David Cameron's attacks on Muslim women come within the context of rising Islamophobia across the world, writes Lindsey German
The screech of dog whistles accompanied David Cameron’s latest pronouncements about Muslim women and the need to learn English. Perhaps it’s not an accident that Cameron decided to launch his latest attack on the Muslim community at a time when Islamophobia is growing across Europe. The issue of Muslim men’s attitudes to women has become particularly sensitive and acute following the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
So Cameron’s linking of the lack of English speaking among some Muslim women with Islamic extremism, with sexist attitudes among a minority of Muslim men and with a failure to ‘integrate’ into wider British society has its own agenda.
It again uses a brand of human rights feminism to attempt to assert that Muslim women are subject to a particularly virulent patriarchal oppression, which leads to them being passive and docile, prey to, among other things, endorsing or ignoring extreme radicalisation within their own families. The effect of this supposed concern on the part of Cameron is in fact to continue a level of discrimination against Muslim women, marking them out as somehow ‘different’ from other women within British society.
There is nothing feminist about singling out Muslim women for a ‘must try harder’ lecture from Tories who have cut funding for teaching English to speakers of other languages, and who have presided over the introduction of the Prevent agenda into all areas of public life. This is an agenda which is aimed explicitly at the Muslim community and which is bitterly resented as an intrusion into the lives of adults and children alike.
Time and again, lack of integration into society – whatever that is meant to mean -has been shown to be less about sections of the Muslim community deliberately keeping itself isolated, but rather about a systematic exclusion by wider society. It’s known as racism yet its effects seem to have passed David Cameron by. If he cared to acquaint himself with reality, he would find that there are serious concerns about levels of unemployment among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women (the vast majority of them Muslim).
But not speaking the language, or not speaking it well enough, are very low down the list of causes of such unemployment. According to a report from parliament, much more central are questions of racism and discrimination. These include women who wear hijabs having much less success at interviews than those who did not wear them; those with ‘foreign sounding’ names being less likely to be recruited than those with ‘British’ names; and black and Asian women being discriminated against because they were expected to have large families.
If the government is looking at ways to encourage women from ethnic minorities to play more of a role in civil society and public life, then perhaps it should target this institutional racism, as well as the growing public abuse and discrimination which seems to be targeted at women in Muslim dress.
There should be every encouragement for people to learn English if it is not their first language, but this should not be accompanied by hints of future deportation or other sanctions if they do not comply. There should be properly funded free tuition, childcare facilities, women only lessons if required in locations within ethnic minority communities.
Let’s remember a few points however: the vast majority of Muslim women and men speak good English, as well as often several other languages. The majority of Muslims are born here, are educated here, play sports, take part in social activities here – in other words are fully ‘integrated’ members of British society.
While it is true that women in some families will face particular oppression from controlling husbands and fathers, British society as a whole has an appalling record on issues from rape and domestic violence (two women a week killed as a result of this), to unequal pay, where women still lag behind the pay rates of men. If we care about women’s equality, this should be for all women. There is no connection between support for ISIS and coming from families where women do not speak English. Indeed, a number of British recruits to ISIS appear to have been highly educated and articulate. So whatever the reason for their political development, it can’t be blamed on their mothers.
The true motive of Cameron’s agenda is much more sinister. If the motive were simply getting more people who come to live here to speak English, why pick on Muslims? Surely this should be something applied to all immigrants? Why pick on women? Maybe we should expect it to be a precondition for those British migrants who go to live in Spain or France, often with little or no knowledge of the language?
And why perpetrate the myth that all Muslim women are timid and reclusive people, kept within the home by a patriarchal system and therefore ill-equipped to deal with their own children’s political development? It is impossible that Cameron is ignorant about the large number of Muslim women involved in politics, in campaigning, in higher education, in all sorts of jobs. Many of them have feminist ideas, and no intention of being submissive and passive.
At the same time, they reject a society which has a high level of racism at its centre, which has waged wars against successive Muslim majority countries, which has failed to seriously engage with developing genuine equality. These policies have done much to fuel a virulent Islamophobia, especially since the start of the ‘war on terror’ 15 years ago.
Cameron’s concern is not with dealing with these issues, but with fanning the flames of that Islamophobia which is burning through Europe and the US. As with previous waves of racism, it will persecute its victims while doing nothing to improve their situation.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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