Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. This week, we’re highlighting the work of Faeeza Vaid, executive director of Muslim Women’s Network UK.
On 4 March, Faeeza Vaid stood on a stage in Trafalgar Square and told thousands of people why feminism must include Muslim women. “I’m here to help build on the legacy of the suffragettes, to build a movement that is inclusive of black feminists, of working-class feminists and of faith-inspired feminists,” she said, to cheers from the crowd. “I’m simply saying either we fight for all, or we all fall.”
It was one of the most powerful moments of this year’s #March4Women, and – for many in the crowd – a first introduction to Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWN-UK), the organisation at which Vaid has been executive director since 2011. When Stylist catches up with Vaid, two weeks after the march, she’s still contemplating the experience.
Agreeing to speak at the Trafalgar Square rally, she says, “was quite a unique experiment, partly because some may see the voices of Muslim women as feminists as being at odds with feminism.” But any hesitation she might have felt was overridden by her desire to promote a women’s movement that works for everyone.
“My feeling is that we really need to take intersectionality seriously when talking about women’s rights, and we can’t be hypocritical about who we’re supporting,” she says. “To have someone who is visibly Muslim speak on a platform and share why it was important for those women’s voices to be heard in that space was a real honour and privilege.”
Vaid first joined MWN-UK as a volunteer in the late Noughties, after completing an undergraduate and masters’ degree in law and a postgraduate degree in religious studies. She had focused her academic studies on women’s access to divorce in Muslim communities, and wanted to apply this theoretical knowledge to improving the lives of women in the UK. MWN-UK was one of the only organisations she could find working on issues of gender and equality within “an Islamic feminist framework”.
“I was always interested in looking at women’s experiences, particularly in religious communities,” she explains. “My interest stems from the fact I understood my faith to be one of compassion, equality and justice. However, there was a disjuncture between the religious theory I had and the Islam I knew, and the realities of women in Muslim communities.”
Vaid is quick to point out that while some women in Muslim communities may face specific challenges, this does not mean that Islam itself is inherently more oppressive than other religions. “Women’s voices have often been marginalised historically, we know that,” she says. “It happens more within patriarchal cultures and it also happens in Muslim communities.”
Indeed, one of her greatest joys is using passages from the Qur’an to inform people about feminism. MWN-UK often delivers sessions in schools, providing teachers with training on how to deal with issues including female genital mutilation (FGM) and educating young people on topics such as forced marriage. In these scenarios, faith can be used “as an empowerment tool”, Vaid says.
“We have this roleplay scenario where we ask the students: what are the common reasons parents or families may use to justify a forced marriage?” she says. The pupils’ answers often include responses such as “this is our culture”, “this is our religion”, or “it’s always been this way”.
“One of the things we would say to those young people is: ‘Do you know that forced marriage is not allowed in Islam? This is where it says it in the Qur’an,’” Vaid says. “It’s quite enlightening for them to say, ‘Yes, that may be our culture but that’s not our religion’, and to speak to people in the language they identify with. It’s really powerful.”
Vaid is aware that while certain sections of the media persist in portraying Islam as an anti-women religion, the actual experiences of Muslim women are often overlooked or ignored. One area where she sees this happen frequently is in conversations surrounding sexual abuse, particularly girls being groomed by gangs of men.
“By only highlighting one profile of abuse – Pakistani men and white female victims – you miss out the other victims. You miss out the Asian girl who’s being groomed in her community and hasn’t reported it, because one of the methods of keeping her in that relationship has been: ‘I know your brother, I know your dad,’” she says. “It’s that added barrier of shame and honour which makes it even more difficult for that young person to come forward. What we’re trying to do is say that all these voices need to be heard.”
As well as running sessions in schools, MWN-UK also produces research reports, responds to government consultations on policy, runs campaigns and operates a national helpline, advising women on issues from divorce to mental health. Vaid describes the helpline as the network’s “frontline service, which supports women in crisis situations but also women who may just need information about their rights”.
The group also produces educational materials on women’s rights for smaller local organisations to use, such as information booklets and YouTube videos in multiple languages. “Often when you are a small local group, what you don’t have is time to produce resources,” Vaid explains. “For an activist on the ground running a coffee morning, they would simply press play on one of our YouTube videos and then that can be a stimulus for discussion.”
Assisting, rather than directing, the activities of grassroots groups is key. “We’re not trying to create an umbrella body that controls what’s happening around the country. What we’re trying to do is support local women in their local context to run projects in ways that only they can know is right for that community.”
Looking forward, Vaid hopes to continue to facilitate spaces for women to talk about their lives in a way that acknowledges the importance of religion and culture.
“There aren’t enough culturally and faith-sensitive spaces that allow Muslim women to talk about their faith and how it impacts their lives, and I think that’s really important,” she says. “There aren’t enough opportunities for women to have their voices heard in meaningful ways, and that’s what I want to try and support.”
Words: Moya Crockett. Interview: Georgia Green. Images: Courtesy of Faeeza Vaid / Muslim Women’s Network UK