The British Muslim women making a stand against Isis
Tuesday 30th September 2014
As the US-led coalition launches air strikes, LOUISE RAW talks to Muslim women who reject ‘Islamist’ extremism and misogyny
LOOKING at a huge, rather beautiful poster of a young Muslim woman wearing a vivid Union Jack hijab, I know I’m not in standard leftie territory — and that’s before Theresa May pops in to press the flesh.
Not many media launches are both timed to coincide with the school run and surrounded by heavy security either. But Sara Khan is used to doing things differently.
Khan is the driving force behind new anti-extremism group Making a Stand, launched last week in Whitehall.
She is also the Director of Inspire, a group which I note is described by the Guardian as a “women’s human rights organisation.”
I don’t particularly want to give Alan Rusbridger a heart attack, but women technically are human beings. There, I’ve said it.
And while an increasing number of men accept that “women’s issues” are everyone’s issues, there’s still a tendency to see anything particularly affecting the female population as niche.
If it affects Muslim women, it’s usually even more a case of Nothing to Do With Us.
Khan is not letting Britain off the hook that easily, however, and is trenchant on the wrong-headedness of using supposed “cultural sensitivities” as an excuse not to oppose extremism and gender inequality wherever they’re found.
On this basis I’d asked her to speak at this July’s Matchwomen’s Festival, and she did so passionately, happily answering some “Everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-Islam-but-were-afraid-to-ask” questions from guests afterwards.
However, she was criticised for Islamophobia by two delegates over her condemnation of the murder of Lee Rigby.
The line on such atrocities from some on the British left is that the West has only itself to blame for “retaliations” to its foreign policy.
She replied that she was a practising Muslim who rejected such violence as outside her faith. The same went for the radical preachers who encouraged it.
As for the Islamic “women question,” Khan says that those in favour of gender inequality “don’t know [their] own faith. The prophet’s wives weren’t submissive women.”
She is adamant that we will see more and more young British women joining Isis, and about where part of the blame lies.
“We need to educate women better to improve this marginalisation problem in Muslim communities. For far too long mosques have marginalised Muslim women and their participation.”
However she’s also keenly aware that the perception of Islam as the ultimate oppressor of women is manipulated by the far-right, which publicly condemns the religion on this pretext even as supporters attack Muslim women on the street.
Some women won’t speak out against gender-based discrimination even though they loathe it, precisely because to do so may fuel anti-Muslim attacks, of which they could end up the victims.
So they can be caught between a rock and a hard place, suffering both fascist violence and gender discrimination from within their own communities. The resultant trauma and alienation is a risk in itself.
Khan says: “We know Muslim women who wear the headscarf are more likely to experience attacks. Will that make them feel they don’t belong? Are they [joining Isis] because all they’ve come across in this country in Muslim communities is a narrow view of women?”
This is the sort of difficult, and potentially dangerous, political terrain Khan has to constantly navigate.
It goes without saying then that “making a stand” will have required considerable courage for at least some of the women present at the launch last Wednesday. This was underlined by a total advance publicity embargo launch for security reasons.
But Khan made it clear on the day that silence was no longer an option when young British Muslims were being drawn to Isis — and there have been reports of British female recruits joining the al-Khanssaa brigade, an all-women militia set up by Isis which punishes women for “unislamic” behaviour.
“They have bought into a pack of lies,” says Khan.
“They think they’re following Islam, but actually it’s a patriarchal ideology that seeks to treat women as second-class citizens.”
Making A Stand has practical proposals for British Muslim communities — they ask mosques to start treating women more equally, communities to take more responsibility for women and women and young people to speak out on social media using the hashtag #MakingAStand, to directly challenge Isis sympathisers.
Later, over lunch, I spoke to some of the women present about the causes of radicalisation.
Sufiya Ahmed, Tamina Mir and immigration lawyer Piya Mayenim identified multiple factors that they saw as contributing.
High unemployment and institutionalised racism which limited Muslim young people’s futures made them feel they didn’t belong in Britain.
The three women saw Isis as something of a trend, though no less dangerous for that.
A generation with generally more liberal parents could only rebel by becoming more extreme, and Mayenim was aware of instances of teenagers criticising their parents for being “too Western.”
The black-clad, macabre chic of Isis could seem an appealing alternative to Western decadence and consumerism.
We talked about the government’s response to date. The Prevent initiative was launched in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11 2001 to counter radicalisation at community level, and continues to do so, but with significantly less funding under the coalition.
It hit another major roadblock in 2010 when it emerged that CCTV cameras placed in Muslim areas of Birmingham, 72 of them covertly, were partly funded by Prevent cash.
The resultant loss of confidence and trust was enormously damaging.
The women had also seen secular youth clubs close due to cutbacks, to be replaced with self-organised single-race or religious groups, decreasing cultural cross-pollenation.
Although May had come to praise the launch, there were no new commitments that day either — while promising the government would support Making A Stand “if you can do this” (ie counter and monitor extremism) we were left not knowing if this would mean an occasional fist-bump or anything more concrete.
I spoke also to Mehmoo Dah, an older Muslim woman living in sheltered accommodation who had travelled from Leicester for the launch.
She was visibly distressed as she spoke about the racism she says she personally experiences after every Isis incident, with locals saying: “You’re all terrorists.”
Khan has her work cut out for her, but is deeply committed to her mission.
“Extremist views from both sides blight the lives of British women and weaken our country,” she says.
“As a country that stands for equality, justice and women’s rights, we cannot allow extremists of any kind to deny British women their rights.”
Louise Raw is author of Striking A Light: The History of the Bryant and May Matchwomen’s Strike (Continuum). She will be chairing and speaking at the Freedom For Sussex 2014 Conference: Children and Young People on Thursday October 16 at the Pavilion Theatre, Marine Parade, Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 3PX, 10.15am-4.30pm (registration opens at 9.45am). For more information visit http://www.safeinsussex.org.