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REVEALED: Prevent women's network collapsed over complaints of 'bullying and intimidation'

Former members of a Home Office-backed Muslim's women's network say ministers and officials including Theresa May ignored safeguarding concerns
Then-Home Secretary Theresa May visits a mosque in 2015. She said: "Project Shanaz can empower women working in Prevent" (Home Office)
By Simon Hooper in London

A Muslim women's network backed by the Home Office as part of the Prevent strategy collapsed amid complaints from former members of “a culture of bullying, harassment and intimidation,” Middle East Eye has learnt.

The Home Office has declined to look into complaints within the Shanaz Network, claiming it was “an external and independent organisation”, even though it was launched in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, and officials from the Home Office's Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) were involved with the project from the start.

The complaints centre around a former secretary of the network, Sofia Mahmood. Several women in the network complained of “threats” and “bullying” and accused the executive leadership of sending messages that were “unprofessional and autocratic”.

Mahmood denies the claims and says they are unfounded.

Sajda Mughal, the director of the JAN Trust, a London-based charity working with marginalised and socially excluded women, told MEE she had written to Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Security Minister Ben Wallace last November to tell them that Mahmood's continued involvement in Prevent work raised “serious safeguarding concerns”.

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'These allegations made by some of the most engaged counter-extremism experts in the country clearly need to be investigated'

- Nazir Afzal

Shanaz had collapsed because of “a culture of bullying, harassment and intimidation being enforced by Mahmood,” she wrote.

In a reply, Wallace wrote: "In regard to the JAN Trust's concerns on other Prevent funded civil society organisations, we do not comment on other organisations to third parties."

Mughal was awarded the Order of the British Empire medal for her “services and work towards community cohesion and interfaith dialogue”, and is also an advisor on countering violent extremism to London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

She said she had worked closely with Prevent until last year when the Home Office abruptly cut its funding for JAN Trust projects, including a web safety training programme for women, in part, she believes, because of criticism she says she voiced to officials about the way in which it was being run.

She dismissed the Home Office's description of Shanaz as an independent organisation.

“From what the Home Office has said, the implication is they had no involvement with the Shanaz Network and this is not true. A member of the Prevent/RICU team was involved in the Shanaz Network, they attended meetings and also directly received complaint emails but nothing was done," said Mughal.

“It is absurd that they won’t investigate this matter considering the numerous first hand complaints from various women who suffered. Has any due diligence been carried out on this provider?”

'External and independent'

A government spokesperson told Middle East Eye that the Home Office had not looked into complaints against Mahmood, who it now funds to deliver a web safety training programme for mothers on the dangers of online radicalisation and grooming.

“The Home Office did not set up or fund the Shanaz Network, which was an external and independent organisation. Therefore it would be inappropriate for the Home Office to investigate or comment on internal disputes within the Shanaz Network,” the spokesperson said.

But several former members of the network told MEE that officials from RICU were closely involved with the project from the start.

They also said that Home Office officials and senior police officers working within Prevent were aware of the problems within Shanaz and bore responsibility for its mismanagement and eventual collapse.

“They were aware. They knew what the problems were, and they were involved,” said Khatija Barday-Wood, who was originally elected as the chair of Shanaz but quit after just six months in the post because of what she described as bullying behaviour on the part of Mahmood and another elected officer.

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Barday-Wood is the founder of EIMAN, a Muslim women’s organisation, a regular attendee at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women in New York, and a former Conservative party councillor.

She said she had complained to senior officials involved in the network within both RICU and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Prevent Delivery Unit, which had also been involved in setting up Shanaz.

Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor for northwest England, a patron of the JAN Trust and a longstanding advocate of the Prevent strategy, told MEE that the Home Office had a responsibility to investigate the allegations.

“These allegations made by some of the most engaged counter-extremism experts in the country clearly need to be investigated,” said Afzal.

“It’s a matter of public record that the Home Office were key to the set up of this organisation. They cannot now wash their hands of responsibility for how it developed.”

Nilofer Mohammed, a former treasurer of Shanaz, told MEE she had quit the network because of what she described as “a lack of transparency and a bullying culture with threats of legal action being thrown at members”.

“In the end, it all got so much for me that I fell ill and resigned,” said Mohammed.

'Unprofessional and autocratic'

MEE has also seen a flurry of emails circulated among members in late 2014 as the network started to unravel in which several women complained of “threats” and “bullying” and accused the executive leadership of sending messages that were “unprofessional and autocratic”.

Rani Bilkhu, the founder of women’s charity Jeena International, told MEE she had contacted Theresa May after she said she had been expelled from the network for questioning the way in which it was being run.

“The whole way it was done was not good, it was not professional. We were strong independent women unable to do what we wanted. We were never allowed to have any autonomy,” she said.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

Shanaz was launched in 2012 with the goal of “bringing female voices into every level of decision-making in Prevent strategy, policy and delivery,” according to a dormant website for the now–defunct network.

