Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in our society. They are three times more likely than other British women to be unemployed or looking for work and twice as likely to be economically inactive. Those who have the same educational qualifications and skills as white Christian women are 71% more likely to be unemployed. These bleak findings appear in an MPs report published this Thursday. This is bad news for Muslims, feminists, anti-racists and for the nation. Britain cannot be highly productive, functional, inventive, internationally competitive or properly meritocratic while so much human potential remains dormant or suppressed. Muslim families and communities with unemployed females cannot be hoisted out of privation and hopelessness. So why is this happening? Why now?
British Muslim women have come a long way since the eighties. Many have then been dragged or tossed back from where they might have been. Forty five percent more of them are in work than were in 2011. That is a remarkable figure. In 1894 a seminal Government study, Black and White Britain, was published by the Policy Studies Institute. The author, Colin Brown, is now my husband. He found that though vastly fewer Asian females than black or white females were in the workforce, among those in employment only 18% were Muslim. Today he has a senior job in financial regulation and his boss is a young, smart Muslim woman. Eight Muslim women are in parliament, several are Peers. More British Muslim women are getting degrees than Muslim men. (Until 1990, such women never got into higher education). I am a part time professor at Middlesex University where many of my students are feisty young Muslim women. One of them, Saira ( not her real name), told me recently: ‘ My mother can’t read or write. They got her married at 12, when she was a child. But she pushed me and my five sisters, stopped my father arranging our marriages. She is like a lioness. He used to hit her’. Sharmin was a young, incredibly bright, Bangladeshi mum in Bethnal Green. I used to teach her English. After her husband left her and married a younger wife. She enrolled at a further education college. She is now a social worker.
Some Muslim leaders have been calling for these transformative developments for a very long time. Back in 1924, our worldwide imam, the Aga Khan, instructed his believers to educate daughters because they would then go on to raise educated children and, in time, prepare congregations for a future they could not even imagine. As a child in the sixties, I remember the first time I saw women doctors in our mosque surgery in Kampala, Uganda and teachers clip-clopping in high heels in our schools. Aid agencies today focus on female education and aspirations for the same reasons given by our imam. Some British working class Muslim families finally got that message and did defy cultural norms to educate their daughters. According to this report, ‘ the impact of Islamaphobia cannot be underestimated’ and there is now a ‘chill factor’ which stops them applying for jobs and promotion. What a blow that must be. All that faith, all that money invested in what turned out to be a false promise, a chimera.
Just when things were getting better, they got worse. Attitudes towards migrants, minorities and refugees have noticeably hardened since Ukip and other hard right wing politicians, moved from the fringes to the heart of British politics. Islamicist terrorist cells are undeniably operating here and some have support from British born Muslims. Muslim self segregation is also an evident and serious issue. So too Pakistani grooming gangs in many small towns whose heinous activities were kept hidden for too long. These behaviours play into the narratives of racists and have also turned fair minded people against Islam and Muslims. The most ‘integrated’ of us are insulted, abused or attacked. You can’t fly, walk, talk, use public transport or use public spaces without fear of being seen as a terrorist. Since the late 1960s when the race relations laws were passed, most native Brits accepted the difference between private prejudices and civic or illegal behaviour. Not anymore.
There is another terrible injustice silently endured by Muslim females. Misogynistic Wahabi values are now embedded across the UK. Malignant literature, well produced and written in English, is found in many of our mosques. The books insist women are congenitally deficient and must be beaten and controlled. Farhat Hashmi, who got her PhD from Glasgow university, is one of the most influential internet female proselytisers ever. She orders middle class women to stay at home and give in men’s demands. They obey.
The report does recognise that discrimination and internal oppression both keep Muslim women in their airless, hopeless places. Governments can tackle the first, but who would dare challenge the second in a liberal society?
Edited version published in The Guardian, August 2016