Men need to stop telling Muslim women how oppressed they think they are, the head of one of the community’s largest representative bodies has said, as she called for the equality watchdog to probe whether cases of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party reached the threshold for criminal investigation.
Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), said there needed to be “meaningful, long-term action” after a report published on Tuesday found Boris Johnson’s controversial comments about burka-wearing women gave the impression the Tories are “insensitive to Muslim communities”.
Ms Mohammed welcomed the report led by Professor Swaran Singh but she said: “I think for us where it didn’t go far enough was really looking at the cultural side of the problem, looking at the deep-seated and embedded nature of the issue.”
Professor Singh found anti-Muslim sentiment was seen at local association and individual levels but said claims of “institutional racism” were not borne out by evidence of the way complaints were handled.
However Ms Mohammed, who became the MCB’s youngest and first female head earlier this year, said that institutional racism in the Conservative Party was “evident”, echoing the feelings of Tory peer Baroness Warsi and Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend).
Ms Mohammed said while the internal processes within the Tory party were one area that needed to be addressed, as highlighted by the report, that “attitude, behaviour and understanding”, especially in grassroots communities, was “the heart of the matter”.
She added: “That’s where we feel that the report doesn’t go far enough, in the entrenched behaviour and that cultural change that needs to happen.”
Ms Mohammed said the MCB had been aware of cases of abuse rising when high-profile figures made remarks such as those documented in the report.
“Sometimes we forget the human cost, the human value,” she said.
“And a lot of the concerns that are expressed to us by our affiliates, by Muslim women in particular, is some of the damaging narrative and language that’s being used by political leadership from the bottom to the top and being afraid to go out, looking across your shoulder, are people going to be judging me because I’m wearing a veil or because I wear a headscarf?”
The report detailed how Mr Johnson, in his testimony, had said that a 2018 Daily Telegraph article in which he described Muslim women who wear the burka as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” had been an “honest defence for a woman’s right to wear what she chooses”.
But Ms Mohammed said: “Let women define our choices, I think we’ve had enough conversations around that, and let women who choose to wear whatever symbolism or religious attire, also choose what that means for them and what that choice looks like.
“I think the last thing we need in this day and age is for politicians, especially men, to tell us what our choices should and shouldn’t be or how oppressed we are. It just falls into the tropes about Muslim women and further stigmatises, again, who we are and what decisions we can make and whether we understand our freedoms and liberties.”
Asked whether it mattered that Mr Johnson said he would not repeat those comments now that he was Prime Minister, she said: “Not to the people impacted by what he said. It’s immaterial when you said it, but you still had influence and the consequences were felt by those.”
She added the MCB “actually has evidence of how Islamophobia has increased in the UK” off the back of comments such as those made by the Prime Minister.
And she said the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) should look into specific instances detailed in Professor Singh’s investigations.
“I think the EHRC now needs to go a step further, they need to look at the institutional nature, and they need to look at whether there is course for legal complaint or legal remedy, because there’s a lot of complaints that have been submitted, we have to look at the full seriousness of that.”
But she said the party should also now look forward and work with representative groups to bring about change.
“A lot of it is leading by example,” she said.
“And I think there has to be that acknowledgment that this is actually quite serious.
“What we want to see is a firm commitment and a pledge of commitments from the Conservative Party to say, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re fully committed, we will adopt the definition of Islamophobia, and we will work with local Muslim communities, representative bodies, and actually, when someone does say something, even if they’re in a high position, we’re going to call it out, we’re going to apologise, and we’re going to take some steps to rectify that.”
She added: “We want Muslim communities to engage with the Conservative Party to join the party to be represented by the party. So, and sometimes people lose sight of that objective, which is the reason that we’re having the conversation in the first place.”