If like me you’re female, Muslim and from an ethnic minority background, it sometimes feels like a one-way ticket into economic and social purgatory.
Despite the fact that more British Muslim women than men are getting degrees, we are the most disenfranchised group in the country. Not only are we subject to high levels of unemployment and poverty, but discrimination on the basis of our faith, gender and ethnic background hinders our entry into the labour market.
However, according to the findings of Louise Casey’s review of integration and opportunity released yesterday, it’s not discrimination that is holding us back. British Muslim women have apparently failed to grasp that integration is the missing “key to success”.
If only it were that simple. The triple whammy that Muslim women face is what really makes for stagnant social mobility. Casey’s report suggests that the UK needs a major new strategy focused on promoting the English language and British values and social mixing among young people. While language proficiency can be a barrier to integration, being a first-generation immigrant with limited proficiency in English doesn’t necessarily mean your children won’t become engaged members of the community. My grandmother, a first-generation British-Pakistani woman who cannot speak a word of English, raised my mother and eight other daughters, all of whom speak fluent English – and Pashto, to boot.
Talk of “women’s emancipation in communities where they are being held back by regressive cultural practices” is merely a synonym for “Muslim women need saving”. Yes, patriarchy is indeed a problem within the Muslim community, but it is by no means exceptional. On the one hand, Muslim women are required to do more to integrate, and on the other we’re paragons of victimhood. Which is it?
The fact we are even discussing “integration”, as if the Muslim community were an oddly assembled jigsaw puzzle incongruous with wider society, is troubling. The mono-ethnic wards the report refers to, in Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities in Bradford, have been highlighted as barriers to integration. But what exactly is the solution? A “brown flight” is hardly possible when people are struggling to pay their council tax, let alone move out of the area. I have lived in Bradford for eight years, although I had the benefit of spending most of my life in the kingdom of cosmopolitanism that is London. Just because I won’t leave the predominantly Muslim, Pakistani ward that I live in now doesn’t make me averse to integration. I simply don’t have the financial means to do it.
Graduating from university last year, I thought, naively perhaps, that my degree would ease my passage into the labour market. But instead of a gold-paved road to my first job, I found myself hurtling down the rabbit hole of unemployment. And I’m not alone. I’ve watched many friends, Pakistani Muslim women like me, get sucked into a void of hopelessness as they try to crack the job market. They lose confidence, not because of the shackles of their faith and their unwillingness to integrate, but because of the economic struggles, discrimination and gradual erosion of self-worth they have experienced.
Bradford is a city that has been battered by austerity cuts. Bradford West, where I live, is the joint fourth poorest constituency in the country. At least once a month, I make a four-and-a-half-hour commute to the economic promised land of London to build my experience through unpaid internships in the hope of eventually finding work. Two years of commuting between the two is exhausting. The voluntary positions, occasional freelance work and below-minimum-wage positions were amounting to nothing. The lack of job opportunities and constant rejections have finally prompted me to pack up and join an exodus of graduates relocating to London.
There’s also an assumption that in a city such as Bradford, with its large south Asian, Muslim demographic, Islamophobia isn’t felt there. But it is. The 326% spike in Islamophobic attacks in 2015, over half of which were directed towards visibly Muslim women, and the glare of the media spotlight after two families from Bradford left to join Islamic State, means fear is once again as tangible for British Muslims – wherever in the country they live – as it was following 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings. The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox only a few miles away is a manifestation of this fear of the “other”.
There is a great emphasis in the report on attaching “more weight to British values, laws and history in our schools”. But what exactly are “British values”? Fish and chips? The monarchy? A quintessentially British cup of tea?
Through mentoring work I do with primary school children in Bradford, I do see hope for the future. I see charismatic, intuitive young girls who are raring to take over the world, even if some need a little nudge. But the dreams and ambitions of many of Bradford’s young women eventually ebb away once they realise the ladder of social mobility is out of reach for them. Instead of framing the discussion around integration, real and tangible efforts need to be made to actually help Muslim women.
The fact that we even have to talk about our Muslim identities, our anxieties surrounding issues of poverty and employment in an attempt to humanise our struggle and reassure people we are “good Muslims”, not “Isis Muslims”, is demoralising. Economic and class struggles affect Muslims just as they affect anyone else, and divisive talk that centres on integration only undermines the struggles of British Muslim women from ethnic minority backgrounds and whitewashes the policies that hold them down.
The glass ceiling has many layers for British Muslim women. If we refuse to march to the drumbeat of victimhood, we will have to work twice as hard as our white counterparts to secure a job, and it’s not just because of the lack of opportunities. It’s also because of discrimination and the persistent idea that we live “parallel lives” in a parallel dimension yet to be discovered by Stephen Hawking. This is particularly true for visibly Muslim women like me who wear the hijab. The media’s fetishisation of the piece of cloth wrapped around my head means my sartorial choices are up for public discussion, whether I want that to be the case or not.
If the government really wants to help British Muslim women, it needs to take discrimination seriously: create job opportunities across the country; invest in stagnating cities such as Bradford with so many talented women resigned to mediocre jobs for which they are overqualified, or no jobs at all. Create platforms from which Muslim women can ascend the ladder of social mobility.
Once that’s done, then we can talk about integration – but I bet we won’t need to.
Aina Khan is a freelance journalist who previously worked as a presenter for British Muslim TV and helped to programme the Women of the World Festival in Bradford.
This article first appeared in the Guardian (Photograph: David Levenson / Alamy/Alamy)