Beyond the Hijab
Young Muslims face a unique set of challenges growing up in the UK in the wake of recent world events. Helen Gregory discovers how youth groups are stepping in to offer assistance.
"My faith is very important to me and I like to spend time with people who have similar interests and beliefs because most of my school is non-Muslim." Eighteen-year-old Werdah Ahmed, from Birmingham, has lived in the UK all her life and considers herself thoroughly British, but she values time spent with other Muslims. That's why she and more than 30 other teenage girls in the city meet regularly at youth project Young Muslim Sisters in Sparkhill, where they are encouraged to join discussions on subjects such as the practices of Islam and prayers as well as taking part in day trips and sports activities.
This time together gives them the confidence to feel proud to be British Muslims and encourages them to make a positive contribution to society, says Ifhat Rafiq, project co-ordinator at Young Muslim Sisters, part of the umbrella organisation Young Muslims UK: "A lot of youngsters are unsure about their identity, but by understanding what it means to be both British and Muslim they realise that there isn't much conflict."
Most Muslim youth work is no different to any other youth work: the young people play sports, learn about healthy eating and simply hang out with their peers. But groups tend to be single sex and run by voluntary organisations that have close relationships with mosques.
Abdur Rahman, co-ordinator of the Young Muslim Brothers and Sisters groups in east London, believes that such projects give young people a chance to talk about topics that might be difficult to discuss with parents, schools or local imams, and help prevent them from getting involved with some of the fringe groups that are clamouring for their attention.
Rafiq explains that the group she runs has also provided the young people with a place to discuss their take on recent world events, such as the London bombings. "Young people get very frustrated about what they see and hear in the news - we have to make sure they don't feel like the victims of this society," she says.
But it's mainly everyday life issues that are high on the agenda. Many young Muslims still encounter problems at school, where teachers don't understand their traditions or dress, or discourage young people from practising their faith. Parental pressure also remains an issue. "Parents aren't always as involved as they should be, or they are obsessed and will really push their children," says Rafiq. "Girls can be expected to do lots around the house instead of homework."
Most of the girls who attend the Young Muslim Sisters project go to mainly Muslim schools where they don't get bullied for their beliefs. They do, however, find themselves having to answer questions about their hijabs from inquisitive children, or occasionally deal with aggressive behaviour. The project teaches them to be polite and walk away if necessary.
But young Muslim Salah Ahmed, 16, from Leeds, says he has had no problems growing up in the UK. "I feel very welcomed," says Salah, but he admits that it's hard to watch some of the portrayals of Muslims on TV.
Religion isn't always relevant
Salah attends a youth group run by Leeds Youth Service in the city's Harehills area that offers sporting and outdoor activities such as go-karting and climbing for 13- to 19-year-olds. Although most of the young men who attend are Muslim, the project doesn't deliberately target this faith group and the group's ethnic make-up is a result of being based in a predominantly Muslim area.
"I don't feel the need for it to be brought up in discussions," says Ravinder Kumar, a non-Muslim youth worker who runs projects in the area for Leeds Youth Service.
Jumanur Rahman, 16, from Leeds, agrees that religion isn't relevant to the group, and even reckons it would be better if teenagers from other cultures came along. "It's nice to be able to talk about issues that are going on around the world and talk about how Muslims can get a bad press," he says. "But I've never had a problem with anyone disrespecting me because of my religion."
The project's multi-faith focus and the fact that it employs nationally qualified youth workers means that funding is not a problem for this Leeds group. This is not the case for all Muslim youth projects. Young Muslim Sisters' Rafiq admits that the group has had funding applications turned down because it has the word Muslim in its title.
Like Young Muslim Brothers and Sisters in Newham,the Birmingham-based group relies on donations, but the meetings aren't exclusively for Muslims. But in reality, if young people from other faiths were to attend and the project were to become more like a mainstream youth club, some parents might object.
Rafiq is keen not to make Muslim parents out to be the bad guys. They play a valuable supportive role in their children's lives and many appreciate it when the project broaches some of the more taboo subjects such as relationships and menstruation.
In Newham, Young Muslim Brothers and Sisters is not afraid to tackle issues that affect all young people, such as bullying and relationships, but complex personal problems are often referred to the Muslim Youth Helpline. Abdur Rahman says: "If you push them away, where will they go? We try to have a nurturing, inclusive environment to support our young people."
At the Harehills project in Leeds, Kumar says some of the young men appreciate being able to discuss personal issues with a non-Muslim like herself because they feel the workers are less judgmental. Advice about relationships or contraception is a particularly difficult subject for them. "Young people rarely go to a Muslim worker for that as they are worried that others will find out," she says. "And although we've had complaints about giving out free condoms to the young people, we explain that it's a government scheme that we have to offer.
"I've also helped a Muslim girl who was self-harming after experiencing problems at home - she felt more comfortable talking to me."
These groups may offer similar support and activities to other youth clubs, but one thing doesn't look likely to change anytime soon - mixing the sexes. Kumar explains: "It's rare to get mixed groups. The young men say they welcome girls, but they would not want their sisters involved. Separate groups work better round here."
One good indication that Britain is becoming more multicultural is that young women like Umamah Ahmed feel the need to attend Muslim groups.
Most of her friends at school in Birmingham were non-Muslim so Umamah, 18, joined Young Muslim Sisters to talk about her religion, pray and learn social skills. "It's important to have a range of friends to get a different perspective and strike a balance," she says. Now studying at the city's university, she always finds acceptance from fellow students, although Umamah admits that issues such as drinking are cropping up: "As I don't drink I feel excluded from some things, which can be difficult, but my friends respect my choices."
She also acknowledges that she sometimes has to justify her dress or beliefs: "Certain people don't know why you wear a headscarf but I'm always happy to explain it."
Umamah believes that Britain is a tolerant society, and that living in a city is easier than a more rural setting. She adds: "I'm proud to be British and grateful that I've had more opportunities here than in Pakistan where I was born. I've found respect for my religion, although as Muslims can sometimes get a negative press it's important that we talk to our neighbours and break out of the ghetto - we don't want to be segregated."
A STRATEGY FOR MUSLIM YOUTH WORK
Muslim youth work could be about to get the big push it needs to achieve a higher profile.
The next few weeks will see the launch of the National Foundation for Muslim Youth Work and a web site, both aiming to support and promote Muslim youth work.
The new group, which is based at The National Youth Agency's Leicester office, will provide a platform for connecting youth workers and young people to policy and government while offering support and expertise to groups that are looking to develop youth work with Muslim young people.
"It's early days, but the strategy has already made an impact and two workers have been appointed - although we have kept a low profile while we wait for the branding to be developed," says MG Khan, a lecturer in youth work at the University of Birmingham and driving force behind the new foundation, who put together Towards a National Strategy for Muslim Youth earlier this year.
The document called for a platform to encourage a relationship between Muslim youth workers, or youth workers who work with Muslims, and the Department for Education and Skills. It also urged investment in Muslim youth work training, including new courses and training modules.
"We aim to hold workshops in the future as well as youth forums so that we are empowering people at the coal face," says Khan. "We haven't got funding to meet the targets that were set out by the document though - we're getting there slowly but there is still a long way to go."
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