Tehmina Kazi is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) in London. She co-organised the first awards ceremony to acknowledge the achievements of the UK’s most powerful Muslim women and was shortlisted for Cosmopolitan Magazine’s “Ultimate Women of the Year Awards 2011” for her campaigning work.
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VB: Could you describe what it means to be a “secular Muslim”?
TK: Put simply, it means an approach to Islam that believes faith and government are two separate spheres; that the political leadership should not be religious, but secular and democratic. The contrasting school of thought would be Muslims who believe that their political governance should be by religious, Islamic leaders.
On a personal level, one can be a secular Muslim and still pray five times a day, sport a headscarf or beard and fast during Ramadan, or any combination of the above. What sets secular Muslims apart is their unyielding commitment to equality and universal human rights, even when these may conflict with certain traditions that purport to be religiously inspired. In practice, this could mean: encouraging women to take up leadership roles in Muslim civil society organisations, creating a safe space for LGBT people in mosques, and abolishing discrimination against members of minority sects e.g. campaigning against the boycott of Ahmadi butchers, which took place a few years ago.
Britain is often described as a society which adheres to “procedural secularism”. Theoretically, this means that it enables all voices, whether religious or not, to access the public sphere equally. Procedural secularism provides many benefits for British Muslims, including religious freedom.
As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practice our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security, with recourse to established anti-discrimination provisions if this is not the case. Many public sector workplaces now have multi-faith prayer rooms, and halal food options are available in school canteens. Britain steers clear of hardline “ideological secularism,” as practiced in countries like France, where state bans on certain items of religious clothing are de rigeur.
VB: Have you encountered any threats or negativity towards you for your work in gender equality?
TK: The BMSD has, at times, been ruthlessly criticised by both the far right and the far left, by non-Muslim Islamophobes and Muslims alike. So we have found ourselves in a double bind. I frequently take the brunt of these assaults. I have received a lot of flack from vicious bloggers, and had spiteful, vengeful comments posted on Facebook. I have been accused of being a “sell-out,” despite the fact that I have a long history of campaigning against foreign occupations and invasions. Some people have said I can’t represent Muslims because I don’t wear a headscarf. As I said before, I think I receive much more criticism based on what I wear – or don’t wear – than if I had been a man.
Most recently, there was an attack on my Huffington Post piece on Malala Yousufzai, where I wrote about the importance of universal education for all. The leader of a far-right group has also attacked BMSD on Twitter in the last six months. Fortunately, I have a strong support network, and I would urge anyone entering this line of work to cultivate one before they put themselves out there.
VB: So how would you describe the mission statement of your organisation?
TK: Overall, we encourage religious understanding and harmony …respect for different systems of beliefs…and we encourage an understanding and celebration of the variety of Muslim cultures, values and traditions which are present in British society. We do this through organised discussions, through reaching out to marginalised Muslim communities and also through providing a lively and interesting social/educational programme which showcases the variety of Muslim histories, cultures, values and traditions in the UK today.
VB: Part of your work is focused on ending violence against women?
TK: Yes. And we tackle injustices that take place within Muslim communities just as vehemently as those that are perpetrated against them – I think this is a very rare thing for a British Muslim organisation. I am also formally involved with the Tell MAMA project, as well as being a trustee of Hope Not Hate.
VB: Do you think that it is harder to be a female Muslim than a male Muslim, in terms of Islamophobia?
TK: On the percentage of anti-Muslim attacks that are perpetrated against women, we are looking at between 65-70% of them. At a street level, over 75% of attacks are perpetrated against visible Muslim females. It’s mostly women who are feeling the repercussions of anti-Muslim attacks because they are more likely to wear visible identifiers of their faith, such as the headscarf. Men, on the other hand, can sport beards for any number of reasons; facial hair is not automatically seen as a sign of religious observance in the same way.
VB: What about women who are not visibility identifiable as Muslim?
TK: Those women, such as myself, are prone to receiving other forms of abuse, like messages from strangers on social media. I have received these, but of course I can’t prove those occurrences were motivated by my religion per se….it’s important to note that this had never happened before Woolwich though.
VB: Are you quite outspoken when it comes to speaking up about feminism and Islam?
TK: Yes, I have consistently opposed the rhetoric of both extremist Muslim groups and far-right groups for the last four years, in a very vocal manner. The only flak I had received from the far-right until now was strategic trolling from the leaders of particular groups, but recently it has increased to personal insults from random strangers on social media.
VB: Tell me a bit more about the specificities of attacks that are perpetrated against women.
TK: It is clear that all women – not just Muslim women – are more likely to be attacked and/or intimidated when they take a strong public stand on any issue that goes against the status quo, be that the adoption of religious clothing or the expression of strong feminist opinions. The escalation of abuse perpetrated against female political bloggers, for example, is well-documented. However, it is not only the number of incidents that concern me, but the nature of the abuse.
Disparaging remarks against women are far more likely to focus on their physical appearance and how sexually available they are perceived to be (or the polar opposite, as in many of these cases). This is why many of the attacks against women that have been reported to Tell MAMA – in the wake of Woolwich as well as before – contain some element of religious clothing being forcibly ripped off, either hijabs or niqabs.
VB: What is your advice to Muslim women in times of heightened community tensions?
TK: I would advise women to be even more vigilant than usual. Keep checking the websites of organisations such as Hope Not Hate – and their social media channels – for details of protests where Muslims may be targeted, and avoid those areas. If an incident does occur, report it to the police and Tell MAMA at once. The more data we collect, the better-equipped we will become at dealing with the scourge of anti-Muslim attacks. Discuss the incident, and your emotions, with whoever you feel comfortable with e.g. a Victim Support counsellor, trusted friend or authority figure.
VB: What practical ways can Muslim women take positive action, alongside reporting?
TK: I would say by trying not to let it make you paranoid. Take part in civic activity – such as interfaith meetings and community festivals – to show the forces of hate that they won’t corrode our peaceful, cohesive society (which is what the majority of people want).
VB: Do you feel the term Islamophobia been invoked for other purposes?
TK: Yes. Unfortunately, legitimate criticism of certain practices that take place within Muslim communities (such as the exclusion of women, LGBT people and minority sects from religious spaces) is often stymied due to faux indignation about Islamophobia. This faux indignation often comes from people who are not Muslim, but are cynically using the cause and stirring up trouble to further their own political ends. It is crucial to discern between the two types, otherwise we (a) end up doing genuine Islamophobia victims a real disservice and (b) acquiesce to practices and attitudes which are undesirable at best, and downright harmful at worst.