Woman’s Hour – Clickbait Islamophobia at its worst

Zara Mohammed. Image via Muslim Council of Britain

JVL Introduction

Sarah Sheriff  writes for JVL about Emma Barnett’s embarrassing and frankly Islamophic performance on Woman’s Hour recently when interviewing the new General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Zara Mohammed.

What should have been a cause of celebration – the MCB’s first-ever woman to lead it – was negated by Barnett’s distasteful combative behaviour and underlying Islamophobia.

After introducing the issues Sheriff reposts Samaya Afzal’s important article “On the continued arrogance of white liberal feminism” and links to Shahed Ezaydi’s Aurelia Magazine article “The treatment of Zara Mohammed on Woman’s Hour was clickbait Islamophobia, plain and simple”.

Sarah Sheriff writes

Sociologist, Dr. Fatima Rajina’s tweet was withering: “the posturing, the aggression and the classic attempt to use the Muslim woman’s body as the site to conduct a litmus test ON Muslims to measure how ‘progressive’ we really are, is getting tiresome. There was absolutely no need for the aggression and she clearly did [n]0 research.’

If this introduction is lost on you, it is a reference to a now notorious recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme, Women’s Hour broadcast on 6th February 2021. The programme, ‘’hosted’’ (hollow laugh) by Emma Barnett, managed to demonstrate it has less grace or indeed sisterly affinity than the Daily Heil when it invited the newly-elected, first ever female (and youngest) General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain onto the programme. What should have been a celebration of this community/personal milestone and an exploration of what the new General Secretary’s priorities were, turned out to be an ugly Islamophobic mugging perpetrated by a presenter whose own past comments, associations and practice recall the truth of the saying ‘’those in glass-houses ….’’

There has been widespread condemnation across social media from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, all aghast at the way Barnett attempted to use Zara Mohammad’s appointment as an opportunity to interrogate the new MCB General Secretary on the MCB’s previous policies and alleged failings as though they were some extremist lunatic fringe and that Zara, as a Muslim woman, was an inferior and backward ‘Other’, to be chastised. Not only that, but the clip segment uploaded by the BBC to social media was perceived as revelling in Barnett’s persecution. After allegations that it depicted bullying behaviour, it has been taken down. By fixating on what is widely regarded as a ‘non-issue’ among many Muslim women, mainly because the notion of female Imams is a false equivalence when there is, actually, a rich history of female religious leadership – Barnett attempted to assert her white feminist privilege – to judge and impose her views on Muslim women and Islam through a white feminist lens that positions itself as superior to all other viewpoints.

As Dr Fauzia Ahmad of Goldsmiths College noted through her Twitter feed:

‘It was a classic example of how Western feminists assert hegemonic authority over ‘’their’’ objects, attaching their own interpretations of religious meaning to the everyday lives of Muslim women and was reflective of the Orientalist gaze that presumes intellectual and physical authority and the ‘’right to know’’ over those it defines as the ‘’Other’’.

It is what Gayatri Spivak terms ‘’epistemic violence’’ that cultures and individuals are essentialised, reduced and pathologized’. Similar sentiments have been expressed across social media from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Barnett’s distasteful combative behaviour and wilful ignorance against Mohammad’s quiet restraint and suggestion that the question was inappropriate  is yet another example of how Islamophobia has become mainstreamed.

Two female Muslim writers have written on this unsavoury reminder of how Islamophobia continues to persist in the dark heart of Western feminism. We reproduce one of the articles in full here, and link to the other.

On the continued arrogance of white liberal feminism

Samaya Afzal, TRTWorld, 9th February 2021

The interrogation of Zara Mohammed on BBC’s Woman’s Hour demonstrates the persistence of low media literacy regarding Islam and Muslim women at best, and an incitement of Islamophobia at worst.

BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is immediately recognisable as one of the most forthrightly feminist programmes on air. It’s why you would expect, as the youngest person and first ever woman to be elected head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Zara Mohammed would have been a natural and welcomed guest.

