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Being a Muslim woman in Britain isn't easy.
Sometimes it feels like everyone has an opinion
on how you should live your life.
On Instagram, every day, there will be someone who will comment
and say, "Oh, you're this, that and the other,
"because you don't wear a hijab."
My name is Mehreen Baig, I'm 28, unmarried, and a Muslim.
You've been upstairs all day.
I want you downstairs now to eat with me.
Now, I'm at a crossroads, struggling for independence from my parents...
My profile is complete.
..and anxious about the prospects of marriage.
I'm looking for someone who's not going to try
and act like my third parent.
-I don't know what you fancy...
-I don't mind, actually.
..besides me. I'm joking!
That's not a bad starter.
But what does my religion really say
about my rights as a woman?
The wife must obey her husband.
In this programme, I'm going to meet some women who can all tell me
something different about the struggle to balance being a modern
British woman and a Muslim.
I thought I knew what makes a good Muslim woman.
I don't even know any more.
And I hope they can help me resolve some of the dilemmas I'm facing.
You moved out of home and live by yourself?
I wouldn't... I'm not allowed to do that.
See, but that... But, like, that's a cultural thing.
Can I be a strong, independent woman and a good Muslim?
Or does Islam not give me that right?
This programme contains some strong language.
I think of myself as a modern, career-focused woman.
I trained as a teacher, and for the past five years,
I worked at a comprehensive school in Tottenham.
I always thought being a good person means that I'm a good Muslim.
I pray every day, I fast.
The biggest conflict I face between practising my religion
and living my Western life...
I get, you know, really positive support
on my social media and stuff,
but the few times when people will try and point a finger at me and
tell me I'm a bad Muslim, what are they going to pick on?
They're going to pick on the way I dress.
If that's the worst thing you can pick about me as a person and me as
a Muslim, I'm quite happy with that.
I may come across as self-confident and outgoing, but I still live at
home with my parents.
Be my assistant for a while.
I'm a good assistant, Dad.
-I know you are.
-I've been brought up in a traditional Pakistani family.
The heritage and culture they've given me are hugely important to me.
And I can't imagine life without them.
How do you do this? I don't even know this.
But, living this way has its frustrations.
As in many Pakistani families,
in practice, it means my dad lays down the rules for my life.
Have I put any...
You tell me... Unfair restrictions on you since the time you grew up?
I don't think you put any unfair restrictions.
But, now, you still...
-..will call us.
-I'm very protective...
You're very protective.
..about my children, my family, yes, that's true.
And sometimes, at 28, if you go out,
you don't want to get a phone call at 10pm.
You feel 28. I think you're 18, Mehreen.
In my books, if I'm 39, you cannot be 28.
I know, but even though you don't want to get older...
Oh, my God. Nuisance child.
But, like, you are still overprotective.
I am, I am. That's the way I am.
But what boundaries did I ever push? I never pushed any boundaries.
Yeah, you go on trips with your friends.
You know, you go on parties.
-And you go on this.
-But I always tell you where I'm going.
-But I'm not happy with that.
I think you should be restricted.
There's certain rules.
You should be back by eight. You come back by midnight.
That's not good. I should be back by eight?
Yes. Eight or 8.30 maximum, if it's winter, even.
And would you say the same...?
Summer, you should be back by ten, that's OK with me.
Would you say the same thing to your son?
Does your son need to be back by eight?
My son is a married man.
-He's independent now.
-So if I was married, then it's OK?
Yeah, of course, then it's the duty of your husband to look after you.
I love my dad and respect everything he has done for me,
but sometimes his rules drive me crazy.
He says they're Islamic, but I want to know how true that really is.
A lot of the time, when you're growing up, you are told, you know,
you can do this, you can't do this, and you just accept it.
And you don't question where it came from, what's the source,
why are we being asked to do this.
I used to pray because I used to watch Mum pray.
I knew as much about my religion as my parents had told me.
They were my main source of information.
I think this journey's really important cos we need to discover
what makes a good Muslim woman.
End blasphemy laws today! End blasphemy laws today!
First, I want to meet someone who, like me, has been brought up in a
British Pakistani family but has decided to take
a very different path.
