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The change-maker: An interview with Zara Mohammed

The change-maker: An interview with Zara Mohammed

Zara Mohammed shattered a few glass ceilings when she was appointed secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) last year: the first woman to hold the post, the first Scot, and the youngest by a long shot. Though she had confidence in her own abilities, no one was more surprised that the organisation had backed her than she was.

“The elections were in November 2020 and someone – a man – said to me ‘would you consider running?’,” she recalls. “I said ‘you’ve got to be joking – I’m still really new, I’m so young, I’m a woman – are you sure you’re ready?’ He said, ‘Isn’t it about time?’”

And so, suspecting she might appeal to the 50 per cent of British Muslims who are under the age of 25 and the 50 per cent who are female, the then 29-year-old Mohammed, who at that time had served just two years on the organisation’s leadership team, put her name in the ring.

Egged on by her own determination “to want to change something”, Mohammed thought the fact her opponent – imam, teacher, broadcaster and one-time LibDem political hopeful Ajmal Masroor – was as much of a wild card as she was would at least mean she would not have to face the ignominy of out and out defeat.

“You have to go in believing that you can win, but I thought it would be really tight,” she says.

“We were two very different candidates. We were both wild cards but I think he was the wilder card – he’s a very strong personality. Getting elected wasn’t easy as I had a very tough contender who has a long history on Islamic TV. I was part of the leadership team but my contender had been doing community work for 20 to 30 years and is very well respected. There was a division of opinion, but it was quite a decisive victory.”

Indeed, with 107 votes to Masroor’s 60, Mohammed won the backing of close to two-thirds of those who took part in the ballot. But, as she reflects on her first year in post, she concedes that does not mean she has had an easy ride.

There has been some sniping from within the council’s ranks – “internally, with my age, I had comments about people having decades of experience and what did I know” – and, though there has been huge media interest in the young Scottish woman leading an organisation that is perceived as being the preserve of dogmatic old men, not all of it has felt fair or kind.

Just days after taking over from Harun Khan, Mohammed appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour and was subjected to such hostility from presenter Emma Barnett that director general Tim Davie later apologised to listeners. The feeling, Mohammed says, is that she was being painted as “a puppet – a pleasant voice for bearded men” and that Barnett was there to expose that.

But if people externally thought Mohammed was an unusual choice – and she admits it took her a little time to accept that she really is the boss of the 25-year-old organisation – internally the reaction has been far from stereotypical. The minor sniping about age aside, the reaction of many members of both the MCB and the wider Islamic community shows that it is just as unhelpful for women to underestimate men as it is for men to underestimate women. Muslim men may well be viewed as traditionalist or misogynistic, but Mohammed says that she has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction she has received.

Photo credit: Kevin J Thomson
“I travel a lot – Blackburn, Leicester, Manchester, London – and in Leicester I was moved by the way I was greeted,” she says.

“I sat with some of the most conservative scholars and I was given the chair’s seat. It’s amazing for a woman to sit in that seat. Lots of scholars and imams were there and they were sitting on the floor but I was in the chair – I got their respect.

"The men were so over the moon. They really welcomed the change. They have daughters, granddaughters, nieces. One said that his daughter had seen me on Islamic TV. He’d never sat in on a meeting like that but really wanted to meet me.”

Better still, the women present felt empowered to have their voices heard too, meaning the stories Mohammed was hearing were representative of the community as a whole and not just one half of it.

“Because I’m a woman, the women get to speak,” Mohammed says. “I go out of my way to say I want to meet with just the women rather than meeting with both men and women at the same time because I know with both they might be nervous or reserved.”

Coaxing those voices out is one of Mohammed’s main priorities for her term at the head of the MCB. Raised in Glasgow, Mohammed is the oldest of four children born to second-generation British Pakistani Muslims – a Scottish-born father and English-born mother. They began shaping her feminism right from the off – “When I was born my mum started working because she wanted me to have a powerful role model” – and both parents encouraged her to become financially independent as she studied law and politics at the University of Strathclyde then embarked on a career as a self-employed diversity and inclusion business consultant. It is exactly that kind of support system Mohammed wants to foster for Muslim women across the UK so they too can play a more active role in public life.

