The gender imbalance in British Muslim organisations

KhadijahEshayyalKhadijah Elshayyal

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of ambitious, civically engaged Muslims have emerged community structures led by men only have seemed increasingly outdated.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.

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.


[1] 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).

[2] 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.

19 Responses to “The gender imbalance in British Muslim organisations”

  1. Tehmina Kazi

    Dear Khadijah, this was an interesting article, and I am delighted for Sughra (who, coincidentally, I am meeting this afternoon).

    But you forget to mention my organisation, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which has only ever had female Chairs and female Chief Executives since its inception in 2006 (I have been the Director since May 2009). Yes, the Chairs have been appointed rather than elected, but it is still a worthy achievement for a national British Muslim organisation.

    Reply
    • Khadijah

      Dear Tehmina,
      Thanks for your comment. My article was looking at the gender imbalance in traditional/conventional Muslim organisational set-ups which had their roots in the 1960s. The more recently established organisations that I mentioned were to illustrate why/how women who felt stifled and unwelcome in these structures had set up their own initiatives. Moreover, they were examples, and not an exhaustive list, of course there are many other organisations where women have played important and leading roles (see http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/muslim-womens-experiences-of-involvement-in-uk-governance/).

      I certainly do appreciate and recognise BMSD’s achievement in respect of gender and leadership just not being an issue – older/traditional structures will need to move towards this if they wish to remain relevant.

      Reply
      • Tehmina Kazi

        “older/traditional structures will need to move towards this if they wish to remain relevant.”

        I couldn’t agree more 🙂

        Reply
  2. Jim Matthews

    Excellent article, Khadijah.
    This deserves a wider readership… there are many non-Muslims who need to be made aware that Islam is ‘catching up’ with life today in the UK.

    I’m thinking, of course, of Daily Mail readers.

    I think the Daily Mail should be offered an in-depth interview (perhaps in FeMail) with Sughra, who I know to be a modest lady.

    What do you say, Sughra?

    Reply
  3. Fugstar

    Salam
    I do like elite female neoliberalistani write ups like this.

    your organizational role call doesnt really support the case. Its often an issue of daughter diplomacy right?

    By the way, have you read Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Bengali Muslim woman who lived a hundred years ago. Its gendered scifi.

    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sultana/dream/dream.html

    I think at the end of the day, its brave deeds that count.

    Reply
    • Khadijah

      Salams,
      Thanks for the link, I found it an interesting read. Really sorry I am not sure what you mean by your comment though, maybe you can clarify – e.g. daughter diplomacy?!

      Reply
  4. Fauzia Khan

    I enjoyed reading this, thank you. It was good to read about the positive achievements that have been made wrt gender imbalance 🙂

    Reply
  5. zen

    Really interesting article, thank you. I think the cultural norms for less female participation existed among many muslim communities, including arab ones. I don’t think south asian were unique in that respect.

    Reply
    • Khadijah

      I agree with you zen. I mention the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which is a predominantly Arab organisation. There are others of course.

      Reply
  6. Sara Khan

    Khadijah good to see that more Muslims are speaking out against the gender imbalance that exists in British Muslim organisations which has existed for a long time.

    In my experience many of these traditional organisations have unfortunately perpetuated this precise imbalance but it is good to see things are slowly, changing. I do feel that the pace however, is not moving quick enough and we need to ensure that while small steps are being made, we don’t become complacent or self-congratulatory too early on, as there are tremendous problems of gender inequality within many Muslim communities.

    Which is one of the reasons why I helped co-found Inspire, another organisation you didn’t mention in your piece despite the important work we have been doing for the last few years. You may recall a conference we organised with Dr Khaled Abou el Fadl looking at Islamic law, authority and women’s rights from within the Islamic tradition. (www.wewillinspire.com) This kind of discourse is crucial, if we are to see a genuine improvement and understanding of women’s rights within Muslim communities.

    Warm regards

    Reply
    • Khadijah

      Dear Sara,
      I absolutely agree with you that the pace of change is sluggish and indeed often reluctant. I did not mean to sound excessively complacent, but I do maintain that Sughra’s election is an important step forward, a crack in the glass ceiling perhaps? I only hope that others will take inspiration from this.
      You are also right that an ongoing critical discourse from within Islamic tradition is needed, for people to question many of the conservative cultural and theological norms regarding gender and women. Quite often they are simply taken for granted, but sit extremely uncomfortably with values about equality, justice, autonomy etc.

      Reply
  7. Taniya Hussain

    You do not mention An-Nisa Society going strong since the 1985 ….

    Reply
  8. S Sheikh

    It’s great to see this article after attedning the conference on Sunday in London on mysogyny in Islam. I hope to take small steps to tackle this locally, I my need help from some of you please!

    Reply
  9. Shai

    I think some of the newer women’s groups, especially those funded under the Prevent surveillance strategy require a separate article and analysis. Naaz Rashids Phd is interesting in this regard not least because it considers the political effects of government sponsored empowered.

    Reply
  10. Emmanuel

    thanks for the advice, yes I opospe every such thing that men use aginst women in the name of religion.the multiple marriages is one of these , when they cant keep a woman happy then what the reson to get another one another one another one, my husband wont say a single cruel word to me,nothing hostile, but its just that he doesnt likes me , and iam fine with it , the marriage is there as ids are involved, but i just hope that a women like this will have any reward in Allahs court or willit go to disobedience of husband as well? about being intimate i have tried it many times and now i feel ashamed of myself for any advancement.We have talked about it as well, but nothing comes out, its veryshameful to involve anyone else as well..

    Reply

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