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Selma Cook



Since I was a child my parents told me idealistic stories about the UK. I learned about peaceful towns and neighborhoods in and around London, friendly smiles, rolling hills in Scotland and people working together. So, little wonder that when I first landed in London Heathrow airport, I was filled with excitement. This was the country my parents had left about fifty years ago, yet, to me, it felt like a home-coming. I wanted to know for myself, as a Muslim and a journalist, what life is like here.


At the same time, my ears were still ringing with stories of Islamphobia I had heard about in the media. I had noted accounts of simmering violence on the streets and an isolated Muslim population. As if to reinforce the correctness of the media accounts, in the first few days I was in south London, a young Muslim man was murdered not far from where I was staying. Police believed it was the result of gang violence. I took this as a sign to start exploring what was happening to families and young people.


Feeling more than a little uneasy I ventured out onto the streets of south London and was soon surprised when I found people responding to me either with indifference or warmth, but no hostility. I noticed Muslim women wearing hijab going about their business and with a much lighter heart realized that just a little bit of a smile and a pleasant word would bring out the friendliness in most people.


Muslim Mum Working in Male Prisons


In the first few days I met an amazing women; a single mother, wearing hijab and working full-time in the prison system as an advocate for the prisoners. Umm Jameelah’s job entails giving advice, career guidance, and helping prisoners to access opportunities. She said that she prefers working with male, rather than female prisoners, and has not experienced any harassment from inmates. I looked at her incredulously but she nodded and smiled, “Strange, isn’t it, but it’s true.” To reinforce her words, she added, “I’ve worked with convicted murderers, thieves, rapists and drug traffickers but I have never been harassed in the prisons.” She noted that many of the inmates are nominally ‘Muslims’ and she had found it interesting to see how people can change if they so choose. She said that she loves her job and feels that she is giving back something positive to society and likes to be a part of change for the better.


She has also witnessed first-hand how many inmates are turning to Islam in the prisons and that this has become somewhat ‘trendy’; some sort of solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed people of the world. I also noticed many youth walking the streets of London wearing the traditional Palestinian head cover either draped loosely around the head or over the shoulders. Whether or not these young people were Muslims was not important, but if they wear the Palestinian head cover, you tend to feel safe. At the same time, it seems as if the weight and gravity of the Palestinian issue weighs on the expressions on these young faces.


Raising one daughter alone, Umm Jameelah worries if she will be able to raise her child Islamically in a society that makes it very easy for young people to get involved in drugs and promiscuity. “Defining womanhood is a challenge,” she commented. “We have traditional, cultural expectations in the Muslim community alongside the growing need for Muslims to be active and aware. I decided to make my own mark,” she concluded.


Because she is working, she can afford to send her daughter to an Islamic school where, she hopes, the girl will receive a solid foundation of Islamic values. She also believes that if she sets a strong example for her daughter and keeps a close relationship with her that she will have a better chance to help her through the difficult years yet to come. I asked her if the financial crisis had affected her but she smiled and said, “I think my job is secure; there’s no shortage of criminals in society.” Sadly, I believe she is right.


I asked her about the murder that had taken place near where I was staying and she said that most of these are gang-related and that unless a person gets mixed up with a gang or happens to be there when they are fighting, the gangs mainly focus on each other. She was obviously troubled to hear about such crimes happening.


She did not talk about her divorce, and did not express any bitterness but showed her determination to just get on with her life. I marveled at her clear-sightedness and thought her daughter is blessed to have her, as are the prisoners she tries to reach out to and help on a daily basis.


A Marvel of a Mum!



A short time later I met a woman who I refer to as the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’. She is a mainstay for her own four teenage children as well as a host of teenage girls. Umm Abdullah runs a girls’ club in south London and has them meet at her home every Friday night to talk about their lives, their fears, their problems and their hopes and dreams as well as to talk about Islam and try to understand their place in the world.


