Working on the current research project for Cageprisoners, the vast majority of our volunteers and workers are sisters dedicated to the important cause of the growing numbers of Muslim prisoners being held illegally in the War on Terror. Recruitment drives have proved fruitless; in a recent initiative using an internet forum, out of all the volunteers who responded to our appeal, only one brother contacted us.
Where are the brothers? This is a question that I find very difficult to come to terms with, especially when I speak and interact with so many of them that care about the situation of our Ummah.
This article has not been written to explain the permissibility, according to Islamic tenets, of the work that many of our sisters do in activist da’wah – I will leave that debate to our scholars – rather it is merely an observation illustrating the current state of work on issues relating to the oppression of Muslims. Further, it is also a tribute to those sisters who feel that they must engage in work that brothers have simply failed to undertake and work they feel they are being left alone with. Experience demonstrates that it is the sisters who carry the burden, displaying initiative, bravery and a willingness to undertake essential grass-roots work, and not the brothers.
I recently began attending the meetings for the newly formed London branch of Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA), who campaign for the protection of Masjid Al-Aqsa and for the general protection of our Palestinian brothers and sisters. The meeting was somewhat shocking for me, with the exception of a handful of brothers, the room was full of sisters who formed the main workers for the organisation.
I realised the extent of this when I volunteered to work on their stall at a Stop the War demonstration. Mashallah the sisters turned up ready to give da’wah to the non-Muslims and explain our position on Palestine with no fear of those who may approach, displaying their knowledge and commitment to the cause.
On asking the FOA sisters about the aspects of the work they most difficulty with, they said primarily there were two things: the first being the difficulty of having to interact with men in a way that some feel uncomfortable with (for example lecturing brothers), and secondly, being the difficulty of carrying heavy things around London in order to get their message across to different audiences. These are great difficulties that the sisters have to overcome in terms of their work, but there is a further one that is greatly frustrating for them: the level of criticism that they receive for the work. Sister Amina said of her involvement in the organisation,
“I find it disheartening that there are so many brothers detained under the anti-terror laws and everyone talks of how bad it is and how wrong it is; but very few, in the moment of pent up anger remember that all of this happening due to the qadr of Allah (SWT) as a test for all of a mankind and the efforts we put in are just not enough. How will we face Allah (SWT) on the day of judgement knowing that all this fitna and injustices went on and all we did was swear at the television and then tell anyone (such as myself) who is getting involved that it is too ‘dangerous’. In contrast, we have those who claim that it is ok for women to do it as, apparently we will not get arrested and there is a lesser risk for us sisters. It has gotten to the point that people fear fellow human beings more than Allah (SWT).”
Many of the sisters who are involved in this work are university students or those with full/part-time jobs without the responsibility of looking after spouses or children. Often brothers in similar situations sadly take the work of the sisters for granted, dismissively suggesting they have nothing better to do. But as highlighted by sister Umm Kulthum,
“We have to juggle full time jobs and part-time studies. This often means evenings are taken up with classes, revision, essays as well as charity work. Surely this is the same situation as many brothers? I think some brothers assume sisters don’t work.”
Sisters for other organisations have faced similar experiences with regard to condemnation by brothers for work that essentially the brothers should be doing. Sister Shahnaz recalls a call that another sister made to a Masjid with regard to canvassing support locally for Cageprisoners,
“The brother on the end of the phone told her to stay in the kitchen instead of doing stuff like this, it is not a woman’s place to do such things, etc. Sometimes I feel shy to do this, ya’ni, ring a Masjid, speak to a brother to ask if they would be interested in this, etc., etc., however there are no brothers doing this; so what can you do.”
These sentiments are not held alone by these sisters, many have expressed their discomfort with being in such close contact with men, but feel as if they have no option other than to do so, despite holding a very strict view on interaction with men. Sister Hafsa, who was dealing with work for another organisation that helps Muslim detainees, commented about her problems,
“On a number of occasions I had to ring ex-detainees, lawyers, or other activists on behalf of the organisation, which often made me quite uncomfortable. I found it particularly awkward ringing former detainees, out of courtesy, as they were very vulnerable. There was a particular brother I had to speak to many times. I felt bad but this brother fell into depression. There were no brothers to call him, and he would only get regular phone calls from a non Muslim woman. I remember one time when his father passed away, I had to ring. It was really awkward I have to say, but there wasn’t anyone else to do this. And of course at such a time, he needed the naseeha from a Muslim, not a non Muslim.”
For these sisters, there is an understanding, that if they do not do this work, there will be no one else to do so, other than the non-Muslim population of this country. Nearly all those who are calling these brothers and helping their families are sisters, those brave sisters who have no fear of being labelled simply for completing an Islamic duty.
Few brothers volunteer to support male prisoners, despite the inappropriateness of sisters providing this level of moral support. Some will even be reluctant to make a phone call, considering elaborate and ingenious ways of contacting a ‘suspect’ without having to use their land line, fearing stigmatisation as a result. The status quote remains that no brothers help in this area of work. When the organisation Helping Households Under Great Stress (HHUGS) did a recruitment drive to get more people involved with the work, it was difficult for them when only one brothers came forward to offer his help.
