Women Make It Happen

Inspiring event tackles everyday barriers faced by Muslim women

“Unless we’re all on an equal playing field it’s very hard to judge who is able to access opportunities, and who is genuinely choosing to live a different form of life,” says Mahrukh Shaukat, development worker at Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, an organisation set up in Glasgow nearly twenty years ago to tackle the unique issues facing Muslim women in Scotland. I met with Shaukat at their recent Women Make It Happen event in Edinburgh. The aim of the day: overcoming barriers.

Employability in Edinburgh

Shaukat and I discussed some of the different barriers that might prevent Muslim women from getting employment. In 2016 a government report revealed a disparity in employment between women from ethnic minorities and other groups in Scotland – just 45% of ethnic women were employed compared to 70.5% of white women. Shaukat tells me:

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Mahrukh Shaukat, development worker at Amina the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre

“… although people from ethnic backgrounds are usually high achievers in university, when that translates into the workforce, well, it basically doesn’t.” She continues, “There are very few numbers in high up positions or leading their own businesses. It could be cultural barriers, that is one potential.”

Muslim women in Edinburgh have expressed to Amina that employability is important to them and that some would like to set up their own businesses. In an attempt to facilitate this, the organisation arranges events and workshops that specifically deal with these issues. Amina describes itself as a responsive organisation and Women Make It Happen is a response to Muslim women’s need for advice and inspiration.

First female Muslim Pakistani taxi driver

Throughout the day, selected speakers shared their individual stories. One woman, Shamshad Ghani, stands out a mile from the crowd. On the 8th of March 2002, Ghani became the first female Muslim Pakistani taxi driver in Scotland. In the beginning, her family protested, claiming that a taxi driver was not a respectable job and not safe for a woman. Ghani, however, persisted.

“Some jobs are only thought to be for men,” she explains, “but practically no one gives you a penny for sitting in the house and no one else is going to pay my bills!”.

Previously, Ghani worked for 24 years as a shopkeeper, and driving her taxi meant more freedom in that she found the time to pursue her work and her hobbies. “I fed my passion for writing, composing and practicing my singing while sitting in the taxi”. Ghani has now published two books – one is a humorous poetry book and the other documents her mother’s story during the partition of India.

New opportunities

Earlier that day I had the chance to speak with Nasim Azad – Racial Equality Officer at Bright Choices, a group supporting anyone affected by Honour-Based Violence. Azad has lived in Edinburgh for 33 years and plays a crucial role in a variety of projects aiming to teach people about Islam, including the Beyond the Veil campaign. She explained that organisations like Amina present new opportunities to Muslim women.

“There are a lot of women that are just at home with kids. I’m not saying the majority are like that, but there are quite a few that are like that. If they are happy then that’s fine [but] through no fault of their own they are not actually aware of what is available out there.”

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A local business owner sells and crafts traditional jewellery

At the event there are various stalls set up: one offers information about the Midwifery programme at Edinburgh Napier University; another is run by the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (CEMVO); and two other local businesses run by Azad’s sisters have set up tables with colourful kurtas and beautiful jewellery.

Changing perception

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Nasim Azad, Racial Equality Officer at Bright Choices, has worked on a variety of community-based projects

After the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, Azad noticed a shift in the way the public perceived her and other Muslims within her local community. “You would read about ladies hijabs being pulled off, men being attacked in the street. That can be very crippling for a person who is already not very confident. I was a very confident woman and that really did buckle me as well – I really felt it.” However, Azad still pushes for a strong community in Edinburgh. The Women Make It Happen event, despite being predominantly run and attended by Muslim women, left me, a young white woman with no significant religious beliefs, with a strong sense of that community.

So, what does Azad say to people who direct racist and abusive marks to her? “Let’s just get on with it. I’m not going anywhere, mate.”

By Emer Harrison

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