A few days ago I spoke to BuzzFeed about my reaction to the horrendous attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
This is what I wrote:
“As a British Muslim I have been shocked and dismayed by the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This shock has reverberated throughout communities in the UK, and with it comes a sense of dread of what is to come in the aftermath. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. But I am also fearful that these attacks will fuel anti-Muslim sentiments and hatred. I pray and hope, that we will stand united against violence and hatred.”
Recent Media Appearances
Last week I signed a letter calling for the release of British hostage Alan Henning. I signed the letter foremostly as a human being, wanting to do something, no matter how small or insignificant to try and help Alan. I have no delusions that #IS would care about what a bunch of British Muslims had to say, but still it worth a shot.
As I can explain in various media appearances, I also signed the letter because I wanted to make it absolutely clear to others that the majority of British Muslims, in no shape or form, support or sympathise with the actions of IS.
Here are the media appearances:
- Today programme on BBC Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gwchh (listen from approximately 2 hours, 16 minutes).
- BBC World Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026g1gf (listen from approximately 26 minutes in).
- BBC Radio 5 Live: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04h7kh5 (listen from approximately 15 minutes in).
- BBC Radio London 94.9: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0262s6h (listen from approximately 15 minutes in).
- Channel 5 news: Akeela Ahmed: What IS is doing is not in the Isla…: http://youtu.be/ErWa7gf4IfU
Below is information I received about a call evidence put out by the EHRC for evidence on possible discrimination in the workplace due to an individuals faith or beliefs. I have heard that there haven’t been many Muslim responses, which is a shame as I know that this is a issue keenly felt by some within the Muslim communities, especially by men with beards or women who wear the hijab, as well as Muslims who openly practice their faith at work.
It is worthwhile completing the survey to provide evidence / insight into the complexities when dealing with faith at work or in a public place. Hopefully this in turn will provide some nuance and balance to the debate. Read below for more information and links:
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently launched a major call for evidence to collect first hand experiences from individuals and organisations about how their religion or belief may have affected them in the workplace and in using the services and facilities they need in everyday life. The Commission knows that, despite a number of high profile cases involving the manifestation of religion or belief, very little is known about how frequently issues related to religion or belief occur in practice. To address this information gap we want to hear about the issues people face and how they find solutions to them. Particularly we want to hear about both negative and positive experiences which have occurred since 2010, including:
Has your religion or belief, or that of other people, affected your experiences in the workplace or the services you receive as part of your daily life? Or perhaps they impact on you as an employer or manager? If so, we want to hear from you, whether your experiences are good or bad.
We want to gather as much information as we can from employees, service users, employers, service providers, trade unions, legal advisors and religion or belief groups so that we can assess how a person’s religion or belief, or lack of it, is taken into account at work and when using services.
This major call for evidence is part of our three year programme to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, to improve knowledge of what happens in practice and to make sure that the laws which are in place to protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect are effective.
People can give their feedback at www.equalityhumanrights.com/religion.
Responses to the call for evidence can be made online until 14th October: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/about-us/our-work/key-projects/religion-or-belief-tell-us-about-your-experiences.
In October 2013, the Commission published Shared Understandings: a new EHRC strategy to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, which can be found here: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/about-us/about-commission/our-vision-and-mission/our-business-plan/religion-belief-equality/shared-understandings-new-ehrc-strategy-strengthen-understanding-religion-or-belief-public-life
British Asians with mental illnesses are being failed: we all must do more to overcome stigma and redress inequalities
Mental illness is a growing challenge. One in four of us in the UK will suffer with a diagnosable mental illness. Like any community in Britain, Asians are not immune from mental health difficulties, but sadly individuals of South Asian origin suffering with mental illness are often invisible – not just in terms of failing to receive help, treatment or support from mainstream services, but even within our own communities.
The data available on British Asian communities is inconsistent and there are huge research gaps. Monitoring of mental health issues affecting British Asians remains poor. The vast national, regional, cultural, religious, linguistic and political differences between different Asian communities are often overlooked and homogenised in studies, under the catch-all term ‘Asian.’ As a result, many studies of mental health in South Asian communities are contradictory and inconclusive. Therefore more careful research and better monitoring of ethnic mental health issues are necessary.
