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Open Letter to the BBC on Zara Mohammed’s mistreatment on Woman’s Hour

After Emma Barnett’s recent interview with Secretary General Zara Mohammed from the Muslim Council of Britain, the BBC needs to address its engagement with and representation of Muslim women.


17 Feb 2021

On 4 February 2021, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour invited Zara Mohammed on the programme. She recently made British history by becoming the first woman and youngest person to be elected to lead the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a national umbrella body representing over 500 Muslim organisations. Mohammed’s appointment was a significant moment for many British Muslim women and so appearing on Woman’s Hour four days into her role was fitting. In this context, the tone of the interview was disappointing and strikingly hostile.

The host, Emma Barnett, persistently asked, ‘How many female imams are there in Britain?’ When Mohammed said she didn’t know and queried what was meant by the broad religious term, Barnett replied ‘You tell me’, citing the rise of female priests and rabbis. She then continued, ‘it’s quite striking you can’t answer that question’. Despite Mohammed’s repeated claims that religious adjudication was not within the parameters of her role leading a civil society organisation, Barnett asked the question about female imams four times, each time interrupting Mohammed’s answer. The framing of the interview and clipping up of the ‘female imam’ segment for social media mirrored the style and tone of an accountability interview with a politician, rather than authentically recognising and engaging in what this represented for British Muslim women. Moreover, the false equivalence between imams with rabbis and priests in a religion that has no clergy reflected a basic lack of religious literacy needed for authentic engagement with British Muslim communities.

The interview continued onto what Mohammed would do about the exclusion of some Muslim women from society, whether the MCB needs to reform and the relationship between Islam and other religions. Again, most of Mohammed’s answers were interrupted, revealing an instinctive urge not to listen to the voice of a Muslim woman but to jump in. Despite the BBC having a commitment to due impartiality and fairness, the line of questioning fell into a well-worn narrative of presuming Muslim women are inherently disenfranchised due to the parameters of a faith that supposedly has not reformed. What might have been an opportunity to inform the wider audience about what is possible in Muslim communities, the interview appeared intent on re-enforcing damaging and prejudicial tropes about Islam and Muslim women.

The numerous complaints online and in private to the BBC has led to Woman’s Hour removing the original tweet, stating that in retrospect ‘the clip should have included more of the radio interview to provide full context of the discussion’. Whilst the removal of the clip is welcome, this response is insufficient. The tone and framing of the entire interview must be seriously assessed. There is an important difference between a style of questioning that undermines a woman’s voice and one that holds her to account.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this comes against a background where Muslim voices are underrepresented at every level within the BBC. By its own admission in the BBC’s latest Annual Report, there are virtually no Muslims working at BBC Studios (TV and radio production), which includes the production of Woman’s Hour, at either staff or leadership levels. An asterisk in the report indicates a number so minuscule it cannot be reflected in a percentage of over 0.2%. Similarly, there are no significant numbers of Muslims in commissioning roles or in leadership positions within news and current affairs. This lack of representation within the institution, especially at leadership levels, reveals a failure in implementing the BBC’s values to have an organisation that reflects its audiences.

The lack of representation within programming, such as Woman’s Hour, means that crucial insights in engaging with and reporting on Muslim communities are missed. The data on almost 5000 episodes of Woman’s Hour broadcasts over the last 20 years indicates that less than 300 guests (2.4%) have been Muslim women and many of these have not been British. Although the trend had been increasing steadily, since 2016 the representation of Muslim women began to trend down again. However, it is important to note that numbers alone do not paint a complete picture: what is pertinent is the quality of representation.

We, the undersigned, request the following:
– A public statement recommitting to engaging with Muslim women and those from historically marginalised communities in good faith,
– A commitment to recruiting Muslims in leadership and commissioning roles or developing pathways for those in non-leadership positions to reach these roles,
– A commitment to programmes ensuring diverse production and editorial teams.

Yours Sincerely,

You can add your name to the list of signatories here.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Peer in the House of Lords and Author, The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain

Baroness Uddin, Peer in the House of Lords            

Naz Shah MP, Labour, Shadow Minister for Comunity Cohesion and Co-Chair of APPG on Muslim Women 

Zarah Sultana MP, Labour

Apsana Begum MP, Labour

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Writer 

Mariam Khan, Writer and Editor, It’s Not About the Burqa

Diane Abbott MP, Labour 

Afua Hirsch,  Journalist and Author, Brit(ish)

Deborah Frances-White, The Guilty Feminist podcast host

Gal-dem, Media company  

Dr Amina Wadud, Theologian 

Mona Eltahawy, Author, Headscarves and Hymens and Editor, Feminist Giant newsletter

