Muslims are once again in the TV limelight with Channel 4’s Dispatches programme this evening entitled “Women Only Jihad”. The aim of the show was to show MPAC challenging the conservative mosques around the UK to open up to women – currently over half of the 1600 mosques in Britain do not allow women access to worship.
The participation of women within the Muslim community – and the mosques that symbolise the physical location of that – is a huge issue for Muslims to deal with. It’s good to see the profile of the problem being raised. I’m always deeply frustrated and angered by the exclusion of half of the community from the centre of muslim community life. Lack of space for prayer is usually the reason cited for women being excluded from the mosque, but this begs the question: what is the function of the mosque? That is one of the elements of the debate that needs to take place. The other is: what is the role and value of women as Muslims, as Muslim women within the Muslim community, and as Muslim women within the wider community.
The poverty of the debate about these two issues, and especially about their intersection, women in mosques, creates the farcical programme we saw this evening. I don’t think either Channel 4 or MPAC have anything to be proud of. The topic that was chosen is one of great interest and depth, and it did not get the lightness of touch or unravelling of complexity that it deserves. The male establishment figures within the Muslim community definitely need to be hauled up, but this programme did nothing to explore what lies behind these traditionally patriarchal values, nor how they vary between different Muslim subcommunities.
MPAC is a vociferous and controversial Muslim organisation, and therefore very photogenic and media friendly. I find them hugely entertaining and Asgher Bukhari usually has some good soundbites. But I watched with my hands clasped across my eyes willing them to make the firm stand they are renowned for, without embarrassing themselves or Muslims at large. However, their aggressive confrontations at mosques (what do you think is going to happen if a group of women turn up and start shouting in front of a mosque? It ain’t gonna be pretty). It was addictive viewing.
Alas, MPAC did not show the required sensitivity to the depth and complexity of the epic challenge of creating change within the Muslim community. They also failed to show the steady and solid changes that are being made in other mosques. We saw nothing of mosques where Muslim women are participating fully and actively and which truly serve as the centre of the community. It’s true that these are rare, but statistically they probably represent the same proportion of the Muslim community as does MPAC with its views.
I was mostly disappointed with MPAC because of the short term goals of their strategy. It is very important to get women into mosques and create a space for them. But what for? What would the feisty young women have achieved by praying one prayer in the mosque? They would have left, and then the local women would have been no better and no worse off.
If Real Change is the goal, then local women must want the change themselves, and must be willing to work with the elders and leaders (and yes, sometimes it is an old boys’ club). So change must come through working with women as well as committees.
I know of mosques where the men agree to open up the space, and then women don’t come, and they say “see, where are they? The women themselves don’t want to come.” So the change needs to come from both women and men.
Perhaps I could recommend – and I say this with the best and sincerest intention – that MPAC get themselves down to some training on how to create long lasting change in organisations. This is the way to make a real impact and make a tangible difference to women’s lives.