In my experience there is no shortage of British Asians dealing with poor mental health. Rather than being overdiagnosed, ethnic South Asians with mental health difficulties are ignored and underdiagnosed. For example, young South Asian women have high rates of suicide – in 2008, the BBC reported that twice as many Asian women killed themselves compared to the rest of the population.
But herein lies the puzzle. Some earlier studies showed low rates of depression amongst young South Asian women and girls, compared to the rest of the population. How to explain this paradox?
Poverty and discrimination are more commonly experienced by BAME groups than the rest of the population, in particular individuals of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. High rates of unemployment, low socioeconomic status, and insecure and overcrowded housing heightens their vulnerability to poor mental health. For young South Asian women, the vulnerability can be even worse due to the double-whammy of being part of a disadvantaged group, while facing discrimination based on both their gender and ethnicity.
Certainly, a lack of awareness on mental health problems within some Asian communities plays a role. But over the years whilst working with Asian groups, I have repeatedly encountered a sense of marginalisation. Studies show that many BAME service users and their carers are dissatisfied with mainstream mental health services which they often perceive as misunderstanding them. They are also less likely to be offered a talking therapy as opposed to drug based therapy alone.
The myth that the genesis of a British Asian girl’s problems is located primarily within her culture and faith must be jettisoned. In reality, Asian girls often find it frustrating to hear professionals tell them that if they ‘left their culture behind, and lived their lives freely (as we do in the West)’ then they would be fine, with no thought for the confusing impact this advice could have on their identity and self-esteem. Of course, in the many cases where young girls are forced to do things they do not wish to, such as stay at home rather than go to university, these experiences adversely impact their mental health. But practitioners should treat each case on an individual basis, supporting the patient’s wishes, and wherever appropriate working with the family to overcome their issues.
But this requires policymakers and service providers to understand the cultural and social circumstances of Asian communities, and their reluctance to seek help. Many services struggle to meet the needs of their local Asian communities despite their high density.
In 2008, Antony Sheehan, chief executive of Leicestershire NHS Trust, said that government attempts to improve mental health services for the South Asian community had simply not worked: “We really should acknowledge the impact of institutional racism in mental health and wider health and social care services, in the same way it is recognised in the criminal justice system. The real issue is just how we’ve chosen not to connect with these communities.”
This is not to downplay the potentially negative impact of culture. Rather than visiting the GP, Asians suffering with emotional or psychological distress may rather visit the temple, mosque or gurudwara, seeking a spiritual or community-based solutions to their distress. Added to this is the stigma that surrounds mental health issues within our Asian communities.
One project worker based in Leicester, Harjit Sandhu, says that stigma is deadly. It can stop Asian people from going to see their GP for fear of being talked about. In one case parents stopped their 18 year old daughter with bipolar disorder from receiving specialist treatment because they felt “she had no mental illness” and labelling her with one would prevent her from getting married. Stigma can lead to self harm (which South Asian girls have the highest rates of compared to other minorities), isolation, and in worst cases suicide.
Mental health problems in British Asian communities are a challenge we must deal with collectively – both in terms of mainstream services and attitudes inside communities. If we allow our feelings of shame and denial to stop ourselves or those around us from seeking help, we risk failing young Asian people and creating a situation in which in twenty years time, Asians will be nearly 18 times more likely to end up hospitalised for a mental health disorder.
Mental health services need to ensure that the recommendations made by the Department of Health in its 2005 action plan ‘Delivering Race Equality’ are actually delivered. It’s widely recognised failure underscores the need for a deeper official inquiry into the state of our mental health services. Ultimately, better services require a different approach: engaging with communities effectively, in a way that is culturally and faith sensitive; providing better information to both communities and health professionals; better monitoring of ethnicity; and finally more research to understand the complex mutifacted factors affecting the mental health of Asians within the UK.
I wrote this piece in April for the Asians UK magazine.
Prompted by the Trojan Horse affair, the Prime Minister David Cameron wrote that British values are “not optional; they’re the core of what it is to live in Britain”. The debate on British values, is not new, however, it focuses on minority communities, their identity and loyalties particularly those whose behaviours or attitudes are deemed unBritish.