At a protest in London against Pakistan's strict interpretation of
Islamic laws, I'm meeting Sadia,
who's taken the radical step of leaving the faith altogether.
This is just a mini version of the Koran.
For Muslims, the Koran is the literal word of God
and must be obeyed.
But there are also the associated Hadiths,
the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad
which are more open to interpretation.
It was questioning what these different religious texts said about
her rights as a woman that led Sadia to a crisis of faith.
At 19, when I was engaged for a short period of time...
-That's very young.
-Yeah, very young.
I knew that I'd have to become quite religious to be able to make that
I started to research more, I started to read more.
I used to be in a niqab at one point.
Oh, my God, wait. OK, wait, mind blown.
-And you were full niqabi.
-Yeah, full niqabi.
-Oh, my God.
Did you, like, research lots before you started wearing it,
about the women's dress code in Islam?
I read books. I read the Koran, I read the Hadith,
I read books about women's position and the advice given to women about
their dress. And because it said that I had to cover,
that's exactly what I did.
Does it say you have to cover everything except for your eyes?
No. So, you cover your hair, that's mandatory.
-Covering your face isn't.
-Is it mandatory to cover your head?
That's something that comes up a lot.
So, obviously, like the general consensus is you have to cover your
hair, but then some people say, that's in the Hadith,
but if you read the Koran, it says you need to cover your upper area,
-Boobs and stuff.
Even if we entertain the thought that we don't have to cover our
hair, but we have to cover everything else, erm,
men only have to cover from their...
Navel to their knee. I found that the other day.
Was there a particular, you know, moment or event that you thought,
you know, "That's the final straw, I can't be a Muslim any more"?
Do you know about the wife-beating verse in the Koran?
You don't know about this?
I read it the other day. There's something...
If a woman is adulterous, you can beat her lightly.
-Is that what you're referring to?
-Yeah, this is it.
And what the fuck does lightly mean?
Like, if somebody says to me that he can beat me with a stick...
-..but I can't beat him at all, that's not fucking equality.
-Far from it.
Of course, it gives you, like, the tools, essentially.
As in you can pick out whatever, you can pick out that statement,
you can pick out whatever statement you like,
and use it to your advantage.
But that's not the religion's fault. That's humans being arseholes.
So they say that if your husband wants to have sex,
and you turn him down,
the Farishta, the angels, they...
They curse you all night long.
That means I've got no choice in the matter.
That's in the Hadith.
OK. Cos Hadiths are questionable, aren't they?
They're still there, though. And they're still used.
They are used, but... I don't know.
Hadiths are often, like, I don't think you can ever rely on someone
else's interpretation of what they've read.
So why didn't you stay in Islam and reform it
rather than leave it altogether?
I didn't want to be my husband's wife.
I wanted to remain who I was, as a person.
And I feel like you disappear in Islam.
I found that quite difficult...
..for various reasons.
I found it difficult because...
..there was something she said
that I didn't know, and they actually shocked me.
Everything she found, everything she focused on, it's so negative.
And it's so the opposite of me.
It's really weird, cos we're both from quite similar families...
..quite similar backgrounds.
We're both Pakistani, but we went such opposite ways.
The texts Sadia was referring to about a husband beating his wife is
indeed in the Koran. Chapter four, verse 34,
where husbands who feel their wives are disobedient may beat them.
The passage about angels cursing wives who won't have sex with their
husbands is from the Hadiths.
But the meaning of both passages has been contested
by Islamic scholars through the ages.
But for all the scholarly debates, for me, the right way for a Muslim
woman to behave usually comes down to one man, my dad.
I've got seven missed calls from my father and two text messages.
Don't be worried. That's fine, don't be worried.
Love you, bye.
Sometimes you want to do something as a British young woman, but you
know your family and your culture want you to do something else,
and you kind of always have to pick between the two.
And the hard part is that, no matter what you pick,
you'll be letting someone down.
I might want to come home at 3am, be out with my girlfriends,
but I know my parents won't sleep until I get home.
So I end up leaving early.
And my friends will say, you know, "Why are you leaving early?"
But if I stayed out, I wouldn't be able to enjoy myself anyway
cos I'd just feel too guilty.