Layla F. Saad, Author, Me And White Supremacy

Rafia Zakaria, Author, Against White Feminism

Shelina Janmohamed, Author, Love in a Headscarf 

Nikesh Shukla, Author and Editor, The Good Immigrant 

Jordan “Rizzle” Stephens, Rizzle Kicks’ singer and actor

Professor Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge

Professor Kehinde Andrews, Birmingham City University

Larissa Kennedy, President, National Union of Students

Zamzam Ibrahim, Vice President, European Students Union  

Jo Grady, General Secretary, University and College Union 

Sir Iqbal Sacranie OBE, Founding Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Former Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain, former Chairman, East London Mosque

Salma Yaqoob, Former Birmingham City Councillor and Leader, Respect party, former spokesperson, Birmingham Central Mosque 

Faiza Shaheen, Director, CLASS think tank

Mona Chalabi, Journalist

Coco Khan, Journalist

Kate Williams, Historian  

Shaista Aziz, Journalist

Rachel Shabi, Journalist

Clare Sambrook, Journalist 

Anisa Subedar, Journalist

Gina Martin, Activist and author

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Activist and author

Florence Given, Author, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty 

Seyi Akiwowo, CEO, Glitch UK

Nafisa Bakkar, CEO, Amaliah

Selina Bakkar, Editor, Amaliah

Shaista Gohir OBE, Co-Chair, Muslim Women’s Network UK

Faeeza Vaid MBE, Executive Director, Muslim Women’s Network UK

Sara Wazifdar, Chairperson, Muslim Youth Helpline

Maaria Mahmood, Director, Muslim Youth Helpline

Muslim Community Helpline team 

Professor Sunny Singh, London Metropolitan University

Professor Francis Davis, University of Birmingham

Kathryn Fleming, Priest, Church of England

Reverend Bonnie Evans-Hills, Anglican Priest 

Eric Potts, Methodist Minister

Onjali Qatara Rauf, CEO, Making HerStory

Neil Jameson CBE, Former Executive Director, Citizens UK and Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life 

Dr Adeela Shafi MBE, Bristol Muslim Strategic Leadership Group 

Ragad Altikriti, President, Muslim Association of Britain (MAB)

Roxana Rais, Activist, Muslim Women’s Advisory Council

Abdulkarim Gheewala, Chairperson, Federation of Muslim Organisations  

Yasmin Surti, Secretary, Federation of Muslim Organisations

Hadil Nour, Muslim Youth Helpline

Selina Ullah, Muslim Women’s Council

Shahed Ezaydi, Deputy Editor, Aurelia Magazine

Inua Ellams, Poet and Playwright

Derek Owusu, Poet

Nimo Omer, Journalist

Hauwa Shehu, Barrister                 

Amanda Randone, Writer

Aja Barber, Writer

Elijah Lawal, Writer        

Huda Fahmy, Author

Joanne Harris, Author

Mark Andresen, Author    

Asma Elbadawi, Poet

Afshan D’souza-Lodhi, Writer

Christopher Miss, Musician  

Dr Fauzia Ahmad, Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Omar Hisham Altalib, Altalib Associates

Dr Muna Abdi, MA Education Consultancy CIC  

Dr Khursheed Wadia, University of Warwick

Dr Naomi Foyle, Fellow of the Muslim Institute

Peter Hopkins, Academic, Newcastle University

Sümeyye Kocaman, University of Oxford

Sher Aslam, University of Oxford

Ruby Hamad, University of New South Wales, Author 

Karen E. H. Skinazi, University of Bristol

Majd Abdulghani, University of Oxford

Saleema Burney, SOAS

Khaleda Rahman, Lecturer

Rehana Sharif, Lecturer

Shamza Khan, Lecturer

Terry O’Donnell, Retired academic

Yasmine Dar, Labour Councillor and NEC Member                    

Soonu Engineer, Labour Party

Ali Milani, Labour Councillor

Salma Arir, Labour Councillor

Emma Dent Coad, Labour Councillor

Pat Mason, Councillor            

Sandra Holliday, Chair, Welsh Labour Grassroots, Rhondda Cynon Taf  

Mrs Saqibah Sheikh, Chief People Officer and MCEC co-Chair

Jemma Levene, Deputy Director, HOPE not hate

Zohra Khaku, The Climate Coalition

Femi Oluwole, Co-founder, Our Future, Our Choice

Clementine Ford, Writer and broadcaster

Nadir Nahdi, Producer and Filmmaker.

Dr Rodney Watts, Human Rights activist, Jewish Network for Palestine

Zabia Khatoon, Chaplain, NHS