Profile: Sara Khan

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In a year beset with tragedy heaped upon tragedy, one would be forgiven their misgivings about what lies ahead in 2016. Increasingly familiar scenes of discord and distress, all too regularly visited upon our communities, have now, unfortunately, become commonplace. 

When terrorist attacks on Paris cease to shock, when Islamophobic rhetoric becomes normalised and when a nation is uprooted, its homes destroyed, its communities shattered and its people dispersed in flight, the fallout is immeasurable. Not least does this impact upon our Muslim friends and neighbours here at home, where tensions have recently been on the rise. According to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, 60 per cent of British Muslims have witnessed incidents of Islamophobia, up from 40 per cent in 2010. Similarly, Tell MAMA reports that the victims of such crimes are disproportionately women – many of whom, it must be said, are specifically targeted because of their traditional Islamic dress. 

Yet these are not the only issues encountered by Muslim women in contemporary Britain. Seven out of every 10 Muslim women are economically inactive; there is a distinct lack of female leadership among Muslim organisations and mosques; and, in some cases, young women find themselves victims of forced marriages and ‘honour-based’ attacks. 

Launching their #MakingAStand campaign in September 2014, Sara Khan, director and co-founder of Inspire, and one of the top 10 influencers on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour 2015 Power List, is determined to make a change by putting women at the forefront of strengthening communities. Established in 2009, Inspire believe that “women have a role to play in public life”. Practising what they preach, Mrs. Khan replied to my email almost instantaneously, eager to explain the origins of her NGO and the aims of their work. 

“For my part, I spent 15 years or so engaging with Muslim communities and mainstream organisations. Then, a few years ago, a couple of us just became really frustrated with what was on offer.

“There were two concerns for us; one of them was that we were seeing more and more young Muslims being drawn into extreme interpretations of Islam. We didn’t think that there were many Muslim organisations doing enough to counter that, especially where having women’s voices in among all of this was concerned. That was one of the reasons why we stepped up – to try and address issues surrounding Islamist extremism. The second issue is actually around gender inequality in Muslim communities because again we were frustrated about having spent so many years working with local initiatives, but we weren’t really seeing much progression around gender equality and tackling discriminatory attitudes that existed within these communities.”

In response to a report conducted by the Runnymede Trust back in 2013, Khan spoke of how “the glass ceiling is incredibly low for Muslim women.” Further studies, such as those carried out by Dr. Khattab of the University of Bristol, only serve to corroborate this. Unemployment is as high as 18 per cent among Muslim women versus nine per cent and four per cent for their Hindu and Christian counterparts respectively. 

“Muslim women are sidelined by almost everyone in society. Within Muslim communities they’re not often encouraged to take up positions of leadership in key institutions or mosques. In fact, a lot of mosques still, even to this day, do not allow the entry of women, do not provide adequate facilities or representation for women. And also, on the flipside, there are problems with the way Muslim women are treated in wider society, too. Muslim women are more likely to be subjected to Islamophobic hate or discriminatory practices, simply because they are so visible.” Khan also went on to note “the hateful activities” of far-right groups such as the EDL, to whom almost half of online Islamophobic abuse is traceable. 

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“But at the same time,” cautions Khan, “I’ve seen how some on the political left or certain liberals have turned a blind eye to measures that negatively affect the lives of many women.”

“There was a case two years ago, back in December 2013, with Universities UK where they issued out guidelines suggesting that gender segregation on campuses should be respected if the Islamic society is calling for it. Preachers like Haitham al Haddad, who has spoken at some twenty Isocs in the last two years, has argued that women should withdraw from public life, hoping to disempower them by denying them their economic self-determination and silencing them through their invisibility. Here, the rights of Muslim women are being ignored. Their rights have not been recognised in the same way as other women in this country because it’s almost as if we should assume all Muslim women want to follow a very conservative interpretation of Islam.”

This echoes sentiments expressed in The Guardian by Lucy Ward, who discussed, in light of recent research, how Muslim women “believe [that] they are widely misrepresented in the media” and consequently, “end up as ‘pawns’ in national debates” of issues that are of great concern to them. 