Are Dad's rules really Islamic, though?
Or simply cultural ideas that he's inherited as a fairly typical
Who am I really obeying?
My father or my religion?
The women attending a dinner to mark Black History Month say they feel no
contradiction between being good Muslims
and living independent lives.
I want to know how they manage it.
My experience of Islam has been a very Asian experience.
Looking at your day-to-day life, does Islam empower you?
-In what way?
Just a fact that I'm still able,
within the constraints of my religion,
to live my day-to-day and earn my own money and that money
is mine by entitlement.
My husband doesn't have a say in that money or anything.
Doesn't really have... He can't really restrict me from doing things
that are in line with my religion.
A lot of women will tell you that Islam oppresses women.
Exactly. I'm, like, well, you have not met the women from my family.
Like, generation upon generation, it's like we are nurses, doctors,
landowners, multiple property owners.
Directors and screenwriters.
When they kind of, like, say, "This is what a Muslim woman is."
I was like, "Well, you need to get out more."
Where do they get that from, then?
Where do they get that view that Muslim women are oppressed?
Most people, if they sat and met Muslim women, no way would they come
out with this idea that Muslim women are oppressed.
But it's this narrative that is constantly kind of regurgitated,
just on and on and on and on.
And it's so tiring.
It's tiring to fight it.
If anything, it's Islam that has allowed me
to be a very confident woman.
And it's Islam that has given me the ability to be able to
interact with men in an equal way.
Do some people use the hijab as a form of oppression?
Is that where the idea comes from?
That some women are forced.
Some younger girls are forced, or some wives are forced?
-Is that Islam, like?
Of course, there's some women, children,
that have been forced to wear the hijab.
But there's so many other women that haven't been forced.
For someone to tell me, "You have to wear the hijab,"
if someone tells me to do that, I'm taking my hijab off.
Know what I mean? If you're going to force me to wear the hijab,
I'm taking it off. I wear this out of love. This is my identity.
This is something that I love. And I wouldn't even say I do it because my
God tells me to do it, you know?
Everything that my God tells me to do, he gives me a choice.
I'm doing it because Sukainah wants to do it, and I love it,
and it's part of my religion and I own it.
Girls like the ones that I met today,
I don't think I've seen very many of them.
Women who genuinely feel empowered because of Islam.
They can clearly differentiate between what is Islam,
what is culture, what is society.
And that's why I wish I had this clear definition of what Islam is
and what Islam instructs.
One of the women I met at the dinner, Yasmin,
even described herself to me as a Muslim feminist activist.
How on earth does she balance an independent lifestyle
I can only dream of with the expectations of her family?
I remember having a conversation with my mum when I was maybe in my
early 20s, and she said, you know,
"Islam is a radically feminist religion."
She was like, "It introduced
"all of these things to women and fundamentally..."
Like, even in the Koran, it always says...
SHE REFERS TO A PHRASE
So it refers to the male believers and the female believers.
Like, every single instance when it refers to believers,
it always says men and women equally.
Right? And so I've think that kind of probably triggered
this curiosity, I guess.
What practical examples can you give me of ways that you feel
Islam has liberated you rather than oppressed you?
My first job was as an engineer on oil and gas rigs.
I moved out of home, I followed my career,
I got a really good education, I've spoken out,
I have never been expected to marry anyone in particular.
You moved out of home and lived by yourself?
My family's quite liberal, but I wasn't allowed to move out,
I wouldn't be allowed to move out.
I'm 28, but I won't move out until I get married.
That's wild. But, like, that's a cultural thing.
Within Islam, it says if your parents are doing the wrong thing,
you have the right to stand up against your parents.
Right? And it is, at the same time, you know,
Paradise is it the feet of your mother,
so even though paradise is at the feet of your mother,
if your mother is doing the wrong thing by Islam,
you have the right within Islam to say, "No."
And that is huge.
But culture, oh, culture is almost, if not, stronger a hold on people.
Was Yasmin thinking about marriage as much as I was?
You know, I'm not too fussed about the marriage thing, like,
I think it would be nice to find a partner,
but one of the main motivating factors is, well,
I'm still holding on to the no-sex-before-marriage thing.
