Thank you for your invitation to be part of what is a timely and necessary discussion within society generally and the world of business in particular.
I hope to bring a perspective as a woman and a Muslim but wish to speak primarily as someone who has seen inspirational leaders in action throughout my involvement in the community and my professional career whether among those supporting vulnerable women and children as a community worker in the East End of London or those with whom I have served in political platform as a councillor and as an active member in the House of Lords
It is a delight to be involved in politics at a time when five Asians, including three Muslim women, have claimed their seats in the House of Commons (building on Labour's fantastic record of progressing women and an equality agenda) and when a Muslim woman, Baroness Warsi, is a member of Cabinet. I have already said publicly that, as a Muslim woman, I am proud of her achievement. In time, I pray that her presence and leadership in mainstream political office will inspire a strong generation of women into public life.
Let me speak firstly, about the inspiration which Islam provides those who take on positions of leadership. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, Islam discourages the practice of seeking leadership; if a person desires it for power and glory rather than serving the people by implementing the divine laws, that person is not fit to occupy it. In a well-known Hadith, the Prophet (pbuh) has said that he who seeks leadership is not fit to assume it.
Islamic moral character requires that leaders emphasize the following five key parameters of Islamic behaviour: justice; trust; righteousness; the struggle towards self-improvement; and promise keeping. A Muslim leader is expected to be just, behave righteously, strive towards self improvement, and never break his word. S/he is to consult with others, especially in areas where s/he is not competent. Islam stresses consultation in all affairs. A leader is expected to bear adversity patiently, and remain forever humble.
A Muslim leader should restrain from behaving unjustly — whether to community members, to customers, to suppliers or any individuals. Muslims believe that a leader with a firm faith (iman) will not get out of responsibility for her/his actions, and will continuously emphasize good deeds.
In Islam a leader must be kind, compassionate and forgiving towards those whom he leads. A leader must also consult the people before taking a decision but once a decision has been made no weakness is shown and the policy be pursued with single-mindedness of purpose, determination and courage. The leader, however, must first articulate the vision and demonstrate the ability to turn it into action by aligning performance with vision to create a
climate of success for the realization of the stated goal.
In summary the qualities for leadership in Islam are: knowledge and hikmah (wisdom, insight); taqwa (love and fear of Allah); ‘adl (justice) and rahmah (compassion); courage and bravery; shura (mutual consultation); decisiveness and being resolute; eloquence; a spirit of self-sacrifice; and sabr (patience). These are the qualities that build and sustain strong communities.
Women play a pivotal role in building strong communities where everyone feels valued, yet women all over the world have had the challenge of tackling stereotypes and breaking through the moulds that have been imposed on them. This is a status quo for women of all the worlds.
Muslim women, in particular, are sympathised with due to perceptions of being oppressed and weak and living in a patriarchal society, as if they / we do not belong to the race of women.
All of us know that some women do fall into that category and fit the stereotype, but just as many women in the world do not subscribe to that experience. Discussions are rare about Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Muslim women in general with reference to their educational and social advancement, except when it refers to them in the context of forced marriage, honour killings and now the live issue of the veil. For many women, these are tragic personal experiences, but we must learn the lessons of empowering women through enabling their economic and educational independence which in turn will ensure that Muslim women are empowered in the big society so that they feel strong and tackle those issues for themselves and for their daughters.
We must stray from confusing women’s empowerment with their role in ‘so called preventing extremism’ - such ideas are preposterous and will indeed further alienate even those who are well educated.
During 2008 and 2009, I chaired the government taskforce looking at ways to increase minority women's participation in public life. It was a cross-party coalition, and I strongly believe that we provided some inspiration for Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. I have said often that there is no shortage of talented women willing or able to take leadership roles.
I spent 30 years of my life working in a professional and personal capacity with disadvantaged women and their families, and together with others we have enabled those whose voices were mostly unheard and put in place structures and organisations which have afforded many opportunities to participate in the public arena either as volunteers or in official capacity. Although much of these and other programmes continue to have limited impact on ordinary grassroots, economically inactive women, it is worth pointing out that in our journey with the taskforce across different parts of Britain the numbers of women willing to put themselves forward for office took us by enormous surprise. I am pleased to say that there are a number of success stories as a result of some of that work, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece.
I believe that this work fundamentally shifted party-political opinions and contributed to the pressure on parties in selecting their candidates.
We know that it is a fact that Muslim women continue to face significant barriers and often with few opportunities to represent themselves, a narrow and closed-minded view of Muslim women prevails.
It is important to recognise that there is no fundamental struggle between Islam and "the West", but a complex interplay of forces relating to issues of gender, social marginalisation and exclusion as well as lack of opportunities.
These forces impede the right of individuals to live lives of dignity and equality, with the misappropriation of religious beliefs in some instances used to justify deprivation of basic human rights.
If we are serious about the empowerment, particularly of minority community and faith groups, to fulfil their individual potential and truly contribute to the community, we must provide them with sufficient educational and recreational opportunities. We know that when all members of society feel included in their community, a real change can occur. Organisations like Faith Regen Foundation and the Jagonari Centre have worked for over a decade to encourage constructive dialogue for disadvantaged women to unleash their potential. Faith Regen is also partnering women's organisations in
Malaysia and , where women leaders are addressing the impact and advantage for women in a digital age. Bangladesh
Faith Regen’s CEO, Dr Husna Ahmad, who was named in the Queen's Birthday Honours list and received an OBE for her services to disadvantaged people, and the chair of Jagonari, Ruhan Chowdhury, an entrepreneur, are among those I consider as inspirational Muslim leaders. Dr Husna said on receiving her award: “I believe that we all have a social responsibility to work collaboratively to promote opportunities for all and achieve social justice.
We also need to be determined to tackle prejudice and Islamophobia as well as the male discrimination and family pressure that women suffer when seeking employment. Despite these challenges and stereotypes, more and more women, increasingly proactive, are interested in participating in ESOL and information technology classes. This willingness is a massive opportunity to engage women's participation.
Finally, I am intrigued by the Big Society concept. It is made and lived particularly by minority women. It is the background that developed the ghettos of the dilapidated East End of London into a plush Docklands and yuppieland, but it failed to empower the community or to decentralise or share power for ordinary citizens.
The elites of our world have always resisted sharing power and positions. The new economy has demonstrated that, all too well, about those who will always survive against all adversities. We can see the reality of leaving behind us a lost generation of young, talented people in our communities. Pro bono vs Bonus – we need to move beyond lip service into the realm of equity by reflecting the community in our workforce.