Faith-inspired, ethically driven Muslim women during the Covid-19 pandemic

Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash

In July 2022 I presented a short paper to the annual British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion study group (Socrel) conference on faith-inspired, ethically driven Muslim women during the Covid-19 pandemic. Knowing that there is a wealth of research on Muslim women based on stereotypes and popular discourses where Muslim women are seen in “need of saving and increasingly symbolic of threat” (Easat-Daas 2022), I set out to explore how Muslim women engage in political activism in Britain.

Recent studies show how Muslim women are increasingly politicised and politically visible post 9/11 and 7/11 (Joly and Wadia 2017; Lewicki and O’Toole 2017; Massoumi 2015; Rashid 2014). However, we rarely hear from local Muslim women activists going beyond the prevailing stereotypes of Muslim women.

This blog examines how Muslim women are engaging in faith-inspired, ethically driven political activism during the Covid-19 crisis. Using qualitative interview and focus group data, I demonstrate the salience of Muslim women activists in their local communities and social media. Why is religion an important motivating factor? How do Muslim women participate politically during a pandemic and what types of political activism do they get involved in?

The Muslim women in my research engage in a range of activism from grassroots campaigns, online social media, running food banks and community kitchens to building networks and organisations. They are motivated by their “religion” and strive for “justice for [the] people” and for “fairness and equality”. These universal principles, which many of us observe and follow, were quoted by these Muslim women as they spoke about their faith (religion) and how it shapes their political actions and activities.

Using personal contacts, networking and snowballing techniques, I interviewed 31 Muslim women (aged 23–75) online during March to September 2022 who were involved in political activism through their roles as community leaders, campaigners, politicians and community activists. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, both in terms of employment and ethnicity as well as different geographical locations, these Muslim women activists “felt the need to help” their community and get involved during the pandemic crisis. They are politically aware and vocal about their local communities need and the impact of the pandemic on local people and the wider British society.

How did these Muslim women activists from my research participate in three different types of political activism during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Volunteering

Muslim women took up voluntary activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as running mutual aid programmes, foodbanks and community kitchens. Ruby volunteered for her local food bank, stating “the entire project is run by [Muslim] women”, while Leyla, a mutual aid volunteer, explained she was “more active… because of the situation that we’re in.” Campaigner and politician Aiza organised a “mutual aid group… running hundreds of volunteers and food distribution and a phone line and getting people’s medication and shopping”. Seeing how other Muslim women across the country were doing the same thing, she became a ‘voice’ for her local community. Muslim women, she explained, take on caring responsibilities at home and outside the home because “that’s what we do in all our spaces.” These Muslim women were critical and vocal about the government’s lack of support during the pandemic and provided practical support to help their local communities.

Breaking the stereotypes, supporting Muslim women

Muslim women offered practical support through volunteering when they felt the need to step up, but they were involved in women’s rights campaigns too. They supported other Muslim women by speaking out and campaigning on issues that affect Muslim women and women in general. For example, Leena hosted meetings for Muslim women after seeing how the #MeToo campaign affected them. Similarly, Rahma and Maryam focused their political activism on Muslim women’s rights, representation, discrimination and justice. Describing herself as a faith-inspired activist, Maryam explained how her “lived experience [as a female, Muslim activist] really influenced my decision to stand up for other women [and] speak [out on women’s] issues”.

To ensure “our voices [are] heard”, these Muslim women cited organisations such as Citizens UK, a community organising charity, and Women100 Citizens, a network of women from different faiths, as good examples of organisations where Muslim women are actively involved.

Using social media and online spaces

Muslim women used social media and online spaces to exercise their political activism and they are “more active on social media because they [cannot] raise their voices or protest in different ways” [due to the Covid-19 pandemic]. “They’re using these [online] platforms a lot more effectively,” said Shakira. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, Muslim women were “connecting together, organising events… seminars and webinars or WhatsApp groups or book groups, online prayer groups” and discussing issues on social media. For example, Bilqis used social media to challenge and discuss issues affecting her. As she explained, this ensures that “people will listen to me”. In contrast, Jabeen used WhatsApp and Facebook to identify and denounce organisations that don’t live up to residents’ expectations of good service. She used social media to speak out against injustices and inequalities faced by local people, holding those in power accountable.

So, what drives these Muslim women to get involved in politics? The Muslim women in my research described their faith as their motivation with their activism as “rooted” in their religion, Islam:

As Muslim women we do take our faith very seriously and everything starts and ends with our faith, we do everything with those intentions” (Farah)

“It was definitely my religion [and] being a practising Muslim, I felt I needed to give back to the community” (Sophia)

“We don’t separate our faith from the stuff that we do. We recognise that this is literally what Allah has commanded of us that we seek justice for people, we seek fairness and equality and to live in a society where people are all treated in fair ways.” (Fabiha)

Inspired by Islamic principles of justice, these Muslim women support and advocate for the poor and vulnerable in society: they speak out against injustices and inequalities and simultaneously challenge the prevalent stereotypes in public and political discourses that portray Muslim women as ‘passive’ and ‘uninterested’ in politics. These Muslim women actively volunteer and engage in a variety of projects, charities and social media platforms to provide a critical voice and fight against injustices and to protest inequalities. They raise awareness, run campaigns and set up foodbanks, mutual aid projects and networks to support people do what is right. They are faith-inspired, ethically driven Muslim women activists.

Shahanara Begum is a PhD researcher at Birmingham City University, investigating British Muslim women and political activism to demonstrate their active role in British society through community and social media activism and politics.

References:

Easat-Daas, A. (2020) Muslim Women’s Political Participation in France and Belgium. New Directions in Islam. Palgrave Macmillan.

Joly, D. and Wadia, K. (2017) Muslim women and power: political and civic engagement in West European Societies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lewicki, A. and O’Toole, T. (2017) Acts and practices of citizenship: Muslim women’s activism in the UK. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40:1, pp. 152–171.

Massoumi, N. (2015) “The Muslim woman activist”: Solidarity across difference in the movement against the “War on Terror.” Ethnicities, 15(5), pp. 715–741.

Rashid, N. (2014) Giving the silent majority a stronger voice? Initiatives to empower Muslim women as part of the UK’s ‘War on Terror’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37 (4). pp. 589–604

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