Inside Muslim Minds

March 8th, 2012

Inside Muslim Minds


Muslim Women Reclaiming Islam – Understanding Quran for themselves

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?

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?

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

Is the Face Veil Really a Threat to Western Culture?

October 20th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

Anti Muslim sentiments are contagious – now Holland has joined the widespread campaign in Europe tocriminalise the face veil. The veil is already banned inFrance and Belgium and on Friday, the Dutch government agreed to propose legislation that will make it illegal to wear clothes that cover the face in public places. Anyone flouting the ban in public buildings, educational institutions, hospitals and public transport, will be issued with a fine of 380 euros.

The government says they want to “protect the character and customs of public life in the Netherlands.” However, the truth is that they are pandering to the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders because they need his party’s support. Wilders leads the far-right Freedom Party (PVV), which won 24 of the 150 seats in the 2010 Dutch elections, making it the third biggest party in parliament. When the Liberal WD party and the Christian Democrat party formed a minority coalition last year, they struck a deal with Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party – despite not being a part of the governing coalition, they pledged to back austerity measures in exchange for a ban on the face veil.

I wonder how curbing this minor phenomenon of veiling is going to help the country’s economy? An opportunity to influence decisions that would have improved the lives of his voters has been wasted by Wilders. But I guess that should not be surprising, as he doesn’t have any credible policies. He only has anti-Muslim policies – he wants to ban the Quran, veil, new mosques and new migrants from Muslim countries. He promotes anything but freedom contrary to the name he has given to his party. Many Governments in Europe will not mind this distraction away from an economic crisis that they (and the bankers) are responsible for. Instead of allowing the far right to influence policy, those in power should be removing the conditions in which such political parties thrive. Providing a platform to an opportunist such as Wilders, who has built his profile on promoting fear and hate, is likely to damage the reputation of the Netherlands.

Are Muslim women’s clothing really a threat to the Western way of life? I cannot see how a few thousand veiled women in Europe, who are apparently not engaging with the majority anyway, going to bring down Western culture! The veil has become such an emotive issue, but how many calling for a ban, have actually come across women wearing it? Statistics quoted are based on guesswork and exaggeration. For example, the exact number of women veiling in the Netherlands is unknown – it is believed there are only a few dozen from the 900 000 Muslims. Belgium estimates that only a few hundred adopt it from a Muslim population of 630 000. In France, the Interior Ministry has been quoted as saying that 1900 women wear the veil (from a population of 5 million Muslims). However, the influential newspaper, Le Monde, revealed they had seen government reports showing the actual figure to be 367.

Despite the disproportionate level of attention given to Muslim women’s attire by politicians, media and public – most appear to be misinformed about the topic. Reasons cited for a veil ban vary and are not coherent. Some say covering the face is a threat to security but veiled women are showing their faces for identification when necessary. Another common argument is that it’s a barrier to integration. I accept the veil impedes communication and integration but how is preventing a few thousand women in Europe from covering their face helping the majority of Muslims integrate? If concerns were genuine, then politicians would be attempting to tackle the real barriers to integration such as high unemployment rates and the multiple forms of discrimination experienced by the Muslims.

And there are those who want to save the oppressed Muslim women who are forced to cover. Such women do exist but the majority are wearing the veil out of choice and their reasons 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. Many have told me they feel liberated in the veil. I can’t see how the veil is liberating, but that does not matter. It does not matter that some people find it intimidating and frightening because it’s unfamiliar as my nine year old daughter described in her blog – none are sufficient reasons to justify legislation banning it.

Personally I am not keen on the veil as it overwhelmingly reinforces every conceivable Western prejudice about Muslims and Islam. I would even urge veiled Muslim women to consider the impact their choice is having on Muslim communities living in the West. However, from a gender perspective, I will vociferously continue to speak out on the right of women to make autonomous choices about their bodies whatever that may be – whether they live in the West or in Muslim countries. It is interesting to note that it tends to be mainly men that lead debates telling women what to wear.

Celebrities Call on World Leaders not to Sacrifice Afghan Women’s Rights

October 11th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

It’s great to see that Dame Helen MirrenShazia Mirza, and Alesha Dixon are being the voice for women outside of Afghanistan so they can have one inside it. Celebrities are going green for the Green Scarf Campaign calling on world leaders not to sacrifice their rights in any political deal. I am sure Afghan women’s rights activists, who wear green scarves as a show of strength and unity, will welcome this much needed support. They are worried the clock could be turned back on their rights now the US government is in direct talks with the Taliban. I know Hilary Clinton has made public statements defending Afghan women, but who knows what is going on behind the scenes. This issue of Afghan women always touches an emotional chord globally – no wonder Pakistani pop star Hadiqa Kiani and the chat show host dubbed Oprah of the Middle East, Nashwa Al Ruwaini, have also joined the campaign.

Since the fall of the Taliban, women have once again returned to work as doctors, lawyers, judges and police officers although participation levels are nowhere near the pre-Taliban era when women in Kabul made up 70% of teachers, 50% of civil servants and 40% of doctors. Women are participating in sports too – something unthinkable 10 years ago. There are now female boxers preparing for the 2012 Olympics and even a women’s national football team – although they have to train behind guarded doors for fear of retribution.

Despite these gains, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman because the Taliban continue to get away with attacking them. In 2008, the Taliban assassinated police commander, Malalai Kakar and last year MP Fawzia Kofi survived an attack by gunmen. I some times wonder what the Taliban hate more – women’s empowerment or Western occupation. A recently launched Oxfam report reminds us what life is really like for most Afghan women. More than 87% have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage. Renouncing violence and severing links with Al Qaeda is a pre condition set by the international community for negotiations with the Taliban -so why has ending violence against women not been included?

The Afghan government doesn’t appear to be committed to women’s rights either. Any legislation passed offering equality to women is not backed up by any enforcement. So those who intimidate, threaten and attack women are rarely punished. President Karzai publicly vowed that the men, who threw acid in the faces of 15 female students in Kandahar city in November 2008, would be severely punished. He has made no attempt to bring them to justice.

Karzai also panders to conservative religious clerics in exchange for their political support. Prior to the 2009 presidential elections, he passed the Shia Personal Status Law, allowing fathers and even grandfathers to have full custody of children in a divorce and women having to seek permission to work. Karzai was ready to pass the law in its original form, which was even more controversial as it legalized marital rape and only amended it after an international outcry. Pressure can work so let’s be the voice for Afghan women. Foreign Ministers from around the world will attend the Bonn Peace Conference on 5th December to discuss the support package for Afghanistan after Western forces withdraw in 2014. Let’s tell them not to negotiate away women’s rights by joining the campaign at – I just have!

Muslim women finding empowerment despite the hostility after 9/11

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

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.

Banning and burning burqas is not the way forward

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

March 21st, 2011

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