Posted on August 4, 2014
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As part of Cultural Identity month, we were thrilled to meet Tehmina Kazi, Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, an organisation aiming to raise awareness of the benefits of democracy and its contribution to a shared vision of citizenship.
We sat down with her in Cambridge, where she told us about her identity: what she does, her inspirations, fulfillment, confidence, and of course... what she sees in the mirror: 'someone who hasn't let others dictate my path in life, or even my marriage choice... someone who tries her best to be a good friend, a good daughter, and a good wife.'
The portrayal of Muslim women in the mainstream media is often framed by endless platitudes on dress codes, honour killings and segregated weddings. I have lost count of the number of activists who have bought into these stereotypes and describe Islam as a barrier to women’s empowerment.
This is patronising to feminists across the world who are actively campaigning for the rights of women with a Muslim framework. In my current role at British Muslims for Secular Democracy, I worked with Muslim students to produce a documentary that deconstructs myths and stereotypes surrounding the headscarf. Several of the participants say they cover their hair to please God (as opposed to their fellow human beings) – and affirm that it has not prevented them from following their professional dreams, or becoming active in politics.
This highlights the fact that many women – not just Muslims – view faith and spirituality as key drivers in the battle for equality and justice. It is also a pertinent example of how secular societies can accommodate religious values. Similarly, it is increasingly important that positive role models for religious communities are visible – when I worked at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we organised the Muslim Women Power List, an awards ceremony that celebrated the achievements of a range of Muslim women and their contributions to British public life.
It is no coincidence that societies where women are fully-fledged participants in the socio-political scene are the most successful and progressive, and in the early days of Islam the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) appointed women to positions of authority, took their advice on political matters, and even fought alongside them on the battlefield. Islamic history is packed with examples of gutsy women – such as the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah, a successful businesswoman 15 years his senior who proposed to him.
It is clear that all women – not just Muslim women – are more likely to be attacked and/or intimidated when they take a strong public stand on any issue that goes against the status quo, be that the adoption of religious clothing or the expression of strong feminist opinions. The nature of the abuse is particularly concerning, and tends to focus on their physical appearance and perceived sexual availability – or the opposite. Many of the attacks against women that have been reported to the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks Project – in the wake of Woolwich as well as before – involve religious clothing being forcibly ripped off.
Conversely, legitimate criticism of certain practices that take place within Muslim communities (such as the exclusion of women, LGBT people and minority sects from religious spaces) is often hampered by false indignation about Islamophobia. This often comes from people who are not Muslim, but are cynically using the cause and stirring up trouble to further their own political ends. It is crucial to discern between this and genuine Islamophobia, otherwise we risk accepting practices and attitudes which are undesirable at best, and harmful at worst.
Thanks to Tehmina for participating - and don't forget to check out the trailer for Hidden Heart, Zara Afzal's film on interfaith relationships. Tehmina Kazi is the Executive Producer.