A new report by Sofia Buncy and Ishtiaq Ahmed sets out a new and very different model to help the growing number of Muslim women prisoners on their release.
The authors argue that Muslim women prisoners experience an intersection of inequalities including gender, race, faith and culture in addition to the other disadvantages of poverty, health and geography typically experienced by many prisoners. They found this issue was typically overlooked, even by women’s providers. The majority of women feared life beyond the prison gate, often speaking of being treated unfairly in the community in contrast to the liberal and sympathetic treatment that Muslim men are often given on release. The report explores the complex interplay between social stigma, cultural taboos and the notion of honour and sets out a new model for culturally appropriate and individually tailored support within the prison establishment and on release for Muslim women.
The main challenge for the new model was to find a host organisation from within the Muslim community which was willing and able to host a resettlement programme which would reflect women’s everyday reality and the social and cultural context. The authors drew up a list of seven critical success factors for identifying an appropriate organisation; they were looking for:
- An organisation which was not fearful of being openly associated with an issue which carries social and cultural stigma within the Muslim community.
- One rooted within the community perceived as a holistic provider of services with a degree of integrity.
- An organisation which recognised and valued cultural and religious sensitivities.
- Demonstrate a strong commitment to tackling social injustice.
- Embodied a degree of cultural competency and welcome change.
- Had a strong commitment partnership working.
- Had open, non-judgemental but still risk assessed access to facilities and services.
The authors felt that the Khidmat Centres went a long way towards meeting these criteria and made them the home for the pilot project.
The report focuses on five key issues:
- The fragility of honour and links to Muslim women’s criminality
- The ripple effects of female incarceration on Muslim families.
- Faith as a powerful catalyst for rehabilitation.
- Mental health.
- Institutional inequalities.
The report explores these five topics in a nuanced and in-depth manner which can’t be easily summarised in this short blog post. I urge readers to read the report in full.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations aimed both at the community and the commissioners and providers of services.
The community is urged to raise the awareness of the previously neglected needs of this group of women and to replicate this model of community owned provision. It argues that engaging Muslim women with the “lived experience” of contact with the criminal justice system will help make this model work.
It also calls on the Ministry of Justice and large charitable trusts to prioritise the funding of this work and to develop a special interest in community led desistance.
It urges the MoJ and HMPPS to provide leadership and support in helping prisons increase the knowledge and skills base of their staff so that they are able to be more understanding of and responsive to the needs of Muslim women prisoners.
The power of this report is that it is willing both to call for a cultural shift in the Muslim’s community’s approach to women’s criminality, as well as challenging the government to address the broader context of inherent inequalities both within prison and in the community. It calls on commissioners and providers to stop being paralysed by fear of being perceived as racist or islamophobic and to roll up their sleeves and start building effective services to promote desistance.
We must wait and see how they respond.