The Newbold Diversity Centre's February event was a lecture called 'Being a Muslim woman in the UK'. The lecturer was Julie Siddiqi, a well-known broadcaster and writer, and former Director of the Muslim Society of Great Britain. A Newbold student focus group had asked for more lectures on the question of identity. Maybe, they suggested, Adventists can learn something from another group's struggle with identity issues
Herself a white British convert – born and bred in Surrey – Julie was transparent about her own struggle with identity issues. She said that Muslims in the UK are so different from each other ‒ because they come from different parts of the world ‒ that they are very disorganized. It really does not make sense to talk about 'the Muslim community'. So, she emphasized the fact that she was simply reporting her own experience. She told of her anguish when, after the first reports came through of the Manchester Arena atrocity, her young son asked her "Was it a Muslim?"
During the evening, we heard some interesting facts about Islam in the UK. The first purpose-built mosque was erected, surprisingly enough, in 1889, in Woking, Surrey. The Muslim population in the UK is currently 2 million, 4.8% of the national population. It is much less than people generally imagine. Of this number over 50% are males under the age of 25, which poses internal problems. She dislikes the epithet, 'non-Muslim' but she did point out that over 90% of the non-Muslim population of the UK has never set foot inside a mosque. There are about 1500 mosques in this country, many of them small. About one third of these mosques have no designated place for women to be during Friday prayers, a situation Siddiqi described as unacceptable.
Celebrity Muslims like Olympian Mo Farah and Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain do help to reduce prejudice but small local initiatives according to Siddiqi are the key. Muslims regularly give a percentage of their income to charity and were prominent in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Siddiqi has been involved in organizing various initiatives to help create understanding between different sections of the UK population. In a lifetime devoted to community activism, she has helped to rally Muslim, Christian and Jewish women to form a human chain of silent witness across Westminster Bridge after a Muslim had wreaked havoc in Borough Market. She has inspired the 'Open my Mosque' movement and, during Ramadan, organised the 'Big Iftar' or the 'Big Lunch', open to all comers. 'Sadaqa Day' raised £100m for charity at the end of Ramadan. Most significant however are the local clean-ups, food banks and homeless shelters.
Siddiqi did not attempt to gloss over the awful atrocities perpetrated by Muslims in this country and abroad. She clearly feels both anguish and shame about them and particularly worries about her four children as they try to make sense of Islam. She is seeking with others ‒ usually women ‒ of different faiths and none to create greater understanding of difference so that the violent actions ‒ usually of young men – can be countered.
Siddiqi sees many of the problems associated with Islam as being of a piece with larger profound social problems. Any subjugation of Muslim women is part of the larger problem of violence against women highlighted in the '#Me Too' campaign. Terrorist attacks resemble the latest massacre in an American school or gangland violence. Safeguarding is just as much an issue in Oxfam as it is in Muslim communities. Siddiqi's message was that Muslim women are seeking to counter awful things done in the name of God by a dangerous, small minority of Muslim men. The evening left many questions unanswered, of course. But an open conversation between one Muslim woman and an audience of very diverse people can only help in the struggle to make our society a safer place for our children.
The full lecture can be seen on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page www.facebook.com/newboldcollege/videos/1635099969860451/