An Interview With Muslim Women

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(EDIT: This piece was originally referred to as a focus group – I have received criticism on twitter for referring to it as that and have changed the title. To be clear this was a conversation with a group of women on a topic that was important to them. Of course there will be opposing views. Of course it is not seeking to be representative of all Muslim women. What is important is to enable the debate to happen and I hope this piece facilitates the voices of these women from their perspective)

I spoke with three Muslim women in mid-January 2022. The conversation explored the impact of transgender inclusive policies and the gender identity debate from their perspectives.

When I approached a friend of mine about this idea, she said it would be great to ask women from her community their views, because they rarely are. I am very grateful to her for facilitating that conversation for me.

I had such a good experience with these women, they taught me a great deal and really made me think, I am lucky they trusted me with their thoughts. The conversation we had is published below – the only edits are redactions of personal details.

I hope that service providers and policy makers read this and reflect on whether when applying trans inclusive policies and thus only providing mixed sex spaces, they can honestly say they considered Muslim women’s perspectives.

I think these three women highlight expertly the clash of transgender ideology with their rights as women with religious beliefs. I came away from the conversation reflecting on the reality of the policy creep associated with the demands from trans rights lobbyists, and the huge practical and emotional consequences for Muslim women.

Providers must understand that when they only offer mixed sex spaces, they are excluding women like Asiyah, Zaynab and Maryam*. Moreover, because of the intersections of racism and Islamophobic discrimination these women experience, they have exponentially less recourse to publicly challenge transgender ideology.  

I thank them for their time and very valuable contribution and I hope you will support their voices by sharing this piece.

Focus Group January 2022

Me: Explain to me what it means to you when someone says that a transgender woman, can enter your women only spaces

Asiyah – If someone describes themselves as a transgender woman what that means to us as Muslim women has very practical consequences. Within Islam, the religion is set – it was set 1,400 years ago and it is very clear that sex is biological. For example, if someone is born male then identifies later as a woman, to us that wouldn’t make a difference – because what our religion tells us is that male and female is set at birth, and it is set by God. It is not something for us to change.

As Muslim women the effect of trans inclusive policies is on our general social activities. For example, going swimming, or to a spa, or getting your haircut – you know a few years ago I could go and comfortably know that it would be an all-female space. If I was in a changing room, I could take off my head scarf – I could wear a swimming costume and feel comfortable. I actually don’t feel comfortable doing that at all now, because now if I enter a changing room I don’t know if everyone there is going to be biologically female.

At the same time, I am afraid to ask that question to the sports centre or service provider. I just feel that there is now a big push in the idea that ‘transwomen are women’. I respect that other people have their choices and views – but I think for those of us that don’t follow those beliefs it is really hard to challenge, and we are made to feel like we aren’t allowed to have our beliefs.

I am seeing this more and more for Muslim women – we are afraid to speak up because we don’t want to be accused of being a transphobe or of discriminating against transgender women. I just feel that when these people say that everyone has the right to choose their identity, they forget that everyone also has the right not to believe that identity.

I feel as Muslim women our voices have been entirely lost.

With social media it is very easy for women to be damaged anyway, but as a Muslim woman I am even more aware of that. It is incredibly easy for people to target you if they know you don’t agree with them. But if I spoke up, I could get attacked not just in my professional life (like other women have) but in my personal life too… 

I used to work in the domestic abuse sector, and I have supported women and girls going into refuges when they are fleeing male violence. One of the things we let women know, when they go into the refuge, is that it is an all-female safe space and that is a key factor as to whether or not they would flee. I very much doubt these women that fled to the refuge would have done so if the space wasn’t truly female only.

Me: Are you referring to all women, or are you saying it specifically for Muslim women?

Asiyah: I am talking about Muslim women from my community. But in terms of other women, they would definitely feel the same, maybe for different reasons.

Me: Yes, I agree. At Aurora and we routinely ask victims their views, and they want female only spaces and staff.

What I am interested in is the intersecting needs of Muslim women fleeing male violence – is it the aspects of their faith that makes their need to flee to a female only safe space non-negotiable?

Asiyah: Yes, as a Muslim woman I would not be able to live in shared accommodation with a man, no matter whether they were transgender or not. In our religion they are viewed as male. Unless that man is my brother, father or partner then I wouldn’t be able to do that, I couldn’t live in that space. It is a sin to share that space with a man.

Me: That was exactly what Dr Jhutti-Johal was saying in the interview I did with her about Sikh women…

Me: Zaynab what is your experience on these issues?

