Muslim women’s experiences of involvement in UK governance

Taking PartStephen H. Jones, Therese O’Toole, Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Tariq Modood and Nasar Meer

This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.

While it is true that many Muslim associations in Britain are led by men, there are plenty of examples of Muslim women’s leadership that are often overlooked. In 2008 the New Labour government seemed set on changing this, yet their efforts to include Muslim women in national and local governance ultimately failed. There were many reasons for this, and to understand the failure it is necessary to look at the gender imbalances within government as well as the traditionalism of Muslim community associations.

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Introduction

Muslim women are widely thought to be politically and socially marginalised. They are commonly seen as sidelined by patriarchal community structures and controlled by a rigid system of cultural norms. Because of this, Muslim associations have come to be viewed as male-dominated, with women left out or given the space only to form ‘women’s sub-committees’ or ‘sisters’ circles’. This perspective was frequently articulated under the New Labour government, particularly in relation to its focus on engaging with Muslim women to counter violent political extremism. As a former Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government suggested: Muslim women often ‘don’t have the confidence or skills to speak up in forums dominated by men’, and are largely excluded from mosques and other community institutions.[1]

As Khadijah Elshayyal’s article in this series shows, these perceptions are not without foundation. Yet examples of Muslim women’s leadership are too easily overlooked. In the Muslim specialist media for example, the story is quite different. Q-News, which was published in the 1990s and early 2000s, was edited by women (Shagufta Yaqub and Fareena Alam, who went on to play a prominent role in Q-News’s successor organisation, Radical Middle Way). The Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel, too, was founded and is edited by a female convert to Islam, Sarah Joseph. Several innovative British Muslim organisations have been founded or led by women. This includes the debating forum City Circle (directed in 2009 by Rabia Malik and currently by Layla El Wafi), the educational charity Maslaha (founded by Rushanara Ali, now MP for Bethnal Green and Bow), the environmental campaigning organisation MADE in Europe (directed by Sarah Javaid) and the New Muslims Project (led by Batool Al-Toma). There are cases of community and charitable groups that are not avowedly ‘Muslim’ being led by women too, such as Faith Regen (formerly led by Husna Ahmed) and Somali Development Services in Leicester (founded and led by Jawaahir Dahir). There are major national-level Muslim organisations that have been led by women. In the US, Ingrid Mattson was president of the Islamic Society of North America for many years, while in the UK British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) is directed by Tehmina Kazi and Sughra Ahmed was recently appointed president of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB). Then there are many examples of women’s activism in developing autonomous Muslim women’s community organisations such as the pioneering An-Nisa Society (founded by Humera and Khalida Khan), or the Muslim Women’s Network (chaired by Shaista Gohir) at the national level, as well as the many organisations at the local level that Muslim women have been active in creating and developing.

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“Attempts to engage Muslim women have not been effective – for a variety of reasons, and not all of them due to patriarchal traditionalism within Muslim communities.”

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Hazel_Blears
Hazel Blears: Muslim women often “don’t have the confidence or skills to speak up in forums dominated by men.”

None of this is to deny that there are notable areas of inequality – Muslim women’s employment in Britain is noticeably lower than other religious groups[2] – or that customary practices do not play a role in restricting Muslim women’s choices. But what it does suggest is a more complex landscape of Muslim community organising than is generally assumed. It also seems to indicate that, should government seek to include Muslim women in governance and pay greater attention to their voices and needs – an aim of both national and local government in recent years – there are organised and active Muslim women working on these issues. Yet attempts to engage Muslim women in governance have not been particularly effective – for a variety of reasons, and not all of them due to patriarchal traditionalism within Muslim communities.

