From pioneering the first study of its kind which uncovered the experiences of female Muslim offenders in the UK to campaigning on prison reform, community development worker Sofia Buncy has spent her career assisting the rehabilitation of ex-prison inmates into society. She is now taking the cultural stigmas faced by these women to the big screen by tackling issues such as family-based shame and honour. Here she describes how she is using film to tackle taboo topics and draw attention to the hidden stories of Muslim women in prison.

Co-founder and the national coordinator of The Muslim Women in Prison Project, Sofia Buncy, tackles taboos surrounding female offending in the Muslim community and British society at large, in her highly anticipated upcoming documentary ‘Sisters In Desistance’.

Sofia felt narratives like this were not being explored enough at a grass-roots level or policy level, thus contributing to a lack of understanding and resources for ex-Muslim offenders which encouraged her document it through film.

It is estimated that the number of Muslim women in custody, as part of the total of female offenders in the UK, has risen from 5.2% to 6.3% since March 2014, according to the Prison Reform Trust.

She said: “In a lot of ways, the issue of criminality is not really a sympathetic subject, nobody has much time or sympathy for it, but when you add the word Muslim, South Asian or BAME to it there’s even more negative triggers around it.

“This has never been done before, there isn’t a film that documents the experiences of Muslim women in prison and the impact it has on their families.”

Sofia, who has dedicated her whole career to helping marginalised/stigmatised groups who have been ostracised by their communities after entering the criminal justice system, became aware of the fears, anxieties and feelings of isolation experienced by these women during incarceration and post-release through her extensive work on The Muslim Women in Prison Project.

This scheme, which is based out of the Braford charity organisation Khidmat Centres offers post-prison resettlement support in areas such as housing, accessing benefits, volunteering opportunities for serving prisoners in ‘open prisons’ as well as those that have been released, education and employment.

Currently the programme is in touch with a total 55 women both within prison and post release. In 2018, the scheme aided 18 women to move into employment and education as part of their efforts to reconstruct their lives back into society away from a life of coerced criminality.

It is narratives like this which Sofia, along with her co-producer Ishtiaq Ahmed, wanted to break the silence on as they travelled across the UK to capture and empower women to tell their own stories.

The 25-minute documentary, which is funded by Better Community Business Network (BCBN) and supported by Penny Appeal, delves into the raw and unfiltered stories of ex-inmates who have battled with mental health, self-harm and life after incarceration.

“For us we knew we were breaking new ground because we were asking women to speak about something they’ve been fearful about reflecting on, and so that brought up a lot of intense emotions.

“There’s a lot of empowering stories on there and a lot of healing stories on there, there’s lot of women who are still revaluating life,” Sofia says.

In particular, it follows the story of a former female offender who now works for probation services in a community resettlement company.

“She was empowered enough to come back and say, ‘look I want to make a difference and I want to work with people who are in the same position I was a year ago’,” Sofia says.

Alongside the women’s stories, the documentary also draws influence from the family of offenders. For example, the son of a woman who was incarcerated speaks about maternal loss and how this impacted him growing up in a single parent household. He explores the part of his childhood where he felt as if he needed to project a macho front because of the stigma surrounding his mother’s imprisonment, yet at the same time he felt like he was missing out on teenage experiences.

Sofia said: “We thought if we as community development workers can’t amplify these voices and put together narratives and allow these voices to seep through on to the public agenda, then really what are we doing here?

“This wasn’t something we were paid to do, we came together to produce this documentary because we were so passionate about achieving prison reform, and as community development workers we were really concerned about the impact limited resources have on these Muslim women and their families.”

In 2014 Sofia co-authored a study which was the first ever of its kind, Muslim Women in Prison (Second Chance Fresh Horizons), at HMP New Hall in Wakefield and Askham Grange in North Yorkshire after concerns were raised by governors that female Muslim offenders were not accessing services and were not being visited regularly by relatives.

This report was the first of its kind to focus on the experience of this specific group of women, and documented the vast experiences of 17 female inmates from Muslim backgrounds, ranging from 20-63-years-old.

The findings concluded that little attention is paid to the challenges of rehabilitation faced by these women, as there appears to be “no structured support for Muslim women ex-prisoners within support agencies” to guide them through the stigma from their own communities, Islamic divorce, inheritance, access to children, legal matters and immigration status.

An ex-prisoner quoted in the study said: “They [prison officials] don’t get that when I’m released their duty stops at the gate, but I get another sentence from the community and that lasts forever.”

Sofia and her co-producers Ishtiaq and Ray Douglas from Gangolgy hope that visually depicting these stories, along with the findings of The Muslim Women in Prison Project, will go a long way in raising awareness about the experiences of incarcerated Muslim women, the impact it has on family relationships and educating the Muslim community about the societal challenges these women face post-release.

They also hope it will provide policy makers with greater insight into the Muslim community, as well as an understanding of the structural support needed by these women in order to successfully rehabilitate into society.

Sofia said: “We want to make a big change, not just at a grass roots level but also at policy level to encourage those in charge to be more inclusive of Muslim women.”

Exclusive screenings of ‘Sisters In Desistance’ are set to be held in Bradford, Leicester and London throughout June and July. For up to date details of upcoming showings and ticket releases follow Sofia Buncy on Twitter.

Read more: Caught In The Crossfire: How Iranian Born Filmmaker Gelareh Kiazand Navigated Life In Afghanistan