Today, Muslim Hands has launched their 15-month research study, supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, into the experiences, resettlement needs, identities and criminogenic contexts of female Muslim prisoners across seven women’s prison estates in England.
The female Muslim prison population stands at 254, making up 6% of the total women’s prison population. The research, entitled (In)Visibility, highlights distinct needs and experiences of female Muslims in prison and aims to bring their unheard voices to the forefront, add to the gaps in knowledge in this area and address the often-overlooked crossover of faith, ethnicity and gender.
Here’s a look at what brought about this research and what the Muslim Hands team learned.
What prompted this research into Muslims in women’s prisons?
Following a small pilot study that Muslim Hands published in 2015, we realised that there was a gap in the evidence on this topic. We wanted to bring the voices of Muslim female prisoners to the forefront, and address the often overlooked intersection of gender, faith and ethnicity.
What are the key findings from the research?
79% of the sample reported experiencing Domestic Violence and Abuse (DVA). In some cases violent, abusive and controlling experiences were linked to the offence and mental health challenges were reported from some as a result of violence.
Cultural expectations of women are often unrealistic and are a source of tension for many participants. Cultural norms, such as shame and honour, can have a silencing and normalising effect for many of the hard-hitting issues, such as DVA and sexual violence.
Shame impacts on many female Muslim prisoners lives and can affect family contact, acceptance or disownment. It also brings implications for resettlement, particularly for Muslim women, such as stigma from communities and having to serve a ‘second sentence’ in order to be forgiven by families. Contact from families was reported as either very positive, supportive and present, or as negative, non-existent and judgemental, with very little in-between.
Female Muslim prisoners occupy a somewhat unique position in prison - their faith is strengthened, is often central to identity, and offers support. However, institutionally Islam is not typically viewed as an asset and this makes people feel defensive and further marginalised. Their voices are often unheard, and they are somewhat invisible in policy, families and communities. However, there is an additional hyper-visibility in media and public attitudes (including inside prisons) and this especially impacts those who are ‘visibly Muslim’ (i.e. identifiers such as hijab wearing or having certain surnames).
Is enough being done to support Muslim females in prison?
There is a real lack of tailored support for Muslim female prisoners. Research participants reported not having any contact with family or friends or having to lie about where they are due to cultural issues of shame and family honour. The resulting rejection and condemnation on the grounds of being a woman could have severe impact on those who are already facing multiple disadvantages.
However, encouragingly there were also reports of positive and consistent family relationships. We hope that this marks a change in attitudes and an increased awareness of offending.
How can the community help women in this situation?
We would recommend the following for our communities:
- Muslim councillors in various locations are well placed to address and advocate for issues raised in the findings. Including but not limited to criminality amongst women, the diversity of woman’s place in community, gender inequality and DVA.
- There is an opportunity for our communities (not limited to Muslim communities) to address issues brought up in the report, raise awareness and create supportive environments for women experiencing things such as domestic violence, being an ex-offender, mental health challenges, LGBT+ identities and many more.
- There is a need for engagement with young Muslim women and girls, to increase awareness of gender inequalities, DVA, positive relationships and women’s rights in Islam.
- We suggest that our communities and families stop stereotyping and stigmatising female ex-offenders. This report has shown that there is much more at play than criminality and we must enable our women to make better choices and create a supportive environment for any mistakes.
- Imams and Islamic Chaplains are underrepresented in Community Chaplaincy. This should be addressed so that Muslim females leaving prison have more support.
- Negative public perceptions of Islam need to change. Stereotypes that link Islam with terrorism should be addressed by all communities, with a view to ending prejudice.
This report is an important step towards empowering Muslim women who, for whatever reason, find themselves in the often isolating environment of prison.
Read the full report here: