It's not Woman's Hour, it's White Woman's Hour

It's not Woman's Hour, it's White Woman's Hour
5 min read

Ruqaya Izzidien

23 February, 2021
Comment: Genuine dialogue requires a respectful space, and if you're not white, you won't find it on Barnett's Woman's Hour, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
Zara Mohammed was recently elected the Muslim Council of Britain's first female general secretary [MCB]
When 29-year-old Zara Mohammed was invited on to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, she probably expected to discuss her recent election as the first female Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Instead, presenter Emma Barnett hounded her with antagonistic questioning, interruptions, and derailment, which typify the harassment and dehumanisation that Muslim women face every day.

The programme achieved none of its purported aims - "to inform, challenge and inspire," instead acting as a mouthpiece for toxic white feminism. It's not a challenge when you question an interviewee on a topic that doesn't relate to their expertise. All this achieved was a derailment of the conversation away from Mohammed's appointment, vision, and even away from how she might help combat sexism in her capacity as MCB Secretary General. 

It's not informative when you invite guests onto a radio show for the sole purpose to hector them for clout, or when you're religiously illiterate and too privileged to think you need to research your topic properly.

As an open letter to the BBC, which was signed by more than 100 figures including writers, politicians, and academics, pointed out, Barnett's interview "mirrored the style and tone of an accountability interview with a politician, rather than authentically recognising and engaging in what this represented for British Muslim women." 

This interview should be on an intersectionality curriculum

Barnett was so deeply out of her depth that she was oblivious to her own ignorance. It's a false equivalence to compare priests and rabbis - which Barnett excitedly pointed out do permit women - to imams. An imam is any person who leads a prayer, even in their own home, and not necessarily a measure of scholarly or religious authority. There are surely hundreds of female imams in the UK every single day. 

Up and down the UK, there are Muslim women in positions of religious authority as chaplains, reciters, scholars, campaigners, theologians, and activists. Many of them work to fight against the dehumanisation that was exemplified on Woman's Hour. 

What's ironic, is that although some Muslim women are restricted or oppressed by Muslim men, I'd wager that many more are routinely subjugated by the Islamophobia that Barnett subjected Mohammed to. In fact, it's a subject on which I've been quizzed by people in positions of authority as a test of my palatability. Ask any Muslim woman. We know this devil's advocate setup well, and it's never designed to "inspire" or to understand us. 

Read more: Feminism means equal rights for all women, not just white women

It's a trap. That's what made Barnett's mock curiosity so despicable. She dressed up a gotcha question in niceties in an attempt to make her disdain pass for interest: "I'm genuinely intrigued to know," she said. Right, Emma, you're "genuinely intrigued to know," but not willing to, you know, Google what an imam is. 

This interview should be on an intersectionality curriculum. It's a classic example of toxic white feminism, which claims to support all women, including, very vocally, Muslim women, but actually seeks to punish us when we're empowered outside the margins of what they deem acceptable. 

True allyship shouldn't railroad Muslim voices in favour of what it considers to be the worthy battles. And what struggles, goals and campaigns get trampled when we're continuously talked over? Right now, Muslim women in the UK are working for equal representation, employment discrimination, the safety of women and children, racial justice for Black people, among many other causes. None of these informing, inspiring, and challenging topics were amplified, because all Woman's Hour could focus on was an imaginary insult.

In a statement, BBC head Tom Davie reiterated the programme team's response, which said, "we believe it was legitimate for the programme to seek to explore some of the issues facing Muslims in the UK." 

That the BBC lacks representative involvement at production level is what leads them to think that this, of all things, is the issue of the day that Muslims face, not, for example, being held accountable for the actions of others.

And the fact that they edited and shared the such a hostile interview on social media highlights how Muslim women's subjugation is something they celebrate, even in the same breath are condemning it.

True allyship shouldn't railroad Muslim voices in favour of what it considers to be the worthy battles

Embarrassingly, if Barnett had bothered to spend 30 seconds on the Muslim Council of Britain's website she'd see that they don't need her to smugly question female representation in mosques - the MCB runs a flagship development campaign for women leaders in mosques. In the past four years, the majority of their projects have been headed by women, and two years ago they held a conference of entirely female speakers.

But that doesn't fit the antagonistic narrative that Barnett set out to achieve. It's a lesson that women of colour should have learned when actor and fitness studio owner Kelechi Okafor pulled out of her interview in January after being cursed at off-air by Barnett. Genuine dialogue requires a respectful space, and if you're not white, you won't find it on Barnett's Woman's Hour.  

Zara Mohammed's appearance on Woman's Hour exemplifies toxic white feminism. These women do not care about your liberation or fight, they care about coopting you into their own battles, about mutilating you into their cautionary tale, and about reasserting their own humanity against the savagery of you. 

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English. She runs a blog, Muslim Impossible, and is the author of the novel The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.