Zaynab: I think there were already difficulties before this issue took the spotlight. In Islam the norm is for men and women to be segregated, there is whole social system in Islam, and it is based on interactions between men and women in terms of their biology.

For me at work there are certain lines that I cannot cross, I cannot socialise with my male colleagues outside of work. We all know that a lot of the office promotion stuff that happens in those places. For example, you have socialised at a certain event and networked, you have scored some good points – you get recommended.

So, with this new issue of trans inclusivity, it adds another layer of complexity – whereas it was difficult for me before, now my ‘woman only’ events at work aren’t always possible either.

It is very difficult to practice our faith and simultaneously challenge, because I would get negatively stereotyped.

The thing is we don’t have an issue with transgender people – we just don’t go out and socialise or commune with men. Unless there is a certain framework, you know for work or education purposes then that’s fine, but in all other ways the norm is to segregate. We will deal with someone who is male, as male, irrespective of what they think or perceive themselves to be.

I am a doctor – if a forty-year-old man comes in and tells me he thinks he is five years old, well I can’t prescribe medication based on what he thinks he is, that is not going to work. In the same way Islam doesn’t revolve around what other people might think they are.

Of course, if you say something about this issue…there is a whole negative connotation as it is for the Muslim community, we are already on the back foot.

After Prevent, I know a lot of Muslims are very careful about how they articulate things, because they are worried, they will be judged. So, there is a psychological impact behind why Muslims would or wouldn’t say certain things to certain people. Why they would be careful about how they phrase things, because we are under the spotlight after Prevent. There is already a negative stereotype that we have to wade through before we can even say something.

Me: So, there are two things that I heard there – one is how much this issue is isolating you – so as a woman you are already on the back foot in your profession and as a Muslim woman your faith takes precedence over who you socialise with to get up the career ladder.

Then with regards to women only events, you cannot now know whether they are mixed sex, and you dare not challenge because of all the reasons you have explained – so do you just not attend or avoid all those things now?

Zaynab: yes definitely

Maryam: I think it would be difficult to tell going forward what a ‘women only’ event would mean. Now that trans women are included in it, it would only further isolate Muslim women as we won’t be able to participate in the event like any other women would. We won’t be able to take our hijabs off, or wear clothes that show parts of our body, that can only be shown to other women.

This can seem bizarre for non-Muslims to understand, but as people believing in Allah (God) who set rules of covering, we follow and obey them because he is our creator above everything and everyone else, so we trust him – in the same way a child would trust his mother.

Some would say these rules are restrictions to our progress as women, but I would argue that society sets those restrictions on us because if you look historically, the first university that was ever built on earth was by a woman called Fatima al Fihri in 859AD in Morocco… she covered, she held her faith close to her heart and was able to do all that without barriers, because society has a huge part to play in empowering women.

The society that Fatima lived in was during the golden civilisation, it pushed women to excel in many fields, regardless of her colour and dress code, it was her skillset and her intelligence that were valued. Our society could learn a lot from the golden civilisation.


Me: She sounds amazing. It explains how many restrictions outside influences have on you as Muslim women…

Asiyah: It is definitely an additional barrier because as a Muslim there are already things that prevent us from socialising outside of work. Like the others I don’t go to work do’s where there is alcohol, and as Zaynab says we don’t freely mix outside of our families with men.

Then add onto that people saying that something is an ‘all woman’ event or space but they open it up to transwomen – that is an additional barrier.

When I move jobs or apply for things, I have to think about all these issues beforehand. I already feel like there are things that will make it harder for me to form relationships with my non-Muslim friends or colleagues and now this whole new phenomenon of gender identity has just made it harder for me.

Zaynab: Actually, it is just easier for me to say I don’t socialise with men and I don’t drink alcohol and most people understand that and move on. But if you say I don’t socialise with people who think they are women, but they are actually a man, that will create an atmosphere, it isn’t politicially correct.

So, it is ok and politically correct for me to say ‘I don’t’ socialise with men’ but in reference to the gender identity debate it isn’t politically correct for me to say – ‘I don’t socialise with men’…

(Laughter – All of us!)

Me: It’s impossible isn’t it?

Zaynab: Yes! And the fact that this is such a big political issue even though it affects such a small minority, yet there are other people that are affected like Muslims – but we aren’t politically in favour. That in itself is really uncomfortable.

