The following script was delivered at the inaugural Women’s Conference held in Nottingham to celebrate the new facility built for women at the Karimia Institute
As-salaam aleikum ladies and gentleman.
Before I address the very interesting topic I’ve been asked to speak on, I’d like to say a very big congratulations to the Karimia Institute, Dr Musharraf and everyone who has been instrumental in setting up this really great facility. I hope and pray that the space is going to be used to its fullest by those it’s been developed for.
I’m sure some of you will have heard about and possibly followed the very interesting (sometimes heated) debate and discussions that have taken place this year, both in the mainstream media and via social media, about women accessing prayer spaces in mosques. What ensued were fascinating conversations that resulted in the next question being asked: actually, is there a need to have female only mosques or prayer rooms? To see something like this up and running in Nottingham is clearly indicative of the importance that an organisation like Karimia and more so Nottingham Muslims, put on this issue. Some, as I’m sure you’ll agree, are likely to make observations along the lines of ‘about time too’ or ‘too little too late’. In reality these things take time to develop – in some parts of the world far too long. But the important thing is is that it’s happening and our role must be to ensure that the needs of that younger generation of British Muslim women, will be addressed.
So the million-dollar question is how do we motivate and inspire women to work in Mosques and Islamic Centres? How do we motivate women to become involved in mosque management committees? Actually when you say that out loud it doesn’t sound like something particularly exciting let alone rewarding, does it? Why would any right minded woman want to spend 3, 4 hours, stuck in a stuffy room, with a bunch of blokes who don’t really want her there anyway? Let’s put it another way. How can we inspire and motivate women to play an active role in creating mosques and management committees that provide leadership, develop women to enable them become the trailblazers and play a vital role in educating and protecting our younger generation to prevent them getting involved in those things that can destroy their futures and life chances?
When I was growing up in Leeds, going to the Masjid on Leopold Street with my mum and my sisters was no big deal. All the women and their daughters would attend – it was never an issue around ‘can we accommodate them’ is there space’ ‘will men be cramped’. It was a given – the mosque and later the Islamic Centre, was there – not just for 50% of the Muslim population but 100% of its members.
Mum used to organise all sorts of events and activities, outings and ladies’ celebrations. I grew up believing that women actually had a part to play in the Muslim community that extended beyond making the food, setting the tables, and cleaning up afterwards!
Growing up I don’t ever recall my father saying “girls can’t do that” or “Islam forbids women from x,y,z”. In fact when we came to this country my father had always intended to go back to Pakistan. He didn’t and I remember asking him once why. His response as that he stayed in this country because he wanted his three daughters to be afforded the same chances, the same opportunities in life that were on offer to his three sons. A good education, the chance to have a career and good prospects in life. I suppose some of this also stemmed from my own mother, who was born in 1926 and was educated to what was the equivalent of GCSE standard (or those of a certain age ‘O’ levels). I remember joining the Labour Party in 1984. I couldn’t drive at the time but my dad used to make my brother drive me to the local constituency meetings and any other things I needed to go to. He supported me actively and it was never an issue.
So what has happened over the last thirty years? Finding a woman in a mosque in some parts of the country appears to be a rare event. To be fair finding young people in mosques (other than those attending Qur’anic recitation classes and the Friday congregation prayers) is equally a rare event. Whilst mosques are a wonderful place for filling that social gap that exists for our older male population, they seriously they need to be for everyone.
Islam affords women spiritual equality between men and women,
“Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth…and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember God much and women who remember – God hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward (Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (33:35)
Our demands from our creator are the same, male or female: to worship Him and Him alone, to fast, pay the annual alms, perform the pilgrimage, speak the truth and guard our modesty. Whilst our roles and responsibilities may be different this is not down to religion. That has more to do with our physiology, or personal choice or in most cases what over time becomes the cultural norm. And sadly it’s from here that the majority of our issues then arise.
1450 years ago Islam gave women rights not afforded to women in the west until 100 years ago. The right to own property, the right to inheritance, choose who they should marry, the right to divorce. Have any of you seen the film that came out a few weeks ago called Suffragettes? I haven’t seen the film yet but if you don’t know the history of who the suffragettes were and how they had to fight tooth and nail, in some cases literally sacrificing their lives to get women anywhere near regarded as equal to men, I recommend you go and see the film.
Despite the rights afforded to us, by our Creator, why are Muslim women so reluctant to become involved with mosques and committees? Where lies the problem?
Did Muslim women like Hazrat Khatija show any reluctance when accepting Islam and the message given to our Prophet? Did Muslim women hesitate when battles were being fought to pick up their weapons and defend the Prophet? Did women hesitate to work side by side with the men when mosques and homes needed to be built in Medina? Or when the injured returned from the battlefields? Or to defend our faith, prepared to die? Women contributed significantly to the early development of the Muslim community. Not only were many women the first to learn of Muhammad (PBUH)’s initial revelation but then played a key role in the process of collecting all the revelations from both written and oral sources into a single, authoritative text. The Prophet was known to consult women and consider their opinions seriously. His first wife, Khadija, was not only his wife and his friend but his first supporter and chief adviser – in fact before marrying the Prophet she was his boss. During the time of the Prophet women prayed in mosques unsegregated by curtains and barriers from men – there were occasions when they gave sanctuary to men, they engaged in commercial transactions and were encouraged to seek knowledge, they were both instructors and pupils. When Muhammad died the distinguished women of the community were consulted about who should be his successor.
British Muslim Women today are active participants in many grassroots organisations; development projects, economics, education, health, politics, charitable projects, relief efforts and social services give you some examples. Why the barrier then, when it comes to getting involved in mosques and mosque management committees?
So in conclusion I have three messages to pass on:
The first is a message for the women: do not take your inspiration or motivation from me. Take your inspiration and your lead from the women who lived during the early days of the Prophet who were involved in every aspect of the community they were building and were a part of. Take your inspiration from those amazing women from the early days of Islam who followed their Prophet and their faith and took a full and active part in the society in which they lived. Take your inspiration from Hazrat Khadija, a powerful, independent, wealthy business woman who fed and clothed the poor and provided financial assistance to family members. From Hazrat Aisha, courageous, intelligent and charming, from Hazrat Fatima, Nusaybah and Sumayyah may our Lord be pleased with each and everyone of them.
Secondly a word to the gentleman – please – take your inspiration from the most extraordinary man that ever lived. A man who worked for his wife, would was know to sew his own clothes, who swept the floor, played with his children, kissed his children and never ever said (to my humble knowledge anyway) ‘that’s your job”.
And finally I’d like to end with what is my favourite quote from Muhammad Ali Jinnah
“No nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”