Muslim women 'targeted by extremists' at UK universities

By Divya Talwar
BBC Asian Network

Image caption, Women are targets as "they arouse less suspicion than men", the Muslim Women's Network says

A growing number of young Muslim women are being radicalised by extremists while studying at UK universities, according to a Muslim women's group.

As one Islamic student group denies it is a problem, BBC News examines how widespread on-campus radicalisation is and why young women in particular are targets.

''I didn't have a plan and I didn't know how I was going to do it. But I had so much anger inside me. I wanted to be heard.

''I thought I could do that through violence, by becoming the country's first female suicide bomber.''

When Sadia started university, like most students, she was eager to make new friends and to fit in, so she joined the Islamic society.

Sadia, 22, (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), was befriended by a group of Muslim girls that she met at the events.

''They seemed to know a lot about Islam. As I grew closer to them, they would give me books to read to help me learn more about my religion," she said.

Sadia was shown videos of Muslims allegedly "suffering because of the West", which led to her becoming radicalised.

"It made me think violence was acceptable. It made me want to become a suicide bomber.

''I thought if I became the first British woman to do it then that would make the Western world listen."

Shaista Gohir, a consultant for Prevent, the government's anti-terror programme and head of the Muslim Women's Network UK (MWN-UK), said increasing numbers of Muslim women were being targeted at British universities.

''I have come across ample anecdotal evidence through my work, to suggest a growing problem of women being drawn into violent extremism.

''While it is mostly men who are targeted, women are also now being recruited by extremist groups.''

Image caption, Hadiya Masieh said she was recruited by Hizab ut-Tahrir radicals at Brunel University

''Most Muslim women have no interest in violence, but there is small number of females who are being targeted. This is very serious because the numbers are slowly growing.''

Ms Gohir believes extremist groups could be deliberately going out of their way to target women, because female extremists arouse less suspicion than men.

Sadia never ended up pursuing extremist violence. By confiding in Muslim friends outside of her London-based university, she slowly realised she had been brainwashed.

She was introduced to a Muslim women's group who helped her combat her Jihadist attitude.

"It was a difficult process, but I got proper help and I was able to see just how wrong I was.

''When I look back at it, I know my religion and the concept of violent Jihad was completely misinterpreted.''

The police are aware of her case.

Hadiya Masieh, 32, says she was recruited by radicals from Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group which claims it is non-violent, while at Brunel University. The group is banned from the campus.

She said its members convinced her to become a radical: "Once they've established that suspicion (against "the West") and malaise, depending on the person, all that emotion can be challenged in various ways, including violence.''

Ms Masieh has since left the group and is now and a member of the government's Muslim Women's Advisory Board (MWAB).

Dr Taj Hargey, an Imam from Oxford, said young Muslims needed to be armed with the right Islamic knowledge to fight radicalisation.

''Many Muslim students are fed tainted and misinterpreted ideologies of Islam on campus. This can then form the gateway to extremism,'' said Dr Hargey.

'No evidence'

However, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has denied there is an extremist element at UK universities.

Its vice-president, Amandla Thomas-Johnson said: ''We take such concerns very seriously, however there is no evidence to suggest there is radicalisation on campuses.''

While Islamic societies may not encourage violent extremism, there have been concerns that groups use their events as an opportunity to prey on vulnerable individuals.

Ms Gohir said many of the government's Prevent projects did not challenge extremism ideologies head-on, and £7m has just been cut from its £140m budget.

A spokesman for the programme said it was a "serious but not widespread" problem.

He said: "The government and the police continue to work with universities and student groups to help them manage the risks. We are currently reviewing the Prevent programme so that it tackles extremism more effectively."

While Sadia may have found a way out, she is fearful for others. She said: ''I think if the problem is ignored, Britain could sees its first female suicide bomber."

Universities UK, which represents a large number of higher education sites, said it was currently looking at the issue within its establishments. It plans to provide guidelines on tackling the problem later in the year.

Asian Network Reports broadcasts weekdays at 1230 and 1800 BST or listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

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