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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005, 00:41 GMT 01:41 UK
Quest to become 'UK's first female imam'
London mosque
Imams take charge of the running of a mosque
The BBC World Service "I Challenge" series looks at individuals around the world who have challenged authority, traditions and beliefs in the face of enormous odds.

Here, Salma Qureshi, a computer programmer and British Muslim, tells the BBC of her ambition to become one of the UK's first female imams.

Like many young women in their thirties, computer programmer Salma likes shopping, aerobics and yoga.

But her personal mission to be a religious leader poses one of the biggest challenges to the Muslim world today.

"I'm quite religious but at the same time I'm quite a liberal person myself," she says.

"What I'm doing at the moment is something new. Until now there hasn't been a female imam - the imams have always been men.

"They never think about females as imams, and what I'm about to do is very challenging."

Passing on knowledge

Taught by her father, Ms Qureshi had read the Koran by the age of seven.

She said that when she was younger, she could not "differentiate what was religion and what was culture," and that she thought Islam imposed "too many restrictions" on women.

I had a lot of parents coming up to me and they said 'we're really proud of what you're doing, and you are an inspiration to our daughters'
Salma Qureshi
"It's only afterwards I realised that this is all cultural - religion doesn't really stop women doing anything," she added.

"In fact women can do anything that they want providing it doesn't go against the religion."

Ms Qureshi has been a computer and analyst programmer for around 18 years, since graduating in IT.

But a career break led her to spend time exploring her faith, and she enrolled at the Muslim College in Ealing, west London, to do a masters degree in Islamic Studies.

"While I was doing this course they had a diploma course in imamship and I thought 'Oh, this is interesting'," she said.

"I inquired, I said 'Can women come to this course?' and they said 'Yes of course you can come'. And I thought wow, this is great. I got really excited about it because it's the first time that I've heard that women can actually do this."

The course teaches potential imams how to run a mosque, how to give public speaking, and also details the various government offices and agencies they will be in touch with.


Navid Akhtar, a commentator on Britain's Muslim community, explained that because the vast majority of the community is very traditional and has a "quite basic" understanding of Islam, it is "very patriarchal, very tribal" and expects women simply to pray at home.

"So the idea that a woman trains to become an imam or wants to play quite a leading role in the running of a mosque would be a real shock," he said.

"They would see it as a real challenge to their established power base."

Ms Qureshi said that both her husband and brother had reacted by saying "How can a woman be an imam?" when she had told them of her plans.

But she pointed out that Ayesha, wife of the Prophet, had carried out teaching and prayers, "passing on Islamic knowledge and teaching".

"So why can't it be done now?" she added.

'Baby steps'

She also stressed she felt there was a need for this, "because at the moment we don't have leadership amongst women, there's just male imams".

Mr Akhtar, who has met Ms Qureshi on occasions, said that she is someone "who has a real passion for Islam."

But he added that he thought she was worried.

Man reading Koran
Some UK mosques make little provision for women
He explained that she did not want to be seen as someone going outside the limits of Islam.

"She's taking baby steps," he added.

"She wants to test the water. She doesn't want to rock the boat and she's very cautious of her position. She doesn't want to do anything that will cause a vast amount of offence and then perhaps it would mean that other women can't follow in her footsteps.

"So I think she's very conscious of her role as a pioneer."

Ms Qureshi added that so far she has not had a negative response, but has received a great amount of support and encouragement.

"I had a lot of parents coming up to me and they said 'we're really proud of what you're doing, and you are an inspiration to our daughters'," she added.

"I was really surprised that I had younger girls coming up to me, teenagers and younger girls, and they said to me 'You are actually breaking the ice. There's a gap there between male and female and you're trying to fill that up'."


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