Shaista Gohir: We need to keep breaking down barriers for Muslim women
Forced off the bus for speaking another language; shouted at in public for 'being different'; bullied, assaulted and abused for her sartorial choices. Hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities, including Muslim women, have become a
Hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities, including Muslim women, have become a hallmark of post-Brexit Britain. While figures show that incidence of hate crime have grown year on year since 2010, rates peaked by more than 50% across ten UK police forces in the three months following the referendum. In the US, anti-Muslim groups have tripled since 2015; organisations now bolstered by the politics of right-wing populism.
The Muslim Women’s Network: Tackling discrimination and harmful stereotypes
The rise of Islamophobia in the West leaves many Muslim women today feeling burdened, frustrated, hopeless, and angry. There are, however, various groups within the UK working hard to campaign against, and prevent hate crime. The Muslim Women’s Network UK is one of them. It was established in 2003 to give independent advice to government on issues relating to Muslim women and public policy. Chair Shaista Gohir OBE, who joined the group in 2005, told 1000women:
“We came into existence because there was no national Muslim women’s organisation that could be a voice for Muslim women to the government.”
“We are unique as a Muslim organisation in that our membership and our reach is so diverse. They are of all ages, ethnicities, religious sects, locations and across religious spectrums and lifestyle choices, including those who cover their heads and even their faces, to those who don’t, to those who identify as LGBT. We also have non-Muslim members and male members. We are proud of our diversity and we manage to achieve this because we are not judgemental while also not being afraid to speak out on difficult issues, and challenging inequality and discrimination wherever we see it.”
As a body with a diverse membership base, the Muslim Women’s Network has unique insight into the problems different Muslim communities in the UK face, and just how varying their cultures can be. Gohir explains that there is a real lack of understanding among the British public of how diverse Muslim women are, including among Muslim communities themselves.
“There is an assumption that all Muslim women cover (their hair), or all Muslim women are oppressed. While we need to continue to highlight the many barriers and problems Muslim women face within and outside of their communities, such as culturally related abuses and discrimination, we also need to tell the positive stories of those Muslim women who are successful or breaking down those barriers.”
Last October, the Muslim Women’s Network launched their campaign #AndMuslim, a series of videos challenging Muslim stereotypes, and celebrating multiple identities, by highlighting female role models from various fields including professional sports, engineering and law.
Setting up a helpline for Muslim women
In January 2015, the Muslim Women’s Network set up a national helpline due to demand. Trained staff answer helpline calls on up to 39 different issues, and operate the phones every weekday from 10am-4pm.
“We receive calls daily,” says Gohir. “The top issues we get called most about include: Islamic divorce, domestic abuse, mental heath (depression, self harm etc.), homelessness, relationships, marriage, forced marriage, honour-based violence, and faith or spirituality.”
A recent success story for them involved a 19-year old victim of forced marriage who “contacted the Helpline because she was upset that she had to repay repatriation costs to the Foreign Office for rescuing her from a forced marriage two years previously. The young lady’s family had taken her to Pakistan and forced her into marriage. When she had contacted the British Embassy, she was made to sign a loan agreement before being put on a flight back to the UK. She was 17 years old at the time. As she was on benefits she was struggling to repay the costs.”
Gohir wrote to the Foreign Office, challenging the policy, and questioned why a minor was made to sign a loan agreement. The case was anonymised, and featured in The Guardian and The Independent at the end of last year. The Foreign Office responded, and say they are currently reviewing their policy. According to Gohir, the media attention resulted in donors coming forward to clear the forced marriage victim’s debt. Despite this particular case, Gohir believes the government is making an effort to help and support Muslim women.
“There have been efforts to tackle issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour crimes through funding and campaigns. Although these issues do not only apply to Muslim women, large numbers of victims of such abuses are of Muslim background. The issue that is not getting sufficient attention from government is Islamophobia. A lot more needs to be to tackle this form of discrimination.”
Going forward, Gohir adds that the focus for 2017 will be to tackle discrimination by increasing their membership significantly, employing more outreach staff, including one based in the North West, and developing mobile phone applications to complement their helpline.
Find out more: Engaging with the Muslim Women’s Network
The Muslim Women’s Network campaigns to create positive and lasting change for the lives of Muslim women. Find out more about some of their ground-breaking research here, including a report on Asian female victims of child sexual exploitation, Unheard voices: The Sexual Exploitation of Asian girls and Young Women. This particular research emphasised that all children are at risk, including those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and resulted in more BME victims being identified and helped. The research was also accompanied by an awareness raising campaign, and this video of Jasmin’s Story based on a real case study.
The helpline is free from all mobile and landlines, and open Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm, on 0800 999 5786. You can find out more about the service here. Find out more about becoming a member of The Muslim Women’s Network here.