This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.
Muslim community organisations in Britain have always been led by men. In the past this could be explained as a result of the patterns of Muslim migration to the UK or of imported South Asian cultural norms. But as Muslims in the UK have become more settled and as a British-born generation of ambitious, civically engaged Muslims have emerged community structures led by men only have seemed increasingly outdated. While there have been some promising steps, established Muslim organisations have a long way to go to reflect their constituencies.
The alphabet soup of Muslim community organisations have their roots in different transnational movements that arrived in the UK as early as the 1960s, each emphasising different theological trends and political approaches. However, if there is one thing that they all have in common, it is they have been overwhelmingly run by older men. The image of the Muslim ‘community leader’ as a middle-aged Asian man has become so clichéd that it now has its own popular representation in the form of the cringe-worthy BBC sitcom, Citizen Khan.
Historically, this has been initially a product of circumstance, but it was also later justified by reference to socially conservative cultural norms and rigid theological interpretations. The first waves of immigration of Muslims to the UK consisted predominantly of men, and they were only later followed by their wives and families to eventually settle permanently. Consequently, the first forays into community organising were by default men-only projects. However, as time went on and as communities became more established, Muslim organisations continued to be dominated by men. Culturally, there was the view that the woman’s domain was the home, and this was reflected in the fact that many mosques catered minimally if at all for female worshippers. Thus it became conventional in Muslim organisations that engagement of women should be limited to ‘women’s issues’, such as family life, child rearing, and, at a stretch, education. Theologically-grounded arguments prohibiting women from assuming leadership roles were relied upon to justify this.
“The first waves of immigration of Muslims to the UK consisted predominantly of men. Consequently, the first forays into community organising were by default men-only projects.”
As such, many youth movements like the Young Muslims UK and Young Muslim Organisation, followed by Hizb ut Tahrir and JIMAS all developed ‘sisters sections’, where female members could organise activities for one another, and occasionally speak out on ‘women’s issues’. A similar pattern became visible in the likes of the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM), and later the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and where women were permitted to participate in mosque management structures it was usually in the form of ‘women’s representatives’ on their committees. Decision-making or executive female sections were invariably structurally subordinate to an all-male leadership, with whom the final say on decisions, and a right of veto, ultimately rested.
Over the past decade or so, there has been some recognition within British Muslim organisations of the shortcomings and limitations that the dearth of female engagement, and particularly female leadership, has caused. If we look at national Muslim organisations, a small but growing number have appointed women to leadership positions. For instance the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has had a female Assistant Treasurer, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has had occasional female vice-presidents, as has the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB). Nonetheless, progress has on the whole been sluggish and in recognition of this, some organisations have implemented affirmative action measures in order to encourage and speed up female representation in leadership. The ISB’s constitution now stipulates that a minimum of one vice-president should be a female, and the MCB is due to implement for the first time a 20 per cent female quota for its National Council elections this summer. With the MCB in particular, the road to rectifying gender imbalance is especially difficult. On the one hand, it is by definition comprised of its affiliate organisations, most of which continue to be run overwhelmingly by men. On the other, if the MCB wishes to remain relevant and effective in representing and speaking for British Muslims, it needs to radically alter the composition of its National Council and Office Bearers in order to reflect its constituency more accurately, and this means listening to and being much more inclusive of women and young people.
“Many able and ambitious Muslim women have chosen to devote their energies outside of the conventional community organisation set-up, and outside male-dominated structures.”
It is no coincidence then that many able and ambitious Muslim women, passionate about contributing to their communities have chosen to devote their energies outside of the conventional community organisation set-up, and outside the preserve of male-dominated structures. By doing so, they have been able to pursue and promote a range of different ideas without having to think twice of community reaction, bypassing what they have often found to be stifling and overly bureaucratic environments. Recent initiatives such as OOMK (One of my Kind), a politically radical arts project, and Making Herstory, which campaigns for women’s rights, are run by just these kinds of women. Muslim women have also been highly successful leaders of Muslim charity organisations, such as the Muslim Youth Helpline, and MADE in Europe.
In light of this reality, the recent election of Sughra Ahmed as president of the ISB must be welcomed as a significant step forward for British Muslim civil society. As the first woman elected to lead a Muslim civil society organisation in the UK, this is a major milestone. Furthermore, the fact that Ahmed was elected rather than appointed can put paid to any perceptions of tokenism. Instead, it should give hope that other Muslim organisations might follow suit in revising their dated organisational structures, removing existing barriers to female participation and allowing Muslim women the space and opportunity to contribute, represent and lead their communities into the future.
Khadijah Elshayyal has recently completed her PhD in the history of British Muslim identity politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.
 See Humayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800 (London: Hurst, 2004), and Fred Halliday, Britain’s First Muslims: portrait of an Arab community (London: IB Tauris, 2010).
 This argument relied upon a hadith which quotes the Prophet Muhammad apparently condemning female leadership: ‘a nation can never prosper if it places a woman as its leader’ (Bukhari). The Prophet is reported to have made the statement in response to the accession of a Persian empress to the throne. However, the motives of the hadith’s narrator and the extent to which it is universally applicable are both debated, see Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Perseus, 1992). It is an especially large leap to assume its applicability to the leadership of civil society organisations.