And maybe, for the most part, she was. That is until, their Twitter account uploaded a clip showing Emma Barnett persistently questioning an incredulous Zara on the number of female imams in Britain.

Not content with the answers given, the host embarked on an antagonistic tirade about how Islam was lagging behind in women’s leadership. There are women priests and rabbis, she claimed, surely there must be female imams?

She went on, belittling previous Muslim Council leaders for daring to request that faith be recorded on the national census. If Muslims could be part of a focused campaign to get faith recognised in a once-a-decade questionnaire, why couldn’t they keep meticulous records on the thousands of mosques and their imams, mainly volunteers, up and down the UK?

Cue a collective sigh. Even when a woman is leading the largest cross-section of British Muslim society, representing hundreds of mosques, we can’t escape the allegation that we’re not doing enough to promote the leadership of women. You may well be the most accomplished, scholarly and talented Muslim woman in Britain, but if there’s a scarf on your head you’re probably still oppressed.

It seems to be white liberal feminism’s unending quest to prove once and for all that Islam is an inferior and oppressive religion. The formula for enacting the trope is simple. First, you view Islam through a lens of your own choosing – in this case, you don’t know exactly what an imam is or how Muslim prayer works, but it can’t be too different from Christianity and Judaism, and there aren’t any female imams so it must be a problem. You’ve added 2 to 2, and made 500. Second, you belligerently demand unsuspecting followers to churn out explanation upon justification after apology for what you’ve decided to believe about them.

The worst part? Some don’t even realise they’re doing it.

The issue remains that there isn’t a like-for-like comparison that you can use for clerical or religious figures in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. An imam doesn’t hold the religious authority that priests or rabbis do. In this decentralised system, imams will normally be people who can recite and lead prayer. Where there are positions of knowledge and scholarship in Islam, they are equally accessible to both Muslim men and women.

Indeed, Sheikh Akram Nadwi is a scholar who has compiled volume upon volume of examples of where Muslim women acquired knowledge and transmitted it, to say nothing about their contributions in fields like recitation, translation and the creation of legal rulings.

Many women and religious minorities whose contributions aren’t well known or given space have sought to reclaim that space within mosques and reassert these rich traditions of female scholarship. What a shame then, that it is these women who are questioned and treated as collaborators in their own oppression.

In this environment, leading questions won’t be taken in good faith. It’s this that has incensed Muslim women in particular, who refuse to complete the mental gymnastics it takes to accept lines of questioning (designed to trip us up) with simpering generosity.

No matter how many articles, research papers or headlines are written about Islam, media literacy on the faith remains despondently low and presenters understand very little. It’s one of the reasons why the Muslim Council of Britain set up the Centre for Media Monitoring.

Had Barnett attempted even the slightest bit of research or been minded to give Zara a fair hearing on the issue of women’s leadership, she would have found out that the majority of MCB’s projects have, in the last four years, been led by women.

Perhaps she would have been surprised to note that a conference of entirely women speakers was hosted for International Women’s Day two years ago, or that it was followed by a nationwide survey on women’s access to mosques.

Maybe, in her zeal to admonish a Muslim woman about the lack of female leadership in mosques, she might have forgotten that MCB’s continually successful Women in Mosques Development Programme has promoted exactly that since 2018. But how would she remember, when programmes like Woman’s Hour won’t give the representatives of these projects the time of day to begin with?

So, no, there may not be female imams in mainstream mosques, but there’s nothing to stop you going into one and finding a woman leading other women in prayer, holding Quran classes or teaching a new generation of scholars. You could definitely argue that there isn’t enough being done to accommodate women, but this is a challenge that many Muslim women have taken head on.

Frankly, the last thing we need is people who don’t understand our situation to bulldoze over all the hard work being done to focus on a non-existent problem like female imams.

