Role models for Muslim women

Traditional western feminism often sits uncomfortably with Islam, even among women who campaign for greater power and rights. A new online project aims to address the needs of these women and refine feminism to make it more acceptable to Muslims, writes Colin Randall

Malala Yousafzai, left, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban. Patrick Hertzog / AFP
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Young British Muslim women seeking a role model need look no further than Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for challenging its hostility to education for girls, and now lives in England.

In France, the daughters of immigrants can choose between Maghrebin politicians from both left and right. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is French president Francois Hollande’s minister for women’s rights and a spokeswoman for the socialist government, while Rachida Dati, a conservative, is a former mayor and justice minister.

But these, and other Muslim women who rise to popularity in the West as singers, actresses or film directors are necessarily rare cases.

Now, a new online initiative in the UK aims to give a voice to Muslim women who struggle with everyday problems of childcare, employment and discrimination.

The campaign by the social enterprise project Maslaha – which means “for the common good” – will also address the needs of women who long for greater rights or power but feel uncomfortable with western notions of feminism.

The project aims to develop an Islamic refinement of feminism that brings Muslim women into the wider debate about rights and promotes the discussion of solutions for their specific concerns.

Emphasis is also placed on challenging negative and stereotypical concepts of Islam, an objective supported by prominent British Muslim women.

The early signs, including a huge response to online links, suggest the campaign has struck a chord with many women.

“This is about feminism and the debate surrounding Muslim feminism,” says Latifa Akay, Maslaha’s project manager. “The question asked is, ’Can a Muslim be a feminist?’

“There has been great work academically on the issue but a lot of Muslim women feel isolated from the debate even though they have the same aspirations and concerns as secular British women. Our aim is to start a conversation.”

Ms Akay, the daughter of a Turkish Muslim and a Northern Irish convert, says that three broad issues need to be addressed: tensions with the Muslim community, reservations about feminism being seen as a “western import”. and the demonisation encountered by many Muslim women.

The project, launched this month to coincide with international women’s day and women’s history month, is an offshoot of Maslaha’s “I can be she” campaign to encourage self-worth and ambition among young Muslim women.

It highlights the pioneering achievements of women from the past as well as the present, including Nana Asma’u, a Nigerian princess, scholar and poet who, in the 19th century, devoted her life to the education of women, whether rich or poor, and Umm Al Darda, a 7th century Damascus jurist.

Maslaha stresses in an introduction to I can be she that modern examples of excellence among Muslim women can be found in all walks of life, as “artists, doctors, footballers, policewomen, teachers, newscasters and more”.

Such people are hailed as: “everyday heroes who are often overlooked — they could be your neighbour, sister, auntie or friend”.

On its site, Maslaha argues that by encouraging the views of a broad range of analysts, it avoids “often rigid definitions” that lead to polarised debate.

“The [online resource] explores the relationship between Islam and feminism from both an historical perspective and through the diverse lives of Muslim women today,” it says. “It looks at what feminism in Islam can mean to different people and how it might challenge stereotypes both in Islam and feminism, as well as the perceived clash between the two.”

A key part of the debate is a widespread belief in Muslim communities that misconceptions about how the faith treats women often go unchallenged.

Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, a lecturer at Derby university in England, says her book, Muslim Women in Britain: De-mystifying the Muslimah, published last year, was intended as an “antidote” to this.

Dr Cheruvallil-Contractor, who grew up in Bahrain as a Catholic but later converted to Islam, says: “When I was researching my book a couple of years ago, a lot of the media debate focused on Afghan women who had seen their rights taken away. The West was portrayed as the knight in shining armour out to protect them.

“What was missing was any image of strong women, or even normal women trying to find jobs, having to multitask, just like western women.”

She acknowledges there were women from the Muslim community who had risen from ordinary backgrounds to show outstanding strength or courage.

France has three recent such examples, each of whom have lost sons and have used the experience to help others.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of an soldier who was a victim of Mohamed Merah’s murderous shooting spree as a self-styled Jihadist in south-western France in 2012, created a foundation to combat the radicalisation of young Muslims.

Dominique Bons launched a support group for the families of Muslims who go to Syria as combatants in the civil war, after losing her son, Nicolas, and his half brother within months of each other last year.

The mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man to be convicted in the United States in connection with the September 11 attacks, visits schools and social centres to advise Muslim girls on how to resist oppressive male relatives and shun extremism. Her son is alive, but serving life imprisonment without hope of parole and has severed all links with her.

Dr Cheruvallil-Contractor says these are striking but exceptional cases of Muslim women finding ways of asserting themselves, despite terrible personal loss, and countering Islamophobic tendencies that had grown since September 11 2001 and the attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

“There was a backlash that affected not just Muslims but any community, such as Sikhs, that looked to the abusers as if they might be Muslims,” she says. “Muslim women were a particularly easy target, visible because of their headscarves, and there were cases of them being spat at or having their niqabs pulled off in the street.”

Since conducting her research, she has detected a “very small but definite” shift. Muslims women are now more likely to be interviewed or take part in discussions on TV. But she says there is still a gross imbalance in the proportion of females, especially Muslims, in senior academic and business roles, though she sees this as an issue that concerns society as a whole.

“What is good it that women’s organisations are starting to talk about the issues,” she says. “Traditionally, feminists don’t like anything to do with religion, and religion doesn’t like feminism. I could mention a Christian pastor who tells me off for identifying myself as a feminist, so the relationship between the two can be seen as tenuous, with suspicion on both sides.”

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, an Anglo-French writer and, as she puts it, “budding academic”, is among the articulate young Muslims who have associated themselves with Maslaha’s project.

In a short film for the campaign, she says: “Islamic feminism means, to me, a project to infuse Islam with feminist principles. In its essence, Islam is a religion which gives all human beings their rights but, through various processes historically, those rights have to some extent been lost and it is necessary to inject a movement which seeks to return them.

“Unfortunately, people assume there’s some sort an oxymoron if you say you are both a Muslim and a feminist, and what’s more you’re an Islamic feminist, but I find that discourse a little patronising.

“What I’d like to think is that women from various spiritual traditions have something to contribute to the broader discourse on feminism and what it means to be a truly, holistically emancipated woman.”