I, like many other Muslim women in Great Britain have had to struggle with limitations placed upon me by less enlightened members of society. My parents were brave enough to stand up against cultural restrictions to enable their daughter to have the opportunities they were denied, but I find even now, as I am reaching my half century, young men and women are increasingly adopting far more restrictive and intolerant interpretations of scripture.
My father has always maintained that the best protection for daughters is an education; empowering daughters with the knowledge to improve their understanding of faith and the world so that they are able to analyse, think critically and apply logical reasoning to the choices they make. It’s only when they have this knowledge that they will be able to stand alongside men as equals and have confidence in their individual strengths, support others in their weaknesses and challenge negative practices and regressive interpretations of faith. Until we learn to respect the breadth of opinion within Islam, and not just adopt one inflexible interpretation, we will be constantly judged and misjudged from those within our communities.
As a mother who is trying to do the best for her children and their future, I have to speak out and say that sadly, Muslim faith leadership in this country is not equipped nor understands my children and the support they need in applying the principles of Islam to their everyday lives. Those that run our mosques have not provided an environment in our places of worship where young people can explore being ‘themselves’ or to discuss the challenges that they are faced with in everyday life. Recently, in my city when an Imam was asked to give a sermon on women’s rights the reply was ‘brother, if women are told their rights, who will cook and clean for us?’ Is this a place I should send my children to for guidance in creating a just society? The sad thing is, for many years I did just that!
I sent my children to an environment where they were taught that mixing with ‘non Muslims’ was forbidden other than when was absolutely necessary, as was chess, the arts, and speaking to any member of the opposite sex that they weren’t related to. Men and women could only be in a room together if there was a screen separating them. In fact other than on a Sunday morning, when they were in an ‘Islamic environment’ they were walking bags of sin. We complain about over-sexualisation of children in the media and within fashion but surely we are doing the same? I am not a psychologist, but I shudder to think of the effects on the minds of my growing children. Sadly in my day to day work I see the consequences of such unrealistic demands on our young people. Faith leaders however, when confronted with these issues seem only too keen to brush these sensitive topics under the prayer mat. ‘Sister make dua (supplication)!’ I am told.
I took my children out of this environment when I reflected upon what it was that had brought me closer to Allah. It was not actually any Islamic school or mosque (far from it), but the stories of Jesus that I had heard in my formative years in school and the Christian family friends that I had been exposed to as a child. I envied my friends going to Christian Sunday school and the activities that they did. Faith was taught in a beautiful and meaningful way-it was a verb that had to be actioned everyday in real life. There is so much that we can learn from our Christian friends and together help address common problems. They too struggle with the same challenges that I face as a parent; a society that places increasingly little emphasis on the worship of God, spiralling use of drugs, alcohol and underage sex.
My son I am pleased to say, come to a closer understanding of what Islam is recently, with the help ironically of a Catholic school friend and a reading of Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Prophet Muhammed. He was visibly taken aback at how her objective portrayal of a beautiful man that slaved to bring about peace in a corrupt society was so different to what he had been taught and what he sees portrayed as Islamic by local Muslim leaders who preach downright intolerance and suspicion of other faiths and cultures. He is only twenty, but he is searching for spirituality in his life. He should be encouraged to question and challenge rather than follow blindly and be taught that emulating the Prophet is far more important than following blindly.
My daughters too have few role models that they can aspire to. Muslim women are painfully underrepresented at all levels, and coupled with this are the misogynist interpretations of faith that they have to contend with. We come across regular postings on Facebook by young men in our community; ‘pious’ young men who in the Name of Islam, condone acts of violence against young women for what they choose to wear or not wear. These are the same young men that have been denied by families the right to have a say in their own marriage. The consequences are that my community is in a state of crisis.
Inspire is about commitment to bringing about a deep and profound change, a change that will help women and men make informed decisions and to challenge the narrow minded self proclaimed religious leaders that undermine human rights in the name of Islam. This is not my Islam. I will follow my heart and I am determined not to dig a trench, refusing to engage with those around me. My faith instructs me to have a sense of social responsibility. The Prophet of Islam said ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty’ therefore in my mind anything that is not beautiful is not from God.
I do not wish my children to live in isolation but amongst all people and our worship amounts to nothing if the people around us and our environment are not touched by our good conduct. I want to be part of that change and Inspire is ready to meet the opposition that we will undoubtedly face.