This debate needs to be shifted away from problematising ethnic minority groups and questioning if they encompass British values, to how British society can ensure ethnic minorities can enjoy the same opportunities, as their White counterparts. By removing structural barriers they face and improving their lived experiences, opportunities and outcomes.
It is 2014 and yet if you are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, in the UK, you are still most likely to suffer high levels of inequality, compared to your White counterparts and some other ethnic minority groups. Across all spheres of life, ethnic inequalities exist and individuals of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins are faring poorly. In areas of life such as employment, education, health, socioeconomic status and upward social mobility.
Understanding how social inequalities affect the experiences and outcomes of South Asians is complex. What particularly stands out, is just how disparate the rates of unemployment, poverty and social mobility are for Pakistani/Bangladeshi people compared to White people and other ethnic groups such as Indian or Chinese – who tend to fare better.
Sociologist Professor James Nazroo asserts that ethnic inequalities – and the prejudice, discrimination and racism that underlie them – have persisted to some significant degree. Census data shows that White men and women have maintained a consistent advantage over the past 20 years compared with men and women in almost all other ethnic groups.
If we examine unemployment, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CODE), found that people of Pakistani/Bangladeshi origins, particularly men, had much higher unemployment rates in the last three decades. During recessions, they would be hit the hardest and are still nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts.
Researchers at CODE also found that improving education amongst ethnic minorities did not lead to more job opportunities or upward social mobility. Notably surveys of highly qualified young British Muslim women highlighted employer discrimination for those who wear the hijab and niqab.
It is clear that the unequal experiences and outcomes faced by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis need to be addressed as soon as possible. The current debate of British values contributes to the racialisation of ethnic minority identities, identifying identity as the problem, whilst simultaneously ignoring and aggravating the underlying ethnic inequalities.
This was a short comment piece on inequalities within the South Asian communities, in the UK, which featured in Asians UK magazine.
This is an edited version of a panel presentation that I gave to the Muslim Women’s Network (MWN), at their AGM on the 9th May 2014.
In 2009 the CQC conducted a the sixth and last census of the ethnicity of inpatient NHS and independent mental health and learning disability patients. This census revealed that 4% of patients reported themselves as Muslim. This, at the time was just above the representation of the British Muslim population. Additionally, this percentage only takes into account the number of Muslims with Mental Health difficulties in inpatient settings – it does not account for those who are being treated by their GP, or have not reported their poor mental health.
This gives you a flavour of the extent of mental health problems amongst Muslims in the UK.
Whilst I led the Muslim Youth Helpline mental health problems were the leading issue on the helpline, cutting across all other issues. Some 29% of calls related to mental health problems and these ranged from severe and enduring mental illnesses such as psychotic disorders to common mental disorders, like anxiety and depression.
Globally 1 in 4 of us are likely to suffer with a diagnosable mental health problem during our lifetime, so it is no surprise that British Muslims also suffer with mental health issues. However what I have observed is a concerning trend that British Muslims are becoming increasingly ill with poorer mental health outcomes. If this trend is left unchecked we will see significantly disproportionate numbers of British Muslims within inpatient care. Similarly to the disproportionately high number of Muslim prisoners in the UK.
My sense is that there are likely already high numbers of British Muslims dealing with mental health problems, however they are not being recognised and treated by mainstream services and organisations, thus neither are they getting the appropriate and adequate support. Often the most marginalised, with poor educational and employment outcomes, British Muslims are often hard to reach. And they are becoming progressively isolated as they are continually scrutinized and every aspect of their life is examined – from schooling to what they eat and wear. This scrutiny comes on top of the existing continual questioning of our identity – are you Muslim? British? English? And which one comes first.
A particular concern is that of the mental health of young South Asian British Muslim women. Data from NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) indicates that South Asian women do not necessarily suffer with higher rates of mental disorders. Yet research also tells us that South Asian girls in particular Muslim girls are at high risk of bulimia, self harm and suicide. However simultaneously, research examining the rates of mental health issues such as eating disorders indicates a low percentage of women using services.