“When I stood for election what I said was that we need an organisation fit for the future and one that’s accessible, diverse and relevant,” she says. “I really wanted to shake things up and bring more diversity in. We have a huge agenda for diversity and inclusion and I’m really clear about sustainable, long-term change. We are a community-funded organisation so we need to be ready for a changing environment and to see more Muslims in public life.

"Targeting Islamophobia is fine, but it shouldn’t be about us being different. [My proposition] was about women, young people and underrepresented groups because I felt I could connect with those audiences.”

I’m always so proud to be Glaswegian and I’m so proud of my Scottish heritage, but at the same time we have to be honest about things like deprivation

The fascination with Mohammed’s ‘otherness’ as an MCB secretary general has helped in that regard. She has appeared on the cover of so many newspapers her mother has joked about her cuttings box coming close to overflowing.

But the fact the image of a woman in a headscarf has appeared in the media because of her achievements rather than to make any kind of wider point about Islam has helped boost the confidence of other Muslim women. Being listed as one of Vogue’s 25 most influential women of 2021 alongside First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and both the Duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge – and being one of just six photographed for the feature – felt like a real watershed.

“I’ve featured in every mainstream publication, but the highlight was Vogue,” Mohammed says. “The reason it was such an important moment was because when it was published I had so many mothers, daughters and young families saying ‘you don’t know what this means to me’. It allowed me to access a new demographic but also give those young people a readership they could connect to. For young Muslim women it gave them a huge boost.”

Nor did she stop there. To mark International Women’s Day this year, Mohammed spent an hour-and-a-half taking questions from girls between the ages of 11 to 16 and her next project is to launch an Inspiring Young Leaders programme for girls in that age bracket.

“It will be mostly webinars connecting young people to leaders from business communities because I want to show them that opportunity is possible,” she says. “We’re also going to be launching a leadership dinner for Muslim women because I want to recognise women’s achievements.”

Mohammed is also leading from the front in showing women how to recognise their own worth, holding talks with the MCB about making the secretary general job – which from the launch of the organisation in 1997 until now has been voluntary – a paid role. Given the interest in her and what she represents, it is not unusual for Mohammed to do 20 interviews in 48 hours and some weeks she barely has time to eat or sleep never mind try to focus on doing any paid work. Formalising the role will take the stress out of that while also recognising how much of herself she has given to the organisation.

“The job has to change,” she says. “There’s paid work I can do but I have no time to do it. There are conversations going on about how to sort this out. A lot of my predecessors were 45, 50, 60. They had families and careers and this was an add-on. I’m a pretty good saver and am allowed [expenses] and that’s generally been okay but as things pick up [post-pandemic] it will be harder for me to sustain myself in a reasonable way. It will become a paid position – we need to get that done.

"I’ve essentially put myself on the line – if there’s a good story or a bad story it’s my responsibility – and after I’m secretary general that will come with me. This has shaped my identity and what I can do in the future. I’m very proud and very happy to do it but it’s a lot of risk and responsibility for me.” 

Being a leader of women is obviously of huge importance to Mohammed, but she is aware that her job does not begin and end with helping Muslim women find their voice. Other projects she is focusing on include launching a social media and tech conference – “the first of its kind for the Muslim community” – and running campaigns around young people, youth crime, rehabilitation and the environment.

“There will be a campaign around green mosques, focusing on single-use plastics during Ramadan, and driving to the mosque,” she says. “Glasgow Central Mosque is going to get solar panels, but we want to strengthen that. We just want to show that Muslim communities are playing their part for climate justice. Green stuff is important, community engagement is important.”