You know for me I just think why is this issue being pushed. There are so many other causes that need to be pushed and people do need to be uncomfortable about – for example for me it is violence against women. That is a huge issue that affects so many women and that isn’t being discussed nearly as much as it should. But the whole issue of having to be constantly careful around people’s feelings of gender identity, that is really being pushed, and I don’t understand why…

Me: What about you Maryam?

Maryam: To me, it means my existence and worth is of less value to everyone else, belonging to a marginalised group with already pre-existing barriers of colour, religion and sex, this only pushes Muslim women away further from enjoying their basic rights of doing normal things like swimming, going to the gym or getting a haircut.

And this is funny, because this government tells us continuously to assimilate, to engage and to participate with wider society, but policies like this don’t protect the interests, sensitivities and safety of Muslim women, so how are we supposed to manage it? We are expected to compromise our own values.

This notion is only pushing the same false narrative of Muslim women being passive and submissive, we have to look beyond to see why we are viewed in this way. When there’s lack of opportunities for a Muslim woman to do things that would empower her because of the barriers that have been put up against her by others, then why should she be forced to compromise her values? This notion brings so many things to question, and one of them is, what is our worth and value?

Me: It is definitely about breaking down and reducing women’s rights and spaces, but what fascinates me is how little some people think about how these policies affect women like you in so many different ways.

Zaynab: Yes it is really interesting I was chatting to my friend who originally lived in the middle east and she was saying as little girls we always wanted to be like the boys – we wanted to be out a lot more and playing football a lot more, but we never changed our gender. There are a lot of layers to this, there are also issues around freedom of choice.

You know I think for Muslims there isn’t this disharmony so much, we appreciate women for who they are and men for who they are and we celebrate that. The whole point of the social system in Islam is to allow for cooperation of the sexes, so they can live in harmony.

You know the perception is that for example if a woman has to cover that means she is lower somehow than a man because he doesn’t have to cover. But there was never this perspective that the man is the superior, or the man is the benchmark against whom everyone else is measured. I know here there is a different history because of the rights that women didn’t have in European society, but that isn’t what Islam is about. It is more now that women feel they have to compete with men.

You know it is important to understand that historically in the Muslim tradition this whole notion of men and women as equal, and the same, didn’t exist, and in some very traditional Muslim communities it still doesn’t exist at all.

Me: Can you tell me about the importance of your veil and why you cover?

Zaynab: It is a rule. As Muslims we believe that the one who is in the best position to decide what is in our best interest is the one who created us. At the end of the day, we all have to abide by certain rules in order to function in society in a cooperative way – the question then is – well who gets to decide?

I think that this is the debate that Muslims do not feel confident in having because then they are labelled as “anti-British” and “Fundamentalist” … and we can’t discuss it on the level of our values.

In terms of Islamic values, we do not believe that freedom of choice leads to a value base that creates harmony in society or cooperation. So, if you think about a family unit and for example Dad decides he is just not going to pick up the kids from school because he has freedom of choice and he wants to do something else, that family is going to live with a lot of disfunction. Everyone is supposed to interact and behave in a way that is best for the overall family unit. Similarly, in society there are certain values Islamically that we try to uphold, for example respect for a woman and respect for a man. You know, honour of a woman is something that is really very important in Islam and if you want to uphold that you have to live by certain values – so there are multiple rules and head covering is just one of them.

Me: I asked specifically about the covering and your veil because when I was interviewing a participant for my thesis the topic came up and although it didn’t fit into my themes, I remember it. The participant said that if Muslim women feel uncomfortable adjusting their hijab in a space with a transwoman in it then the onus is on the Muslim woman to leave. The participant said that the transwoman should always be made to feel comfortable. The premise being that women of faith should be educated out of their bigotry…or be excluded from that space

What is your response to that? How does that leave you feeling?

Asiyah: It is a huge double standard for me. This whole push of LGBTQ+ and accepting ‘transwomen as women’ that they must be treated equally as women – well where is the equality when applying these policies that are to the detriment of other women like me? You cannot claim that you stand up for equality if you haven’t thought about the best way to support every group and every person in those policies. That is very hypocritical.

On the one hand you are saying “hey look at me I am advocating for equality” but then not offering the same rights for women like me. For me as a Muslim woman it isn’t a question of choice – I took my choice when I decided to follow and believe in my religion – what I am not free to do is change that religion. So, living in the West, it is actually harder to follow my religion here, you have to fight for it here. I face more discrimination than someone who has no religion at all. That is what I don’t understand – you know this woke ideology – they advocate all these values but only for some. They don’t respect my religious beliefs when they dismiss me from their policies.