Clearly there is a puzzle here – why are we seeing low numbers (or at least not significantly high?) of South Asian women presenting to services yet they are at risk of suicide and self harm? Through my experience of working within these communities, I can only conclude that, as mentioned previously, that mental health problems amongst these communities remain unrecognised and undetected. Also many young women speak of a fear of contacting mainstream services – a fear of being misunderstood, and a fear of their culture being blamed as the sole and root cause of their issues. There is huge mistrust and often young girls are stereotyped. Services often fail to understand the nuances of culture and faith. At one extreme they diagnose and manage young South Asian girls on the basis of broad stereotypes or on the other are scared of taking appropriate action when a young girl is in harms way in case they are culturally insensitive.
The following case studies (trigger warning) were presented to the audience, to provide a picture of the types of issues faced by British Muslim women in the UK. Details of the case studies have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the service users.
Hawra is a British teenager from an Arab background who suffered various forms of abuse, including violent abuse, at the hands of her former boyfriend. After reporting him to the police and pursuing charges against him, he has continued to call and threaten her with violence if she does not drop the charges.
She did not receive any support from her family, despite informing them of the abuse, as they felt her having previously been in a relationship brought shame onto the family. As a result of this pressure, Hawra considered dropping the charges and marrying her ex-boyfriend. Hawra felt she needed an additional layer of support, to the support she was receiving from mainstream agencies, that would help reconnect her to her community and family.
Fahmida was British woman from a Pakistani background in her early twenties who was looking to move away out of her parental home. It became apparent that Fahmida had been beaten by her parents, and had suffered other forms of abuse, over a long period of time. She had hoped for many years that the abuse would stop as she became older. However when this did not happen she felt moving away would be the only recourse to stop the abuse.
Fahmida sought help through a support worker at university, but she felt that she also needed support from someone who understood her cultural and faith background. She has found the idea of moving out of home difficult as she was afraid she may be ostracised from her family and community as a result.
Fahmida wanted a safe space in which she could discuss her options with those who will understand the aspects of her problems related to her faith and cultural background, without fear of being either judged or misunderstood.
Hannah was a 17-year-old Muslim girl living with her parents at home. One night she had an argument with her father and left her home at 2am, after which she was then attacked and raped. Hannah later found that she was pregnant and had an abortion. During her ordeal at no point did she disclose the rape attack either to the police, friends or family or to any other statutory professional. Neither did she seek help and emotional support whilst making the decision to have an abortion.
Hannah had eventually told her aunt about the rape. Her aunt responded negatively blaming Hannah for her ordeal. As a result Hannah felt isolated and had feelings of guilt and anxiety, saying that she felt “broken and empty”. Hannah stated that she couldn’t talk to someone face to face.
Sophie was a 22 year old girl suffering with bipolar disorder. She had a very difficult relationship with her father and her family did not accept her condition as mental illness. She was receiving help from a psychiatrist who recommended a talking therapy known as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, however her parent’s did not agree to her attending this.
Sophie was raped in her childhood by a close relative, however her family swept this under the carpet and did not do anything about it. During Sophie’s early teens she started to get depressed, this affected her life at school when she started to truant and smoke cannabis. Since her late teens, she has been taking medication however her condition worsened with her being violently abusive towards her young brother and other people on the street. Her doctors knew about her behaviour and her psychiatrist has asked her to voluntarily admit herself into specialist care. If she didn’t do so then it is likely that she would be sectioned.
In short, mental health problems in British Asian communities are a challenge we must deal with collectively – both in terms of mainstream services and attitudes inside communities. If we allow our feelings of shame and denial to continue to stop ourselves or those around us from seeking help, then we risk not only failing young Asian people but also creating a situation in which in twenty years time, Asian people will be nearly 18 times more likely to end up hospitalised for a mental health disorder.
In the same vein, mental health services need to ensure that the recommendations made by the Department of Health in 2005 in it’s action plan ‘Delivering Race Equality’ are actually delivered. It’s widely recognised failure underscores the need for a deeper official inquiry into the state of our mental health services, and their chronic incapacity to cater sufficiently for BAME groups.
Ultimately, better services require a different approach: engaging with communities effectively, in a way that is culturally and faith sensitive, providing better information to both communities and health professionals, better monitoring of ethnicity, and finally more research to understand the complex multifaceted factors affecting the mental health of Asians and Muslims within the UK. Read More
In April 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, undertook a two week investigative mission to the United Kingdom to study the manifestations of violence perpetrated in the family and in the community. I had the opportunity to submit to her my recommendations on issues she should query the government on and include in her investigation. Here is a very brief overview of my submission, which included case studies – however these have been omitted for confidentiality reasons.
