ZARA Mohammed’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since she was named the first female secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

The election of this 29-year-old Scot to the head of the most influential Muslim organisation in the UK has attracted mass media attention.

“Everyone is taken aback and I’m taken aback by the level of media exposure,” she says.

“Everyone’s been saying ‘congratulations’, but also ‘this is big’.

“I guess people are really surprised by me being a woman, and my age. It’s about the stereotypes of Muslim women and perhaps a young woman at the head of such a huge organisation.

“There are so many stereotypes about the role of Muslim women, what they do and what they don’t do. It challenges those misconceptions.”

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Mohammed, who studied human rights law at Strathclyde University, was announced as the new MCB head on Sunday and has two years to undertake an ambitious programme aimed at helping the UK’s Muslim communities through the health, psychological and economic impact of Covid, tackling inequality and prejudice and bringing more women and young people into the MCB.

Founded in 1997, it counts more than 500 mosques, schools, charities and professional networks amongst its membership.

A “significant amount” of MCB work is currently around Covid, says Mohammed, who is also a board member of the Muslim Council of Scotland. “We don’t even see it as responding now, it goes all the way to recovery,” she explains. “We are signposting, we are giving advice, we’ve done more webinars than I can count. We’re trying to provide support that’s supplementary to what the government is doing.” 

It’s about connecting people and building networks and resilience together, she says, something she counts as “one of my highlights of being a Scot – we’ve got a great culture of it”.

As a representative body for Muslim communities, MCB’s work 
is “for the common good”, Mohammed says. 

She continues: “We are trying to achieve an equal society for all.

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“A lot of the time when we’re in the news, it’s really negative, it’s really tough topics. It dehumanises. You lose that personability, the fact that you’re a part of British society.”

A training and development consultant, Mohammed says she want to “continue to build a truly inclusive, diverse and representative” council, and hopes that work will lead to greater advances against Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice. “I don’t see that as a Muslim issue,” she says of bias based on ethnicity or religion. “I see it as an issue that affects all of society. There’s so much racism, it just takes its turn as to who is the subject.”

However, she says Islamophobia is “different in the way it manifests and behaves”.
“It shuts off opportunities,” she says. “It’s systemic. Young Muslims still struggle to attain employment. There are occasions when you are trying to attain opportunities but because of your name or the way you look you just don’t get through.

“Our communities are in some of the poorest areas. We have got work to be done on tackling these inequalities.”

While there’s been a shift towards name-blind CVs by some organisations, with an applicant’s name removed from paperwork in a bid to overcome prejudice in selection processes, Mohammed says this is often not enough. “There’s still a problem with the interview stage because bias can still be introduced later on if you have an interviewer who has an issue.”

Mohammed feels her own new role could help break down barriers. “Me being elected is a great step but I want to attract more young people and women to the organisation,” she says.  But despite the initial good press, she’s not expecting an easy time. 

“The bigger they raise you up, the bigger the fall. I feel I’m going to be scrutinised so hard. 

“I don’t expect to change the world, we are just making a start.”