Rt Hon John Denham MP
Secretary of State
Department of Local Government and Communities
6th April 2010
Dear Secretary of State,
Re: Resignation from the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group
I am writing to inform you that I am stepping down, with immediate effect, from the government’s National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG).
Since the group’s launch over two years ago, I have increasingly become disillusioned with the initiative. Due to recent developments within the group, I feel that I can no longer remain on it as a matter of principle.
Several factors have resulted in my resignation, which include:
1. The inactivity of the group to collectively influence policies to empower Muslim women. Instead the talent of dynamic women has been wasted on overseeing projects. When I joined, I did not envisage being involved in project delivery. The projects that were commissioned could have been done so without involvement of NMWAG as with other ‘prevent’ projects.
2. Receiving little or no support when I raised valid concerns. I raised concerns to government staff and the rest of the NMWAG group over a year ago which included: lack of opportunities to influence policy; not having a website; not having a national conference to engage with Muslim women; the need to clarify our role and objectives. In addition, I questioned why the government had shown more interest and put more resources into the Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG), which was launched a year after NMWAG. For example, YMAG have a website, have had a national conference, and will be launching a magazine. In view of this, it is apparent that NMWAG are a tick box exercise. Except for a few voices of support from within the group, my views were ignored. In fact my vocal nature resulted in a government official suggesting, that I should perhaps review my position on the group.
Again in September 2009, I raised further concerns about the lack of influence of NMWAG and empowerment of Muslim women being linked to the ‘prevent agenda’ via a report I submitted to the government Select Committee Inquiry on the preventing violent extremism programme. A copy of this report was provided to both, NMWAG and Department of Local Government and Communities, (DCLG). None of the issues raised resulted in any discussion or debate – in fact they were totally ignored.
3. Lack of strategy to channel views of Muslim women via NMWAG to government. Individuals on the group have used their own initiative to speak at events from time to time and also engage with women in their locality through their roles in their respective organisations. However, the government has not provided a strategy and resources for the group to reach out to Muslim women in Britain more widely, especially in view of the fact that many regional networks have been set up through local authorities. I recall making suggestions on how this could happen, another suggestion that was not taken forward.
4. The recent and sudden activity amongst some NMWAG members in trying to revitalise the group just prior to the general election. In recent months, there has been some discussion within the group that a new government may disband NMWAG due to its lack of impact. This has resulted in a sudden interest to ensure NMWAG is more visible and active. Recent activities have included: suggestion to develop a website by the end of April; appointment of a co-ordinator from amongst the group; an away day at very short notice thereby not securing maximum attendance; steps to clarify our objectives; considering how to influence government policy; and arranging meetings with other Muslim organisations.
I feel extremely uncomfortable about the timing of this renewed interest to empower Muslim women. I believe that this gives the perception that the group has suddenly become active to save itself rather than for the genuine empowerment of Muslim women which is a task that has to take place irrespective of elections or any change in government. I do not doubt the integrity of the members of NMWAG, who as individuals are doing important work. However, the urgency and timing does raise questions as to why such action were not taken sooner, especially when I raised those concerns a long time ago.
5. The selection of members of NMWAG and the lack of process to ensure constant renewal of membership. When the group was first formed, I was uncomfortable with the mechanisms used to select group members. We were handpicked by civil servants and government advisors which resulted in a lack of diversity and raised questions about our credibility. I continuously raised concerns about the lack of diversity of the group. A year later, I welcomed the inclusion of additional women to the group through a fair application process. At this point, I raised concerns about the perceptions of credibility and suggested that this opportunity could be taken for original members to also reapply for their positions on the group. However, this suggestion was not taken up.
Currently there are no procedures to ensure members of the NMWAG group are replaced allowing an influx of other knowledgeable and talented women who can inject new ideas. If the NMWAG continues to exist, I have already put this forward as a suggestion to be considered. Not giving other women the chance to participate will result in the group being viewed as gatekeepers.
6. Decision making processes that have been disempowering to Muslim women – NMWAG have rolled out projects to empower Muslim women such as: role models road show; civic skills programme; and theological understanding. However, such positive actions have been undermined by some of the decision making processes that are quite disempowering for Muslim women. A separate letter of complaint will be sent providing further details on this matter.
7. The link with the NMWAG initiative to the ‘preventing violent extremism’ agenda. Muslim women are one of the most deprived groups in the UK. They suffer from the highest levels of economic inactivity, worst health; and face discrimination on multiple fronts – issues on which the group has not been consulted on. It is clear that the government should be engaging with Muslim women anyway to find ways to ensure they have equal life chances as any other group. Despite initial reservations about linking Muslim women to the prevent agenda, I supported it in the expectation that it could act as a catalyst to empower women attempting to tackle the many wider issues that impact their daily lives. Having been on the NMWAG for over two years, I now feel the initiative was a political fad.
8. Engagement with Muslim women through a created group can be divisive – I feel that the existence of NMWAG has caused some resentment amongst women’s groups of other faiths, secular women’s groups and other Muslim groups. It is clear from the last several years that the government tends to show favouritism to a particular group which it tends to elevate before replacing it with another. This has always been divisive strategy.
I cannot see sufficient justification to continue with the NMWAG group for the above reasons. Despite recent efforts to make the group more active, I feel it is too little too late. I now believe the best way to empower Muslim women and channel their views into decision making processes is to not just restrict the government’s engagement to NMWAG. As NMWAG has failed as an initiative, they should not be promoted as the only or main channel that other government departments should engage with.
I feel the best way forward is for all government departments to tap into the wide array of Muslim women’s organisations and individual community activists across the UK and engage with women with the relevant knowledge and expertise on the issue concerned. Such action will result in more Muslim women gaining access to decision makers and the government increasing the diversity of women with whom it engages with. I understand that some of the other department are currently trying to engage with a wider range of women which shows that NMWAG is perhaps not needed.
I look forward to any comments you may have as regards to the content of my letter.
Shaista Gohir MBE
Muslim Women’s Network UK