“The Issue” is TMWT’s exploration of what Muslim women experience and the nuances that shape them. **In this instalment, the TMWT team spoke with Maryyum Mehmood, a British gender-rights activist on Gender-based Violence in Muslim Communities.**
Today marks the end of the worldwide Campaign to oppose violence against women and children. Aiming to raise awareness and reiterate the negative impact that violence and abuse have on women in Muslim communities, TMWT had a chat with Dr Maryyum Mehmood on how Muslim communities can work to put an end to gender-based violence.
Dr Maryyum Mehmood is the Centre Facilitator at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham. Through her YouTube channel, The SHIFT with Maryyum, she curates content to increase religious literacy and foster social harmony. She is also a Trustee of the Women’s Interfaith Network.
TMWT: In what ways do gender-based violence manifest in Muslim communities.
Maryyum Mehmood: Gender-based violence is ubiquitous, it exists all around us and no community is immune from it. It manifests in Muslim communities much like it does anywhere else, in that it entails the suppression and subjugation of women and girls, which presents itself in a multitude of forms of abuse- emotional, mental, psychological and physical.
What is unique to the expression of gender-based violence in faith communities is that there is a distinct and deeply insidious form of abuse known as spiritual abuse. This involves the weaponisation of religion to justify the abuse or harm perpetrated against victims. Spiritual abuse can be used to target men as well, however, given the dominant patriarchal structures propping up in Muslim spaces, the overwhelming majority of targets of this form of abuse happen to be vulnerable women and girls.
I have discussed the matter in detail through my YouTube series on Spiritual Abuse and spoken word in honour of survivors of domestic violence, specifically in Muslim spaces.
TMWT: What would our community look like if our gender equality goals were met?
Maryyum Mehmood: It is important to signpost what we mean when we talk about equality amongst men and women, because many people who are afraid of losing their unquestioned control and position of power within Muslim spaces are persistently, and rather purposefully, misconstruing the term in order to make people hostile towards equality of women.
As Muslims, we believe that all human beings, in our various different cultures and intersectional identities, are to be judged equally in the eyes of Allah. Thus equality is not a matter of biology but one of social justice.
Gender equality goals are about attaining the fundamental rights of women and girls worldwide. This entails breaking down barriers that inhibit women’s mobility and inculcating empowerment of women and girls, for example in receiving a good quality of education and ability to pursue independent careers that would provide them with financial literacy and stability.
Complete gender equality at its very core would ensure that women in our communities would not feel fear in their own existence. They would not face the burden of unfounded social expectations or stigma attached to them simply on the basis of their gender. This would mean a complete overhaul in mindsets and for this, we would need to engage male allies; much unlearning and re-education is necessary amongst men as much as women.
TMWT: What are Muslim communities missing out on by not maximising the talents of both genders?
Maryyum Mehmood: As mentioned earlier, patriarchal structures are very much embedded within the structures of communities and spaces. Unfortunately, this leads to a clear cut binary in terms of traits and characteristics that are associated with women and men, respectively.
These rigid binaries and fixed roles are susceptible to abuse in that the logic behind them can force men and women to remain complacent, and this can cause stagnation in terms of societal progress. For example, traditional patriarchal mores dictate that the primary duty of a woman is that of a wife, mother, sister or daughter. Her role in life is defined by her relationships with male authority figures. What happens when a woman does not fit this ideal, cookie-cutter mould? It does not make her any less of a Muslim woman. But unfortunately, our society determines her worth as a person according to rigid relations, which severely limit her capacity to flourish in domains like education, career, leadership, activism etc. This is because according to the patriarchy, her only rightful place is in the home.
Men also suffer from the constraints imposed by this rigid binary. There are certain stereotypes of what it means to be a ‘real man’. Men who are typically traditional in their expression of masculinity lack sensitivity and empathy, and they are emotionally stunted. Men who express their emotions, men who cry, are compassionate and show a ‘softer’ side are scolded, as these traits are deemed a feminine ‘weakness’.
Not only are some people losing out because they advocate for a socially isolated existence of women, but also, generation after generation of men in these societies are incapable of expressing themselves, of understanding and communicating; they lack training in the most basic of social skills, not due to an illness or disorder, but because they have been raised to behave in this manner.
TMWT: What could be the reason why Muslim communities evade conversations around gender-based violence?
Maryyum Mehmood: Having these conversations, means questioning the patriarchal structures of power. What those in unquestionable positions of authority often fear is that such engagement would lead to the exposure of truth. Now, others who occupy positions of legitimate power will not fear and in fact, many of them have already welcomed such questioning, and embraced it. This is because our faith commands us to engage in critical assessment, to use our aql, logic and reason. That is why when I have these conversations with leading ulema and scholars many are incredibly supportive and that is a positive sign, alhamdulillah.
The issue is that those who are afraid of losing hold of power often resort to using spiritual abuse tactics in order to maintain their grip. That is rather damning and must be confronted by academics and activists in alliance with influential and sympathetic scholars. Ultimately, our purpose is social justice from within Islam. Thus unity is incredibly important in fulfilling this objective.
TMWT: Do you think Muslim communities have room to improve our gender equality?
Maryyum Mehmood: Certainly. We all do. But the most important step towards effective improvement is that we unlearn regressive ways, and instead nurture equality amongst humanity, through faith and reason. It is imperative that we value and cherish a plurality of voices, approaches and visions, respectfully. The roadblocks occur because everyone thinks that their interpretation or rulings are the only ‘right’ way, and they end up brawling over semantics, which is such a long, drawn-out, and often messy and fruitless activity. That is what impedes progress and stifles questioning. Fundamentally, it is why we are at a loss.
TMWT: What is one thing that Muslim women can do to end gender-based violence in our communities?
Maryyum Mehmood: Stop being pawns of patriarchal violence. Quite often, older women who have lived through their fair share of gender-based violence, which they have experienced either directly or indirectly, are the first to chastise other, more vulnerable women. This is perhaps out of jealousy of the potential opportunities and avenues available to younger women of the current generation with the passing of time. I implore them to keep in mind that mocking, shaming and ridiculing other women will not free them from the chains and shackles of the patriarchy. In fact, tearing down other women will only embolden abusers. What we as women should be doing is uplifting and standing shoulder to shoulder in the sisterhood. We will never be fully free if our sisters are suffering in silence at the hands of social stigmas or state securitisation. We must work towards ending all forms of violence and oppression directed at women and girls worldwide.
TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.