There’s also a good, reflection on the Barnett’s treatment of Zara in Aurelia magazine: The treatment of Zara Mohammed on Woman’s Hour was clickbait Islamophobia, plain and simple. Its author, Shahed Ezaydi, is the Deputy Editor of Aurelia. @shahedezaydi


Comments (24)

  • Ludi Simpson says:

    I happened to listen to that interview and was saddened, remembering how supportive the groundbreaking Jenni Williams would have been; however limited in her perspective JW never adopted the agressive dismissive interview approach that Emma Barnett did in that interview. Disgusting, and thank you JVL for contributing to highlight it. Congratulations to Zara Mohammed young new leader of theMuslim Council of Britain for staying so calm when answering the questions. There is also a parallel in the BBC treating a single organisation MCB as representing Muslims (which Zara M refuted) with its treatment of the BoD as representing jews (but their non-refuting that characerisation!). However, using Emma Barnett’s interview to criticise ‘white liberal feminism’ in general isn’t helpful. Perhaps it’s a conradiction in terms, and it detracts from the condemnatoin of this particular action.

  • Riva Joffe says:

    Excellent post. Why has nothing been done about the new presenter of women’s hour?

  • Shaun Pye says:

    It seems to me that the explanation for the interview is very simple – Barnett set out to do a “hatchet job”.
    My wife listens to the radio a lot and, consequently, so do I. When I heard the full interview I was disgusted. I complained straight away to the BBC. The response was relatively quick. However, I didn’t need my glasses on to read between the lines. The response clearly meant “We don’t care”. Seems that that sort of response is par for the course for the BBC, from what I’m told.
    I would give up listening to them completely, but it saves me having to buy The Guardian.

  • Janet Crosley says:

    I didn’t hear the broadcast, and l am glad, sounds rude and ignorant.
    So glad you have published it.
    Thank you

  • Steven Reynolds says:

    I appreciate your putting this article up. Unfortunately I know so little of the underlying facts of women in Islam, I wasn’t able to process the points on which the arrogance of the BBC opinion leader could have been challenged. I learned a little, just not enough.

  • John Bowley says:

    When I last viewed it, many years ago, I observed a squirm-making combative and nastily discourteous attitude among ‘presenters’ on BBC Newsnight. It seemed then to be all about the ‘presenter’ being in overbearing control of what the person being interviewed was attempting to say. It is BBC journalism.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I listened to the interview and it was bog standard stupid and lazy BBC hectoring, interrupting etc. Zara Mohammed was clearly unprepared for this BBC self generated hostility, which was nasty and upsetting, when it should have been friendly and celebratory, but she handled herself with dignity and courtesy. The interview was clearly informed by assumptions about Islam, but neither the assumptions nor the bullying tone of the interviewer had anything to do with feminism, white, liberal or otherwise and I take exception to the author’s sweeping generalisation as being as unsisterly as Emma Barnett was.

  • Jenny Mahimbo says:

    I stopped listening to Women’s hour years ago because of its narrow idea of what they think women are interested in.

  • chris wallis says:

    I detect a number of trends in BBC content and style which bear watching. One is the move away from serious debate and towards info-tainment. You can see it in Question Time, Any Questions, Newsnight and possibly here in Barnett’s interview. The presenters are becoming more aggressive, particularly towards those who might be on the left – I give you Kirsty Wark interviewing Jenny Manson from JVL recently – and more interested in creating a moment than getting a serious answer, often by posing an unanswerable question and then pushing it and pushing it like Paxman with Michael Howard (he at least had a substantive point). Then there’s the appointments of particular staff. Barnett herself came with a reputation for taking no prisoners, unlike her predecessor who was level headed sanity itself. The porblem with presenters is that if you appoint people who are attack dogs, they inevitably overstep the mark sometimes, as Barnett clearly did here. But it goes higher, eg. Sarah Sands appointment as Editor of Today, fresh from running a disgusting campaign against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral elections when she was Ed of the Evening Standard, and with no broadcast experience at all despite the person spec requiring loads of it, should have raised huge questions, but didn’t. That she resigned after Johnson was elected speaks volumes. The appointment of Keith Blackmore as Managing Editor News – a post created for him by the incoming DG James Harding, who brought him with him from The Times – Blackmore is a man with a reputation at The Times for being ‘more Murdoch than Murdoch’ – is another signpost. And of course the fact that the BBC Board has lost oodles of independence through government appointments and compliance going to Ofcom. It has always been a good sign, I thought, when the government thought the BBC was on the opposite team. It showed they were doing their job of speaking truth to power, but it’s hard to imagine the current BBC really annoying this lot. They seem to be underplaying the absolute disaster that brexit is turning out to be, and letting them off on the obvious corruption in the awarding of Covid contracts, never mind their failure to manage the pandemic at all. And don’t get me started on their total failure to do due journalistic diligence on the ‘antisemitism crisis’ in the Labour party. I used to think that the things that made the UK different from the USA were the BBC and the NHS. I’m afraid its just the NHS now, and that’s not going to last long. Time to move to Europe. Oh, shit, we can’t.

