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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Giving a voice to Muslim women in prison

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There is a lack of tailored support for Muslim female prisoners; many don't have contact with family or friends or have to lie about where they are due to cultural issues of shame and family honour.

(In)Visibility

Last month (8 February 2018), Muslim Hands  published research into the experiences, resettlement needs, identities and criminogenic contexts of female Muslim prisoners across seven women’s prison estates in England.

The research, entitled (In)Visibility, highlights distinct needs and experiences of female Muslims in prison and aims to bring their unheard voices to the forefront, add to the gaps in knowledge in this area and address the often-overlooked crossover of faith, ethnicity and gender.

This research succeeds in putting the underrepresented voices of Muslim women on the radar. Their pre-offending context, experiences of prison and resettlement barriers are disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising.

The report makes for a fascinating yet troubling read. Interviewees talk about direct
discrimination from prisoners, racism from prison staff and feeling more targeted if
identifiably Muslim.

Interviewees also talk about how families and communities are unwilling or unable to support them, forgive them or forget that a woman has spent time in prison. 

Background

The female Muslim prison population stands at 254, making up 6% of the total women’s prison population.

Key Findings

The report argues persuasively that failure to understand the experiences and issues at play for female Muslim prisoners leads to their invisibility at multiple levels: in policy, research, family and communities.

Some of the key findings include:

  • 79% of the sample reported experiencing Domestic Violence and Abuse (DVA). In some cases violent, abusive and controlling experiences were linked to the offence.
  • Mental health challenges were reported from some as a result of violence.
  • Cultural expectations of women are often unrealistic and are a source of tension for many participants.
  • Cultural norms, such as shame and honour, can have a silencing and normalising effect for many of the hard-hitting issues, such as DVA and sexual violence.
  • Shame impacts on many female Muslim prisoners lives and can impact on family contact, acceptance or disownment.
  • Contact from families was reported as either very positive, supportive and present, or as negative, non-existent and judgemental, with very little in-between.
  • Shame brings implications for resettlement, particularly for Muslim women, such as stigma from communities and having to serve a ‘second sentence’ in order to be forgiven by families.
  • Female Muslim prisoners face Islamophobia and racism from both prisoners and prison staff.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The report concludes that Female Muslim prisoners occupy a somewhat unique position in prison. On the one hand, their faith can be strengthened, is often central to identity, and offers support. However, institutionally Islam has been found to not be viewed as an asset and this makes people feel defensive and further marginalised.

The voices of Muslim women in prison are often unheard, and they are somewhat invisible in policy, families and communities. However, there is an additional hyper visibility in media and public attitudes (including inside prisons) and this especially impacts those who are ‘visibly Muslim’ (i.e. identifiers such as hijab wearing or certain surnames).

The report makes a number of recommendations including:

  • There is a need for more and better data, especially data disaggregated by religion to be able to identify those at risk of discrimination based on gender, religion and ethnicity.
  • Prison staff should be better trained in faith related identities and activities (e.g. Islamic celebrations such as Ramadan and Eid, Islamic childbirth, a woman’s choice to wear a hijab or not), and this especially applies to prisons in rural areas .
  • Women’s prison estates should seek to create links with specialist community institutions, such as mosques and faith groups.
  • Racism and Islamophobia should not be tolerated in prisons, and any reports of it should be taken seriously with a view of eradicating it.
  • Consideration should be given to the cultural competency of housing alternatives to prison, as well as hostels and temporary accommodation post release for Muslim women.
  • Culturally competent support should be available in prisons and throughout the Criminal Justice System for women, to allow them to disclose any important concerns in their home life – especially where this might impact on resettlement (e.g. controlling partners, family relationships deteriorating).
  • Isolation, community ignorance or normalisation, and silencing should be considered as relevant risk factors in gender based violence (similar to the way alcohol might be) and steps, measures, legislation should be put in place to protect survivors from them (i.e. these factors should be included in risk assessments, understood at both policy and grassroots levels, and included in training).
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