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MEND fighting to empower Muslim women alongside Shadow Home Secretary

MEND fighting to empower Muslim women alongside Shadow Home Secretary

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday September 27 2017

MEND ran a hugely successful fringe event on Tuesday at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on the topic of Labour and Muslim women’s empowerment.

On the panel was a selection of highly inspirational speakers, including Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary; Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West; Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston; Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow; Dr Saleya Ahsan, emergency doctor, broadcaster and former British Army Captain; and Dr Siema Iqbal, GP, activist and charity volunteer. The panel discussion and subsequent question and answer session was chaired by MEND Head of Policy, Isobel Kingscott.

The panel addressed a full audience of journalists, politicians, activists, party members and well-known figures from the entertainment industry, including Grace Chatto, lead singer of Clean Bandit.

During the event, Diane Abbott touched upon the importance of providing space for Muslim women’s voices to be heard. She discussed how male representatives of minority communities have traditionally been relied upon in informing social policies and political perspectives. However, relying solely on male perspectives excludes the experiences of women and, therefore, obscures issues that may be affecting them.

In finding solutions to social issues such as education, employment, healthcare and political engagement, it is important that women from minority ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds are heard so that proposed solutions may have resonance with the people they are intending to benefit.

Kate Green (who is also the former Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and served as the chairman of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party) discussed the young age demographic of Muslim communities and the need to tap into this young, creative and ambitious generation.

Indeed, a new report from the Social Mobility Commission and Sheffield Hallam University recently highlighted the barriers that young Muslims face in accessing the same sorts of employment as their non-Muslim peers. Meanwhile, in August 2016, a House of Commons committee warned that Muslims are much more likely to be unemployed than any other faith group in the country (nearly two and a half times higher than the rate within the general population).

As a consequence, the UK is failing to benefit from the creative and innovative dynamism and potential that accompanies this young population.

This is of particular concern when it comes to Muslim women as the effects of religious discrimination are frequently compounded by both racial discrimination and gendered discrimination. In other words, Muslim women often face challenges and discrimination because they are Muslim, because they may come from a minority ethnic background, and because they are women.

This has been affirmed by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, who reported in 2016 that Muslim women face practical barriers preventing them from participating in the labour market, as well as particular issues of discrimination within the workplace; for example, debates relating to dress.

Rushanara Ali discussed the need to break barriers and the need to help Muslim women break into spheres in which they have traditionally been excluded. Ali herself is an example of breaking those barriers. In 2007, she became one of the first female Muslim MPs alongside Shabana Mahmood and Yasmin Qureshi. As such, she has long been a role model for all women aspiring to enter the political sphere.

She also discussed the need for non-Muslim support in dealing with Muslim women’s social-mobility and aspirations. Certainly, the struggles of Muslim women should be the concern of all women as well as men in building a just and democratic society.

Another panellist who is a pioneer in breaking barriers is Dr Saleyha Ahsan. Ahsan gave her personal account of becoming the first Muslim woman to graduate as a British Army Officer from Sandhurst (although, as she noted, she was unaware of her pioneering status until several years later).

Ahsan also discussed labelling and the desire of many Muslim women to be defined by their actions – for Ahsan’s own desire to be known for her work within the NHS and journalism, rather than constantly being defined purely in terms of her private faith. Indeed, within media, political and social depictions of Muslim women, they are frequently defined within very narrow parameters – parameters that often concern the way they dress.

This public fascination with the way Muslim women chose to dress is often a source of great frustration for women who wish to be noticed for their achievements and endeavours – not for their physical appearance.

Naz Shah discussed how her life experiences shape the causes she has championed. She also discussed the importance of faith as part of her personal identity. This was shared by several members of the audience, who highlighted their identities as Muslim women as an empowering force within their lives.

Shah also discussed the impacts of a toxic atmosphere of Islamophobia and hatred on British Muslims – impacts that are felt all the more acutely within homes as family members and loved ones feel vulnerable to abuse.

As Dr Siema Iqbal pointed out, this atmosphere of hatred is the focus of MEND’s upcoming Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM), which aims to highlight the causes and impacts of Islamophobia, as well as providing solutions and opportunities for inter-community engagement. For more information, see here.

Questions were also raised during the discussion about ways to assist teaching in schools in an effort to tackle anti-Muslim bullying. This issue is of immediate concern as Childline recently noted a huge increase in calls following this year’s attacks in Manchester and London.

Children as young as nine contacted the helpline with stories of constant abuse and negative stereotyping that was so cruel in some cases that they are resorting to self-harm, and many reporting that they wish they could change who they are. Some were made to feel so isolated and withdrawn from society that they have skipped school to escape the bullying.

MEND has already developed a series of teaching resources and training courses for teachers surrounding issues of racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, and is in the process of disseminating these resources nationwide.

As argued in the MEND Manifesto 2017, more emphasis and support needs to be given to the teaching of PSHE within the national curriculum to allow for children to grow up as well-rounded members of a pluralist and diverse society.

Alongside IAM and the development of educational resources, is MEND’s Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) which provides a platform for victims of Islamophobic abuse to report their experiences.

Anyone who has suffered from Islamophobic discrimination or hate crime is encouraged to contact the IRU here.

The IRU works to document such instances and seeks to signpost victims to potential legal assistance and means of redress.

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