Government and Muslim women

A concerted drive to incorporate Muslim women in UK governance was launched following the London bombings of 2005. Against a backdrop of increasing criticism of the Labour government’s pattern of Muslim community engagement – which at the time was marked by reliance on the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as the representative body for British Muslims – ministers such as Hazel Blears and Ruth Kelly set up initiatives to improve the social standing of Muslim women and help government to ensure their concerns were addressed directly. These included a series of events across the country[3] and the creation of a National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG), as well as various similar locally organised projects.[4]

At first glance, these initiatives seemed to be a step in the right direction. It is rare, after all, to hear government ministers adopt a self-critical tone, as Blears did when she argued that: ‘We have to get better at listening to Muslim women … and opening the door for more to get involved’.[5] In practice, however, almost all the initiatives launched by government with these aims struggled to get off the ground. The most obvious example of this was NMWAG, which acrimoniously collapsed in 2010, two years after being launched.[6] In general, as our research on Muslim participation in governance revealed, Muslim women participants in consultations and networks found the experience frustrating or even alienating.

1. ‘A front for counterterrorism’

There are three loosely related reasons for this. Firstly, as Katherine Brown and Naaz Rashid have highlighted in their research,[7] Muslim women were invited to participate in discussions with the state only on a limited set of issues, in which women were cast in a limited set of roles. Specifically, government’s attempts to empower Muslim women were driven by the overarching aim of preventing extremism. Muslim women were characterised as capable – with government help – of pacifying the violent elements in their communities. This awkward description not only imposed on Muslim women an uncomfortable subject position as ‘wives and mothers’ whose primary role is to restrain husbands and sons, but also meant that a wide range of diverse issues suddenly came to be seen, perplexingly, just as a means to the end of combating terrorism. As one of our interviewees observed:

[G]overnment started harking on about women’s access to mosques and the Prevent agenda. Now, there’s an issue for women in Muslim communities to deal with around mosque participation and leadership, but government wading in and using it as a front for counterterrorism and co-opting that conversation … actually did a lot of damage to women….

2. Making Muslim networks anew

Secondly, in trying to reach out to Muslim women, government had to move beyond a well-established model of community representation based on umbrella bodies, and it found this to be highly challenging. It is interesting to note that the organisations mentioned above, where Muslim women have achieved leadership roles, tend to be associations that are innovated autonomously from traditional community infrastructures: City Circle was formed by a network of Muslim professionals, for instance, while MADE in Europe is run by a group of young Muslim graduates. Even the ISB is self-consciously not a conventional representative body but sees itself as a meeting space where members can ‘help each other to think through what it means to be British and Muslim’.[8] They may be linked in various ways to traditional community infrastructure established by Muslim migrants in the 1970s and 1980s but often they remain at a social distance. This is part of the reason why Muslim women – especially those belonging to a rising generation of civically active Muslim youth – have managed to take up more prominent roles.

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“In our interviews there was a common feeling among female interviewees that they were seen as ‘out of place’ within state-sponsored consultative forums.”

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Birmingham Council_House
Birmingham City Council created a Muslim women’s group as part of its implementation of Prevent

Across successive governments, politicians in Britain have repeatedly made easy references to the ‘Muslim community’, which has meant, by and large, more traditional places of worship and Islamic educational institutions that tend to be affiliated with bodies like the MCB in which women have been much less prominent. In trying to engage with a broader constituency, government was faced with a challenging task, and rather than do the difficult work of adjusting its understanding of ‘Muslim community’ and forming strong links with a new set of organisations over the long term, it attempted to create infrastructures for engaging Muslim women de novo. At a national level, NMWAG is perhaps the best example of this, while a similar case can be found locally in Birmingham, where the local authority created a Muslim women’s group as part of its implementation of Prevent, selecting organisers who were acknowledged as ‘vibrant, dynamic young women’ but who had few links to any women’s organisations in the city. In both cases, the state bypassed existing organisations and brought together a disparate collection of individuals who were unable – despite individually having highly impressive biographies – to cohere over time or successfully influence policymaking. Furthermore, in both cases the management of and support for the initiatives were criticised. A representative comment from our interviewees on NMWAG was that:

[I]t was ill-defined…. There wasn’t sufficient space created to allow the women to work out an agenda. It wasn’t well managed. It wasn’t particularly well facilitated.

Similarly, of the Birmingham initiative, it was observed:

[T]he city council created it but didn’t really sustain or support it…. [I]f you’re going to start inventing groups, you need to capacity build them….

