A Q&A with Dr Maryyum Mehmood ahead of the Shameless! Festival
Dr Maryyum Mehmood is the Associate Director of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham, and the founder of The SHIFT. She will be joining our fantastic line-up on 27th November at the Shameless! Festival hosted by SHaME and WOW. Tickets are available now!
JB: Tell us about The SHIFT
MM: The SHIFT is an acronym for Social, Harmony, Intercultural and Faith Training. It is a platform, space and movement that seeks to understand the motivations driving human behaviours in the face of socio-political issues, and to use academic research, advocacy and commercial expertise to build innovative, impactful and sustainable solutions to addressing contemporary global and societal challenges. Essentially, The SHIFT’s purpose is, quite literally, to ‘shift’ mindsets and inspire new perspectives to flourish by providing the tools, techniques and training required to tackle these challenges.
JB: What is spiritual abuse? and #EndSpiritualAbuse
MM: Spiritual abuse entails the weaponisation of religious edicts and precepts by those in positions of relative power to control, coerce and manipulate vulnerable people into thinking and behaving in ways that are harmful to them. It is a highly overlooked yet deeply insidious problem disproportionately affecting women and young people in organised religious spaces. Very little is known about it, and some, quite wrongly, equate it with possession or sorcery.
Spiritual abuse underpins most social ills that stem from the misinterpretation and misuse of religious practices, which can then lead to grooming and zealotry, and the subjugation of women, queer and other marginalised groups. Targets of spiritual abuse are then disowned and defamed, declared a ‘bad’ believer, often inculcating a sense of confusion and self-consciousness within the victims, making them feel a warped sense of guilt that has absolutely no basis nor grounding within scripture or praxis of the faith.
This repressive technique allows those in power to further assert their control by rationalising abuse as somehow divinely decreed; entrenching this notion that the person in a position of relative power – the authority figure in this dynamic- is always right and that the target is forever wrong. This binary reinforces a toxic culture of shaming and blaming victims of abuse. What ensues is harassment, humiliation and horrendous levels of trauma.
Spiritual abuse is a relatively new term and although things are slowly shifting and people are becoming far more receptive to learning more about the issues, I felt like a larger, global campaign of awareness was necessary to highlight the negative consequences of spiritual abuse, particularly upon younger generations. As such, under the banner of The SHIFT, I established the SAVE (Spiritual Abuse and Violence Eradication) project, which is survivor-centred transformational endeavour to root out spiritual abuse in faith-based communities.
In addition, I am running my ‘Breaking Silence on Spiritual Violence #EndSpiritualAbuse’ campaign, which is supported by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Empowering Dialogue and Interfaith Networks (EDIN) programme. My campaign aims to highlight the ways in which spiritual abuse manifests, and how we can address their particularities.
JB: Why did you get interested in violence against girls and women?
MM: Being a young woman of faith with a hybrid and intersectional identity, I have always been aware of the problem of VAWG; it is ubiquitous, endemic and no community is immune from it in our current era, making it all the more difficult to sideline and ignore. According to WHO, 1 in 3 women globally experience gender-based violence, and many, many more know someone who has faced it firsthand.
I started my academic journey studying politics and international relations, wherein we encountered how women’s bodies are used as sites or arenas of conflict and warfare, their agency is consistently eroded, and engrossing myself in such discourses made me realise that our world- whether we like it or not- is gendered and we cannot achieve any change if we disregard this lens of analysis, and we must accept that the personal is the political.
That said, in academia women scholars are often told, that in order to be taken seriously, they ought to avoid the trope of ‘feminist scholar,’ as if it were a slur. My academic journey took on a course of its own and converged with my trajectory as an activist on numerous occasions, and in each encounter the gendered dimension was glaring- I knew I had to address it; whether that’s through gendered Islamophobia, or spiritual abuse, or the erasure of women in faith-based leadership and the corridors of power.
As a ‘pracademic,’ someone who is driven to solve social dilemmas through a combination of academically rigorous research and grassroots activism, I believe that it is incumbent upon me to be a harbinger of change – to shift the paradigm towards progress and empowerment of women in every domain.
JB: What would you suggest people who want to fight against injustices and violence should do?
MM: Before taking any steps, I think they ought to reflect and realise that this is an uphill battle and they will inevitably face much backlash, should they take a stand. The consequences of nonconformity and refusing to let (spiritual) abuse happen can often lead to ostracisation, isolation and social boycott of survivors, as well as activists. They are declared demonic, heretics or blasphemous, and they are accused of putting their faith community in jeopardy. Such pressure and vilification has severe ramifications on the mental health and emotional well-being of those rallying in the way of the cause.
I would offer three pieces of advice to mitigate such detrimental knock-on effects. 1) Commit to cultivating survivor-centred and safe transformative spaces. This does not mean that survivors take on the bulk of the exhaustive emotional and physical labour, but it calls for a unified front. 2) My second suggestion builds on this by stressing the need for coalition building by enlisting a variety of supporters- not simply ‘allies’ that sit adjacent to our cause- who are at the heart of the solution, shoulder to shoulder with survivors. 3) Actively engage and learn from other marginalised groups and their causes. I believe that in order to address any form of injustice rooted in animosity or hate, we ought to rid ourselves of hierarchies of sensitivities. It is only when we truly believe that our plight is part of a wider spectrum of prejudices that are equally as deserving of our attention and action that we can succeed.
JB: You speak so eloquently about the powerful and inspirational women in your family. What can be done to create new generations of strong women?
MM: Thank you! I think an oft-repeated solution is to ensure equality and equity amongst men and women, and to encourage positive reinforcement, affirmation and celebration of women’s successes, giving younger generations role models and behaviours that they feel safe and confident to emulate. While I am very much in agreement with this, I do believe that in order to empower strong women, what is just as important is to ensure that these gender-positive role models are not an exception or anomaly to the norm, but very much embedded within it. This requires us to shift mindsets away from shaming and blaming women based upon archaic stereotypes which stigmatise and restrict women of all ages, and it is learnt at a young age. To be clear: this radical re-education is not simply targeted at men to rid themselves of toxic masculinity, but equally it is about ensuring that women unshackle themselves from internalised misogyny that often turns them into the pawns of oppressive patriarchy. The solution cannot be exclusive to one gender or group of people, but rather it ought to be a holistic and collective one.
Dr Mehmood is the Associate Director of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham, where she co-convenes and serves as Senior Tutor for the MPA in faith-based leadership. Alongside this, she is a Young Religious Leader for the UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations) EDIN (Empowering Dialogue & Interfaith Networks) programme. She is also a Research Associate at St Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford, and a Trustee for the Women’s Interfaith Network.