On the penultimate day of the UN 16 Days of Activism, we speak to Professor Mathew Guest.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I am a professor in the sociology of religion at Durham University, and have been on the teaching staff there for the past 14 years. Working in a department of Theology and Religion has meant I have several colleagues whose work engages with issues of ethical significance, but my own research has for the most part remained fairly dispassionate, focusing on a range of institutional contexts that frame religious identities within contemporary western cultures, especially families, congregations and universities. This changed in 2013 when I co-wrote (with my colleagues Sonya Sharma and Robert Song) a report on gender imbalance within departments of Theology and Religious Studies in UK universities. Researching the experience of women working as academics or as students within my own discipline opened my eyes to how embedded gendered disadvantage is within the academy. It’s one thing to appreciate this on an intellectual level; it’s quite another to hear the stories first hand. The report mapped patterns of disengagement by gender among students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, tracing experiences of alienation to structural problems that continue to inform the professional lives of women in Theology and Religious Studies as they progress from early career fellowships, to being a full-time lecturer, through to more senior appointments. It’s the work I’m most proud of, and has had real impact on challenging practices that disadvantage women in my subject area, although there’s a lot more work to be done.
It was listening to women’s testimonies about their experiences that led me to get involved in a campaign against gendered violence. Alongside my academic work, in recent years I have become more engaged in activist networks, driven chiefly by my convictions as a Quaker and a pacifist. A couple of years ago I became involved in the establishment of Tyne and Wear Citizens, an alliance of organizations in the north east affiliated with the national organisation Citizens UK. We use broad-based community organizing to identify challenges facing local residents and pool our resources to exert influence on those in power in order to bring about positive change. Two of our most vibrant and committed organizational members are Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre, based in multi-cultural Fenham, in the west end of Newcastle. Religious-based hate crime is a serious problem in the north east, often targeted at Muslims or others presumed to be Muslims but who are simply dark skinned or cover their heads in public. This highlights how colour prejudice is a big part of the problem. Another major dimension is misogyny, as this is largely gender-based violence. In researching religious-based hate crime in the north east region, we learnt that many of its victims were Muslim women, especially those wearing the hijab or niqab, a common act of assault being the forceful removal of the face veil, although others had also been physically hit, spat upon and verbally abused, often on public transport. Whether driven by the cowardice of racist men too afraid to confront male Muslims, or by a perverse sense of entitlement to have dominion over women’s appearance, the experiences we heard about were unsettling and abhorrent. Unfortunately, they are not uncommon, and recent comments by public figures like Boris Johnson, presenting the veil as a dubious cultural oddity, risk validating existing prejudice and ignorance. In response, we launched a campaign to get hate crime addressed more seriously, particularly on public transport, where many incidents take place.
The testimonies I heard from Muslim women were truly shocking, recounting acts of disrespect, verbal abuse and physical violence. In some cases victims were too afraid to go to the police; in others, their reports were dismissed. Some felt supported by the authorities, but our campaign group felt too little was being done to address acts of religious-based hate on the region’s buses and on the Metro network. So we arranged a meeting with representatives of the region’s main transport companies, and they too were faced with the testimonies of the Muslim sisters who had experienced some of the abuse we hoped they would want to address. They spoke with passion and conviction, and it was inspiring to see these two women – who I can now call friends – tell their stories to a row of white men in suits in a city centre boardroom. They spoke truth to power, and were visibly empowered as a consequence.
We were asking these representatives of the transport companies to work with us in devising a hate crime policy for the region, and they agreed. I believe the testimonies of the Muslim sisters were too powerful to ignore. That’s not to say our corporate colleagues didn’t need a little more encouragement, and so we organized a public demonstration – a celebration of our diverse Tyne and Wear community – in order to raise awareness of hate crime and demystify the hijab for those unfamiliar with Muslim traditions and what they signify. This demo took place on 13th October. Entitled ‘Reclaim the Metro’, around 160 of us gathered at the Grey’s Monument in central Newcastle and listened again to the testimonies of our Muslim friends. In solidarity, we then all boarded the Metro and took a trip to Whitley Bay, where we enjoyed together a fine British tradition: fish and chips on the seafront. We also deployed an activist tradition very much at the heart of the Citizens method: we invited the media and got the event covered on BBC Look North. We also informed our colleagues from the public transport companies that the media would be covering the event, and that we could tell a story about how wonderful it is that they have responded to our concerns with a change in policy, or we could tell a story about how awful it is that they hadn’t. Their charter on hate crime on public transport – clarifying reporting processes, committing to training staff, and to working further with voluntary groups to tackle this urgent issue – was published just before the demo.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?
Given my work with the local Muslim community, as well as current research I am undertaking about the experiences of Muslim students, I would really like to see more work done on engaging British Muslim women. Their voices often go unheard and their experiences are often grossly misunderstood. Unfortunately, secular feminist commentators do not always help, and the common equation of the hijab with gendered oppression is symptomatic of how certain women’s voices are often privileged over others. Let’s hear more from the testimonies of Muslim women.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
Well the hate crime campaign still has a lot of work to do. Our success in securing a hate crime charter does not solve the problem, although it was a pragmatic step towards creating safer public spaces in the region. We at Tyne and Wear Citizens need to ensure that the hate crime charter is adhered to and translates into practical solutions, like improved training for bus drivers, publicity to inform the public on what is religion-based hate crime and why it is not acceptable, and a system of accountability that joins up public transport providers with local police so that all incidents are properly followed up. I know that my fellow citizens at Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre will be at the heart of this, and hope that Muslim women will feel safer and more secure in their communities as a result of the campaign.