4 // 2014

Women of faith

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Inter-faith specialist Lois Gallagher provides an informed guide to understanding the culture and the needs of young Muslim women, and suggests practical ways in which youth workers can begin to journey alongside them, and reach them with the love of Christ.

In February, David Cameron made a speech critiquing multiculturalism. He identified a tendency in this country for people to be ‘hands-off’ when it comes to moral issues in minority communities, such as forced marriage, and suggested that this approach can lead to young Muslims feeling ‘rootless’ and searching for a sense of belonging in extremist groups who prey on their vulnerability.

Whether this is an accurate reading of the situation is a matter of opinion. However, what is striking about the Prime Minister’s speech is that some of its ideas are echoed by young British Muslims themselves – certainly in one particular: that young Muslims in the UK are becoming more devoutly religious than their parents were at the same age, and that this searching for identity comes from a struggle about who they are and where they belong.

A sense of identity

Aminul Hoque, a British Muslim and lecturer at Goldsmiths College, suggests that after 50 years in Britain, many Bangladeshi immigrants still do not consider themselves British (see: Long Distance Nationalism: a Study of the Baghir Gati community Living in East London, Glasgow University, 2005). Nor do their grandchildren, who are in their teens and 20s. For them, Bangladesh has never been home, but Britain is a place where they do not feel entirely at home either. For some of these young people, being Muslim is an identity they can fully belong to - it gives them a sense of clarity about who they are.

Of course it’s clear that not all devout Muslims are extreme. And surely the orientation of identity primarily in religious faith can be a positive, rather than a negative choice for young people?

Christian youth workers must grapple with these questions. Not only because many of us are working in faith based contexts with young people, but because having even a basic awareness of the values and nuances of the communities around us is crucial to understanding the lives of the young people we come across and with whom we hope to communicate the love of Christ.

Walking a tightrope

I recently spent a year working with Bangladeshi Muslim young women in an area of East London characterised by high-rise council housing, yuppie dockside apartments and Halal food outlets. During the summer holidays, one of the group was desperate to see graffiti artist Banksy’s exhibition, being shown in Bristol Museum. Many young people in London rarely leave their borough, and for this group of modest and family-oriented young women, a trip to the South West was an adventure.

After examining the ironic paintings and irreverent sculptures (including Banksy’s painting of a young woman wearing a face-covering niqab and a novelty apron with lacy underwear printed on it) we ventured out into the sunshine for one of those infrequent but invaluable conversations which give a youth worker a new level of understanding.

As we sat on College Green in front of the Cathedral, the young women chatted about their ambitions for the future. They mused on the possibility of studying at a university such as Bristol. ‘My sister fought to go to uni,’ one of them shared. ‘My parents were against it but she got her way. Now they expect me to go too.’

‘The thing is,’ she continued, ‘I don’t think there’s any way they’d let me go to a University outside London. They’d be too worried about me to let me leave home. But I really want to go.’

I was reminded of a question I had been asked during my interview for the job. The scenario given was almost identical to this situation. I had talked about working with the parents to help them see that a Muslim young woman could undergo a higher education without losing her identity. I still believe that this is true. But I am now more acutely aware of the delicate tight rope these young women are walking between opposing worldviews.

Culture clash

In Bangladeshi culture, children are protected at the heart of the family. As they grow up, their commitment to the community is considered sacrosanct. Traditionally, a woman will live in her parents’ house until she marries and goes to live with her husband’s family. She may choose a marriage partner, but usually she will look to her family for agreement. Her decisions are not for herself alone, but for the whole. The Bengali word for society, ‘Shomaj’, describes an institution through which all individual actions are judged. Shomaj can intervene in a family to maintain moral order; each person’s actions have an impact on the family’s reputation.

I was involved in setting up a new group in one very traditional area of the borough and met suspicion and resistance from the community, including the local mosque. Then a volunteer came on board who was a prominent mother in the community. The other mothers trusted her, and suddenly we had a group of 10 young women attending the youth centre whose brothers all came along several times a week, but who had never engaged with any youth provision themselves. Still, it was a frustrating process negotiating certain issues, such as persuading the mothers to let their daughters travel on public transport to the cinema, even under my supervision. The local imam (priest) was shocked when he noticed a young woman waiting alone outside the centre for us to arrive: daughters’ reputations are precious and so handled with care.