  • George Peel says:

    New presenter for BBC Woman’s Hour, on Fridays and Saturdays

    ‘Anita Rani : “I want to bring warmth, humour and hope to Woman’s Hour”‘

    It’s a start. Less Emma Barnett, will always be an improvement.

  • Charlotte Williams says:

    Well said Sarah Sheriff and Samaya Afzal. I listened to the interview and was disgusted by Emma Barnett’ s tone and line of questioning. What’s even more worrying is that it seems the BBC at first showed off the interview by posting it on Twitter.

  • Roshan Pedder says:

    I missed the above interview but did hear another one conducted on the same day (?) by Anita Rani also on Women’s Hour. she asked the exact same question about women Imams in the same aggressive manner. But there was something else worth complaining about too. This is an extract from my letter of complaint
    She asked ” How many Muslims are there in the UK?” followed by “How many do the MCB represent – so who do you speak for”. Wow! Nothing wrong whatsoever with the question, but as someone who has followed the BBC coverage of alleged rampant antisemitism in the Labour party and all the myriad accusations made by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, I do not believe I ever heard that pertinent question asked of them! Never once. The answer is of course – although the BBC seems blissfully unaware – or worse, chooses to wilfully ignore the facts, is that the BOD only speaks for 1/3rd of the 290,000 Jews in GB.

  • Margaret West says:

    Agree entirely about prevalence of combative interviewers where it is more about them than the person being interviewed. I feel that this does *not* inform – and it is a disgrace that the BBC is a culprit.

    A notable exception I think is the “team” of Katy Kay and Christian Frazer who presented the “Beyond 100 days” program on BBC News at 7pm – and now their own program later. A refreshing change is that they *listen” to the person being interviewed.

    (Kay is speaking from the US and Frazer from the UK.)

  • David Townsend says:

    Several people commenting already have taken issue with comments about ‘white liberal feminism’.

    Isn’t there a place for hearing and listening to the perceptions and lived expereince of Muslim women on this issue?

  • Susan Hocking says:

    If Zara Mohammed had been interviewing Emma Barnet with this amount of bullying.. hectoring, it would be considered anti Semetic.

  • Martin Read says:

    I listened to some of this questionable ‘interview’ and thought the style at times almost openly hostile as did, no doubt, many others. Barnett’s intentions were made clear from very early on and they have been easily spotted and condemned by those (mostly) on the left, but unless such incidents are more often picked up, reported upon and questioned in the MSM then those such as Barnett will continue to chip away at the UK’s perceptions of any sense of decency, where such decency persists.

  • Liz says:

    I didn’t hear this interview. I’m a former Woman’s Hour listener having listened frequently over many years until the change of presenters. I enjoyed the approach of the empathic former presenters, drawing women out on a whole variety of issues to hear what they actually think, rather than the interviewers imposing their own agenda. I only got partway through the first 2 programmes by Emma Barnett before turning off, because of her hectoring and aggressive approach and haven’t listened since. The tone of this interview comes as no surprise sadly.