Yeah, right? And it's a struggle, right?
Like, we have needs.
Sometimes I think, "What if I reach 32 and I'm still not married,"
which looks pretty realistic right now...
-I feel you.
Yeah, I know, I...
-I'm with you.
-Then what is going to happen?
Will...? It sounds so bad, like, it sounds so bad.
Will God be like, "I understand..."
Honestly, I have gotten to the age where I'm like, I am wondering that
too, and I know this is, like, the wildest conversation and that
all of these aunties are going to be like, "Stop it, Allah."
Like, "How could you possibly...?"
But the reality is, like,
it's not as if we have less of a sexual desire than men.
The people often assume that Muslim women have no sexual desire.
No, we are all neutered apparently.
Like, get off it.
I am as randy as the next one.
It is clear from various references in the Koran that sex
should be in a lawful union.
And men and women are given the same advice.
In chapter 24, verses 30 and 31, both are told to turn their eyes
away from temptation and to preserve their chastity.
Yasmin is an inspiring woman
who really knows her stuff and who clearly
feels no conflict between being an independent woman and a good Muslim.
But the one thing she hasn't managed to do is to find a man to share her
It's made me think about what I can expect from a husband.
And I got a glimpse of one possible future when I secured access to a
seminar in East London for Muslims looking to get married.
One of the speakers, an imam from the local mosque,
was giving his advice on the roles of husbands and wives.
The imam began by listing the responsibilities of future husbands.
A husband should have confidence and trust.
You have to trust her because she is your wife.
And you should love her, you should show love and affection.
And he should provide food, home, accommodation,
clothes and the basic amenities for life.
Yes, and also...
But future wives seem to have considerably more responsibilities,
and some of them brought me down to earth with a bump.
She should show him love and affection,
she should express her full confidence and trust in her husband.
She must make herself available to her husband, whenever he says,
"Oh, I'm ready, I need you," she must be available,
unless you have got a good excuse.
Yes. And she shall not admit anyone home her husband dislikes
to come in or stay in her house.
She must not put economic pressure on her husband.
She must obey her husband.
The wife must not travel without the consent of her husband.
For brothers, be generous to your wives, and for the sisters,
be loyal to your husbands.
This was one man's conservative interpretation
of Islamic traditions,
and he'd even thrown in some clearly non-Islamic rules
about social media.
Brothers and sisters should avoid using Facebook.
Always there are so problems because Facebook contact sometimes doesn't
represent the reality.
There are so many problems which come after that.
Most of the participants didn't want to talk to me,
but one young woman did,
and she seemed to accept conditions I don't think I could put up with.
How long have you been looking for?
So I started meeting people when I was 21.
I'm now 28. Seven years later,
I am still searching for that right person.
You know he was saying, "If you meet, you always have to have
"someone with you," and, you know,
"you will meet a few times, you will get to know the person."
-Do you abide by all those restrictions when you are...?
I have my brother present...
-So he is not present when I have a conversation with a potential
suitor, but he is part of the process and he is
there in the background.
So my brother will even meet the man first and see if he thinks
he will be suitable for me or not.
It is important to me to marry within my faith,
but will Muslim men want a wife like me,
with an independent streak and ambition?
At 28, I'm considered quite old to be unmarried in my community,
so the question is real for me.
I decided to see for myself what a cross-section of Muslim men expect
from a wife.
So in the spirit of research,
I ventured out onto the Islamic online dating scene.
Let's see if I can find my husband.
Number one priority for me,
someone who doesn't come and try and control me.
I have found this app called Muzmatch.
It says, "Muzmatch is for anyone seeking a Muslim marriage.
"Keep things halal."
"Select profile picture."
This is my favourite bit.
We don't want anything too...
"Islamic dress - modest, hijab, jilbab, niqab."
So, what if I don't even dress modestly?
Why does it start from modest?
Wow, I'm, like, bottom of the pile.
"How religious are you?" OK. What are the options?
"Practising. Very practising. Moderately practising.
Depends what you count as practising.
That's a really hard question.
Am I practising?
I want someone who religiously is on the same level as me.
Just a male version of me.
Surely he is out there somewhere.
This is really exciting.
-Good to see you. Looking good.