Contrast this with the prevailing Western approach: young people are considered individuals, and moving away from home is a treasured rite of passage. A young woman may have various relationships, her choice of partner is usually based on her own feelings, and her family is expected to accept it as one of her individual rights. And living with parents beyond, say, the age of 21 can be frowned upon as a sign of laziness or reluctance to grow up.

Both approaches have their benefits and problems - and Bangladeshi culture in London is changing. Newlyweds do not always now live with their parents and in some quarters it is becoming more desirable for women to have a degree and a career. However, old values die hard, especially when they are under threat. The young women I was working with consider themselves both Bangladeshi and British, but this results in a confusing array of expectations.

My role was to widen their horizons and increase their opportunities, but according to whose values? And as a Christian working for an employer with no religious affiliations, what approach should I take in attempting to point towards Christ’s involvement in these young Muslims’ lives?

Empowered, not oppressed

Many of the young women were passionate about Islam and the sense of belonging it gave them; they felt Islam empowered them as women. It may have been because they had not reached a stage where they could consciously critique their faith, but they never expressed a sense of religious oppression. Rather, they critiqued the fact that their community had traditionally had low expectations of them, and used the values of Islam as a redeeming force against this. I lost count of the number of times they said, ‘Our culture says this... but that’s just not Islamic.’

For example, they felt aggrieved that youth services in the area had for so long been run by Bangladeshi males for Bangladeshi males. They wanted to be noticed and nurtured as equals, and to participate in activities such as scuba diving, snowboarding and weekends in the country. Many of the mothers of the more established group I ran, who were participants in the Bristol trip, were willing to let them participate in new experiences. They were also keen to meet me and make sure I was a trustworthy role model for their children.

The young women were adamant that the Qur’an gives a woman equal rights with her husband. Many wore hijabs (headscarves), but they claimed this was their own choice – and some did choose not to. One volunteer wore a hijab, but her daughters did not: she was happy to let them decide in their own time.

On one occasion, I shared with a colleague (a non-hijab-wearing Bangladeshi woman) that on a residential weekend I had gone into the dormitories to tell the young women to quieten down and was struck by the beauty of their hair, which for the most part I had not seen before. The experience had made me, with my Western values of freedom and individuality, feel a little sad. But my colleague reframed it for me. ‘Do you see now why they cover their hair? Bengali women are famed as some of the most beautiful in the world. They are proud to save their beauty for their husbands. And they get more respect from men that way.’

I asked the young women what is most important to their identity. They all said first, being a woman; second, being Muslim; and last, their nationality. They wanted to identify themselves as British, but felt disappointed by society’s treatment of them as Muslims and young women. Everyone had a story to tell about being a victim of discrimination, and being treated in a demeaning way by young men. Islam had become their refuge from these injustices.

Sharing faith

In partnership with a local church, I ran an interfaith residential. We encouraged Muslim and Christian young women to share their faith with each other, and to come together as members of one community to make it a better place. The young women were deeply interested in Christianity and extremely respectful of the Christians’ views. They call Christians ‘People of the Book’: together with Jews, we are all spiritually descended from Abraham and share many of the Old Testament stories in our holy books. The Qur’an holds Jesus in high esteem as the greatest of the Prophets. There are striking differences, of course: the idea of God (Allah) having a son is heretical to Muslims, as His childlessness is considered fundamental to His Oneness.

As the two groups discussed their beliefs, they discovered commonalities. They agreed that it was hard to be committed to God in a secular society. They sympathised with each other in their desire to save sex for marriage, whilst acknowledging that this is a struggle. They wanted to come together to make the world a more loving and just place. Devoutness was present, but from this group at least there was no trace of extremism. Extremism was denounced as something that is ‘just not Islamic’.

I felt humbled by the young women’s dignity and devotion to their faith. Rather than having all the answers, I wanted to learn from them to make my faith equally vital and distinct. I hoped that in my willingness to learn about their faith and respectfully share my own, I was enabling them to get a glimpse of the love and grace of Christ.

Lois Gallagher is a youth worker specialising in inter-faith work and mental health issues.

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