A London charity’s work to empower 100s of marginalised Muslim women has improved self-worth, independence and integration, a new report by a Goldsmiths, University of London researcher concludes.
Two years into a three-year Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) project, Dr Naomi Thompson’s evaluation explores how ‘Challenging Stereotypes’ workshops in Lewisham and Hounslow are changing lives.
Dr Thompson, an expert in youth and community work, faith, and inclusion, delivered her findings in parliament on Monday 4 March. Marking International Women’s Day, I caught up with her to find out more about her work...
Sarah Cox: Who are the ACAA and how did you get involved?
Naomi Thompson: The charity was founded by Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, an academic from Afghanistan who fled the Taliban and arrived in the UK as a refugee with his young family in the late 1990s. The work they’re doing addresses many of the needs and challenges that marginalised Muslim women face and that prevent them from engaging with other services. I’d previously done research with young people engaged in faith-based youth work, and with young Muslim women about the direct and indirect exclusion they face in society. The ACAA contacted me to ask if I would be an external researcher on their women’s project, while they were applying for funding from the Pilgrim Trust. Since then, I’ve got to know them and their work very well.
SC: What is the Challenging Stereotypes project and why is it important?
NT: Challenging Stereotypes offers women ESOL classes, childcare provision, educational workshops and one-to-one support in one safe women-only community space. This integrated model of provision delivered by those from the communities being served offers them long-term support at the right level. Some of these women are extremely isolated. They might be new to the UK or been here several years but never integrated enough to learn English or access any services.
SC: What happens if women are left disengaged and isolated?
NT: For some of these women, going to the shops alone or to the GP for the first time is a massive event. Many of them have faced prejudice that has reinforced their isolation or been victims of hate crime or domestic violence but never received the right support to overcome this. One woman had been spat on while walking with three friends and told to “go home” but she didn’t know what to do about it at the time. In an interview she explained that an ACAA workshop on hate crime made her feel safe enough to leave her home again. She had more courage and confidence and had the information she needed to know what to do and who to call.
Another woman who was a domestic violence survivor and has a restrictive order placed on her husband, explained how she wished she had understood the different forms of abuse and coercive control that featured as part of her own experience sooner. After a workshop she said: “When they talked about forms of control, I realised if I had come here sooner I wouldn’t have taken the abuse for so long. He didn’t let me take part in activities and be outside the home. He stopped me having money and told me who I could talk to.”
SC: Have you found that women who attend the workshops go on to influence and support friends or family members?
NT: Part of the beauty of the women becoming more empowered is that they are able to support and empower their peers. They form social groups, offering support and friendship to each other within and beyond the project. Some of the women said that they’d previously only left the house for errands and didn’t socialise beyond close family. They support each other through translating classes and workshops into different languages for other women, through bringing food to share, and this year some of the women led workshops around their skills and passions. This was particularly inspiring for the other women to observe as they expressed aspirations to be able to do the same, improve their English and share their talents.
Engagement with the project also impacts on families. Women become more involved in their children’s schools, for example, because they are able to communicate more easily and are better able to better understand the UK education system. They also report that because they’re receiving social and emotional support, their improved wellbeing impacts on their family life. One woman, a domestic violence survivor referred to the project by her social worker, explained: “I can help my son more. I’m listening to him more and understanding. In the past, because I was very upset, I didn’t consider his problems as much.”
SC: What was being done previously to engage marginalised Muslim migrant women in the area and why have they failed?
NT: They are often a forgotten group because they are largely unseen. A 2014 report on women from Afghanistan living in west London found a lack of awareness about council services beyond housing, or views on council services generally were negative. Experiences included having no one get back to them after making a query, or rude behaviour that affected their confidence to engage. There were also experiences of cultural insensitivity, like arriving at a women-only swimming session at a leisure centre to find a male lifeguard on duty. This report found that women engage much more positively with services where long-term contact can be made with an individual person or persons rather than in one-off and fragmented interactions with different people and providers.
There’s clearly a need for culturally appropriate provision. In particular, provision to support English language learning and access to wider services in a women-only space over a long-term period. The Casey Report in 2016 found that Muslim women face both societal prejudice and illiberal cultural practices that reinforce their isolation. Mainstream services are not effectively meeting the needs of the most marginalised women and this increases their isolation rather than facilitating integration.
SC: The ACAA project is now entering its third year. What happens next?
NT: The ACAA are looking at how they can sustain this important work, in the climate of austerity where we’ve seen massive cuts to this type of community project. In 2017, Refugee Action found that statutory funding for ESOL classes in England was cut by 60% (more than £100m) between 2010 and 2016. The ACAA has recently secured three years of Big Lottery Funding to support some of their wider provision for migrant and refugee groups in three areas of London - Hounslow, Croydon and Lewisham. They received the Queen’s Award for outstanding voluntary service in communities for 2018. They need to continue to receive recognition for this vital work and to attract funding to support it. The lack of statutory support for such work is a real issue.