I don't know what you fancy.
-I don't mind, actually.
-Besides me. I'm joking!
That's not a bad starter.
I think it's OK, in my subjective opinion.
What if one day I decide to wear a hijab?
-Right now, it's not for me.
-That would be a good thing.
It wouldn't be an issue for me.
I would definitely like that, yeah.
After you are married, would you be living at home with your mum?
Maybe not initially, potentially, but long-term,
I would want my mum to stay with me.
Say if my wife comes across my mum,
arrogant, rude, sorry, I would have to side with my mum.
It is a different era now, it is not expected, no way.
-That is really surprising.
I am guessing if we went to Morocco together,
because that is where you're from, right?
I wouldn't be on the beach or by the pool wearing a bikini.
If I'm honest, my preference wouldn't necessarily be to someone
who walks around in a bikini necessarily.
-You are cool with her wearing a bikini?
-You can wear what you want.
Wear what you want. I do not have a problem with that.
If they go, like, "That's it, I am no longer a Muslim,"
that is a deal-breaker for me, I can't be with someone like that.
Niqab? Yeah, that would be a problem for me.
-Is that a step too far?
-Am I how you expected me to be?
-You seem quite nice, actually.
-Very nice, very nice.
-Sorry, wrong word there.
-Would you like a second date?
-Off the record.
-Would you like to marry me?
I didn't know you was going to ask that question.
I had, like, some tingling sensation.
I swear to God, or Allah here, I'm not lying.
The dates proved that
there isn't one version of a good Muslim husband,
just as there isn't one version of a good Muslim wife.
To find out what happens when an Islamic marriage falls apart,
I attended a sharia council in Birmingham.
Here, women come to seek a divorce,
recognised under Islamic but not civil law.
So, what happened?
Do all of them have autism?
Does he support you financially?
Does he give you money?
We understand, as a panel, that this marriage is not functioning,
it is not helping you, and the marriage is about love, compassion,
trust and respect, and of course, there should be financial support,
which isn't there, and so, as it stands at the moment,
the panel is in agreement that this marriage should be dissolved.
I was shocked the husbands weren't required to attend.
If they want a divorce,
all they need to do is announce it three times at monthly intervals.
I sat in two cases where women had come in to ask for a divorce.
In both cases, the husbands were not present.
In the second case, she hadn't seen her husband for five years,
hadn't heard from him in five years...
..but he was refusing to give her a divorce too.
This woman said, "I can't bear him, I cannot bear him,
"I cannot be with this man any more, because even when we were together,
"he was just awful to me."
But they have to wait for a group of strangers to deliberate and say,
"Oh, I understand it must be quite hard for you to, you know, give
"the kids, if that's what he is asking."
It must be hard?
I don't understand.
I watched nine cases being deliberated.
All of the women were granted a divorce.
While the details of their unhappy marriages aren't particular to their
faith, I was left with the feeling that this was an ordeal that women
had to go through and from which the men could excuse themselves.
I wanted to talk to Dr Amra Bone, one of the judges,
about women's rights and marriage.
The hardest part to see...
I'm sorry. ..was that some of these women have been hanging on
for five years, waiting for...
Because the man is with another family, with another woman,
but refusing to let go.
We do ask this question to women.
We say, "Why did it take you so long to come here?"
And they just often say,
"We weren't ready, we wanted to give it more time."
In Islam, a woman is not prisoned when she marries.
She, out of her free choice, she chooses to marry the person.
I did hear that if a husband wants to have sex with his wife...
..if she refuses, then the angels curse her throughout the night.
Well, I think there is so many...
People will say, "Oh, there is this Hadith or that Hadith."
But if you have to look
at the overall principle of Islamic teaching.
Islam is not as literal as people have made it out to be.
Islam, Islamic teachings are there to guide both men and women,
to behave towards each other with respect and kindness and love.
People often talk about how it says,
the Koran says you can beat your wife gently.
Well, again, how you understand that is the point.
Did the Prophet ever beat his wife?
Never in his life.
And what did the Koran say?
The Koran says he is... Which means he is an example for you,
the best example for you.
And actually, he was in a monogamous relationship.
He never hit a woman ever in his life.
