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     Volume 7 Issue 2 | January 11, 2008 |

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Syed Badrul Ahsan

At the end of November last year, I arrived in London along with my colleague Matiur Rahman Chowdhury of the daily Manabzamin as part of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office programme. It was, briefly put, called 'Engaging with British Muslims'. It all sounded rather interesting, especially since the FCO was behind it all. And with us there were a few other journalists, from Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the Philippines. We went visiting quite a few places as part of the programme. Obviously, the focus was on meeting British Muslims and eliciting their views on how they felt to be part of what is today generally referred to as multicultural Britain. It was quite an education listening to what some of these British Muslims had to say about their place in society and of their perceptions about it.

In Preston, to which town we were accompanied by two very competent FCO officials, Jill Sharp and Debbie Courtney, we found ourselves one draughty morning in the company of a pretty good crowd of Muslims. The intriguing bit here was the presence of a group of women who called themselves Sisters for Sisters. Even more intriguing was the fact that many of these women were British whites who had of late converted to Islam. Personally, I found that quite a happening, for it is quite unusual for people into whose countries Muslims from other parts of the world converge in the interest of a better life to go over to the religion of the ones who have just stepped on their shores. But here was this white, articulate, British woman, in a black hijab, telling us how they had been inspired by Islam enough to come into its fold. I had a question for her: when women like her turned their back on Christianity and went over to Islam, what kind of repercussions did that create at home? She admitted that such a move on the part of a member of the household did throw up quite a few ripples, that the process of transition took a while. In the end, though, it was all minimal.

And what does Sisters for Sisters do? In general, it encourages women to embrace Islam. More specifically, though, it helps new Muslims, as newcomers to the Islamic faith are called, to adapt to their new religious ambience by guiding them through a period of transition. But the organisation (and it was this white Muslim woman who did most of the talking) also made sure that it did not dwindle into a study in segregation. And this it did by establishing links between Muslim and non-Muslim women, the goal being a breakdown of the barriers, indeed the stereotypes, that had always come in between the followers of various faiths. We asked these hijab-clad women (and one of them concealed herself completely in nikab as well) if their efforts at conversion were in substance bearing any fruit. The answer, when it came, left us surprised: conversion was going on apace, the youngest convert being a thirteen year-old white British girl. The age range of converts to Islam, we were informed, was anywhere from thirteen to sixty years.

All of this conversation was carried on inside the Jamea mosque in Preston, where we were being hosted by a group of energetic young Muslim men, largely with a Pakistani or Pakistan-administered Kashmiri background. The mosque society had been set up way back in 1962, apparently by the first generation of subcontinental Muslims who made their way to Britain, and operated through a mosque committee. Was there any woman on the committee? The answer came, not from the vibrant young Muslim man who sat to my left but from, to my right, the white Muslim woman who had been telling us about Sisters for Sisters. 'No', she said in what sounded like a complaint. And why not? The young man then intervened, to say that the rules of membership, framed so long ago, would first have to be changed if women were to make it to the mosque committee. And that was that. I had the feeling, somewhere deep inside me, that a very large number of Muslim men in Britain were in need of reforms within themselves. Take, for instance, the grand old man who, with other happy, ageing Muslims, received us at a mosque, shook hands with all of the men in our group but looked past the women, who had involuntarily proffered their hands to be shaken.

But that interaction with Sisters for Sisters was a brief journey in enlightenment, of a kind. Not much of a faith person myself and yet with deep belief in Creation, I left that meeting in Preston somewhat surprised at the ease with which some people are willing to exchange one faith for another. And yet that is a circumstance you do not find everywhere. What is it about western liberalism that creates room for all men and women to express themselves, that has inclusiveness underpinning the social structure?

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