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choose to challenge

#Choose to Challenge: Making space for Muslim women

In March, we marked International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of women across the globe, whilst also raising critical awareness of the continued challenges women face when confronted by sexism and patriarchy.

The theme of International Women’s Day this year was #ChoosetoChallenge, but of course, this is not something that we should only think about on the day itself. We should challenge ourselves on this issue throughout the year: we should always challenge sexist, misogynistic narratives which continue to control women’s lives.

There’s certainly a lot we need to challenge!


Muslim women: We need to carve spaces

It’s hard to deny that there is an underrepresentation of Muslim women and women of colour in our Muslim institutions and also within wider society.

For example, of the 1,975 mosques in the UK, a staggering 28% do not offer spaces for women. This figure rises to 50% for South-Asian run mosques.

And that’s not to say that when space is available that women feel welcomed. In fact, women have to compete with restricted access or a lack of prayer space.

As part of our work here in the UK, Islamic Relief supported the Muslim Council of Britain’s women’s leadership programme to help address the gender imbalance in UK mosques and to strengthen women’s leadership.

Likewise, we’ve been encouraging male allyship to encourage a sense of positive (rather than toxic) masculinity and also raise awareness of the challenges faced by women. Because without men on our side, we’re talking to an empty room.

As we begin critical dialogues and I think about the recent 65th Council for the Status of Women, I reflect on the words I said to sector leaders. I was sadly reminded that women are often forced into corners, have to push towards the glass ceiling and are constantly striving to get a seat at a male-dominated table.

I’m left thinking about those boundaries, rules and restrictions and in particular, those who hold us to account within those boundaries. There’s a double standard that puts women under a higher level of scrutiny than their male counterparts.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with accountability, we all need to be accountable. However, I often feel that as a Muslim women, there is a double accountability for my actions and words by, let’s face it, mostly the men around me.

Accountability works both ways and therefore I believe that sector leaders must be thoughtful in terms of getting the right combination of people in the room, at the table, in conversations. This includes racial and gender diversity, so that better-informed decisions can be made.

Leaders often fail to include, let alone think about or consult, women. During times of crisis, calamity, disaster or catastrophe, when the stakes are the highest and strategic decision-making is paramount, women and girls are often the worst affected but the least consulted.

And so I ask: why do leaders continue to lack thoughtfulness?

During the ongoing pandemic, we’ve actually seen how female leaders have championed keeping people safe. This is something which has definitely not gone unnoticed.

Nonetheless, Muslim women remain marginalised in the area of decision-making, confined to the ‘soft’ (“less important” or visible) areas.

The question I ask, Are our male colleagues and our leaders, taking the few extra minutes needed to ensure a diverse group of voices will be engaged in problem-solving discussions?

I think not…


Examining our behaviour: Moving forward

The measure of great leadership is often tested in a crisis. Yet taking a few extra minutes to ensure the right people are at the table is imperative to maximise the likelihood of success for any organisation.

And sometimes the difference between good decisions, great decisions and even exceptional decisions can change or save lives.

That’s certainly been the case in 2020. Respected research proves that diverse and inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.

Teams that follow an inclusive process make decisions in half the time with half the meetings. Likewise, decisions made and executed by diverse teams deliver 60% better results.

From my personal experience, we still have a long way to go to get diverse voices around the table. Despite increasing efforts to boost women’s representation in decision-making, women continue to remain underrepresented in positions of power.

I therefore call on men and women alike to #Choose to Challenge.

Challenge the lack of women at the table. Challenge the underrepresentation of women in our work spaces, in religious institutions and in community leadership positions.

Women: speak out and step forward with courage.

Men: make sure that there’s space at the table – one of inclusion and diversity.

And those who hold misogynist views should not hold positions of power. We would not tolerate other offensive views – such as Islamophobia – so why should we tolerate misogynist views?

Let us hold a mirror up to ourselves. We need to ensure that hypocrisy is not tolerated in any setting.


Let’s remember that when a woman stands or speaks up, she is speaking from a shared female history.

This history is built on resistance amid a backdrop of collective marginalisation. And it’s gone on for far too long.

We #ChoosetoChallenge sexist narratives and patriarchal structures that exclude women in public spaces. We #ChoosetoChallenge narratives that dictate where, when, how and why we should “behave” in a particular way. We #ChoosetoChallenge ourselves.

Will you?

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