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IWD 2021: Choosing to Challenge the Status Quo as a Woman of Colour Leading a Women’s Charity

8 MARCH 2021

My personal perspective of the 2021 theme for International Women’s Day: #ChoosetoChallenge.

 

For Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I am writing about my own experiences from dedicating my life to tackling injustices and dangers like hate crime, radicalisation, extremism and terrorism, and violence against women and girls (VAWG). As a Muslim woman of colour at the helm of a BAME women’s charity, JAN Trust, challenging the status quo — dominated generally by White men and women — has been particularly difficult. Strong women with a voice, and especially strong minority women with a voice must fight twice as hard to not be silenced by those who are comfortable enjoying their privilege.

 

I chose to challenge the inequalities in society after I survived the 7/7 London bombings and left my corporate job in the City to join JAN Trust when I realised that I needed to do something to make sure to make a difference and ensure no one else would have to suffer the same trauma — the effects of which I still feel to this day. I still do not travel by tube in London unless absolutely necessary. I spent years researching the subject of online extremism and terrorism, and presented a report before the House of Lords. After holding consultations with members of local communities and JAN Trust’s beneficiaries, however, I realised that there was something missing from the discourse around extremism, particularly online extremism: no one seemed to be talking about how we could engage with families or reach minority ethnic women. I was unfortunately not surprised that this was the case, as minority ethnic women are frequently maligned, marginalised, or just ignored altogether by others.

 

This is when I came up with the foundation for highly acclaimed Web GuardiansTM, a pioneering programme that educates women and carers about online extremism and gangs, building resilience against these issues and protecting their children and communities. It became clear that many mothers wanted to do more to protect their children online, but they simply did not have access to the relevant information to begin with and did not know who to trust. 

 

I decided to challenge the harmful and massively inaccurate narrative of mothers having little active roles beyond caring and nurturing, both of which are in fact extremely important to a child’s wellbeing and growth in any case. I knew the status quo was untrue, but, more importantly, I knew it was dangerous and something needed to be done — something that I could do. Thousands of mothers across the UK have attended and taken part in the Web Guardians™ programme. They consistently give us feedback about how much they learnt and how they are now protecting their children against these online dangers. 

 

In most countries, young men are more confident to speak their mind than young women. I chose to challenge this stereotype, so a few years ago, I developed the award winning Another Way ForwardTM programme with Google and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. This one-of-a-kind initiative defies gender stereotypes to empower young women and girls of ages 16-25 against societal dangers like extremism, radicalisation, and hate. We actively encourage them to debate and discuss their thoughts, and then lead their own campaigns against the status quo by producing videos. 

 

Whilst this all seems very exciting and fulfilling, both of which it is, doing so in a BAME women’s charity that addresses ‘taboo’ or ‘controversial’ issues — which most people do not want to discuss — head-on and as a Muslim woman of colour has been fraught with obstacles. I have to fight many times harder to be heard and get funding for our work. I have been subject to abuse — including slurs which do not deserve to be repeated — that would likely never be used against a White man or woman. These have referenced my gender, referenced racist stereotypes, and referenced Islamophobic stereotypes. I have been told to “go back to where [I] came from” and other such insults of that calibre, which are not hard to guess. I have been gaslighted and accused of lying about my experiences. This has even extended to death threats against my family and me — to the extent that I had to get police protection — and damage to JAN Trust’s centre in Haringey.

 

What makes this more shocking is the defamation and slandering that has come from the government: namely Home Office Prevent civil servants and Prevent local authority coordinators. Spreading malicious defamatory rumours that question me surviving the 7/7 bombings, when I suffered severe mental trauma. I have all the evidence to dispute this but why should I have to prove myself? I am 100% certain that a white female survivor would not suffer or endure this; in fact I know they haven’t.

 

I chose to challenge and critique the Prevent strategy as well as question the incompetence of the civil servants and in turn it hurt the egos of these very same civil servants.

 

I have also been trolled by those who work in the Prevent arena. All this, because I chose to challenge them and a failing strategy. 

 

Attempts to silence me have only made me more determined to challenge society’s inequalities so that other women and girls who dedicate their lives to changing the world do not need to find ways to cope with such vitriol, and certainly not from the people in charge of the country. Such behaviour is never an acceptable way to treat another human being. We would not allow such conduct in our children and we should certainly not allow adults to act like this. I am happy that this year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ because I made a conscious choice to challenge the entrenched inequalities in our society, and I encourage everyone to do so, in whichever way you can, so that together we can make this world a better and fairer place for our women and women-to-be.