“A lot of Muslim women are not conservative,” explains Khan. “They have no interest in following a very dogmatic interpretation of Islam. And I, like some, believe in the more egalitarian form of the faith. But often I felt that British institutions and liberals don’t seem to recognise that, and they appear to hearken toward the more conservative elements. And again, I believe that, in doing this, you’re sending Muslim women down the river. For me, all I’m really advocating for is for Muslim women to be treated fairly, in keeping with the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and all of those values which we, as a society, take for granted.” 

Such criticisms come amid mounting unease with the restricted parameters of intercommunal dialogue. Successive governments have tended only to consult male-dominated groups on policy, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, where, the Guardian reports; women’s perspectives are ‘either absent or extremely marginalised.’ 

Khan admits of this dilemma. “Governments are trying to engage with what they see as a representative body but it’s a only one piece of the puzzle.” This is because they are not ‘representative’, not in the truest sense of the term. “It’s completely farcical to think that there’s such a thing as ‘a Muslim community,’” argues Khan. “Nobody can claim the right to speak on the behalf of the 2.7 million Muslims in this country precisely because we are so diverse.” However, due to misinformation and the portrayal of Muslim women in the media, “We paint this very homogenous, monolithic picture of ‘the British Muslim’ as if it applies across the board.” Indeed, all this in spite of the fact that we really ought to know better:

“There was a report by CLG a few years ago highlighting that there were 13 different ethnic make-ups of Muslims in this country. You have Somali Muslims, Sudanese Muslims, white English Muslims, South Asian Muslims – so it’s a richly diverse intersection of society.” 

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As a result of this narrow conception, conflicts within ‘the Muslim community’ go largely unnoticed, or unabated. Khan points toward some activist groups that “try so hard to confront these issues, but at the same time promote intolerance toward Shi’a Muslims, or promote hatred against Ahmadiyya Muslims, or perhaps embrace homophobia.” LGBT Muslims need “our solidarity and support,” says Khan, something that respected LGBT activists have not necessarily catered for well in the past. Likewise with Muslims who carry out “counter-extremism work” or “subscribe to secular democracy.” But it takes time for these ideas to become popularised. 

“For example, throughout the 80s and 90s, it took 20 years really, for society to come to terms with the fact that FGM is not a cultural practice that we should respect and appreciate, but an affront to the rights and dignity of women that is actively harmful.” 

Speaking on the trouble of radicalisation, Khan was keen to stress that no one factor or set of circumstances is solely responsible for one’s extremist beliefs.

“There is no single profile for a person who has been radicalised, who has been drawn to extremism. So you will find people who are quite wealthy, who are well-educated, who have been very successful at university, who earn a good wage and so on, that have been attracted to Islamist extremism. People sometimes refer back to the case of the doctor and engineer, Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed, who tried to carry out a suicide bombing attack on Glasgow International Airport in 2007, with regard to this fact.

“However, generally speaking, one commonality, if anything is that, one, there is an issue around belonging and identity. Some people suffer from alienation, a feeling that they are misfits or perhaps, aren’t accepted by British society. And secondly, bearing in mind that there is no single profile, what I see with people who have gone off to join ISIS or to fight in Syria is that for some young people religion isn’t the main driving factor, but it’s often used as the final justification for them to go and fight. This may be fuelled by other issues and grievances, mainly to do with ideology or personal hardship.” Nevertheless, for every person that has left Britain to join ISIS, there are a considerable number more Muslims “who are dying because they are standing up and opposing Islamic extremists, particularly in Iraq and Syria.” And sadly that aspect of the situation is not emphasised nearly enough. 

With regard to government policy, Khan expressed some reservations about the implementation of Prevent, but fully agreed with it as a strategy. “There’s a lot of myth and false information on what Prevent actually is about, and that’s not helpful. Can it be improved? Of course, but it is exactly what is needed, in the same way we take preventative measures against knife crime, or drug crime, or gang crime.

Tinged with a touch of sorrow in her voice, Mrs. Khan lamented the near synonymy between Islam and terrorism in 21st Century parlance. “My religion has been tarnished, and it pains me greatly to say it, but at the same time I see that as a driving factor, and from a spiritual past perspective, I feel spurred on in my duty as a Muslim to reclaim my faith back from the grasp of extremism and terrorists.”