Mental Health inequalities faced by women and girls of Asian and Muslim background.
The coalition’s approach to mental health and equality does not take into account the massive inequalities faced by Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) groups in accessing treatment, pathways into care, support and outcomes. The Mental Health Equalities Act 2010 failed to address key issues around race and mental health.
One key issue of concern is the fact that young Asian women and girls, in particular of Muslim background, are suffering with high rates of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders, yet they consistently have poor/low engagement with mental health services. Data, indicates that this same cohort have low rates of depression, i.e. they are not being diagnosed, and/or are not seen by services.
They are also facing sexual abuse and rape within their own communities, but government and mainstream media organisation repeatedly fail to recognise this and address it. BME communities are still perceived as either a menace to society or victims of their own misfortune in terms of culture, faith and identity.
This is demonstrated by the following case studies. (These have been omitted).
Previously in 2005 the government, produced an action plan ‘Delivering Race Equality’ to address these issues, however despite ending in 2010 the DRE action plan has not been adequately implemented. The issues of institutional racism, is an issue which has largely been ignored. It is the elephant in the room, that needs to be tackled and addressed by mental health services, in order for them to meet the complex needs of their BME clients. Finally, the consequences of structural violence has not been acknowledged and meaningful policy has not been created to address this.
I would ask the government the following:
- How can they address the varied and culturally specific issues faced by Muslims/Asians without demonising and problematising them?
- Can they address the structural violence experienced by Muslims/Asians, in the UK, which is disproportionately affecting women.
- All mental health professionals should undertake faith and culturally sensitive training.
- Faith and culturally sensitive services, should be provided in areas with high density BME populations.
- agencies should work in partnership with grassroots organisations in order to support BME victims of sexual and domestic violence.
- Better monitoring of ethnicity within mental health services.
- Better research to understand the complex reasons behind the disproportionately high mental health inequalities faced by BME groups.
The press release published at the end of Rashida Manjoo’s mission can be found here, which I am pleased to note highlights the following finding:
Women’s organizations report that black and minority ethnic (BME) and migrant women
experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide, and that Asian women are up to
three times more likely to commit suicide than other women. Young BME women, in
particular, are also more likely to experience domestic violence from multiple
perpetrators, such as extended family members.
When I think of an eating disorder, the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a young white girl who is painfully thin. The word anorexia has become synonymous with eating disorders as are the emaciated images of anorexic girls who are most likely to be white. Given the negative reporting around eating disorders and the relentless pressure on young girls to conform to a particular body image, I can be forgiven for this inbuilt conditioning and stereotyping. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is a campaign to raise awareness of the complexity of eating disorders as well as challenge these very stereotypes and stigmas. So I’m writing this to dispel the myth that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that only happen to white people. Young South Asian girls also suffer from eating disorders.
Some research indicates that in particular young Muslim girls of South Asian origin in the UK are particularly at high risk of developing bulimia. However, as a simple google search reveals, mainstream media coverage would leave you thinking that ethnic minorities hardly suffer from eating disorders, leave alone the fact that some groups may be at high risk. This stereotype is also prevalent amongst South Asian communities, in which mental health issues are often swept under the carpet as sufferers are stigmatised. The result is that young South Asian girls, and in particular young Muslims, are being overlooked by mainstream agencies when it comes to recognising their suffering, and getting them the help and support they need.
We know that in our society there is huge cultural pressure on young people and in particular girls to be skinny, waif like and attain impossible barbie like body shapes. The gendered link between media pressure and eating disorders is inescapable. But frustratingly just as women from ethnic minorities are absent from everyday media appearances, the fact that they too are also subjected to the same cultural pressures and resultant illnesses, is also absent.
We need to recognise that young South Asian girls are just like any other young girl in the UK, and we can do this by bringing their experiences to the forefront of discourses on issues such as eating disorders. In doing so we can then validate their identity, needs and raise awareness of the difficulties they face. Yes, their culture and faith background may impact on the way they experience particular issues, but the point is that the actual issues are the same for any young person in the UK, irrespective of their ethnicity.
