Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I am a Muslim,  For  my primary schooling  I went to a school run by Catholics nuns,   then went to a Protestant school and then I to a university that was fundamentally atheist.   I found that people express their faith in different ways, so if you need a kitchen god, if that is the way that you find your sense of support, commitment and freedom, then that’s valid.  If you believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost then that’s fine too, if you believe that God is beyond perception and we all have our own quest then that’s all right.  So there isn’t a faith which I believe is the right or the correct faith, I think that people of faith are on the same quest.  I’m a Muslim, my husband is an agnostic.  My daughter runs the choir in a Protestant church and my son is a firm atheist.  And we all get on very well.  I think that there is room for everybody.

Would you describe Great Britain as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to human rights?

I came to the UK when I was 14, I went to a Protestant school where I felt totally included.  But there was a large group of foreign students and on Sundays we didn’t go to church, we were allowed to go for a walk and that was fine by us, and quite a lot of Christian girls were very jealous.  I then went to a university which was completely atheist, so I don’t think that there is a UK position.  There is a UKIP position, a liberal position, a socialist position, a whole range of them.  It depends where you are situated in the UK.  When I am in York I always think that people see me as a bit usual, and when I studied in York people thought that I was very exotic because I was one of the few foreign students at the university when it started.  But then, when I went to work in Bradford, I felt the real cutting edge of Islamophobia, and the way that it shapes your daily life, and the way that the ticket collector looked at me when I walked into Bradford, made me a terribly hoity toity, I brought my best elocution English to ask him now what is it my man?  I wanted to just put him down, because when you are five foot nothing it’s not very easy.  Essentially, I actually think that there are parts of the UK where there is a real of particular categories.  At the moment it is the Muslims, but it hasn’t always been them, it has been other minorities.  The Jews have suffered, I’m sure that others have too.

Do you personally experience any challenges in living in accordance with your faith, and if so, are they social, political or legal?

Well, I certainly don’t feel any challenges.  I often threaten in the House of Lords to bring my prayer mat, as there is a ritual of praying in the Christian way, with prayers led by a bishop.  There are many peers who don’t go in, who are atheists and don’t believe in that ritual.  So there are moments where you actually notice that you are labelled as different, but consensus, not by any other process.  But in life you have to accept that different situations require different ways of doing that.  And there is no way, even though I have threatened it, that I would take my prayer-mat and start using it in Parliament during the prayer.  I think that social norms do provide constraints, but I don’t feel constrained in an unpleasant way that I would resist.

I have written extensively about ascribed and adopted identities and people ascribe the identity of Muslim to a particular category of women.  And if I adopt that ascribed identity, they simply refuse to accept it.  Because if you don’t conform to a stereotype, then you are not who you are say you are.  That is a problem that I have thought about and written about and still find interesting.

Ordinarily, we ask interviewees, do you believe that you have a moral obligation to vote.  Obviously, that it is complicated in relation to a member of the House of Lords.  But do you believe that citizens generally have a moral obligation to vote?

As a feminist, I feel absolutely, in a world dominated by men.  It is not a matter of faith but a matter of practice, when you are the majority but have been ascribed the identity of minority it is absolutely the duty of every one of us who can to fight.  So not in the name of religion, but feminism.  Given that I have the privilege of sitting in the Lords I feel that I absolutely must defend the rights of women.  Fortunately, a lot of women do, so I don’t feel that I am doing it solo.  But I feel that I must do my very best to improve the lot of women and of course minorities.

Does it concern you that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

Unless we lived in parts of cities that are largely composed of minorities. It so happens that because I have always taught politics, that I have stood for various local things. But basically I think that there are a great many people who either wouldn’t stand, or would find it difficult.  Again, there is a marvellous disabled group in the Lords, who are just fantastic, but for many of them the ardour of an election campaign.  If you actually can’t walk, the idea of dashing from A to B is difficult, and if you can’t talk very well or aren’t very mobile, there’s a whole lot of disabilities.  What’s wonderful about the fact that the Lords are unelected, is that the Appointment Committee has a sense of trying to appoint people for the expertise, for what they can offer. And because there is an advisory group, I think that the Appointment Committee is very keen to keep the mix and variety and bring in groups which are under-represented to give them a voice in the Lords.  It is because we are not elected that we can be a sounding board and advisory board, bringing in a large diversity of groups with very different views.