  • Kathleen Bellucci says:

    Emma Barnett has only been in the job at Women’s hour since January 2021 and already has alienated many listeners, I for one do not listen to the programme anymore after years of listening, not always agreeing but never the less a women’s information forum, I first read about how Ms Barnett was heard on her microphone talking about a contributing interviewee, I did not hear the said interview but the whole attitude is now quite toxic, I hope many thousands take a stand about the interviewer and then maybe the BBC will think again.

  • Doug says:

    My grandson when aged 5 was taught never to hit anyone unless they hit him first, but never to hit a girl,
    He tried to argue the point with his mum, boys can hit boys, girls can hit girls and girls can hit boys, so why ?
    That’s just the way it is so get over it, life’s unfair sometimes said mum
    Nothing to stop anyone being interviewed defending themselves rigorously or with known interviewers getting your retaliation in first
    So the inevitable happened and grandson and mum were hauled up in front of the headmistress,
    Afterwards he explained he had been hit first, so then he ‘accidentally’ strangled the other little boy

  • Sarah Sheriff says:

    We are very heartened by the response on this platform. Thank you all for your solidarity and for the insight you have shared. Away from the personalities, as with lots of other things that have been happening, definitely for decades, many of the issues we are grappling with as Muslims are clearly structural and part of an institutional racism which pervades the Establishment. These two articles (the second of which was just shared by a fellow Muslim anti-racism activist) 1) highlight a wider issue in relation to how Muslim women are treated by the media (including aspiring journalists who would hopefully begin to influence a change in the narrative) and 2) demonstrate how Barnett is an example of exceptionalism which would not, many of us feel, have been applied if she was a member of an ethnic minority – particularly a Muslim.

    There’s a reason women’s voices struggle to be heard

    The sins of the father, the emails of the daughter and the future of Woman’s Hour… – Conquest of the Useless


  • steve mitchell says:

    When I first heard that Barnett was to host Woman’s Hour I predicted something like this. Having watched her performances on Newsnight and listened to her on the radio it is absolutely clear she has hard right opinions. She is entirely the wrong person to present Woman’s Hour. As a child I would listen to the programme with my Mum on rainy days during the school holidays or when I was at home ill. I learned a lot about womens issues. The programme was always quietly informative and I carried that education into my adult life. As a strong Trades Unionist I was involved with the struggle for women’s equality. This is another example of how the Right are attempting to control our lives. My country is nothing like what it was in my younger days after 1945. We are regressing at an alarming rate.

  • Stephanie Harrison says:

    I have just re-listened to that interview and was again squirming with discomfort. Emma Barnett should, in my view, be struck off her leading role on women’s hour. In no way does she represent me as a white woman and a feminist, her interview was crass and hostile..most unsisterly and unfriendly and unbecoming of her position. She ought to make a very public apology, as of course should the bbc

  • Caroline Carney says:

    I have one word that usually shuts down the “how many Muslim women are imams?” question in discussions. Catholicism. Even the general synod and the multitude of Christian religions can’t get their heads together on the issue of women religious leaders. The way Barnett questioned this young woman as an invited guest, although Barnett did at one point imply she had come on the programme to advertise her new post and not because she was invited as one of the most racist things I have ever seen or heard in women’s broadcasting. The triumphalist tone of the whole interview was so depressing it reminded me why I do not watch or listen to the BBC for the last 5 years. Gone is the impartial enthusiasm for different cultures and ideas. In is the “we have to stick it to them” brigade of white middle-class so-called journalists.

  • Margaret West says:

    Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt, the paymaster general, has met Zara:
    She tweeted: “Great to have met with Zara today, to wish her success and hear more about her plans, look forward to working with her.”

    I read about this first in the Jewish Chronicle but see also article in Guardian:


    where the Muslim Council makes the point that the government needs to
    cooperate with them to tackle the problem of poor uptake of vaccine by minority communities.

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