By Shaista Gohir
Last Thursday morning on the 12th May 2022, I found out the sad news that Baroness Haleh Afshar OBE had passed away. Although she had been unwell for some time, there was still a sense of disbelief that she had gone. I had been so excited to tell her that I was going to be following her footsteps into the House of Lords to also be a Crossbench peer. I had to keep the announcement of my appointment confidential until it was going to be officially announced on the 17th May 2022. So, I did not get to tell her the good news. It feels like she had passed on the baton once again like she had done more than 15 years earlier with Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK).
Muslim Women’s Network as it was originally known was an advisory committee of several Muslim women set up by Patricia Hewitt, then the Women’s Minister. This was in 2003. She had asked Haleh to Chair the group. The group expanded to over 20 women by 2005, which is when I joined it. By 2007/08, several of us broke the group away from government and set MWNUK up as independent organisation. Haleh was one of the founding members who spearheaded this transition. She also put her faith in me to try and run it and develop it further. Around the same time Haleh had been elevated to the House of Lords and decided to take a step back, but became MWNUK’s Honorary President. I hope I have done her proud with what I have achieved with it - a renowned national award-winning charity that operates a helpline, counselling service, conducts research, runs training workshops, campaigns and continues with the advocacy work.
Haleh always seemed to be ahead of the curve. She was a Muslim feminist and was talking about Islamic feminism at a time when many Muslim women in the UK were not. She was a Professor of Politics and Women's Studies at the University of York authoring several books writing about women’s Muslim women’s political, economic, legal and social struggles. This formidable advocate for women’s rights will not be forgotten. Her inspiration lives on through the work of MWNUK.
“No human being – and certainly no man – has the right to define me and what my understanding of God is.” - Haleh Afshar
Here are a few tributes from other women who knew Haleh:
Adeeba Malik CBE DL (CEO of QED-UK)
“I am saddened to hear about Baroness Haleh Afshar. I first met her in 1998. She was always supportive, kind, down to earth and passionate. Always smiling. She cared about the issues that mattered to her, especially women and in particular Muslim women. She was instrumental in supporting the development of the Muslim Women’s Network. We were fortunate to have her at Yorkshire university, the University of York. So many will miss her.”
Anber Raz (Chair, Imkaan)
“Inna lilahi wa ina ilahi rajioon so saddened to hear of the passing of Baroness Haleh Afshar. She was a friend, a mentor and a role model. She was one of the founders of The Muslim Women's Network, which I had the privilege of supporting when I first moved to London to work for the Women's National Commission. The MWN was set up to raise issues impacting Muslim women to government. That relationship was always difficult to juggle, but Haleh with her beautiful Persian charm and her take no nonsense feminism, would diplomatically and emphatically get her point across. A professor by profession, she was a staunch feminist and anti-racist activist. She smiled from her heart and was always attentive and caring. Forever grateful to have known her. My condolences to her family.”
Dr. Khursheed Wadia, University of Warwick / MWNUK Trustee
“Very sad to know about Haleh’s death. Met her at York Uni in the early 1990s when the Political Studies Association UK had only a handful of women going to their annual conferences and formed the PSA’s Women and Politics Group. She went on to become the first woman of colour Professor of Politics in the UK.”
Dr. Sara Silvestri, City, University of London
“I was also very privileged to meet this inspiring woman : engaged academic, politician, and person of faith. RIP and may we live up to this role model.”
Mandana Hendessi OBE, Gender Specialist
“Baroness Haleh Afshar, a fellow Iranian, and a dear friend, left us. A remarkable woman with tremendous energy and unwavering commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. Rest in power Haleh.”
Laura Zahra McDonald (PhD student 2002-2005)
“Haleh was warm and fierce. She forged us with the fire of her intellect and nurtured us round her table. She gave us tools for life: to fight prepared, stand our ground, be ourselves, and make it fun. I’ll miss you always Haleh.”
Faeeza Vaid MBE, MWNUK Trustee
“Haleh was a ground-breaking formidable individual, whose dedication to gender equality paved the way for numerous others. I appreciated her kindness and encouragement. She will be missed.”
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