For some of the organisations, they are limited by time scales to meet daily deadlines. All of the sisters involved in these organisations have to update websites, get packs ready, reply to emails or phone queries, manage research reports, volunteers or any manner of things which all require a great daily attention. The problem for many of them is that especially when they are married and have children, they are unable to give the full attention to their family that they would like, especially when it comes to meeting their deadlines. Generally brothers have opportunities to attend classes and lectures as they will due to their ease of movement, but because of the restriction of the work, the sisters often find that they are not able to work on their own Islamic tarbiyyah all the while struggling to balance their roles as wives, mothers and other family commitments.
The result of tight deadlines and a need to keep up with updates results in the sisters sleeping very little at night. One sister, often at the expense of her family life, worked at least 12 hours in the day on this voluntary work due to her dedication to it. Sister Sumayyah, speaking more specifically about her timings, related,
“At its worst I was sleeping two hours a day. On a few occasions I did not sleep at all in 24 hours to meet certain deadlines. For the past two months I have been sleeping an average of three hours a night, which leaves me struggling in the day to manage other responsibilities.”
As a result of this approach, often the children are most affected. The sisters all worry about the fact that the tarbiyyah of their children will be disturbed if they do not spend enough time with them. For any mother, this is always a primary concern, however, it is impossible for them to simply transfer the workload (even at the edge of burnout) due to the absence of others to take their place,
“Although I try my best to give my children their rights and reduce my work in their waking hours, and devote that time to them, at times, I still have to apologise to them. I say sorry with tears in my eyes and explain that the Muslims are being oppressed, and that I am trying to help them, that Mama has to do that because there are too few people who will do it; that one day I hope they will understand. I ask them to be patient with me and that Allah will give them jannah for their patience.”
Sometimes the sisters are forced into a position where they must do the work even though they know their families will not like it. One, sister Fareeha, explained her own frustration,
“My father does not like me doing this. He just thinks it’s a matter of making du’a, that is all we can do. He thinks things like this can get us into trouble with the authorities, etc. Where is the Tawakkul [reliance on Allah] of the Muslims? Maybe that is one of the reasons why some sisters don’t get involved, because of family, etc.”
With the sisters left struggling to juggle their roles as wives and mothers, with domestic and other commitments, often neglecting their own health and tarbiyyah as a result, their spouses may subsequently be unsupportive. In Fatima’s case, her husband felt compelled, due to the considerable impact on her home life and other responsibilities, to limit her to only thirty minutes of work each day – having an immediate effect on the work, which subsequently suffered greatly. However, Fatima found, as other sisters have testified, that with sabr and persistent du’a they have been surprised to find their husband’s take a 180 degree turn, fully supporting their efforts or being inspired by their example to become more active.
Other sisters have been integral to certain projects without whom the project could not possibly function, and yet they continue to work despite their families not even knowing that they are involved with that work. This is relatively easier task when the sisters are unmarried, as non-office based work can often be covered without suspicion being aroused by families who are too scared, however for those sisters that are married and have children, the situation changes completely. For them the work comes before all else, due to its importance and significance for those who are less fortunate than themselves. Sister Yasmin commented,
“When I began the work my youngest child was just three months old. It was normal for me to have a baby on my lap and be typing one-handed at the same time. I have been working for almost three years, for a minimum of four hours every day and up to 23 hours a day at its worst period, for about 2 months solid. In that period I did not leave the house once in those two months and dropped all other commitments… Even in a medical emergency when I was in hospital for several days, I discharged myself over night so that I would be able to do the necessary daily work, as there was no one to cover me, to return to hospital the next day.”
This can be particularly hard especially on the relationship that sisters have with their own immediate families in terms of their spouse and children. The situation of the above sister is not unique, it is common for sisters to be working with several children or up to their fortieth week of pregnancy. One, sister Uzma, gave birth to her second child only to be on the phone within days, arranging volunteers to support a family in need. Throughout she remained responsible for managing the organisation’s email account. Sister Sara was working on a presentation within weeks of giving birth to her third child. Yet another, sister Aliyah, was forced to travel across London to do urgent office work in a case, with a new born baby and toddlers in tow. Sister Huma recalls,
“At the most hectic time, my spouse used to put the children to sleep every day instead of me. I really missed my children in that time and they missed me incredibly. They would cry every night for me to put them to sleep. They would wake up in the night and come to me, sometimes fall asleep on the floor next to me. Most nights my youngest still wakes up, wanting me. She lies in my lap as I work for part of most nights and even now she is the one to tell me to “go to sleep”.”
