The second panel discussion of the series on “Women of Faith in Public Service” will take place at 6pm on 18th November and feature a diverse group of panellists in conversation around the experiences of women from faith backgrounds and none working within public services.
This panel discussion aims to explore how the roles and expectations within public services interact within women’s personal faiths and faith-based identities, particularly in male-dominated working environments. What are the specific experiences and challenges for women of faith in public services, particularly in positions of authority?
Cllr Rakhia Ismail begins by highlighting the contribution of women faith in public service, and in particular, their positive influence on the next generation. Where young women of faith are looking to find a space where they can fit in and where they can be in public office, it becomes important to be able to see somebody who is like yourself. Cllr Ismail explains that this was one of the main motivators for her to pursue a career in public office, narrating how during her time working in school a young, Muslim girl had run up to her and told her how much she looked like and dressed like her own Mother. This was a moment of realisation for Cllr Ismail who saw how significant it is for the next generation to be able to have role models that allow them to see there is a space for them to belong in the areas that they want to work. Cllr Ismail states that there is so much that women of faith can bring to the community through working in positions of public service. Throughout her career, Cllr Ismail has served as a school governor, a local councillor and a mayor and in all of these roles, Cllr Ismail has received emails from individuals asking questions about what it is like being a councillor as a Muslim, whether they would be allowed to wear a hijab or pray. Through this, Cllr Ismail became more aware of the need for young women to be able to identify with somebody in the area of work that they may be attempting to enter into. Furthermore, Cllr Ismail states that a lack of women of faith in public office results in a lack of appropriate provision of services for faith communities, as those in office are unaware of the specific needs of these communities. Cllr Ismail believes this contributes to services being left behind in delivering to these communities.
Cllr Ismail moves on to highlight some of the difficulties with being a woman of faith in public office. In particular, wearing an item of clothing that clearly identifies you with a religion, for example, wearing a hijab or a turban, can result in people labelling individuals and minimizing them, seeing them as just a representative for that religion and thus limiting their opportunity to be seen as a multifaceted individual. Aware of issues of inequality within the public office such as islamophobia and racism, Cllr Ismail makes it her aim to speak up and tackle these issues as they arise because of the privileged position she has as councillor to make a difference.
Chika Ashby has worked in both public service and been a Christian for ten years. Chika begins by highlighting the importance of faith for every sector and area of life. She emphasises that synonyms of the word faith are your confidence, conviction, beliefs, what you trust, what you hope in and Chika argues that these are things everybody has. She exemplifies this by explaining that when you get up in the morning, we all do what we do, in the way we do ultimately because of our beliefs about life, for example, some people go to work to pay bills, or because they feel they have something to contribute to society, whatever our reasoning behind the way we live our lives, it comes from a place of belief. Speaking about the sad murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year, Chika highlights that one of the reasons this was so shocking for the public was because what we believe about individuals in certain roles was contradicted by Sarah’s perpetrator and their violent act. It was in investigations after this horrific act that people began to question and look into what this man actually believed in and what he believed about other people. This demonstrates how fundamental faith is to our jobs and roles in the workplace, but also to everything that we do. Chika highlights that we better understand one another when we seek to understand what someone else believes, and that for herself she interacts better in society when she is honest about what she believes.
Following on from exploring the importance of faith in all work sectors, Chika begins to outline the importance of her faith as a Christian in her own daily life. She highlights that being a Christian means that she knows she is forgiven by God, therefore she lives from a place of freedom from condemnation and is more forgiving towards others. It means she does not see any problem as being beyond redemption or anything as being too difficult. Chika’s faith involves a personal relationship with God where she is aware that God sees everything that she does, and this impacts the way that she treats other people. Chika explains the concept of sanctification, where gradually her relationship with God is helping her to become a better person, both in terms of how loving, kind and joyful she is for example, but also in being able to see where she falls short.
Exploring how this personal faith is beneficial for public service, Chika states that public services encourage and promote values of equality, aiming to provide the best service for all. Chika explains that through her role at Transport for London, she gets to see the people that use their service as she travels to work, working in complaints, she gets to hear the issues and the problems that arise and she gets to see and care for each person she works with the way Jesus would see them. Therefore, Chika states that she loves to see the impact of what her service does for those who need it, and in particular, she loves that the service must be accessible to everyone who needs it therefore equality is at the heart of what they do.
Chika concludes by stating that her faith in Jesus informs how she operates in the legal profession, as a public servant but also how she operates in life more generally. The values she holds onto as a Christian, she believes, are important, and the broader conversation of the value and significance of faith in people’s lives needs to be heard.
Kiran Sandhu begins by introducing her role within the NHS as manager and senior matron and highlighting how proud she is of the NHS’s focus on treating everybody equally. Kiran explains how this core value is so important to her as a Sikh woman, and that in her faith it is important to treat everybody equally and as individual human beings. These personal, faith-based beliefs of hers are paralleled therefore in her area of work as the NHS promotes equality, diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Kiran is therefore aware of the need to respect others’ opinions and beliefs, and not to judge those around you who may be different from you in what they believe.
Kiran goes on to explain the way men and women are viewed in Sikhism, describing them as two sides of the same human coin, with there being a system of interrelation and interdependence with men being born from women. She highlights the respect that her faith gives to women, and how this at times contradicts the reality in many cultures where women are not empowered to the same extent as men. As such, Kiran highlights the need to encourage young women to be independent, able to make their own decisions and empowered to do what they choose to in life. Speaking about her own background being exposed to multiple faiths and learning to respect those from all religious backgrounds, Kiran states that this approach is not always mirrored in her work environment where she has come across the negative impact of unconscious bias that some of her colleagues may hold towards those from different faiths. In particular, Kiran states that certain labels or stereotypes can be placed upon people because of their religion.
Kiran is a ‘women’s court officer’ within the NHS and in this role supports women to speak up and be confident in making personal decisions. In her own personal life, Kiran has come across the issue of honour-based violence and encourages women to share their experiences and understand the difference between their beliefs about honour-based violence and the reality of what their faith and culture teaches, giving women strategies to leave situations of violence and justify this to their families and friends. Indeed, Kiran explains that despite women and men being seen as equals in Sikhism, social and cultural pressures such as the caste system can interfere with this belief being a reality. Kiran concludes by reasserting the importance of understanding each other’s religion and how this impacts people’s lives. Indeed, Kiran has realised more throughout covid how interconnected we all are and how much we have in common, through working together during a crisis she has learned much from others and learned the value of diversity.
About Women of Faith Series
Dialogue Society is pleased to announce a new online panel series on “Women of Faith” that aims to highlight the experiences, challenges, and contributions of women from different faith backgrounds in varying spheres of society. Following on from our previous panel series on “Women’s Empowerment” that inspired our recent policy paper “Supporting Gender Equality: Examples from Politics, Business, and Academia in the UK”, which was presented at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The Women of Faith series extends our existing work on gender equality more broadly, to focus on a particular, often-overlooked group of women.
The series has three panels, each one focusing on a particular theme: “Women of Faith in Community”, “Women of Faith in Public Service’, and “Women of Faith in the Media’. The panel series aims to explore the experiences, challenges, and contributions of these women in different areas of life whilst also extending our gaze to examine the perceptions of women from all faiths and none within the public realm and the media.
The panel series will then inform a policy paper that will unpack the themes from each panel discussion and accumulate ideas and arguments discussed into policy recommendations.