A place to learn about Islam and much more besides
It seems to me quite understandable that such groups would make their neighbours feel slightly insecure with so many Muslims gathering together - especially in today's political climate.
Al-Meezan is an organisation run by Muslim women focusing on women's Islamic education, situated in a large detached house in the Southside of Glasgow.
The centre had created some tension in the locality - objections have included the fact that it is an educational organisation in the middle of a residential area; and parking issues when large numbers get together for annual events.
The house in Dumbreck is what estate agents would call a very large well-maintained period property. On the inside it has been sectioned into classrooms and office facilities, along with a well-run cafeteria, a crèche and play areas for children.
The Al-Meezan student body is comprised of women of all ages, starting from three month-old infants to classes for children and adults with no upper age limit. (The children's classes are for boys as well as girls).
It began a decade ago as an informal group of 20 women who would get together to study the Quran. The student body expanded and different venues had to be hired to accommodate the large number of participants.
Eventually they bought their current premises in 2005 for £1.1m, a sum raised completely through participant donations.
My feeling was: "Why couldn't they be less obtrusive, tone down the overtly religious symbolism and blend in with the rest of us?" Were the participants oblivious to such sensitivities?
Perhaps the organisation was the reaction of a community under attack, unable to face the world except by retreating into the shadows of hijab and women-only congregations?
Considering these and other very real prejudices I decided to approach Al-Meezan. My understanding prior to going was that there was a strict uniform of white hijab with a black abaiya. What reaction would my jeans and cropped top get in a place where all participants wore these black cloaks and white scarves?
Later I discovered that it was only the uniform for the longer-running courses and was not compulsory for the short courses or other social activities like the mother and toddler group.
I was expecting disgust at the sight of me - clearly an Asian Muslim, sans hijab. Instead I was struck by the warm welcome I received. The committee were also quite willing to talk about their apparent role in exacerbating local divisions, and address my concern that they might discourage Muslims, particularly women, from taking part in mainstream society.
Indeed, they had very well-formed opinions on these subjects. They were certainly aware of the critical position they occupy within the current political climate.
So, is Al-Meezan a symptom of Muslim "extremism"? These women were adamant in their condemnation of "so-called" Muslims who espouse violence.
"We are trying to redress the weaknesses of previous generations where an ignorance of the teachings of Islam created a vacuum for children to be misled into committing crimes in the name of Islam," explained Salma Sheikh, retired social worker and Al-Meezan chairperson. "We focus on women, as they are responsible for the religious beliefs that are imparted to children.
"Suicide bombings are haram wrong, and punishable in the next life and any act that is against the law and social norms of the society in which you live is condemned in Islam," she adds. "But the religion doesn't need to be abandoned because of a few miscreants - in fact it needs to be re-appropriated and returned to its true, purely peaceful, spirit."
But my view of such organisations is that they are outdated. Couldn't groups such as Al-Meezan offer Asian women tools for dealing with modern life?
The committee see what they do as empowering the women who attend. They argue that prior to Al-Meezan, religion was the prerogative of men residing in mosques and through this religious monopoly they were able to control the life choices offered to women.
"Lack of knowledge of Islamic values has resulted in the cultural oppression of women and their marginalisation," reads one Al-Meezan leaflet.
By educating themselves these women are breaking free from misconceptions that are commonly used to suppress women in a number of social situations. I have heard men say, with the utmost religious authority, that Islam has no room for female equality, arguing that for women to work is in direct contradiction to Islamic teachings.
It isn't a view that is given credence at Al-Meezan. When I asked about opposition from within the Muslim community they immediately assumed I was referring to early opposition to the centre from Muslim clerics. "Men can't deal with the fact that these women have managed to create and run this organisation completely without their help," says Mahnoor Campbell, Primary School teacher and student at Al-Meezan.
At Al-Meezan most of the teachers hold full-time jobs and teach here on a part-time basis. This example alone gives the women who attend positive role models who manage to reach an equitable balance between their religious, worldly and social duties.
Muslims like me who are seen by some as having given up fundamental aspects of our religion by abandoning hijab, can insist until we're blue in the face that Islam does guarantee rights for women. We will be disregarded and will have no real impact. But Al-Meezan and organisations like it may offer a platform through which to address such issues.
I end up feeling that an Islamic organisation that is setting the record straight and in a non-controversial way about the rights and life choices available to Muslim women is like rain in the desert.
But I still wonder if it isolates its students, denying them social opportunities? The participants I spoke to were adamant that their dress code or strong religious beliefs have no impact on their social interactions.
"There might be an initial hesitancy when people see that you wear a Hijab but once you approach them and start a conversation they deal with you as a person" says Asma Sheikh, a pharmacist and teacher at Al- Meezan.
However there are two opinions on whether society at large is accepting of Muslims. The Scottish Asians I interviewed who were born and brought up here have a very secure sense of belonging and inclusion; however Pakistani Muslims who immigrated here for education or through marriage speak of a very different experience. These women talk of living in extreme isolation before they came to Al-Meezan; of a feeling that Scottish society was completely closed to them.
For some, the reason for joining Al-Meezan was to meet people; the religious interest was secondary. They have become part of a huge social network with a large number of friends from all ages and social groups. "We were speaking before class about how it happens that a person has been dead for weeks and no-one has noticed," says Mahnoor Campbell. "This could never happen at Al-Meezan.If I miss one Sunday class I receive at least half a dozen phone calls to find out if I'm alright."
Sheikh adds: "I encourage my students to reach out to people around them. There is no harm in attending social events with non-Muslims - this is something which a lot of my students had regarded as being taboo."
Al-Meezan has broken a lot of the stereotypes I had regarding Asian women. Organisations that are focused around educating women so that they are able to be better carers for their children along with providing them with a social network have a clear value for the whole of society.
Al-Meezan itself points to the value of such work. Another leaflet reads: "We recognise that lack of knowledge of Islamic values has resulted in the breakdown in communication between parents and young people; the collapse of the family unit due to strain in relationship between youth and parents; feelings of disenchantment amongst Muslim youth; and depression and isolation faced by parents dealing with these problems."
It is interesting that if you remove the words Islam and Muslim, these are the very same problems which are faced by wider society.
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