Bristol Big Sisters conference took place on 16th October 2016. The event was organised not only to give a voice to Muslim women of all ages and backgrounds who live in Bristol, but also to explore possible ways for them to talk about issues that matter to them. The event was organised by the Women’s Partnership Advisory Group of Building the Bridge Group and chaired by a panel of inspiring representatives from the Home Office, the Police, Building the Bridge, SARI, Bristol City Council, Bristol Women’s Voice and Voice by Volume. The conference was very moving and shed light on many sensitive issues that Muslim women are currently facing in their everyday lives.

Different workshops took place, covering issues such as health and well-being, cultural identity and empowerment, creative writing and barriers to employment. Many of the attendees were able to use these workshops as an outlet to express their frustration. It became clear that there is still a great deal of stigma associated with how mental illness is perceived, and this is particularly clear when contrasted with the fact that society generally regards problems with physical health to be more acceptable.

Many women expressed their concerns that even in the present day, women are still over-extending themselves and being held responsible for taking care of the people around them, whilst having to juggle the work-life balance and live with the pressure of family life.

“Why is mental illness seen so negatively?” was a resounding question at the conference. Clearly many women who attended these workshops acknowledged the sensitivity that surrounds the issues, yet still struggle to find ways to challenge the negative attitudes that surround mental illness.

There was a general consensus that many Muslim women feel somewhat subjugated. The theme of being constrained to a life of drudgery within the four walls of their male dominated household came up again and again. One of the challenges being faced by women in the Muslim community is that they are not given much of a voice in decision-making, nor do they feel free to put forward a point. This is in fact backed up by research that states many women from South-Asian background suffer the most in regards to mental illness and find it challenging to voice their views. This may play a role in the low uptake of mental health services, as they feel unable to seek help (Trivedi et al. 2007).

The Muslim population are likely to suffer the most with mental health difficulties, when compared with other minority groups (Kaur-Bola, K. and Randhawa, G. 2013), why?

It emerged clearly in the workshops that change needs to happen. Many women expressed their concerns and fears that religion itself could be a potential barrier. They agreed that some of those responsible for religious leadership can change the meaning of Islam and use its guidance to condition Muslim women and evoke feelings of guilt should they decide to seek help. These workshops provided women with a safe space to talk, without being judged and also provided them with relevant information and signposting them to services which are available.

Attention was also given to Islamophobia and hate-crime, and the impact that these are having on the lives of Muslim women who are on the receiving end of it. Many women expressed their concerns about being made to feel bad about wearing their headscarves, as wearing a headscarf can identify you as a Muslim. This can make them a very easy target for intimidation and receiving abusive comments and really sheds light not only on the severity of the issue but also the extent of its impact on women’s wellbeing and self-esteem. Furthermore, what became apparent in the workshops was that the cultural and religious values that they adhere to may be playing a role in making some women feel helpless, guilty and even afraid of taking a step in addressing some of their fears. It appeared that they clearly know what is best for them and what is not, but many women struggle to voice their views and challenge the system. What was apparent however is that the younger generation are now taking steps to address these issues. Despite this there clearly needs to be more campaigning in regard to raising awareness and opportunities to enable women to have a voice and more control in decision making.

Islam teaches equality and mutual respect (Ahmad and Modood 2014) but despite this what came out in the group discussions was the acknowledgement that the gender inequality experienced by many Muslim women means that they continue to live in submissive relationships. These workshops also brought to attention the fact that many of the beliefs that Muslim women hold, and which stem from their cultural identity, serve to normalise the adversity that they often experience in relation to their gender roles. How then can these women ask for help if this is the way in which they have been brought up?

It’s almost as if many Muslim women are fighting not just within the four walls of their homes but also against how society is treating them now.

As a married Muslim woman and as a mother, I felt very connected with the women at the conference. The discussions provoked many feelings in me, as I have first-hand experience of the pressure of being a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law. I am also aware of how my cultural values have played a role in making me feel guilty for doing something that is right for myself and how being a Muslim woman can be challenging as I have to juggle my work/life balance, often sacrificing my autonomy and integrity to please people around me.  When will there be an end to this misogyny? When will our women get justice? When will not just the wider society, but also our own people treat us women with respect and our decision-making?

I strongly feel that there needs to be more support for Muslim women alongside campaigning to raise awareness in regard to accessing support for those women who are struggling to cope with the numerous demands made on them. Such support needs to acknowledge the context in which women may need support, against a backdrop of cultural values and beliefs that sees women’s roles as subservient to men and limited to the confines of the family. The women who attended the conference were very engaged in the process of sharing their views and experiences and as a result a rich discussion was had. There clearly is a lot happening behind closed doors and when women struggle with the pressure that they are often put under, it is absolutely vital that they can access the right support at the right time.

Article by BWV Reporter Samreen Bhaidani

References:

Ahmad, F. and Modood, T. (2014) Introduction 1 1 Muslims in Britain and Bristol 2 2 what are the core beliefs of Islam? 4 3 Muslims contribution to Britain and Bristol 7 4 why are Muslims always in the news? 9 5 do Muslims expect special treatment? 13 6 do Muslim women have rights in is. Available at: https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/33107/Muslim%20Myths%202014_v4_Proof.pdf/432db495-d6d7-41b2-952e-2429217f00b0 (Accessed: 27 October 2016).

Kaur-Bola, K. and Randhawa, G. (2013) ‘Role of Islamic religious and cultural beliefs regarding intellectual impairment and service use: A south Asian parental perspective’, Communication & Medicine, 9(3).

Trivedi, J.K., Mishra, M. and Kendurkar, A. (2007) ‘Depression among women in the South-Asian region: The underlying issues’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 102(1-3), pp. 219–225.

Photo by Lucie Laborde Briulet