The New Muslim suffragettes of the United Kingdom

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An increasing number of Muslim women activists are receiving death threats, fatwas and even hate-mail from extremist male and female Muslims. Their crime: Rescuing fellow Muslim women from violent and life threatening situations.

With heightened media sensitivity surrounding forced marriage, honour based violence and domestic violence we are all too aware of the suffering experienced by vulnerable and marginalised Muslim women. But we know little about the Muslim women activists who risk their lives to fight for the rights of oppressed Muslim women. These women are the New Muslim Suffragettes (NMS) of The United Kingdom.

As wives and mothers themselves, they stand alone in their communities and apart from other prominent Muslim organisations, in offering sanctuary and support for vulnerable and marginalised women. The NMS provide refuge, advocacy and access to the British legal and welfare system for women whose daily lives consist of beatings, imprisonment, torture and even marital rape, as well as the mental health ramifications that unfold over time.

In fact there has been an exponential growth in Muslim women activists in the form of charitable women rights organisations. These organisations have emerged post 9/11 as a response to misogynist and extremist views which are contaminating the Muslim community. Like the suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, Muslim women activists are collectively gaining momentum in fighting for women’s rights in oppressive and patriarchal contexts. But facing fierce patriarchal resistance –  akin to that experienced by the early Suffragettes – sympathy for the NMS does not always convert to action.

In seeking justice for Muslim women whose human rights have been eroded through hyper-conservative interpretations of Islam, the NMS turn to British Law. But in affording marginalised Muslim women their rights the NMS are perceived by extremist Muslims as “feminists”, a term loaded in the Muslim world with connotations of modernity, resistance and westernisation, and perhaps more importantly a term which challenges the patriarchal underpinning of Islam dictated by extremist Muslims.

So they face a backlash in the form of persecution, intimidation and death threats. Fearing for their lives the NMS are forced into hiding and prevented from undertaking the very work they set out to achieve – to highlight and prevent the gross abuse of human rights many Muslim women suffer. Instead the NMS risk becoming the vulnerable and marginalised Muslim women that they originally set out to help and support. It’s time for the public to be aware of the plight of the NMS in the United Kingdom. This is their story.

My mobile phone rang, I could hear heavy breathing and a deep male voice – “I know where you live, I’m going to find you, and then I’m going to chop your legs off for taking my daughter away from me”. This NMS received this threat along with a threat to bomb her car after she rescued a young woman from forced marriage and domestic violence. Fearing for her life, this NMS must check her car for bombs each day and cannot leave her home without a panic alarm.

For the NMS, life has become intolerable. Sara Khan, from the counter-extremist and gender equality consultancy Inspire and Shereen Williams from the Henna Foundation spoke about the persecution perpetrated against them and work colleagues often directed at family members. According to Diana Nammi founder of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), the main motive behind the death threats is an extremist belief that the work of the NMS is shaming and dishonouring the Muslim community, particularly in cases where women are supported by the NMS in seeking legal redress for the wrongs inflicted upon them often by their own family members.

Somewhat unsurprisingly the threats perpetrated by extremist Muslims cover an array of appalling crimes including obscene sexual offences, which have become an increasing problem in the blogosphere and according to Shaista Gohir (MBE)  the NMS are frequently accused of “destroying Islam” or “corrupting our women” and like the Suffragettes over a century ago – they are accused of being “mad”. While these accusations may appear banal and mundane to secular ears, they are devastating to women activists of faith who are accused of being apostates. In this case, these accusations lead to threats of Shaista Gohir’s throat being slashed.

Figures released by IKWRO reveal that nearly 3000 incidents of ‘honour’ based violence were recorded by police forces across the UK in 2010, with an average increase of 47% across the 12 police forces which also provided data for 2009. It’s clear from these statistics that the NMS have an invaluable role to play in discovering and tackling violence against women. But the sad reality is the NMSs are confronting these prevalent issues alone following a lack of support from the Government, attacks from extremist Muslims and turning of the other cheek by non-Muslim women’s rights organisations.

The early Suffragettes would turn in their graves if they knew that the sacrifices they made to bring about gender equality are now being systematically eroded through the gross misogynistic practices of an increasing number of hyper-conservative Muslims. However, there are a number of Muslim scholars, Imams, non-Muslim politicians and non-Muslim charitable organisations who are supporting the rebuttal of this systematic abuse of women’s human rights. It is hoped that non-Muslim women’s rights organisations, wider society and the Government will unite with the NMS in developing social, financial and legislative remedies to protect British women.

 

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