We at JAN Trust have been celebrating International Women’s Day for thirty years this year. Every year we look forward to it not only as a chance to celebrate women and their achievements, but as an opportunity to reflect on society, feminism and the work that we do here. Each International Women’s Day comes with a new and interesting lens to look at women’s positions in the world and ask ourselves; how are we helping in this area?
This year’s theme is #Balanceforbetter and we have really thought about what ‘balance’ means to us, as a charity and as women. Women have taken control of the headlines in recent years, making themselves heard in regards to sexual harassment and abuse, with the ongoing power of the #MeToo movement. The movement has spread throughout many sectors, from politics to Hollywood, and even to countries where women’s rights are still woefully ignored. Sexual violence against women has been highlighted and challenged in other areas, such as with the first UK conviction for FGM. Just recently the government announced plans to change the syllabus so that all children in the UK will have to learn about FGM, hopefully protecting many girls of school age who are vulnerable to it. In Ireland, more has been done to allow women freedom of choice over their bodies and their reproductive rights with the legalisation of abortion. Women across the world are moving forward, and doing more to protect our bodies and our safety.
However, when we reflect on ‘balance’, we can still see that there is a long way to go, not just within society in general, but within the feminist movement itself. Too often BAME and Muslim women are marginalised, cast aside as ‘others’, told to pick their allegiances. For example, are you a woman first or are you Muslim or Black? The reality is that BAME and Muslim women are all identities at once, and the feminist movement, as much as the men in their communities and society in general, need to recognise this. BAME women are still much further behind when it comes to equality or safety than other women. They face significantly more barriers to being heard, supported and protected from sexual violence, and are more likely to face other forms of violence such as forced marriage and FGM. They are marginalised not just for their gender identity, but for their racial and religious identity too. LGBTQ+ and poorer women in our society are likewise victims of discrimination on all sides.
The struggles BAME women face are clear for all to see, evident within the recent headlines. In sports, Castor Semenya, after years of being shamed and investigated like a criminal, is being marginalised again because she does not conform to society’s whitewashed notions of femininity. In trying to redefine womanhood, we are at a risk of following the same narrow margins that the rest of society is defined by: wealth and whiteness. In the #MeToo movement itself, the needs of the vulnerable, marginalised women Tarana Burke created the movement to protect, have been left at the weigh side as the fight against sexual harassment and abuse of women rose to international esteem. Here in the UK, the treatment of Shamima Begum, a school girl radicalised by the Isis propaganda machine, reflects the misogyny and Islamophobia at the heart of our society. The majority of terrorists that have returned from Iraq and Syria have been men and most have not faced the same kind of public outrage over them returning to the UK. As a woman Shamima faces the excessive demonization afforded to all women who commit serious crime. Our expectations for women are so high in comparison to men that they are often treated much more severely; if not legally then socially. As a Muslim she faces the Islamophobia that is rife in society, and not treated as the victim of radicalisation that she is. Our CEO has also faced the combined forces of this discrimination in how she and our charity has been treated for defending Shamima’s right to return to the UK to face prosecution. It is undeniable that BAME women face prejudice on more levels than just their gender.
Our founder, Rafaat Mughal OBE, recognised these imbalances thirty years ago and sought to do what she could to improve them. She created an organisation which focuses on the real needs of local BAME women, and gives them access to education, through adult education classes. Today, we still realise that BAME women and their families are at more risk of sexual violence and radicalisation. We believe in empowering women and young people to protect themselves through awareness campaigns and by offering them support and guidance when no one else does. This is the only way to correct the imbalances in our community, in our society, and in the world as a whole. In seeking balance for women and men, we must not forget to seek balance amongst women as well.
On our 30th anniversary, and to celebrate International Women’s Day this Friday, please support a grassroots BAME women’s charity to make a real difference!