Anorexia and bulimia are savage illnesses – anorexia in particular has a high mortality rate, with 20% of sufferers dying prematurely from the illness. So it is vital that every young girl at risk of developing an eating disorder receives treatment and help quickly, which means recognising when they are in the early stages of the illness. However in the past I have come across startling prejudice when it comes to young South Asian girls and eating disorders, preventing them from getting the help they need – one health professional thought that Asians wouldn’t suffer with anorexia given “their diet of samosas and fried food”. This is just one example of a stereotype attached to South Asians.
Unfortunately in my experience, young Muslims also often report feeling misunderstood by mainstream services. This is because implicit prejudice can colour blind health professionals from recognising disorders such as bulimia in their Muslim clients.
Charities like beat are doing amazing work to raise awareness of eating disorders and challenge stereotypes. We now need to take this further and recognise the devastating affect eating disorders are also having on young South Asian women.
You can now find this post on Huffington Post UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/akeela-ahmed/eating-disorders-asian-girls_b_4869864.html
A friend of mine recently started taking anti-depressants. It wasn’t an easy decision for her, neither was it a decision that she took lightly. However, after battling with depression for many years, her doctor recommended a multi-pronged approach to treatment. Combining, a talking therapy, self-administered mindfulness and anti-depressants.
After an initial struggle with the side effects, which included drowsiness, mood swings and some low mood, my friend noticed a difference in their overall mood. They felt stabilised, less irritable and were more able to cope with stressful days, at home or work. They also noticed a marked difference in their reactions to situations involving conflict or confrontations – whereas previously they may have reacted with anger, overcome by their feelings and unable to cope with their emotions – they now reacted moderately, their mind clearer and thus able to better manage their negative feelings and emotions. Of course, the anti-depressants have not given them new abilities to cope with stressful situations. However they have taken off the edge of low mood and everything that comes with it: the rumination, the endless cycle of negative thoughts and feelings which for someone dealing with severe depression can seem like reality, and finally the fixed perception of negativity. Anti-depressants are by no means a cure, and the decision to take them should be part of an overall treatment plan, that is done in consultation with a qualified mental health professional or doctor. Studies show that when taken alone, with no other form of therapy, the rate of recovery is low, with many people becoming dependent on them. Combined therapies have been shown to be more effective when there is a need for medication.
I personally was a sceptic of medication treatments, however through years of working with people with severe and enduring mental health difficulties, I have understood that there are some situations where medication is essential. Similarly we would never think twice about taking medication for diabetes or high cholesterol, especially if it meant a better quality of life. However for people who experience depression, pretty much in the same way one might experience a common cold, I felt that medication should be a last resort, rather using psychological remedies and tools to overcome their bouts of low mood.
Within the Muslim and South Asian communities there is still a huge stigma around mental illness. So much so that I have dealt with cases, where tragically parents have stopped their children from seeking appropriate treatment, help and support -in order to avoid being ostracised from their own communities. A better understanding of mental health problems and the ways they can be treated will help us to overcome this pervasive stigma. Hence I wanted to share my friends story of taking medication for depression.
Observing the experience of my friend closely and in a personal way has, made me reflect on this position. I am yet to still see what happens when it is time for my friend to wean off the medication. I know that this is when the talking therapy and mindfulness will provide the support and tools to enable her to live without medication and manage her depression in the long term.
At a recent Christian Muslim Forum event held in Westminster Abbey, I spoke about identity, what it means to me as a British Muslim and the variations between genders. I am a strong believer in each individual finding their own identity – this is part of growing up and one of the biggest challenges that young people face: the challenge of navigating their way through teenage years to develop and form their own sense of self, whilst negotiating with those around them.
For young Muslims in the UK, this journey is fraught with obstacles and barriers to forming a healthy and confident sense of themselves. Ideally the identity formation of a young person results in a young adult who feels at ease with who they are, and their place in society.
