Muslim Women Seek to Lift the Veils Of Prejudice

May 1, 2009

Author: Carla Power

Source: The Times Online

The satellite link to Hollywood sputtered out, leaving only one producer onstage giving tips on pitching scripts to American movie companies. But the audience of Muslim women remained rapt, taking notes and asking questions on how best to get a hearing with the big California studios.

Muslim Women: Visibility and Leadership was a gathering of Muslim women, but not as we know it. Held not at a mosque, but the Royal Society of Arts, it was a multimedia day of films, panels, mentoring and networking for Muslim women ambitious to get ahead in media, business or the arts. There was little talk of the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad— save in the session entitled Islam: Liberator of Women. Sleek young hijabis swapped business cards and hustled to sessions with titles such as Positive Presence and Image. Would-be music journalists, film-makers and musicians scribbled notes on “how to harness the power of social media to create a brand and promote yourself”. Eighty attendees got one-on-one attention from luminaries ranging from social entrepreneurs to media consultants and leadership strategists.

Whirling through the RSA in a scarlet sequined shalwar kameez was 34-year-old Jobeda Ali, founder of Fair Knowledge, a media company devoted to channelling marginal voices into the mainstream media. The idea, said Ali, was to mix up the day, providing inspiration with practical tips. “To go outside your little world, and have 15 minutes with the media lawyer Richard Moxon, an upper-middle-class white man?” says Ali. “Even if you had the money, you couldn’t pay for that sort of thing.”

Ali is not particularly religious herself, but when her 11-year-old niece began wearing the hijab, she knew that the growing Islamic religious identity was one that she wanted to work with.

As Sajda Shah, a 26-year-old film-maker down from Bradford for the day, says: “There are loads of Muslim women out there, just doing their thing.” “Muslims are always in the media, but we shouldn’t just be marginalised and talked about. At the end of the day, we need to be telling our story in our own way.”

Suddenly, it looks as though Muslim women might get a chance to do more of the talking. Eight years on from 9/11, governments have discovered Muslim women as curbs to Islamic extremism. The Moroccans have trained up a cadre of women field teachers, trained in the rudiments of Islamic knowledge, to give advice to women on everything from reading the Koran to contraception. In 2008 the British Government started the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, designed to help to advise it on how to tackle extremism. Last month the group launched a project to get more Muslim women involved in public life. But more impressive than these state-sponsored initiatives are the grassroots movements that Muslim women are building themselves. These groups are stoked with ambitions stretching far beyond governmental goals of combating terror, helping women with careers and battling the inequalities enshrined in many Muslim-majority countries.