3. Gendered governance spaces

Thirdly, when Muslim women were involved in consultations with government, whether part of preventing extremism working groups or other consultative forums, they found themselves marginalised by the cultures of Whitehall or local government. It is important to remember that, in the UK, Muslim community organisations and religious premises are not the only sites where gender imbalances persist. British politics is itself a highly gendered context – one need only to consider the representation of women in Parliament or in senior civil service positions. In our interviews there was a common feeling among female interviewees that they were seen as ‘out of place’ within state-sponsored consultative forums. In some cases, interviewees were seen as not ‘authentic’ spokespersons for Muslims. As one observed, ‘I did not represent in the way that some of the community leaders did. For many I wasn’t Muslim enough’. Others felt they were not taken seriously and were treated as ‘window dressing’, with any points they made being discarded. The following two examples, of many such, illustrate the discomfort of many of those involved:

One thing that I felt was … that many of them thought I should even be there. You get the body language, you get the vibes that you feel uncomfortable, you don’t feel welcome. Then when I did speak out they listened to me but none of the things, the recommendations or anything I’d said was fed into the final recommendations. I’m thinking, ‘Okay you put me on but what was the use of me being here?’ I’m just a token and I’m not happy to be a token.

I’m at a senior level where I can make a difference and no one’s listening. So I might as well be honest and we’ll go back to private sector or something because at least it’s more honest; you know what the common purpose is.

Other contributors to this series have highlighted how Muslim women in Britain are currently put under pressure from two different directions – first, from religious conservatives seeking to place restrictions on women’s behaviour, and second, from Islamophobic elements within British society, which have tended to target Muslim women more than men. In governance, there is a similar two-sided problem. On the one hand, younger Muslim women have had to find their own civic space and voice, usually at a distance from more established Islamic institutions that have little space for autonomous women’s activism. On the other, they have been subtly diminished by government, despite the existence of policies officially committed to amplifying Muslim women’s voices. While the former is widely recognised, the latter also needs to be addressed before Muslim women will be able to engage effectively in the democratic process.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain.

Therese O’Toole is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol and is Principal Investigator on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. Her academic work has focused on ethnic minority political engagement and participatory governance.

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Research Fellow at the University of Kent. Until 2012 he was Research Associate on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. His sociology research has focused on post-migration religion and politics.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, founding Director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities.

Nasar Meer is Reader in Social Sciences and Co-Director of the Centre for Civil Society and Citizenship at Northumbria University. His work focuses on the relationships between minority identities and citizenship regimes in Britain and the EU.


[1] Hazel Blears in Department for Communities and Local Government, Empowering Muslim Women: Case Studies (Wetherby: Communities and Local Government Publications, 2008), 2.

[2] Philip Lewis, Young, British and Muslim, annotated edition (London, UK: Continuum, 2007), 27.

[3] Department for Communities and Local Government, Engaging with Muslim Women: A Report from the Prime Minister’s Event, 10 May 2006 (Wetherby: DCLG Publications, 2006).

[4] See Chris Allen and Surinder Guru, ‘Between Political Fad and Political Empowerment: A Critical Evaluation of the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG) and Governmental Processes of Engaging Muslim Women’, Sociological Research Online 17, no. 3 (2011): 17.

[5] Hazel Blears in Department for Communities and Local Government, Empowering Muslim Women: Case Studies, 2.

[6] See Shaista Gohir, ‘Muslim Women Are Not Political Pawns’, The Guardian: Comment Is Free, 9 April 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/apr/09/government-failed-muslim-women.

[7] Katherine E. Brown, ‘The Promise and Perils of Women’s Participation in UK Mosques: The Impact of Securitisation Agendas on Identity, Gender and Community’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 10, no. 3 (2008): 472–491; Naaz Rashid, ‘Giving the Silent Majority a Stronger Voice? Initiatives to Empower Muslim Women as Part of the UK’s “War on Terror”’, Ethnic and Racial Studies.

[8] Interview with Dilwar Husain, former ISB president, 18 May 2012.

The image of Hazel Blears is included courtesy of Policy Exchange and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image of Birmingham Council House is included courtesy of Elliott Brown and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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