Sara Khan: Women battling the extremists on all fronts

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THE story of the three bright teenage girls who travelled to join IS is now well known to all of us. It has opened up many questions as to why girls with such great futures ahead of them would 
do this.

Why did they see no place for themselves in the UK? Why does the extremist narrative of IS, so different to the Islamic tradition, appeal to them? But more crucially, how do we stop young people from throwing away their lives when they have so much that they could positively contribute to?

Marking International Women’s Day earlier this month, I was reminded of how so many of the case studies used in our campaign – “Making A Stand” – come from international examples of women working to counter extremism in their communities. A brave doctor, Hawa Abdi, who stood up against Hizb al-Islam in Somalia to continue to run her life-saving clinic in the face of their violence.

Khadija Hawaja and Esther Ibanga – one a Muslim, the other a Christian – came together to form Women Without Walls to break down the mistrust and violence between their two communities in Nigeria, and to stand against Boko Haram.

We know of the activism and bravery of Malala Yousafzai who stands firmly against extremism for the equality of girls’ education. Her activism is often denigrated, but her own words speak for themselves: “People say Malala’s voice is being sold to the world. But I see it as Malala’s voice reaching the world and resonating globally. You should think about what is behind Malala’s voice. What is she saying? I am only talking about education, women’s rights, and peace.”

These great tales of heroism by women across the world are an inspiration to us all to stand against extremism.

Over the last few weeks #Making A Stand has been touring the UK running workshops for women to share ideas on how to counter extremism. Most recently we were in Leeds and many of the women I met there had fantastic and inspirational stories to tell.

Sometimes taking a small step for one will have a positive ripple effect throughout their communities like the women in one city who stood up to a radical teacher and asked him not to preach hate to their children.

Others use their passion to build something that will become a legacy like the two women in Birmingham I met setting up a wellness centre to provide a safe and inviting space for women to come, meet, seek support and relax with each other.

Women of all backgrounds and faiths in Luton have come together as the Luton Women’s Network against Violence and Extremism. These women know extremism seeks to divide their societies and they refuse to allow hate to burn bridges in their city.

We met Muslim women with prominent roles in public, media and civic life, but it was noted that we still fail to highlight them and their important work. This failure to show how women can lead and succeed in society is a vital part of showing that Muslim women do have a valued place in modern Britain. ‘Women are natural born leaders’ is just one of the inspirational posts put on the wall at our workshop in Birmingham, and is one that we do well to remember.

I am ever aware of the frequent barriers we face in trying to encourage women to action. “Not all of us can do this,” I was told. As I travel across the UK, not only do I know there is much that women can do, but I see it already in action.

However, while so much is being done, we need to do more to support each other, to understand the dangers facing our children and to make a stand against extremism.

It is imperative to our children that we, as mothers, entrepreneurs, leaders and activists, to teach our children that we are British and Muslim, and how these two things are in fact a complementary fit. We refuse to allow extremists on all sides suggest otherwise.

This sense of belonging and understanding of our place in modern Britain is the story we must share if we are to counter the hypnotic lies peddled by IS; luring our children to a life of entrapment, servitude and possible death in a foreign land.

Women recognise the importance of equipping themselves with theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology. A lack of understanding and good education of our own religion remains a barrier in 
our fight against extremism, and fails to equip us, and our children, to stand up against these radical narratives.

More than this, though, is the place of Muslim women in British society. This is what will offer a positive path to young girls who may be tempted to travel to join the murderers of IS.

Knowledge, activism and networks are at the heart of the Making a Stand campaign which offers inspiration to others so – together – we can stand up to bigotry, inequality and extremism in all its forms.

Sara Khan is the founder of Inspire, a counter-extremism and human rights organisation which seeks to address inequalities facing British Muslim women.