There’s Little Support for Muslim Women Behind Bars

“This isn’t about me. This is about the women I left behind,” said Yasmeen Harris in an emotional appeal on November 9, 2013, calling attention to the struggle of Muslim female inmates she shared a cell with.
Sharing her incarceration story at the symposium “California Jails and Muslim Inmates,” Harris talked about the lack of support offered to Muslim women who are jailed, whether from the prison staff or the wider Muslim community.  After doing 17 torturous years of federal time in the State of California, Harris dedicated her life to amplifying the voices of Muslim women in prisons.
In one speech, she stated:

“I have to be those women’s voice. Because they don’t have one. Not at all. Correctional facility officers cannot mess with people from other faiths because they have outside support.” 

Unfortunately, there is little information available on Muslim female prisoners. According to an article entitled “Behind Bars and Beyond,” published by Azizah Magazine, the majority of studies that explore Muslim prison population in the US focus primarily on men. “As a result, there is a shortage of support services specific to incarcerated Muslim women. Those who study or work with imprisoned and recently released Muslims state that women face major concerns including: child care, Muslim prison chaplains, housing, employment, counseling, religious classes, and transitional assistance,” wrote Aneesa Lews and Cristal Truscott.
The insufficiency of data on incarcerated Muslim women is not something unique to America. The same issue was present in the UK, but Muslim Hands, a UK based charity organization, initiated the “Muslim Women in Prison Project” in partnership with the Huddersfield Pakistani Community Alliance. The need for this project was based on the fact that Muslim women in prison were not on the radar of the Muslim community and other service providers. “This is often a forgotten section of the community. We were alerted to the issue by a number of high profile cases involving Muslim women,” stated the project’s study report “Second Chance, Fresh Horizons” released in 2014.
Through a series of meetings and interviews with Muslim women in prison, and prison staff, the project revealed that Muslim women in prison often have to overcome additional and exceptional challenges and hurdles in the form of rejection, cultural taboos, and forced family and community isolation. The report stated:

“It appears that the Muslim community is more accepting of male prisoners but females are marginalized and labelled as bringing ‘shame and dishonor’ to the family and community. Generally, there appears to be no structured support for Muslim women ex-prisoners within support agencies.” 

Director of Community Development at Muslim Hands, Maqsood Ahmed, confirmed in the study that many Muslims consider the idea of Muslim women prisoners as taboo and shameful. He also said that some attitudes regard these women as “bad eggs” that should not be discussed or supported, let alone rehabilitated.
“Unfortunately, among the service providers, there also appears to be a lack of awareness of the socio-cultural norms and sanctions as well as the religious governance that affects the lives of female Muslim prisoners. Thus engagement can often be limited and ineffective,” said Ahmed.
Thankfully, although far from ideal, things have not been stagnant here in the United States, either.  The strong, outspoken ex-prisoners, such as Yasmeen Harris, have been advocating for incarcerated Muslim women, and have urged the Muslim community to take action.
On November 9, 2013, a group of 100 or so Muslims gathered at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. Their meeting marked a first for the new prison outreach program of Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella group of some 60 mosques and Muslim organizations.
As a result of these efforts, more volunteers are recruited to counsel Muslim inmates, both men and women, and advocate for their rights. Having served 20 years in prison, Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, Administrative Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and former director of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, worked to create manuals to support Muslim families with children such as, “Fighting for Our Rights: A Toolbox for Family Advocates of California Prisoners.”
On December 30, 2014, she spoke about her own experience as a prisoner and how she led women in the struggle to honor their religious practices, including headgear and fasting. “I was determined to grow and develop into a better human being when I got locked up in 1982. Muslim women have a difficult time trying to practice Islam inside the federal prison. The prison administration needs to know that Muslims have support on the outside,” she said.
How much are we as a Muslim community thinking about the concerns of Muslim women behind bars? Are we doing enough to help them overcome the struggles of being in prison, and what about after they’re released?  There is definitely more work that needs to be done to support them.

Additional Resources

A Correctional Institution’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices
Muslim Women in Prison Project
Prison Outreach Program, Islamic Shura Council of Southern California
Women Prisoners Panel Resources and Actions to Take

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