On the particular night when I attended the girls’ club, there was no shortage of laughter. The girls dressed up and did a role play, spoke about their experiences during the week and discussed Islam and how to solve problems. I sat in awe as I watched this heroic mother smile, chat and be amiable with over fifteen noisy, argumentative fifteen-year-old girls. Just before the girls arrived, she had spoken to me about her difficulties and how hard it is to raise four teenagers alone. Her husband had taken another wife and was focusing his attention on the new family. This did not seem to bother her as much as the fact that her older son was late home. She looked at her watch nervously and commented that he should have been home over an hour ago. Despite being obviously worried, when the girls arrived she was loving, kind, friendly and smiling. No one would have known her state of mind.


Another of her worries was the fact that the government is changing the way it pays single parents and now despite having been out of the work force for many years and having huge pressures on her shoulders trying to care for, guide and nurture four teenagers, she has to try to find work. There were tears in her eyes as she mentioned her husband’s lack of financial support, but again, there was no bitterness. She is very determined to do her best so that her children survive, as well as any other young people within her reach. I asked her what were her main concerns for her children and she said, “Gangs, violence, drugs…you name it. It’s all out there.”

She is definitely one of the hidden martyrs of the suburbs; one of many.


Six Teenage Boys!


The girls finally went home and we started to organize the house again. One of the mothers stayed behind to help when she came to collect her daughter. At first Umm Tarek appeared shy and reserved but her smile was full of warmth. As she started to talk she told me about herself. A few years ago her husband had left her and married a younger woman. He left her with six teenage boys and a pre-teen daughter. With no financial support except from the government, she struggled on. She said the most difficult thing was to keep her boys busy and off the streets but everything costs money and so many times they were left with few choices. She also mentioned that most of the masjids concentrate on giving lectures but these are not suitable for teenage boys, especially when the streets and the night clubs are calling to them. I asked her if there were any clubs for boys, like the one her daughter attended. “No,” she said sadly, “there aren’t. I wish there were. I would start one myself but it’s not acceptable in the Muslim community for a woman to organize events like this for young men.” This was not the first time I had heard this comment.


Both Umm Tarek and Umm Abdullah can not afford to send their children to Islamic schools and being pressured to work means they do not have the time or energy to home school their children. For this reason, their children attend mainstream schools which exert constant pressure on the young people to conform to unIslamic values like redefining the family, disrespecting elders, being violent and aggressive, speaking coarsely, taking drugs, drinking alcohol and leading a promiscuous lifestyle. It seems they are fighting an uphill battle but there is no lack of patience and resolve.


Home Schooling – A Solution?


I sat with Umm Safeeyah in a gorgeous park filled with huge ancient trees, rolling hills, streams, flowers and pleasant walkways. When I saw this place I thought of typical English forests and Robin Hood films I had seen as a child. Walking down the paved path with soft green grass on either side, we saw foxes darting in and out behind gigantic trees and squirrels daring to draw near hoping for a bit of food. This place is a haven for mothers and their children and I saw a number of Muslim women there. It is also the place where Umm Safeeyah often teaches her daughters their lessons. She is home schooling them.


I asked her why she had not put her girls into Islamic school and she said that she wants to be the one who teaches her children about religion. What about their mainstream education? She believes that education should be a natural part of life and should incorporate many skills and experiences for children that are never found in the school system regardless of how ‘holistic’ the school might try to be. When questioned further she added that learning to care about people and do charity work is, she believes, a vital part of education. She travels with her children across the UK, getting involved in a variety of charitable projects. Her girls are well-spoken, confident and kind. Committed to this path in life, Umm Safeeyah has developed her own business venture so she has enough time to educate her daughters.


I asked the girls about living in the UK and the older one commented that there are a lot of temptations to generally ‘go off the path’. She smiled and with quiet confidence said how important it is that we know who we are and what we want out of life; such wisdom from a thirteen year old! I marveled at this unselfish mother who obviously exerts so much energy and makes so many sacrifices to educate her children herself with her only financial support coming from the government and her efforts to start a business of her own.


I wanted to tell her what I was thinking but I found them all huddled around a squirrel. While the girls were feeding it and petting it, their mother was explaining what type of animal it is, what it eats, its environment and the dangers city life poses to its existence.


Well, maybe the squirrels of London have more chance of survival than many Muslim teenagers, but if they do go astray it is not, I believe, due to apathy on the part of mothers, not these ones anyway.

Muslims making
a Difference