Photo credit: Kevin J Thomson

Though those are the positives of the role, Mohammed admits a large proportion of her time is taken up with dealing with the negative stereotypes assigned to British Muslims. Many of her media appearances have been driven by interviewers’ preoccupation with the tropes and causes of Islamophobia and she also feels the weight of having to defend her community and her faith when events such as the January Texas synagogue siege – which resulted in British hostage-taker Malik Faisal Akram being shot dead by police – occur. 
Most troubling of all is the UK Government’s refusal to engage with the MCB, something Mohammed says she believes relates to the council’s previous stance on Holocaust Memorial Day.

For six years up to 2007 the MCB boycotted the day, arguing that it was too narrowly focused on Jewish suffering and did not take account of the victims of other genocides. The council’s membership – which is made up of mosques, schools, charitable associations and professional networks – voted in 2007 to end the moratorium, but it has continued sporadically since.

It is not a position Mohammed is allied to and the MCB took a more conciliatory approach this year when it tweeted on Holocaust Memorial Day about the importance of remembering the “victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides”. Her own personal account paid tribute to the “lives lost, the scars of which still haunt us today”. She had hoped the change in approach would prompt a shift in attitude from the government, but so far that has not proved to be the case. 

“The British government has a non-engagement policy with the Muslim Council of Britain,” she says. “That predates me – it’s historical – and is about our previous stance on Holocaust Memorial Day, although they’ve never formally said why.

"I said ‘I’m a new leader, I represent a new demographic, isn’t now the right time to engage?’, but I’ve received no response. I met [international trade secretary] Penny Mourdant [in February 2021] and she got a lot of heat for that, but that’s been it since then; formal engagement has still to materialise. I don’t get what the government gets from non-engagement.”

Mohammed says relations in Scotland are less frosty, though warns that that does not mean the situation for Scottish Muslims is any better than for those living elsewhere in the UK.

“Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the War on Terror and 9/11 and that has cast a 20-year shadow over British Muslims,” she says. “Forty per cent of all crime in 2021 targeted Muslims – that’s quite astonishing, but it reinforces what we already know about things like social exclusion and the raging health inequalities we saw with Covid.

"There are also things like you can’t progress because of your Muslim name, heritage, ethnicity. Muslims are part of marginalised communities and there are a whole range of bills that are targeting minority communities, like the Nationality and Borders Bill. That will have massive repercussions that will feed into wider society because it gives the government the ability to strip you of your citizenship without letting you know. A lot of people have dual citizenship and they only find out when they come back [from abroad] and they [border control] won’t let them in. 

“In Scotland we had a cross-party group on Islamophobia that was chaired by [Labour leader] Anas Sarwar. It found that four out of five Muslims had faced islamophobia. They were predominantly women and it was predominantly on public transport but also very much in schools. I hadn’t realised that. That report was quite damning and we have to be careful of Scottish exceptionalism, the idea that it’s better here. There is healthier integration – you saw that with Kenmure Street [when the local community rallied together to prevent an immigration raid].

"I’m always so proud to be Glaswegian and I’m so proud of my Scottish heritage, but at the same time we have to be honest about things like deprivation. If you are a young Scottish Muslim male it’s really difficult to get a job. That ties into crime and deprivation and you get cycles of poverty.”

Mohammed’s term as secretary general of the MCB lasts for two years and, with her second year at the helm now in full swing, she has already decided she will seek to extend it for another term. What comes after remains to be seen. Policy and advocacy have always driven her, yet despite the inherently political nature of her current role – and the obvious need for more Muslim voices in the public arena – she is unsure if a move into politics is in her future. 

“I haven’t really committed to that part of my life yet,” she says. “When you study politics it’s a bit off-putting. I like what this role gives me – the opportunity to hold politicians to account. I won’t dismiss it, but politics wouldn’t be in my top 10 things that I want to do.”

For now, she is happy focusing on the matter in hand, transforming the Muslim Council of Britain and ensuring the Muslim community can realise its potential in the multicultural society it forms a part of.

“There’s a lot to be done,” she notes. “We need to change society for the better so everybody has not just a place but a voice too.”

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