Talk to the women

Terry Sanderson shared an excellent Times piece (the London one) by Lucy Bannerman on Muslim (and ex-Muslim) women fighting to be heard.

There’s a myth that Aliyah Saleem would like to debunk immediately. It is the myth of the “Muslim community leader”. If we really want to fight extremism, she argues, we should start by puncturing the idea that self-appointed male “leaders” represent a homogenous bloc of British Muslims. “Stop and ask 1,000 Muslims in the street, ‘Who’s your community leader?’ They’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’,” said Ms Saleem, 27, one of a growing number of female activists standing up against Islamism.

After four terrorist attacks in the UK in as many months, she is fed up of hearing politicians’ platitudes about “working with Muslim leaders”. There has been little talk about working with Welsh “community leaders” after the Finsbury Park attack, over which Darren Osborne, from Cardiff, has been charged.

Welsh people aren’t exotic enough for that.

“Work with people who are qualified, as opposed to people you believe to be ‘authentic’,” she said. “If you’re putting money into a programme, bring in a qualified project manager. Recruit the right talent. They [imams] are scarecrows, being propped up as if they present power and authority, when in fact they have very little influence over most British Muslims’ lives.”

Every time she sees imams condemning the latest attack, she wonders where the women are. “If half the population is missing, then how effective can [any strategy] be? Misogyny and homophobia are like two pillars supporting Islamic extremism. If you knock them down, the whole thing collapses.”

This is what I said last week when the BBC was up to its old tricks quoting the MCB again, as if they “represented” all British Muslims.

I love this part:

Ms Saleem, who is now vice-chairwoman of Faith to Faithless, a community support network for “apostates”, and describes herself as a former Muslim, recalls how a mother recently approached her for advice about a teenage daughter she feared was being radicalised.

“She said, ‘What shall I do?’ I said, don’t talk about religion at all. Find out what she enjoys to do — whether it’s sport, music, drama — and distract her with that. Because when your brain is filled with music, art, literature, ideas and culture, why would you be tempted? When I was radicalised, it was feminism that opened my eyes. I had always felt suffocated, forced to wear the hijab. But when I discovered feminist perspectives, it blew my mind. I started to challenge things. If you can challenge the notion that women must do this, women can’t do that, or else they’ll end up in a fiery pit, it forces you to challenge all the rest.

“Once you start to have a wider, scientific understanding of sexuality, you start to connect to the real world, and the fundamentalist argument starts to pale in comparison.”

Yes, exactly. It’s a big big world, full of interesting things; once you know that the thin gruel of religion becomes far less seductive.

Poisonous ideas need a breeding ground, said Amina Lone, 45, a community activist, mother of four and co-director of the think tank the Social Action and Research Foundation. A recent conference, supposedly for a cross-section of British Muslims, left her furious. Not only were there about 18 women to 180 men, she was ignored by many imams, who refused to address a woman. This was not a mosque in small town but a digital summit at Google HQ in London — “a progressive, forward-thinking event, completely let down by lack of women. It drives me insane.

“I know a school in Birmingham that has just cancelled its swimming lessons for everyone because it was getting so much kickback from Muslim parents. I’ve been at a talk at a university campus when a young man challenged me because I refused to sit in segregated seating.” Sexism in the name of Islam has been tolerated for too long, she said.

“Why are we [not defending] our secular values? Where does it stop? These are hard-won freedoms. I live in Manchester, Suffragette City — why are we letting religious rights override gender rights? It is bonkers.”

Ms Lone, a British Pakistani born in Birmingham, also derided the idea of “Muslim community leaders” who claim to represent Islam. “The people in my council estate in Manchester — these people are my community, not some male ‘leaders’ who are self-appointed and self-interested.”

Then there’s my friend Gina Khan. Remember Gina Khan’s Diary?

Gina Khan, a mother of two who had to beg Sharia courts to grant her a divorce from an abusive husband, has also had enough. “There’s a growing army of Muslim women who are standing up, but we are still being ignored. The politicians and some parts of the media are ignoring the sensible, secular Muslim women like me and going to these self-appointed male leaders, who are making a mockery of our own secular laws on equality. Why? We have given people power simply because they are Muslim, not because they deserve it.”

Ms Khan learnt to her cost the danger of not registering her Islamic marriage at a British register office. A few years later her husband was pressurised by his family to take a teenage cousin from Kashmir as a second wife. “My husband was crying in my arms the night before his wedding,” she said.

After the relationship became violent, she said it took her two years to be granted an Islamic divorce. “I put the blame on the doorsteps of the mosques. All these men, sitting on chairs, acting in judgment. I went around all the Sharia courts — I remember sitting crying in front of the imams after all the beatings and black eyes — but all they wanted was money. We [Muslim women] end up sitting in front of extremists to get a divorce. It makes me very angry.”

Ms Khan, spokeswoman for One Law For All, a campaign to end parallel legal systems, said: “Hands up who wants more religion? I don’t . . . We’re not telling [our children] how powerful this country is, we don’t shout loudly enough about how much protection our laws give us.”

If only the BBC would talk to women like these instead of the everlasting MCB. If only.

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