Muslim women finding empowerment despite the hostility after 9/11

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.

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