9 April 2024

“Polluted the entire bloodline” – A spotlight on the experiences of young Muslim women in the criminal justice system

Young adults

We spoke to Dr Sofia Buncy, Director and Founder of the Muslim Women in Prison (MWIP) Project, about their latest research project, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, into the experiences of young Muslim women in the criminal justice system.

Since its foundation in 2013, the MWIP has researched the journeys of Muslim women throughout the criminal justice system. Prior to MWIP there had been very little research on this topic.

Sofia and her team are currently focusing on the needs of young Muslim women, aged 18-25. As a minority within a minority, little was known about this group’s needs and outcomes. The initial interviews have revealed some unexpected and worrying findings.

“Two of the young women we spoke to have already said that they were victims of sexual violence within a household. We’ve heard from one Muslim girl who has been involved in gangs and arrested for firearms and involvement in a gang-related death, a crime that we would have never expected.”

Sofia does not suggest that this problem is confined to the Muslim community, but that the ramifications can be more serious for young Muslim women because of the cultural expectations of their families and communities.

“At the recent launch of Agenda Alliance’s A Call To Action paper, a client of MWIP shared her story. She stood up and said, ‘Look I’m a young Muslim girl and I was groomed by a Muslim man. I don’t speak about it because it can have repercussions for my future, for my marriage, for my reputation, and for my standing.’

“I think it really hit everybody hard that day. You could hear a pin drop. We’re getting under the skin of the problems, and it won’t be pretty, but we need to be honest.”

It is rare for young Muslim women to talk openly about their experiences of the criminal justice system because their involvement can be perceived as shameful by family members and the community. They risk abandonment and reprisal for speaking out, so there is little known about what might lead them to involvement with the justice system. The MWIP project hopes to change this, so young Muslim women can access the right support at the right time.

“I don’t think professionals or individuals in the community would have expected the level of exploitation that Muslim girls face, or the changing nature of how they present in the system.”

Sofia believes that one of the factors contributing to criminal justice involvement may be the lack of experience young Muslim women possess around what healthy relationships looks like.

“Some of the young Muslim women we’ve worked with have been wrapped up in cotton wool, in the sense that there’s always a male leader in the family who’s there to protect them. So then how do you know what the red flags are?

“It’s not acceptable for Muslim women to enter premarital relationships, but it would be naive to assume that some of these young girls were not entering relationships in this day and age. Many of them have boyfriends or they’ve gone into relationships, but this is rarely discussed in the community.

“That means there’s no guidance in terms of what healthy looks like. Unfortunately, this means that many girls can assume that their relationship, which may be harmful, is what normal looks like.”

It’s clear that young Muslim women face unique challenges and require a tailored approach, but they face additional barriers to proactively access the support they need.

“There are opportunities for intervention, but young Muslim women are less likely to access support because they often lack agency to make decisions for themselves.”

“In our community, it’s always thought that somebody senior to yourself has your best interests at heart and should make decisions for you. That’s why we have to ask what level of agency do these young Muslim women really have?”

According to Sofia young Muslim women are often held to a higher standard than young Muslim men, and involvement in the criminal justice system can damage their family’s standing in the community.

“Muslim women are deemed as holding the honour of the entire family and the community. Sometimes the ramifications of having committed an offence in the UK are that word will travel back to Somalia or Pakistan or India or Bangladesh. That’s how far reaching it is.

“I’ve had some strong conversations with parents to ask them to forgive their child just as Islam advocates and to let them come back home. But families are worried about how the transference of cultural shame will damage their other daughters’ chances of marriage, so they become estranged. There are some young Muslim women in prison who have no visits at all, not even from their own children.”

Sofia believes that traditional definitions of shame fail to capture the severity of the emotion experienced by young Muslim women.

“I’ll never forget an interview we recently conducted with a young woman, and I was really trying to get to the bottom of her fixation on shame. She said, ‘Sofia, you don’t understand. What I’ve done is polluted the entire bloodline.’ That one sentence fully encapsulated the repercussions of going to prison for young Muslim women. Subsequently, relocation has become a huge issue too.

“Of the women we have spoken to, three have relocated because of issues of shame, dishonour, or potential reprisal. A big part of resettlement is that wrap-around support and these young Muslim women might have no help whatsoever from their family.”

These cultural expectations can also affect the ability of young Muslim women to successfully complete their probation.

“If a young Muslim woman is referred to a women’s centre in Bradford or the town centre probation office, but it’s not near where they live, that presents an immediate problem. They might say to me, ‘I can’t go there. If I go to a different post code, and one of my husband’s friends sees me walking into that place, there’ll be a question mark. What was I doing there?’ We have to understand the reality of many young Muslim women’s lives.

“We’re still finding that some (not all) Muslim women are expected to be the primary caregivers at home. When you’re expected to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table, there’s a level of scrutiny on your day-to-day activities. Professionals might not understand that scrutiny or why, for example, you’re unable to attend a lunchtime probation appointment.”

Until the lived experience of young Muslim women is fully understood by professionals, it will be an uphill battle to improve outcomes.

“I do think there is a quite serious need for training within the probation services to understand these nuances and concepts. Some of it may only come alive when we have women with lived experience speaking, like at the training sessions we run with professionals.

“I have friends who are probation officers, and their caseload is absolutely overwhelming on a day-to-day basis. It takes a lot of time to deal with each case, and even more for specialist cases. But there is expertise out there, such as organisations like ours, so I think it can work if there’s a willingness to share and learn together.”

Sofia hopes that this research project can be a roadmap to a brighter future for young Muslim women.

“We’re asking interviewees what would have stopped them from entering the criminal justice system. Once we’ve accumulated the response, we can start to look at how we prevent young Muslims from becoming involved with the criminal justice system in the first place.”