Thinking about identity prompted me to remember my own personal journey. When I was around seventeen years old, I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of who I was. I would often have superficial debates with friends about whether I preferred Oasis or Blur, and what that meant about who I was. Whilst internally I would be grappling with whether I should say I was Indian, East African (my parental heritage), or British, when asked where I came from, when actually all I felt was English. Incidentally, in the end I went with Oasis – they were more “real” and I liked the things Noel Gallagher would say about life (thankfully I’ve moved on now). I thought it was deep, whereas Blur and Damon Albarn just seemed too artificial. Anyhow, my seventeen year old self also decided that I was simply British. It was the safest thing to say, since at that time I did not know of any individuals from an ethnic minority group who called themselves English. This however also made me feel anger. Anger that maybe I was not perceived to be on the same footing as my English friends, just because I didn’t have the correct skin colour, and I adhered to a different faith. Despite the fact that I was born in the UK and had no affiliation or ties to any other country.
Growing in life experience, attending university, completing an MSc in Mental Health Studies, and capitalising on the subsequent opportunities, empowered me to become settled in who I was, providing me with confidence to be able to deal with questions about my faith, background and values.
Later, as an adult, I found that for my young children the answer to where they came from was much simpler:
“Mum we’re English. We speak English, we were born in England, we do English things, how can we be anything else?”
These were the wise words of my four and five year old daughters. I’m pleased that for now life is that simple for them. Hopefully they will not have to spend their teen years wrangling over this issue. However, I am also acutely aware that anti-Muslim prejudice is one of the biggest challenges our society is currently facing, along with the implicit sexism within most of our structures.
When a young person is developing their identity – the most critical years of their lives – they should not have to face constant challenges. Challenges which undermine fundamentally who they are; about whether they are British or not, or if their faith is compatible with British way of life. Unfortunately, for many young British Muslims, this is a daily occurrence. At any given time they receive a barrage of negative media, with public personalities debating what Muslim women should or should not wear, to describing Islam (and thus its followers) as inherently evil and trying to take over the country. Most worrying are the growing number of anti-Muslim hatred attacks on the street. This scrutiny has a negative impact on an individual’s identity formation. Young people are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence and self-esteem, finding it harder to feel accepted and part of wider civil society. And in turn if they are not understood or accepted by society, why should they then contribute towards it in a positive way? Despite these barriers, the majority of young British Muslims feel British, and contribute enormously to their communities, and wider civil society. But perhaps this sense of being socially excluded is compounded when faced with lack of opportunities in education, employment, as well as a lack of access to good health provision?
Confident identities can only come from good psychological well being, which can be achieved through support, friendship and opportunities. Feeling like you are a part of, and accepted by wider society, is also crucial to this. I was fortunate to have access to both opportunities and support. Thus when I am faced with sometimes uncomfortable or abusive challenges about my identity, I am able to negotiate and engage with these. In turn, this can be incredibly powerful and transformative. However, for most, these challenges are a source of anxiety, causing them to retreat into themselves and their communities.
When we look at the genders, we see there are differences. On the whole Muslim men in the UK, have poorer outcomes compared to Muslim women across, education, employment, crime and social mobility. The genders are taking distinct and different journeys in their separate identities. The barriers described earlier are feeding into this trend.
There are also obstacles within the Muslim communities. I feel strongly that British Muslims need to cultivate their own identity in which they are confident and secure, one that enables them to integrate into wider civil society freely and plurally. This will engender confidence when faced with criticisms on Islam and their beliefs. In order to achieve this, Muslim communities need to create and build infrastructure within, that is inclusive as well representative, for Muslims and local communities, in particular young people and women. This will facilitate a cohesive and confident identity through education, support, nurture, social bonding and capital, but does not necessarily mean all Muslims have to agree on everything or have “one” voice.
Yet we find that the facilities for women in mosques are imbalanced in favour of men. If there are separate sections for women, often basic amenities such as baby changing and feeding rooms are non-existent, but mostly women can expect either dire provision or in some circumstances exclusion, with no facilities at all. Most committees or governing bodies of mainstream Muslim organisations and mosques, still lack meaningful representation or engagement of women at every organisational layer. The implicit gender inequality within Muslim communities is sometimes so embedded that blatant misogyny is unrecognised and often attributed to being the fault of the women themselves.
The truth about Muslim identity is that it is complex, with barriers originating from both within the Muslim communities and externally. However these can be overcome if we remember that integration is a two way relationship. Then it is clear that in essence any future Muslim identity is dependent on how the majority of society view British Muslims, and their faith. Thus, it is vitally important to not only build internally within Muslim communities but to also overcome discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion that many British Muslims face.