By Alia Waheed
16th October 2019
When someone completes a prison sentence, they are supposed to have a fresh start, but Muslim women who come out of prison face a second sentence from the community.
Faced with rejection by their families and shunned by their community because of issues around family honour, many women are left isolated and alone, making them vulnerable to grooming into prostitution and radicalisation.
Muslim women in prison are an unspoken secret within the community, but also within the criminal justice system, which fails to address the cultural hurdles they face, making them increasingly vulnerable to reoffending.
Although the number of Muslim women in prison is relatively small - six per cent of the female prison population is Muslim, according to the Prison Reform Trust - the Muslim Women in Prison Project aims to tackle the problem before it escalates, to avoid following the trend among Muslim men who make up a disproportionate figure in the prison system.
A recent report by the project highlights the complex cultural issues faced by Muslim women who come out of prison and calls for more awareness of the needs of BAME women within the criminal justice system. Its authors are calling for a community based approach to supporting women who come out of prison after finding success with a pilot project in Bradford. There are plans to expand the scheme to other areas such as Birmingham.
The groundbreaking project supports ex-offenders and helps them reintegrate back into the community, creating a safety net before they face the risk of falling back into reoffending and helping to break the vicious cycle so they can rebuild their lives.
It has already helped over 50 women from two prisons in the past year and hopes to set up similar schemes in other parts of the country.
Volunteers connect with the women while they are in prison, then offer support when they come out, on both practical issues such as housing and employment. They also offer emotional, faith and cultural-based support.
“Mainstream women’s organisations don’t have Muslim women on their radar,” said Sofia Buncy, Coordinator of the Muslim Women in Prison Rehabilitation Project and author of the report. “We have to understand the social, cultural and faith context of these women and their offending because that’s their reality. If you ignore what is the norm for them, it won’t work because that’s their identity. Our system works because it is not a traditional white woman model.
“Being excluded from their community leaves these women vulnerable to grooming and into crime and bad relationships. That’s why we have to take ownership of the problem and solve it within the community.
“If there is shame on Muslim women going into prison, there is shame on our whole community for not helping them when they come out.”
One of the main roles of the service is to help women build bridges with their families, a long and painful healing process, particularly as the breakdown between offenders and their families and the community often started long before the offence was committed. Such was the case for Zara*.
“When I was young, I had an arranged marriage. When we got divorced, it caused a lot of problems between me and my family, especially my mum because she said I brought shame on the family.
“I lived alone with my child, so my priority was to make a good life for them. I was just starting to reconnect with my mum, but things were still shaky between us.
“Being arrested and the trial was horrific. I got loads of attention because of my hijab. The only thing that saved me was the judge put a media ban because there was a vulnerable child involved, otherwise, I would have been killed.
“What hurt me the most was when my mum said she wouldn’t take my child because she was worried that people would ask questions and what the community would say. It hurt that she wouldn’t help. Getting support from Sofia was a godsend. She gave me hope and a shoulder to cry on as well as helping me with practical stuff.”
Often the women have experienced a horrendous set of circumstances, such as sexual abuse and domestic violence, which has led to their offending and much of the work of the rehabilitation project is to heal those wounds.
“I had a counsellor and when I told her I had been raped by my uncle, her advice was to tell my dad. I tried to explain that was the last thing I could do, but she just didn’t get it. Half the battle is trying to explain issues such as family honour, whereas if you speak to somebody who is the same cultural background, they already get it,” said Ayesha*.
One of the key reasons for the success of the project was the involvement of the Bradford Council for Mosques (BCM), a network of more than 100 local mosques in the area.
The BCM provided a home for the service in one of its community centres and raises awareness of the religious obligation that the community has to help support women who come out of prison, hence pre-empting any potential community backlash.
Men Must Be Part of the Solution
“Men are the drivers towards offending, so they also have to be part of the solution. The role of the mosque is not just for praying but also to guide the community and the backing of the mosque network was essential,” said Buncy. “For example, we’ve had cases where the local imam was able to mediate between ex-offenders and their families. That support helps because the mosque has more sway in the community. Our religion tells us to forgive people and support them, whereas our culture is unforgiving.”
The results of the project speak for themselves, with about 70 per cent of women involved having gone back to college or started work. One such success story is Yasmin from Birmingham who served five years for possession of drugs and now works in probation supporting women coming out of prison. She now hopes to set up a similar scheme in Birmingham.
“When women tell me their story I can relate to it because I’ve been there,” said Yasmin, who didn't wish to give her full name. “Although there is support out there, they lack the understanding of the cultural issues we face, like arranged marriages and family honour. People outside the culture don’t get it and don’t know how to deal with it. Even if you are not religious, it’s ingrained in you.
“There is a stereotype that it’s young women who have gone too westernised, the good girl gone bad, but I’ve seen women of all ages, from old aunties who can’t speak English to girls in Hijabs. Our community needs to understand. Don’t think it can’t happen to your sister or your daughter.”
“The only thing they have in common is that there is a root cause to what’s happened like domestic violence, sexual abuse or drugs and they can’t get help because of the stigma.”
According to Buncy, the first step to solving the problem is to acknowledge it exists, not just within the community but also within the criminal justice system. “It’s the silence around the subject that allows the stigma to perpetuate. If we don’t break the silence, nothing will change.”
Original Headline: Muslim women in prison can face a second sentence from their community. A new project is tackling stigma
Source: INews, UK