What is your view on the presence of Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords as of right?

I admire them and the invaluable interfaith that they do in Parliament. When I was presented, Bishop Harris very kindly offered to be one of the people who introduced me.  The reason for that was that we had been in a panel talking about faith and feminisms.  And I was saying that I thought that Islam gave more rights to women than any of other faith that I know of.  We had a very good discussion, and in many ways he agreed with me.  Because women in Islam have always retained independent right of ownership, right to their own name.  But also they are invited to wages for housework and caring for their baby.  I think that the bishops play a very important role, and bring a notion of ethic and morality which is respected by the House. 

What does your faith tell you about people who exercise power, and the responsibilities which power brings?

If Muslims followed the equipment of their faith, it would be very difficult to get rich in Islam.  We are required at the end of each calendar year to give away a fifth of all of the extra money we have gained, and a fourth of all extra material goods. So there is a quite severe taxation on goods and income, that is to be given to the power.  Also during our month of fasting, we eat the evening meal in the evening, we are supposed to share it with people who could not afford to eat.  So it has a very deep sense of redistribution, which sadly is not followed.  But if we did what our faith demands, then perhaps the income would be much more widely distributed and there would be less poverty.

Have you ever felt so strongly about a political or social issue that you have wanted to campaign to change it, and if so, what did you do?

I’m a third generation feminist!  My grandmother was fighting for the rights of women and I expect my granddaughters will be as well.  Some causes you have to fight all of the time.

In your experience of dealing with public authorities, have you found that there has been an appropriate level of awareness and respect towards your personal beliefs and any needs arising from them?

It’s very locally defined.  In places where there aren’t a large number of minorities, I don’t think that there is a problem.  Personally, if I see a problem I just fight it anyway, I don’t let problems make my life a misery.  But there are contexts like Bradford, where there is an intense sense of discrimination, and I know that this is the case in London.  People do not trust the police or the judiciary.  There is a sense of mistrust and fear, which is very debilitating, especially for women.  They get enclosed in families whose sense of honour and shame, exacerbates their encounters with the external world they live in, but also makes their family life much harder.  It is very context specific. So problems exist, but not everywhere.

Is it important for you to always act within the secular law of the land?

I have to say that if I wasn’t a law-maker, there are cases where I would be a firm law breaker.  In particular, on the question of voluntary euthanasia.  I really think that there are times when people ought to be allowed to choose to die, without having to be wealthy enough to get themselves booked in to Switzerland.  I do have a very dear and close friend who is desperate to die, and I know that 12 years ago, before I was in Parliament, I would very probably have helped her.  She can’t move, she can’t see, she can’t hear………….and she used to be a wonderfully dynamic, active lady.  But now, I can’t, because I simply feel that once you step over to the side of making the laws, then you have no right to break them.  So it depends when.

Would you say that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in British society?

No!  It depends on your colour, your creed, where you are.  When we make laws, we hope, expect and assume that they would apply to everybody.  But those appointed to implement the laws, are governed of course by a sense of duty, but they also have their own perceptions.  It’s just very difficult.  When I tell a policeman that I am a professor they are very surprised, because I am five foot nothing, I wear no make-up, I don’t look the way they think professors should look.  It really does depend on who you are.

What do you think of the general trend towards an increase in police powers and State surveillance over the past 15 years?

It worries me again.  If I felt that it was being applied equally to all citizens, I would accept it.  I can for example understand in France, at specific points, that they would need it.  But it is not applied equally.  I can’t deny that we need it, but I worry about the way it is being implemented.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

Not that I can immediately think of, but do send me an email and I will think about it.


Baroness Haleh Afshar is an academic at the University of York.  She was the founder member and is now the honorary President of the UK Muslim Women’s Network.  She is an adviser to the Government in various contexts on public policy on Muslim Women and Islamic Law, as well as being a member of an all party Parliamentary group on Race and Community, taking part on an new inquiry into unemployment amongst black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women.