilled women will leave the country while the rest will be too scared to go out and continue to suffer in silence.

Muslim Women Leading Change – 10 Power Tools

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

(My other Youtube videos can be viewed here)

Around the world, women have less power, money and less protection from violence. They also have less access to education, healthcare and justice. Despite these injustices, women everywhere (including Muslim women) are standing up to claim their rights and becoming powerful forces for change. They are amazingly determined and resourceful in their fight to achieve a better future for themselves, their daughters, their communities and for other women.

However, change does not happen by itself and will not continue to happen unless there is conscious action.  So to help women take that conscious action to make change happen, become empowered and help others to become empowered, I recommend 10 power tools. Women will already be doing some of these – but it is always useful and helpful to have a checklist.

These power tools are (listed in no particular order):

Power Tool 1 – Know Your History

It is important to remember those who came before us including the challenges they faced.  Not knowing your history is like having a tree without any roots.  History can be a source of empowerment because it will tell you that women were not confined to mothering and household duties.  There were female scholars, leaders, judges, philanthropists, scientists, businesswomen, poets, experts in medicine etc.  However, the achievements of these women go unrecognized even in Muslim countries today.  A  coinscious effort should be made to retell the stories of our sisters from the past. To find out more about such women, visit www.bigsister.org.uk and click on the ‘Big Sisters in History‘ section, where at least 50 women from different centuries and various fields of work have been listed.

Power Tool 2 – Know Your Islamic Rights

The roles of women in society and the barriers they face are determined socially and then justified through culture and religion. Some men and even some women will decide how they want women to behave and then they will package their opinions to make others believe they are the divine will of God. If women have Islamic knowledge, they can no longer be held hostage to patriarchal interpretations of their faith.  If they have knowledge then they can question opinions that limit  women’s lives and women’s choices.   However, it is important to investigate what the Quran says about women first. It is surprising the number of people that have not read the entire Quran in a language they understand and instead rely on secondary sources for their information.  Without reading the Quran how can women anyone know if the secondary sources are misleading or not – whether they are  objective or not? Remember that submission to God is more than carrying out ritual acts with the body. We must also submit intellectually and investigate God’s wisdom.

Power Tool 3 – Define What Power Means to You

Often women are afraid to become leaders because they associate it with power, which they in turn associate with negatives such as: corruption, disempowering others, oppression, gatekeeping, abuse, being obstructive etc.  However, if women start to define what power means to them and associate positive values with it such as: enabling, empowering, educating, giving agency, change catalyst, transformative – then women are more likely to be drawn to leadership.

Power Tool 4 – Define Your Own Goals

Don’t measure yourself by other people’s standards. Everyone can contribute to the best of their own abilities and strengths at different levels of society.  God has given us all different gifts and that means everyone does not have to go out and try and change the world!  You can make small changes happen and these are important too because collectively these lead to the bigger changes. Your goal may be to: go on a course to learn a new skill; express your views in a conversation; do voluntary work; bring up your sons and daughters equally; bring up your sons to respect women’s rights; give your daughters the choices and opportunities you did not have.  Whatever the change, no matter how small, is important.

Power Tool 5 – Have an Action Plan

Once that spark has been ignited and you have set your goals, you will need to give your ideas fuel.  This will come from an action plan – map out the steps you need to take to achieve your goals.  In that plan  define your own identity and create your own space.

Power Tool 6 – Have Courage

You will need courage to: challenge the status quo; speak out against injustices and discrimination; and push boundaries. And you will need to do all these things if you want to see change happen so your daughters and future generations of women can have a better life.

Power Tool 7 – Be Open Minded

Listen to and learn from the wisdom of others and think critically.  We should be listening more than talking.  God has given us two ears and one mouth so we should be listening twice as much as we are talking. We may find solutions and wisdom from the most unexpected places and people.  Be open to learning all the time no matter how old you are and no matter what your status is.

Power Tool 8 – Building and Joining Networks and Movements

You are not alone – remember there are many other women who think like you and have the same aspirations. So connect with other women through networks whether local, regional, national or even global.  If there is no network locally – set one up!  A critical mass of women’s voices is likely to have a greater impact. Through networks, it is easier to: spread messages, and ideas; learn from others; and share experiences and knowledge.  Partnerships, coalitions and movements are usually the driving force to changing attitudes and behaviours.

Power Tool 9 – Make Use of Internet Tools

Because of the internet, you can have an impact without leaving the house.  Find out about all the tools that are available and use as many as you can or need.  There are so many ways to share information through social networks and media such as:  Facebook, Twitter, My Space, Youtube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Digg, Reditt, Yahoo buzz etc.  These are just a few ideas! You can even participate in or run your own online training sessions through Webinars (online seminars).  You can even deliver lectures through Skype to people in other cities or even countries! Many websites also allow you to create your own free online petitions in minutes. Free applications allow you to create posters, cartoons and animations that can be used to spread your ideas. So go and explore what is available.

Power Tool 10 – Have a Motivational Slogan

Think of a favourite phrase that you can use as your mantra.  This can be your innermost motivation when you need it.  There will be times in your life journey where you get disappointed because things don’t go your way or you may lose momentum.  Every step toward fulfilling your goals may be draining.   Make sure you have something that you can pull out of the bag to uplift you because your friends cannot be there all the time.

Change doesn’t just happen, we collectively make it happen.  So once you find your own path, lead others to find theirs!

Age No Bar for Action!

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

My daughter Aaliyah Gohir gets her first article published in Eastern Eye – 18 May 2012.  She interviewed the following activists from around the world:

  • Fawzia Koofi (MP from Afghanistan)
  • Zainah Anwar (Director of Musawah, a global Muslim women’s movement – Malaysia
  • Lydia Alpizar Duran (Executive Director of AWID – Mexico)
  • Anna Pelagie (activist – Cameroon)
  • Ester Jarome and Mwandiwe Kali – (farmers from Tanzania)
  • Zoe Blumenfield (Communocation Officer from Global Fund for Women – US)
  • Nannyondo Sarah (student activist – Uganda)
  • Dr Tahmineh Danioli (activist – Iran)

And she interviewed me too! I am so proud of her!

Interview with Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

My 9 year old daughter, Aaliyah Gohir, interviews Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi at the AWID forum in Istanbul April 2012.

Mother’s Day – No bigger heart than the heart of a mother

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

There is no bigger heart than the heart of a mother.  She will go hungry and feed her children.  She feeds the world too as they grow half of the world’s food – yet she does not have enough to eat herself. Her domestic work is invisible, unpaid, undervalued and unrecognized – but is vital work. When employed, she carries out the most time consuming and manual activities while men get to do the less contraining mechanized work.  When her income increases, she spends more on children than fathers do.  Mothers do all this while carrying the future in their bellies. Indeed, there is no bigger heart than the heart of a mother!

Muslim Women Reclaiming Islam – Understanding Quran for themselves

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

My Youtube talk explores the importance of Muslim women reading, understanding and interpreting the Quran so they are informed of their rights and can robustly challenge misinterpretations and increase accountability.

You can view other videos on my Youtube channel here

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