Pears Foundation’s first grant to Maslaha was made ten years ago, in 2009. Since then, we have supported the core costs of the organisation, enabling them to pursue creative projects with a wide range of partners challenging the conditions that create social inequalities for Muslim communities in the UK.
This International Women’s Day, we’re delighted to share a blog from Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, writer, spoken-word poet and educator on Maslaha’s collaborative project with British Fencing, ‘Muslim Girls Fence’. The project highlights the strength of working across three strategic spheres; practice, policy and public imagination, to challenge commonly held misconceptions about young Muslim women.
When you think of fencing, who do you imagine? Probably not Muslim girls. That’s because fencing is generally seen as an elite, white, male-dominated sport. However, our ‘Muslim Girls Fence’ initiative disrupts that image, challenging ideas around access to sport and narratives about gender, faith and race, as well as assumptions about Muslim girls and women, and who gets to tell their stories.
Muslim Girls Fence is a collaboration between Maslaha and British Fencing that has been running for four years. We use fencing classes and swordplay as a launchpad from which to equip Muslim girls and women to challenge misconceptions that they experience in light of the complex discrimination they face on the basis of faith, gender, and often race. These misconceptions are explored in creative workshops that accompany the fencing classes. Here, girls and women explore ideas around stereotypes, expectations and media bias through artistic means such as collaging, drawing, or poetry. Every Muslim Girls Fence project leads to a creative output made by the participants such as zines, protest posters or performance poems. These multiple components of the project make it engaging to a wide pool of girls and women and thus whilst focused on the misconceptions Muslim women face, our projects often include non-Muslim participants and we are intentional about understanding that breaking misconceptions is not a unilinear process.
In all the schools and communities that Muslim Girls Fence have worked with over the past four years the project has created a much needed space for girls and women to come together in a way that does not ignore or subsume their experiences, but centres and discusses them. Moreover, Ibtihaj Muhammad, the US Olympic fencer, described fencing as ‘uniquely accommodating’ for Muslim women due to the fencing kit. Subsequently, providing Muslim women with access to fencing means they can participate in a sport without being made to feel hypervisible or out of place. Participants often leave our projects feeling more confident and better able to express themselves, as well as fortified with a language to understand their experiences and share them with others.
In the current climate of Islamophobia in the UK we have learnt that equipping girls and women with these skills is crucial. The government’s counter-terrorism legislation including policies such as Prevent have stifled the space Muslims have to express their thoughts and feelings freely and without stigma. Further, 58% of reported cases of Islamophobia in the UK concern women specifically as their targets. This gendered dynamic of Islamophobia means it is essential to have initiatives like Muslim Girls Fence which, through breaking down misconceptions and raising aspirations and access to sport, both disrupt the mainstream narratives that exist about Muslim women, and tangibly provide such women with the space to express and explore their experiences on their own terms.