Its members included officials and volunteers from women's civil society organisations and charities, representatives from Muslim community groups, local authority and police Prevent workers and other public employees working in ethnic minority communities.

“Project Shanaz can empower women working in Prevent and it can help to spread good practice,” Theresa May said in a video message recorded for an event to launch the network in March 2012.

“All of you are working day in and day out to make your communities better places and to make our country safer. I believe that Project Shanaz can help you do that even more effectively.”

But former members told MEE that Shanaz collapsed in 2014 because of concerns about its transparency and complaints of bullying and mismanagement.

They said that many members had lost patience in October 2014 after Mahmood and another member of the executive committee met with May at the Home Office without telling other members of the network about the meeting or sharing minutes of what was discussed.

A few days after the meeting, Mahmood wrote to members giving them seven days to confirm that they wanted to remain involved and continue “working closely with the network and government”.

Members also called for an annual general meeting and a vote of no confidence in the network's leadership to be held. Neither the meeting nor the vote ever took place and the network fell apart, former members said.

Barday-Wood told MEE that Shanaz had been badly let down by the Home Office.

'The concept was wonderful'

RICU and Prevent officials had been involved in setting up the organisation and had attended the network's meetings and been copied into all its communications, she said. But they had also failed to deliver on promised funding and support to get it up and running.

“The concept was wonderful. There was a room full of experienced and willing people,” said Barday-Wood.

“I asked for seed money. I said, ‘Can you please ensure there is a pot of money, for training, for infrastructure. We have to become independent.’”

But the money never materialised. Members were instead left paying their own expenses to attend meetings, while the only material support provided by the Home Office was a half-day web training session, she said.

“It was a tick-box exercise for the government,” said Barday-Wood. “They did not want it to be perceived that they were not engaging with women of a certain faith.”

In emails seen by MEE dating from October 2013, a police officer in the ACPO Prevent Unit said he had been asked to support the Shanaz executive through a “period of transition” following Barday-Wood's resignation as chair.

He acknowledged that this had involved “some difficult discussions in connection with conflicting opinions as to the direction of Shanaz within the executive”.

He also said it was important to “maintain bridges and dialogue between Shanaz and the OSCT", referring to the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism which has responsibility for Prevent and RICU within the Home Office.

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The OSCT was keen to support Shanaz by arranging and paying for a national meeting to help the network redefine its objectives and way forward, the police officer wrote. ACPO had also offered to organise a series of “Prevent master classes” for network members, he said.

But he added that intense pressures on budgets and a “backdrop of unprecedented financial constraints” meant that several Prevent projects had been put on hold, including proposed developments to the Shanaz website.

Bilkhu told MEE that she was one of just three non-Muslim women involved in Shanaz, despite a government review of Prevent in 2011 which resulted in the strategy's remit being extended to cover all forms of extremism.

“The Home Office brought all these women together but there was no money being put in, no terms of reference. Nobody knew what was going on. I do think the Home Office has a lot to answer for,” she said.

Allegations 'unfounded'

When contacted by MEE, Sofia Mahmood said that the allegations against her made by other members of the network were “unfounded”.

Mahmood currently runs a consultancy company, Empowering Minds, which in the past two years has received £29,920 in Home Office-allocated Prevent funding to run the “Mothers Against Radicalisation” project in Bradford in northern England.

Mothers Against Radicalisation has also been featured on BBC television and radio, and in the Times newspaper and other publications, as part of efforts by Bradford council to “improve communications around Prevent so that more people are aware of the positive work being done”.

On Wednesday the programme was profiled by Channel 4 News, which described it as part of a “Prevent campaign to combat white far-right extremism” and said it was “aimed at a group of mothers from predominantly white areas of Bradford”.

'These unsubstantiated claims of bullying make no sense'

- Sofia Mahmood, Empowering Minds

In August 2017, Mahmood met then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the Home Office to discuss the project.

“Empowering Minds, and the Mothers Against Radicalisation programme, is a success because of the quality of our work evidenced by the powerful testimonials of the women we have helped. That’s why these unsubstantiated claims of bullying make no sense,” she said.

“The Mothers Against Radicalisation programme is designed to create a safe space for open and honest discussions about perceptions and experiences. My team and I do this every day with pride, compassion and the safeguarding of the women and communities we serve is our top priority.

“I have a network of close colleagues around me; we support one another to achieve this aim with understanding and respect of not only the mothers involved, but also of each other.”

A spokesperson for Bradford Metropolitan District Council said: “No concerns have been raised about Sofia Mahmood. There has been only good feedback from participants of the Bradford programme.”

A former employer also told MEE that he had not had any concerns about Mahmood's work in her 10 years as a youth worker at the Bradford Youth Development Partnership (BYDP).

“We have had no issues with Sofia. She is a very capable and hard working worker who always speaks her mind. They were probably jealous of her ability to tell the truth,” said Peter Tate, the chair of BYDP.

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