This round-table meeting brought together women from Muslim communities, either in an individual capacity or as representatives of community organisations, and the Government Equalities Office (GEO). The aim of this ‘pre-consultation’ meeting was as follows:
- To discuss how best the GEO could engage with women from various communities around the UK following the closure of the Women’s National Commission (WNC) on 31st December 2010;
- To listen to the views of women from Muslim communities in Britain and to feed back these views into the main consultation (on the government’s approach to engaging with women) which will take place in the first quarter of 2011.
The meeting was organised by Shaista Gohir and Faeeza Vaid of Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK, Birmingham), in collaboration with Khursheed Wadia and Danièle Joly from the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick (Coventry). It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK within the context of a research project entitled: Women from Muslim Communities and Politics in Britain and Francehich is being undertaken by Khursheed Wadia and Danièle Joly.
The agenda for the meeting comprised two parts. In the first part, the GEO’s Sarah Morgan (Deputy Head of Gender Equality Function) explained why the WNC was closing, how the GEO was stepping in and also put a number of questions to the women present about ways in which the GEO could communicate with them in order to seek their views and engage with them effectively. The second part of the meeting was taken up by discussion based on a set of questions circulated in advance of the meeting by the Warwick researchers.
The meeting was opened by Shaista Gohir who invited Khursheed Wadia to explain the importance of the ESRC research project and Sarah Morgan to introduce the GEO’s engagement with women plan.
Khursheed Wadia outlined the aims of the four-year study. One of the main aims of the study had been to challenge stereotypes, to demonstrate that women from Muslim communities are not submissive, apathetic or uninformed as often viewed in the public mind, but that they have the capacity and desire to act as subjects in their own right and that they are deserving of any gains to be made from exercising their political rights and duties. In uncovering the extent of Muslim women’s civic action and political participation in Britain and France, the types of participative action engaged in and the issues which mobilise them, the aim of the study is to push political decision makers to stop pathologising Muslim women’s presence in society, to respond to their needs and hopes and to ensure that they are afforded the means by which to maximise their contribution to society.
Sarah Morgan explained that the Coalition government’s pledge to increase accountability and transparency in the public sector entailed the closure of about 300 public bodies of which the WNC was one, and the reorganisation of a further 500. The disestablishment of the WNC meant that its brief was transferred to the GEO from January 2011 while the GEO became part of the Home Office and answerable to Home Secretary Teresa May and Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone. It is claimed that the logic underpinning these moves is to bring the voice of women in Britain directly to government by facilitating the latter’s engagement with women at grassroots level. The key questions to be asked therefore are:
- How can government engage with women, on an individual as well as group level, in particular with those from marginalised communities?
- What means can the GEO use to work directly with women at grassroots level in order to influence government departments across the board into considering the aspirations and needs of women from different communities?
In order to answer these questions, the GEO held a number of pre-consultation meetings to discuss some if not all the elements of a four-pronged approach involving:
- direct engagement between government ministers and women’s community organisations;
- identifying issues of importance to women in the UK today;
- using the expertise residing within women’s organisations in order to identify and deal with issues of importance to women in the UK;
- using modern communication technologies, encompassed within a new government IT platform, in order to connect effectively with women in the UK. It is the last element which constituted the GEO’s main interest at this round-table meeting.