International Women’s Day always serves as an important and poignant reminder of the many challenges women across the world still face today; challenges that range from inequality in education and at work, to oppression, abuse and violence at different stages of their lives. The staggering statistics tell us that a third of all women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and violence against young girls and women remains a serious a cause of death.
There is an urgent need to break the cycle of inequality, harassment and violence against women, by challenging misogynistic behaviour, exploitation, and regressive cultural practices. Practices which still exist in Britain today, and have been highlighted through movements such as #metoo, the gender pay gap and statistics that show women are still more likely to be victims of domestic violence.
Sadly it is still Muslim women who are subjected to some of the worst discrimination and more like to be victims of Islamophobia. There are stories of those who have been spat at in the streets or had their headscarves aggressively pulled off; a violation of their rights and freedoms.
And then there are challenges within religious communities. Islam grants women, as it does men, fundamental rights to life, property, and opinion, and has done so for more than 14 centuries. However, it cannot be denied that despite this, they’ve had to fight for dignity every step of the way.
Violence in the name of a faith presents a challenge for many communities and it is one that the Muslim community is not immune to. From domestic violence and honour-based killings to forced marriage and sexual abuse, the lived experience of some Muslim women can be difficult. Islam explicitly teaches that this is not acceptable, and now there is a duty for Islamic religious leadership stand up against misuse of their faith.
Extremists, such as Daesh and Boko Haram, have in recent years sought to subjugate women or deny them fundamental human, as well as Islamic, rights. We have all heard the horrifying stories of women being repeatedly raped by Daesh members whilst their babies were crying. Whether it is victims of Daesh or young vulnerable girls becoming victims of sexual grooming in British cities and towns, such inhumane behaviour must be called out.
The UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) has been an encouraging step to prevent and raise the extreme consequences of sexual violence in conflict areas, and I support the PSVI International Conference, later in the year, which shall urge Faith & Belief Leaders to stand up for justice, oppression and violence against women and to dismantle any harmful interpretations of faiths or beliefs.
Condone or Commit
As a religious leader, I refuse to stand by and remain silent while extremist narratives, either dictate that Islam supposedly oppresses women while denying them their rights or subject women to violence or abuse in the name of Islam. Muslims must work to protect and stand up for women’s rights, whether it is in traditional tribal communities or in modern society. In the UK we have to duty to ensure our young women are empowered, that they recognise their identity as both Muslim and British, at that we do everything them to protect them from grooming and radicalised. As in the case of Shamima Begum, who was radicalised and left her home in London to fight for Daesh’s failing state at the age of only fifteen.
For example the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) is working with mosques across the country to to create a culture in mosques where everyone feels like they belong and their experiences are enriched by their engagement with their local mosque. MINAB is currently training more than thirty women who are already working in mosques to increase diversity in leadership and engagement of our mosques.
Lack of involvement of women in religious and community institutions and third sector organisations in general is not acceptable. The decision-makers must reflect the communities that they serve in order to engage effectively their communities.
Encouragingly the tide is changing in our societies and there are greater calls for equality, but there is more still to do. It is time for women to be treated equally and with dignity. Many mosques across the country will dedicate part of their Friday sermons on the 8 March, International Women’s Day to raise awareness about bias, prejudice, discrimination and abuse #BalanceforBetter.