For many years, institutional misogyny has remained an important issue for British Muslim women. A range of British Muslim women in the UK have rightly stressed that misogyny within Muslim institutions in the UK is real and that we cannot address it before acknowledging its existence. There is no doubt many of us will recognise the frustrations that have been expressed in this debate. Indeed, many of us are these sentiments. Here we would like to address some of the issues raised in the debate so far and take the argument one step further.
We deserve better, and we deserve it now
It is no secret that a major challenge among Muslim women is the issue of inclusion in the Muslim public space. Although there has been some effort to address the imbalance, whether it is seeking female prayer spaces in mosques or female representation on panels and organisations claiming to speak in our name, all too often the language is couched in appeals. On the one hand this may seem perfectly reasonable. However, while women have generally seen progressive gains in wider societal campaigns, we can’t really say the same for Muslim spaces. This is not to deny some improvements in diversifying discussion panels and the inclusion of female trustees in select mosques, but we have been moving forward in baby steps, which is simply not good enough. We deserve better, and we deserve it now – not in some distant point of time in the future.
Is appealing to Muslim institutions going to advance our cause?
Moreover, a fundamental point to consider isn’t simply whether women are part of such spaces, but whether we should even want to be. Most Muslim organisations in this country are miniscule versions of the ethnocultural communities they draw from, accountable to a select few. They’re not the scripturally inspired entities that we’d like to believe they are, nor are the mechanisms to implement change actually available. So is appealing to them necessarily going to advance our cause? We can argue that these are just first steps, but when we consider that the change required has proved near impossible for progressive men themselves, how exactly will it be achieved by the excluded gender?
A ’Muslim setting’ should not exempt us from protection
As for the disgusting incident that took place on the Muslim channel, there seems to be a concessionary way in which even we women engage and respond. Just as we would with a non-Muslim institution, this should have been swiftly dealt with like any other mainstream TV incident with a complaint to Ofcom. There are legal protections for women against sexism and discrimination in the workplace, and a ‘Muslim setting’ should not exempt us from this protection.
Let’s focus our energy on projects that represent us
Muslim institutions get away with all sorts of behaviour because we continue to support them no matter what. Despite decades of failing us, we’ve actively supported mosques and organisations – whether that has been through monetary means, providing political support, or acting as the backbone of successive organisations as staff and volunteers. While all of this is extremely praiseworthy, perhaps this energy ought to be focused on communal projects that actually matter and represent our interests as well.
How committed should we be to traditional Muslim institutions?
Whilst this particular incident caused a furore on social media, it wasn’t lost on many of us that we don’t watch this channel nor are we particularly invested in these Muslim institutions. So how committed are we or should we be to these spaces anyway? Over time, and given futile attempts to help bring about change from within organisations that are built on ethno-cultural rather than Islamic values, perhaps the realisation should dawn on us all that it often seems entirely redundant to engage and construct a strategy or propose solutions for institutions that are built on foundations that don’t speak to us in the first place. We are no longer asking for a change to the décor of a house that we wouldn’t want to live in.
Building our own spaces
Many of us have moved on, now of the view that there is simply no space for us within the majority of British Muslim institutions. The most constructive thing we can do is to actively disassociate from them and build our own spaces with likeminded allies. We don’t need misogynistic, abusive or exclusionary mosques. We don’t need sexist, culturally regressive, or fetishised ‘faith leaders’ – male or female. We don’t need ethnocultural institutions with established mores that contravene our values.
Our aspiration is for gender-inclusive, God-centred spaces for women, men and children
For absolute clarity, we are not calling for female-only mosques or similar initiatives. As believing women, we do not see believing men as adversaries but as our partners and allies. The problem is not men per se, but a cultural structure and mindset rooted in ethnocultural and/or un-Islamic norms that hyper-sexualise the opposite gender, actively seek to marginalise women, diminish their intellectual capacity, and infantilise them. Our aspiration is for gender-inclusive God-centred spaces that serve women, men, and children so we are all able to be cultivated as believers and socialised in the most holistic sense. If we’re going to work on creating such a space, what we’ve witnessed so far shows us that the time has come to do so on our terms rather than naively assuming we’re obliged to mend what’s fundamentally broken.