UK: British government to set up a Muslim Women's Advisory Group

The group will include prominent Muslim women to advise the government on rooting out extremism, and to brief on Muslim women's issues.
The Muslim Women's Advisory Group is to be launched after the government came under pressure to help women in the Muslim community gain a greater say.
The group of 19 women assembled by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is to work as part of a grassroots counter-terrorism strategy. But some warn they face a tough time winning community trust.

Statistics and research show that Muslim women tend to be more marginalised than men - and in some communities face an uphill struggle to be heard outside their own homes.

Officials hope that greater support for a "silent majority" of women, including mentoring leaders, will help prevent terrorism by leaving them better placed to identify and block extremists radicalising young Muslims.

But the BBC has learned that some of the women invited to join the group have already faced direct criticism from inside their own communities, amid fears they are being recruited to "inform" for government. And some have already warned officials their work will be fatally undermined if it is presented purely as a counter-terrorism measure, rather than a broader attempt to tackle inequalities.

Shaista Gohir, an activist from Birmingham and director of polling organisation Muslim Voice UK, said that the women who had signed up wanted to make a positive lasting difference in their communities, rather than be seen as just another counter-terrorism prong.

'Greater role'

"I would not be involved if I did not think I could do something positive. It's good that government is at last listening to Muslim women - until now it has been just token gestures," she said. "I hope we can help government to understand how to assist Muslim women to play a greater role in civic or public life. Extremism is just one of the long list of things we want to address. If Muslim women can be empowered they can make a difference. But it is not something that happens overnight. If we are going to do anything to tackle extremism then that will probably be a long-term indirect impact. We're talking about a generational thing."

But a group which specialises in engaging with Islamic communities was sceptical about the plan.

Huda Jawad from Forward Thinking said: "On past experience the government has not been successful in reaching the grass roots. There's already a real danger the £70m allocated to the Muslim community last autumn will not have any impact."

She said Muslim women were already at the forefront of the fight against extremism as no mother would want her son to become a suicide bomber.

The group says its own research suggests a more effective way of countering extremism is for the government to spend more time talking to communities and addressing their problems, such as lack of education and employment.

Forward Thinking also says its research suggests Muslim women feel more emancipated, self-reliant and ambitious than is commonly thought. In fact, young Muslim men were most marginalised and in need of help.

The Department for Communities is expected to fund some women's projects from its £70m earmarked for counter-extremism measures. Forward Thinking is due to brief civil servants regularly on their progress in helping Muslim women.

By: Dominic Casciani

23 January 2008