When Zara Mohammed was announced as the first female secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, my phone lit up with messages from my sisters, my mum and my colleagues. Uncles cheerily shared the news on WhatsApp; cousins from around the globe sent congratulations.
The MCB, an umbrella body of over 500 Muslim organisations, has been consistently male-led since its inception in 1997. So seeing its members – which include charities, schools, mosques and community groups – vote in a 29 year-old Scottish Muslim woman feels groundbreaking.
What is her vision? What are her priorities? What will she do alongside other young leaders? We want mainstream journalists interviewing Zara to ask these questions for us and the wider British public to hear. I’d be keen to know Zara’s thoughts on how we can all increase rights and resources for disabled Muslims, especially during the current pandemic, and how MCB will include more Shia and Black-led organisations in its membership.
What I care less about is something that Emma Barnett, host of BBC Woman’s Hour, recently took Zara to task for: the number of female imams in the UK. And I say that as a female imam myself.
In an interview about Zara’s momentous appointment, Barnett homed in on this one, non-existent statistic: “How many female imams are there in the UK?”
Zara rightly asked for some clarification – “are you referring to chaplains, are you referring to women who lead the prayer? What are you referring to?” – but was met with: “You tell me.”
Cue facepalming from Muslim women across the country at the lack of religious literacy from an experienced journalist, and at the shaming of a Muslim woman of colour by a white woman on a woman-led radio show.
Barnett likened statistical representation of female imams to the number of Muslims recorded in the UK census, and the appointment of female imams to female priests and rabbis.
She hadn’t done enough basic research to know that there is no registry of imams (of any gender) where this statistic could be recorded and – thankfully! – no central body within Muslim communities that has appointed itself responsible for work on this area of representation.
There is no Islamic equivalent to the House of Clergy, and that kind of work is not within the remit of the MCB.
As many people on Twitter pointed out, it speaks volumes that Woman’s Hour tweeted this particularly hostile clip – extracted from a longer interview – twice within 48 hours to continue shaming a Muslim woman for tackling patriarchy in a way that prioritises the needs of her community.
We felt the same despondence with Woman’s Hour at the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI), where we train and work with female imams.
IMI was founded in 2012 as a feminist mosque with the explicit intention to have women, genderqueer and non-binary imams lead prayers. At the outset, our founders shared a theological view on women’s right to lead mixed-gender prayers and gathered a community around it making clear that those who didn’t agree were still welcome. Few religious institutions in Britain can say that, Muslim or not.
Working with established mosques that have long, beautiful and complex histories is long-term, non-linear work. What Zara and other activists do is vitally important for the wider Muslim community and they must work in a way that prioritises the needs of their communities, not the white saviour priorities of white feminists like Emma Barnett.
Look, for example, at the community-led work of Vibrant Scottish Mosques, which works with mosques to centre the religious, educational, and social needs of women in their communities.
There’s writer Na’ima B Robert, who organised Black Muslim Renaissance in 2020, and the ongoing work by Batool Al-Toma to support new Muslims. MCB can support this community-led work to reach mosques through their Women in Mosques Development Programme and the Our Mosque Our Future conferences, where communities can discuss vital topics.
All this activity combined gives imams like me the resources we need to develop our roles so we can lead prayers, give useful sermons, conduct marriage ceremonies and signpost people to services they need.
The number of female imams is only one indicator for meaningful leadership changes in Muslim communities and it’s not the most important one. Not when leadership is so varied and specific to the communities being served.
Reducing our feminist progress to this one question about the number of female imams marginalises the other brilliant progress happening and imposes the priorities of white feminism on Muslim women.
Let’s not turn solely to institutions to solve problems that communities are already working very effectively on.
Naima Khan is an imam at the Inclusive Mosque Initiative.