He was in a monogamous relationship with Khadijah
for how many years, in a society where it was completely polygamous.
This was a completely new world to me,
I have never seen anything like...
Like, I have never seen anything...
I haven't seen cases like this, I haven't seen these kind of
discussions when it comes to divorce and a panel sitting there.
This is miles away from the Islam I have grown up with,
I have just never seen anything like this.
This journey is teaching me that my struggle to be both an independent
woman and a good Muslim isn't so much to do with Islam itself,
but with men's interpretation of it.
And there is one man's interpretation above all
that matters to me.
I have met so many girls on this journey and I've learnt so much.
Some things that made me feel quite comfortable,
some things that made me realise, actually,
Islam gives me so many rights that maybe even I can be more
independent and still be a good Muslim woman.
So I am going to go and have a conversation with my father about my
It's not really a conversation we have within our household, so I
don't know how he's going to react or if he'll even take it seriously.
But I think it's about time that I had that conversation.
I would like... The 11 o'clock curfew has to stop.
You can't wait up for me and make me rush home every time I go out.
Can we change the bond to not calling me...?
No, it can't happen!
Because if you are away and I don't hear from you...
Yes, if you keep on, keep me posted that,
"I'm OK, Dad, everything is fine," then OK.
I can do that, once a day.
No, not once a day!
If you are away for ten hours,
I must at least get that message five times.
-No, this is...
We need to negotiate. We can't live like this any more, this is a joke.
We need to come to some sort of...
You are dictating me terms and conditions
of how you want to live your life.
-Isn't it? Am I wrong in saying that?
-That's not acceptable to me.
-Papa, you can just be normal and say...
Yeah, you are telling me four, five, six...
"I understand what you're trying to say.
"You want a bit more freedom and maybe we are overprotective.
"We just want you to be safe, but maybe I can try and see if I can do
"that, but no promises." You don't have to say,
-"Oh, you are dictating, that is not acceptable to me."
One of the girls I met actually showed me a bit from the Koran where
it says, you can question and challenge our parents,
you can go against them.
This is what you are saying today,
but I never dared to even question again.
We thought whatever our elders or our guardians or our parents said
was to be obeyed.
What if I want to live by myself?
You're most welcome, if you can live without us.
-That's a lie.
-I will miss you, that is a different story,
because I love you, sweetheart.
I will maybe stay down under your stairs to look after you.
-Like Harry Potter!
-That is my problem.
I may come every weekend or maybe twice in a week,
I will telephone you a million times,
but I will not become a hurdle in your life.
Give us a hug.
-Are you happy now?
-Yeah, but I'll believe it when I see it.
-Seeing is believing.
-Seeing is believing.
I've realised that Islam in practice
is always worked out between people.
Daughters and their fathers, wives and their husbands.
But it's also become clear to me that in order to get what you want,
you have to know your rights.
And half of these rights I haven't heard of before.
So why is it that lots of women's rights in general
are almost hidden and men's rights are emphasised?
So it's great that I'm going on this journey, but there are still
thousands of girls who are going to go through shit
because they don't know their rights, and even if they know them,
they won't be permitted to exercise them.
And that made me...
..frustrated, cos there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.
I have seen too many amazing women become shadows of the girl that they
used to be...
..after they got married.
I'm not going to be that girl.
As a 28-year-old British Muslim woman, Mehreen Baig finds that everyone seems to have an opinion about how she should live her life - the clothes she should wear, where she should go out and who she should date. Half the time she is told she's being held back by her religion, and the other half that she isn't religious enough. Sometimes it feels like she just can't win. As she faces the prospect of marriage and finally moving out from her parents' house, she wants to know whether it's possible to be a strong, independent woman and a good Muslim in modern Britain.
Mehreen encounters the women on the front line of this debate. She meets the young women who claim Islam is a feminist religion that empowers them and a woman who has rejected the religion because she believes it's inherently sexist. She uses a specialist Muslim dating app to date a selection of young Muslim men, finding out what they really want from a wife, and attends a Sharia council to witness women petitioning to divorce their husbands.
Along the way, Mehreen discovers what the Islamic texts really say about women's rights and discovers how widely women's experiences vary across different Muslim communities.