Zaynab: I mean if I am honest that is the debate isn’t it. Equality as a value doesn’t always work.

Asiyah: Exactly, what does that actually mean? You can narrow it down and say it is about rights and responsibilities and choices. I remember seeing this visual about the difference between equality and equity – in terms of Islam we follow equity rather than Equality in my view. That may seem alien to western culture. You know I just go back to the fact that I am free to choose my religion, but I cannot change religious rules that I abide by.

Me: No, nobody can – I mean there are different concepts and fringes to every religion and people philosophise about them for centuries. But you shouldn’t be expected to change your religious beliefs and rules…

I wonder if we can go back to the Prevent agenda. You have explained to me the impact is still very present and that has caused a silencing in your community and it sounds to me like you are having to navigate how others see you in your country. You have to be seen to be integrating and have to be a certain way – would you say if you raised objections within this debate it is too much of a risk?

Zaynab: I think it is that we have such big battles to fight in how we are perceived, there are so many that this is just one more in the grand scheme of things for Muslim women.

You know Islam in itself is an ideology – it will clash with ways in which we live in the West – and the transgender debate is just one of many awkward things we have to navigate.

Asiyah: Yes I mean for me when I refer to myself as Muslim, it is my identity, therefore biology dictates that framework for everything. You know if I was a victim of abuse and I had to flee one of the things I would know is that I am giving up so much. Women flee out of area, they move away from their social circles, they lose their jobs and their friends. As a victim of abuse, I would want something that was linked to my identity because I have already lost so much and have so little control over everything. So, if I had to leave, I would want to be in a space where I could relax in my PJs and take off my head scarf – I wouldn’t be able to do that if a man was in that space.

If a woman was forced to go into that space they would be completely confined to their room. They wouldn’t’ have that freedom of normal living, they would have to lock themselves away if the space had a transwoman in it. We do not recognise them as women, we recognise them only as men. If that happened to me, I would feel like I was still living the abuse as I would still have no control over my space and my freedom.

That is my perspective as a Muslim woman who has worked with other Muslim women fleeing abusive relationships.

Me: Alongside being life saving spaces, the whole premise of enabling a woman to access a refuge after male violence is so she can gain some control back – if we aren’t facilitating that in its entirety for Muslim women then it is almost an abusive act on our part as sector providers. And it isn’t obviously just Muslim women, there are other women of faith that this affects.

Asiyah: yes, I was at an event not so long ago with a Christian woman, it was an event about Harmful Cultural Practices – her values were very similar to mine as a Muslim woman, and I would say it affects a lot more religious women than we think it does.

Zaynab: Women generally and historically feel safer in women only environments don’t we – because men are the ones who largely do the harm  

Me: Absolutely. But it isn’t just about safety is it? It is about privacy and dignity. I don’t have any of the intersections of race or religion, but that is important to me as a woman – if I want to access a female only space, I should be able to do that…

Maryam: For me I have been listening to this conversation and it is so interesting.

From my perspective the Muslim community feels gaslighted, you know when we defend our stance, we are gaslighted and that has a knock-on effect generally on our confidence. I see a lot of Muslim women having to conform to western societal expectations in order to keep themselves safe from the gaslighting. Then it gets to the point where they compromise their faith so much that they lose their identity in order to feel valued as a person, that is something that this debate in particular for me evidences hugely.

It is a matter of clashing of values and of principles. Like the ladies have said today, our values and choices as Muslim women are from a higher being which is our creator and that will always take precedence over our individual values. My choice is whether I worship God or not. When I worship God, I take on the world view from the Islamic point of view from what God has set for us. The moment I start compromising that world view, that is when you get confusion.

That is why there is so much noise from feminists in the transgender debate, because there is a clash of rights and values.

Islam has always been timeless in that sense. The values didn’t come from Mohamed – peace be upon him – it came from the first prophet, Adam. Adam instilled that value of worshipping one God and sticking to that and not compromising, then it went through to Noah and to Jesus. Prophet Mohamed – peace be upon him – was the one who completed it by delivering the final message and it never changed from then. The Koran never changed – it is a timeless religion.

Me: So, it sounds very simple the way you have all explained it to me. It is the external influences, cultures or social movements that make it difficult to practice?

Zaynab: I think that is a fairly new phenomenon actually. In Islam we view women as sisters generally and men as brothers. But obviously this society is very sexualised. For example, when I went back to work after a long career break I hadn’t been in that environment and because I mainly socialise with Muslims and my social circles are used to that level of biological segregation. When I have people over to my house the women will go to one room and the men will go to the other, it just means we can relax more. When I went back to work, I was at a lunchtime meeting and it was all very professional but one of the other women made a passing comment about a man being ‘hot’, I had to remind myself that I am not used to this environment.

