Streatham’s gender segregated hustings at Islamic centre leaves woman feeling ‘uncomfortably torn’

A Streatham constituent who was asked to move to the women’s section of a segregated political hustings in a mosque said she felt ‘uncomfortably torn’. 

The hustings at Hyderi Islamic Centre last Friday was attended by all four main political parties, with a curtain separating men from women in the hall.

Parliamentary candidates Kim Caddy (Conservative) Amna Ahmad  (Liberal Democrat), Jonathan Bartley (Green Party) Unjum Mirza (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) and  Labour Councillor for Streatham Wells Mohammed Seedat all attended.

The woman chose to sit with the men as during a previous event held at the mosque her view was obscured.

She said: “First a lady approached me and asked me to move. I asked if it was compulsory and she said no, so I declined.

“Then the chair announced that women should sit on the other side. I stayed put.

“Finally a man approached me and suggested I would be more comfortable with the women – I said I was comfortable where I was and he said I was making the men uncomfortable. Again I declined to move.

“I was surprised that nobody from the panel said anything – I felt uncomfortably torn.

“I realise Muslims are under threat from Islamophobia and I do respect Muslim culture.

“On the other hand this was a political hustings. I believe in equal participation in politics and I don’t believe segregating people by gender, race or anything else at political events is right.”

The room’s segregation was in order to abide by the centre’s religious customs, as outlined by chair and president of the mosque Dr Sarfraz Jeraj at the start of the hustings.

Hustings organiser Esmat Jeraj said some women felt ‘more comfortable’ with this format for Q&A type sessions and as the panel of speakers was not segregated it could not be described as a fully segregated event.

She said: “We at Hyderi Islamic Centre pride ourselves in equality. We did not enforce segregation, but allowed it for those who are used to it.

“The lady in question was requested to sit towards the side with the ladies.

“When she replied to say she was sat with a friend, it was suggested that they could both sit towards the centre of the hall to ensure that those men who prefer to sit in a men’s only environment were also able to do so.

“We felt that this was a reasonable accommodation. When she refused, we informed her that there is no compulsion in our religion and that as a guest to our centre we of course wanted her to feel comfortable.

“When the community at large is being actively encouraged to participate in the political process, we shall work towards ensuring that all are at ease and feel confident to engage fully.”

Mr Seedat praised Hyderi for engaging men and women and that growing up in Leicester, and across the country, there didn’t used to be that level of engagement.

“Historically in the UK Muslim women haven’t been well represented in the community –it’s one step towards that,” he said.

“In Muslim Asian communities especially they’ve not had a great track record with representing women, and that’s changing.

“The fact that it was a woman organising it – I know it sounds like it’s a given in other communities, but not so much in the Muslim community. I really wish it was.

“If the lady wanted to sit where she wanted to sit that’s fine.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that – she was well within her rights considering that part of the actual event was political in nature.”

Ms Ahmad praised the cross-community work carried out by Hyderi and stressed an equal number of questions were taken from both men and women.

She also said it would be ‘politeness’ to move seats if requested and that she would attend a similarly segregated event in the future ‘if that’s what they wanted to do’.

“I believe you need to respect the customs of whichever organisation has been hospitable enough to organise the hustings,” she said.

“I do believe in being polite. It’s like being in somebody else’s house.”

Labour parliamentary candidate Chuka Umunna was unable to attend the hustings due to prior commitments.

Mrs Caddy and Mr Bartley were both approached for comment.

Picture courtesy of sarflondondunc, with thanks

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