Farzana, a sister in a similar situation said, “I am absolutely ashamed to say it but my children would beg me to read a story to them and I can say that I did not read a book to them in this time.” It is thus often the children who suffer the most due to the work that these sisters are forced to take on. Speaking of her own experience, sister Sadia regretfully relates,
“I eventually had to fit a baby gate in the computer room to keep my children where they could see me but not come to me. Often for hours my 16 month old, would (and still does) play outside the gate and I would hand him nibblets of food like a caged animal to keep him happy. When he would get tired, he would cry and cry until he would fall asleep outside the gate. I could not even turn around to pick him up at particularly pressing times. Sometimes, both my kids would just hit the computer. The younger one did not understand but when I explained to the older one it was to help the brothers in prison, he became more understanding.”
These sisters are often criticised and condemned for their proactivity in the da’wah and their intense concern for our brother and sisters, but for me, just over the course of my time in this work and specifically research for this article, they have been a real source of encouragement. Reading their statements that are emailed to me, I am always amazed by the efforts that they go to with no fear of anything or anyone, everything that they do is for the sake of seeking the pleasure of Allah SWT and protecting those that they love as their brothers and sisters.
One sister that has always been a real source of inspiration to us all and a true leader in the face of so much difficulty is sister Khadijah bint Aadam from the Muslim Prisoners Support Group. Single handedly and without complaint of the effort it takes, our sister has taken it upon herself to be a forerunner for all Muslim prisoners in the UK, not just those held on suspected charges of terrorism. Speaking of the work,
“Because of the work we do, we support any prisoners, no matter what their status or crime they have committed. A lot of this is just going and visiting brothers. You have to be a permanent fixture in their life. You can’t go and befriend them and then not be bothered. It is hard, it is really hard to get brothers activated. I run a home, I have to do the cleaning, cooking, look after my animals, my husband and my father. I don’t understand how the brothers don’t have the time.”
Regarding the role of the brothers, sister Khadijah has been particularly vocal, especially as she is forced to do so much of the work that they should be doing. Her husband being an inmate himself is often neglected due to the care and attention she gives to all the brothers that are held. Since November 2005 she has only had the opportunity to meet him on one occasion. Once again, the sister is forced to deal with the same mantra that is propagated by critical brothers again and again,
“Brothers do a lot of talking and sitting and discussing, but they don’t do much. They talk the talk but not many walk the walk. They are great at going out and demonstrating, but actions speak louder than words. They will be responsible for this on the Day of Judgment. Rather than making sisters feel awkward, they should encourage them.”
Sister Khadijah has been doing this work for over 11 years and has vast amounts of experience in dealing with these issues. However, the sisters involved are not only those who have that level of experience, the ‘Rally for Justice’ event that took place in Blackburn was organised by someone with very little to no experience in this work, and the fact that this sister is only seventeen years old highlights the extent to which sisters are willing to work against the oppression they see. Everyone who attended the event, including sister Yvonne Ridley claimed that they thought the event had been organised by a major organisation with a full team of workers.
Something is rotten with the state of this Ummah, but it is not the sisters who will be held accountable. The fact is that much of the obligation there is to help organisations working for the sake of helping Muslims in trouble is being taken up by sisters who have a level of faith and dedication that many brothers cannot touch. The brothers have simply failed in their responsibilities to those oppressed around the world, and yet find it very easy to criticise sisters as being too outgoing and modern in their approach to work in the da’wah. This goes against the fitra (natural inclination) of the men to take stances and stand up for their rights and justice, for it is our sisters who doing the work, while we take a back seat as traditionally women were supposed to – a complete imbalance has evolved.
My simple request is this – brothers, if you are concerned about the involvement of sisters in this work, then please step up and take up your responsibilities in the same way they have already done so. If you are unable to do this, then be supportive in any way that you can, for these sisters deserve nothing less. If even that is difficult for you to do, then the very minimum that you can do, is to stop censuring all the while recognising your own failures in taking up this work.
At the battle of Uhud, it was Umm Amarah Nusaybah Bint Ka’b (RA) who reprimanded the men who were fleeing defending the Prophet (SAWS). When she saw what was taking place, she took up a spear and began defending him vociferously, seeking Paradise and his company there.
This article is about the sisters, so far better than for me to have the final word, it is only appropriate that I end with the words of sister Zainab, whose sincerity speaks for all the others,
“These sacrifices are very small in comparison and not worthy of mention, but I feel the greatest injustice has been done to my children, as there is simply no one to carry this work. For two years I feel that they suffered and even now, to an extent, they do still suffer although I try my best to make it otherwise. I ask my family to forgive me for that and I ask Allah to forgive me for that. I do not think I can forgive myself. I do not have the excuse of others who perhaps make a similar contribution for those who are tied to them by blood, not merely by iman.”
Dr Asim Qureshi is a Human Rights Lawyer and is Co-DIrector of CAGE UK (previously known as Cageprisoners) where he works as the senior researcher. Asim has led investigations into Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, Sudan, Sweden, USA and around the UK. With his team of researchers, he has written and published many reports exposing the use of unlawful detention, rendition, and torture in the ‘war on terror’.
He is also the author of the book, “Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance”. The work analyses the global detention policies in the ‘War on Terror’ post 11th September 2001 and the impact on those most affected.