Then when it came to me asking a colleague for help, I was really worried as I thought if I ask a man what will he think? Thankfully there was another Muslim male colleague there and he referred to me as Baji, which means older sister and is a term of respect. I instantly thought, thank goodness I can ask him for help.  So, I think even on a societal level that exists already for me as a Muslim woman – you know when we see men, and it is hard to do this in our society, but when we see men – we are supposed to see them as our brothers and they are supposed to see us as our sisters.

Me: That is really interesting you had that code between you and your colleague who called you ‘Baji’, did that gave you that sense of safety?

Zaynab: yes definitely – that would be the norm in an Islamic society, if you went to another part of the world that was Muslim and adhered to the social laws of Islam. For example, when men are conversing with you in those countries they shouldn’t be and they won’t be staring at you – and if they are not conversing with you then they definitely shouldn’t be looking at you because one of the rules in Islam is to lower the gaze, so unless you are in a specific reaction with each other you cannot just be eyeing up the opposite sex because you feel like it.

Me: Wow that is fascinating put in that context when living in this society and trying to adapt to those cultural situations.

I hope it has it been helpful to have this conversation and to be asked your views on this? If there was one message you want to give women like me that work in my sector, or policy makers and politicians what would it be?

Asiyah: I was saying to Maryam actually that I have got to a place where I feel voiceless because of this expectation that I should always be advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. If I spoke out against some of the infringements of the clash to my rights I would be labelled. If someone makes a personal choice in how they live their life and how they identify that is fine, I have no issue with that, but I just want them to respect that not everyone thinks that way.

The important thing for me as a Muslim woman is for people to ask, because nobody ever asks us those questions. It is like an unwritten rule just not to talk about it, but actually if they ask us about it they can see that people like me who disagree with them are not being bigoted.

I think this is the first time I have ever been asked what my views are, I have never been asked before what I think about this topic.

Zaynab: For me it is really refreshing to talk to you because it is very easy to go with the flow, it is harder to go against the tide and that is what you do. It is lovely that you genuinely want to know -that you question things and that you want to know about things. If you want to know about something it is always best to go to the source.

You know for us, we don’t always know about our religion because many of us have been born here and we have picked stuff up as we go along, you know like in Friday school (the equivalent of Sunday school), or whatever it is right? It is not a way of life for us here – so we have to go back to the sources and look at the texts and books – I think you would find that really interesting.

Me: It is important for me that when I ask you for your experience in this debate I also need to understand more about your religion and what that means to you. I will always fight really hard for you to go into a single sex space and adjust your head scarf, and go swimming or enter that refuge. But in order for me to understand I need to get the importance of the reasons why that is essential for you.

In understanding it then it gives much more nuance and leverage to explain to other people, to policy makers why this aspect of your religious rights and freedoms are so important. So, thank you so much for explaining things to me so clearly and trusting me.

During the consent process Maryam and Zaynab wrote to me asking for the following thoughts to be added to the message they would like to pose to policy makers and service providers:

Maryam: Is our worth, as Muslim women less than everyone else? I feel like this mindset has been conditioned through media propaganda, when a group of people are constantly criminalised and demonised by the media and politicians, we lose our value… when Boris Johnson ridiculed Muslim women and called us letterboxes, these messages have an impact on society. It’s the same style that’s used to dehumanise non-white refugees, so when they’re shipped off to a different country it’s not seen as criminal, whereas it would be if the same thing were to happen to white refugees.

It’s all about perspectives and conditioning of the mind through these channels. Some people feel enforcing transwomen’s rights to enter women’s spaces is protecting liberal values, and whoever falls outside of those values needs to conform. What that achieves is to further isolate marginalised communities with different sets of values.

They are putting women like us at the backfoot of society because we choose to hold strong to our own values and religious beliefs… we should never be forced to make that choice but here we are.

It’s ironic because the UK is one of the most diverse countries in the world and champions women’s rights – but this forces women to fit to a certain model or idea of ‘empowered women’. Their enforced policies actually disempower us and force us to compromise our own belief system, which denies us access to our spaces and our basic rights.

Zaynab: It often feels like in order to validate other people’s beliefs we have to invalidate our own.

ENDS

*All names have been changed

Dr Shonagh Dillon

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