By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communication
January 2021 saw Zara Mohammed, a 29-year old trainee consultant from Glasgow, elected as the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) first female secretary general. Talking about this milestone, Mohammed said ‘making history is a tremendous responsibility, but it’s very exciting to be a young female in this role, and I hope it will inspire others.’
On the day of the MCB’s announcement, mayor of London Sadiq Khan took to Twitter to say that this news was ‘terrific.’
The MCB was established in 1997 and boasts being Britain’s ‘largest and most diverse national Muslim umbrella organisation with over 500 members, including mosques, schools, charitable associations and professional networks.’ The MCB ‘publishes reports, guidelines and resources to inform the mainstream discourse on British Muslims and to empower [its] member organisations across’ the UK.
On 4 February Mohammed joined Emma Barnett on BBC 4’s Women’s Hour for an interview.
During the interview Mohammed was repeatedly asked by Barnett ‘how many female imams are there in the UK?’ Barnett went on to ask that since ‘representing women’ was a key part of Mohammed’s new role and given that ‘female priests have been around for some time and we’ve seen the advent of female rabbis’ in the UK, ‘what is the picture for women leading prayer in Britain in Muslim communities?’
Mohammed responded by saying that she did not think it was her role, nor that of the MCB, to ‘adjudicate or examine that [aspect] of spirituality’. She went on to explain that the work the MCB does is more concerned with how they can serve ‘to benefit [Muslim] communities.’
“Emma Barnett: ‘You don’t know? That’s fine if you don’t know. But it’s just quite striking that you can’t answer that question.’”
‘You don’t know? That’s fine if you don’t know. But it’s just quite striking that you can’t answer that question. [Although] I recognise [yours] is not a religious or spiritual role,’ Barnett retorted.
According to the Evening Express, this Women’s Hour episode garnered the BBC 564 complaints. The BBC’s complaints report highlighted the recurring theme being perceived ‘bias against Zara Mohammed [and the] Muslim Council of Britain.’
For Gal-Dem Magazine’s Sabah Hussain, Mohammed was ‘subjected to a trough-full of ignorance from [a] presenter who clearly hadn’t adequately researched the topic of women in Islam.’ Hussein went on to say that ‘Barnett pandered to an Imperialist view that Islam should fit within the confines of what the West deems appropriate.’
Middle East Eye’s Fatima Rajina further anchors this episode ‘within a long-standing history by which Orientalists have presumed Islam to be an extension of Christianity and/or Judaism.’ For Rajina, Barnett’s ‘incessant questioning’ harkens to a ‘history of using Judeo-Christian framing as a normative standard against which to judge other faith traditions – a flawed premise.’
However, Douglas Murray of the Jewish Chronicle highlighted that since Blair’s Labour government ‘and all governments since — [the MCB has] rightly [been] regarded as beyond the pale’ due to its ‘extremists links.’ For Douglas, Mohammed was evasive of questions surrounding female imams in Britain ‘because the answer is a big fat zero.’ He went on to argue that Barnett’s ‘reputation [is actively] being damaged […] by [a] smear [campaign under the] all-encompassing and deeply vague accusation of “Islamophobia.”’ Douglas concluded his ‘The Muslim Council of Britain should back off’ article by saying that ‘equality means being treated in exactly the same fashion as the rest of us. And that includes having to answer the same difficult questions that anybody else would if they were sitting in the same chair.’
Writing in The Telegraph in 2014, Emma Barnett said that she ‘[grew] up in the Orthodox arm of Judaism’ but described herself as ‘not a particularly observant Jew day-to-day.’ In her article entitled ‘Can you really be an Orthodox Jew and a feminist?’, Barnett recounted that she had never seen a female rabbi until the age of 21.
That same year during a BBC One to One discussion with Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, Barnett said in Judaism ‘women aren’t treated unequally, they just have different roles to men.’ In light of this, and while she did feel that it was ‘hypocritical as a feminist’, she expressed ‘struggling’ with the ‘unusual’ concept of female rabbis – ‘it’s just not traditional’, she said.
Speaking to The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood in March about the ordeal, while she was ‘really taken aback’ by the Women’s Hour interview that felt ‘particularly hostile and aggressive’, Zara Mohammed says she has ‘grown tenfold’ because of the experience.
Photo caption: BBC’s director-general Tim Davie said that Women’s Hour will ‘reflect’ over the ‘strikingly hostile’ interview. (Credit: The Evening Standard)