Tooba Khokhar, Cambridge
Assalamoalaikum to you, Sir
As a linguist and a lover of the English language (and its rich literary tradition), I applaud your efforts to better language learning amongst Muslim women. When I moved to Britain at the age of 11, I experienced first-hand how language truly is the key to integration. This key allowed me, a girl who had just flown in from the Middle East to quickly form friendships with my British class-mates and opened up a world of literature and poetry without which I would consider myself incomplete.
However, to your article published in The Times a few days ago entitled ‘We Won’t Let Women Be Second-Class Citizens’ as part of this campaign, I take great exception.
It perhaps unwittingly recycles the image of the poor, helpless Muslim woman imprisoned in her home, dejected and downtrodden, praying to be rescued by the egalitarian indigenous people. After all “In Britain, men are not frightened of women’s success; it is celebrated proudly” we are told unlike the “minority” of presumably Muslim men whose “backwards attitudes” mean they “exert a damaging control” over their women and lock them up in their homes.
The first question I would ask you Prime Minister, is how exactly would you define “success”? Would you measure it in pennies and pounds by the income of a woman? Or how extensive her English vocabulary is? Perhaps her engagement in ‘public life’? Lack of education, oppressive husbands and a woman being a stay-at-home mum are linked, the article implies. If only those Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were exposed to freedom of thought and of action- perhaps they might consider trading their mops for a career in mechanical engineering. I think we need to allow women a little more agency here and what’s more support them in their choices: every family is different.
Secondly, you vow to launch a crusade against what you consider to be a few of the ‘evils’ in modern British society: gender segregation, abusive relationships, controlling men and apparently economic inactivity.
On the issue of segregation, you write that it “drives us apart, not together”. However, in certain contexts separation of the sexes can provide a ‘safe space’ for women. This is still very much a man’s world and having a separate space as a means of ‘consciousness-raising’ and talking through our issues on our terms can be empowering for many women. Women’s only groups and institutions can also be a powerful way of working towards redressing gender imbalances in certain areas e.g. academia. Many universities now have ‘women’s forums’ to serve this purpose. Of course I’m not advocating for women to be cut out of governor’s meetings or be banished from all public life- I merely wanted to say that in some contexts, segregation is not quite the evil it is made out to be. The original Islamic teaching is not there to demean women- sometimes however the men applying it incorrectly do just that. My mosque however has always been a safe and secure space for me.
When it comes to abusive or controlling relationships however, again the issue is incredibly complex and nuanced. Even if women know how to speak out be it in English or any other language, it doesn’t mean they will speak out. We need to tackle this issue full on.
And thirdly when it comes to radicalisation: the comment you make is twofold. Firstly: “If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh” (Interview on BBC Radio 4)
I truly believe that if a woman is truly at peace with herself and her faith, Daesh can hold no temptation whatsoever. But this feeling of being an outsider can strike anyone. In my opinion, it’s mainly the youth, those without any real connection to any country other than Britain, to whom becoming an outsider would be the most devastating.
And secondly, to me the most striking part of your article was the story about the “young boy growing up in Bradford” whose “mum can’t speak English and rarely leaves the home, so he finds it hard to communicate with her, and she doesn’t understand what is happening in his life”. Disconnect between mother and child is a complex issue. Is a mother who works full-time, speaks fluent English and is maybe even a governor at the child’s school necessarily better at connecting with the child on an emotional level? Is she better equipped to raise him to become a complete person and loyal citizen? I don’t know but I do think you’re right to stress this point. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community too emphasises the importance of parents knowing English in order to be able to communicate with their children and connect with their world.
However what right has the Government to, as has been proposed, separate a mother from her child on the basis of her failing to pass an English test? Surely you can see how hurtful and unnecessarily cruel this suggestion may seem to mothers and migrants throughout the country- Muslim and non-Muslim alike? It’s for their own good, some in your party may say. Clearly, it will be a great victory for democracy the day Britain is rid of elderly Pakistani women who do nothing but watch Pakistani news channels and knit all day. Truly a menace to society. In earnest, if by this move you mean to protect those women unable to speak out in abusive relationships (an issue you are right to highlight): I ask how will sending them back to their home countries (with their potentially harsh legal codes and harsher social stigmas) help anyone? Or perhaps you think of the youth in such evident danger of radicalisation from their nefarious non-English speaking mothers- surely if the British state takes away their mothers, it might I don’t know foster a little antipathy towards Britain perhaps. Maybe a tiny bit.
Fundamentally, I think the best thing going forward is to discard this “us” vs “them” mentality. Keats spoke of this world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ in which each person could through endeavour shape their identity and discover “a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence”. We need to help all women and all citizens realise this fully and celebrate each individual spark. We should collectively abhor injustice and sexism where they exist: in homes, Sharia councils or on the campus. You say you want “every young boy and girl growing up here to feel proud of our country and properly connected to it”: clearly this matter is close to your heart. I believe it is a goal easily achieved: loyalty to one’s country is an obligation in Islam and Britain in my opinion isn’t a very hard country to love. It is a privilege and delight to be here. Investing in English language teaching is a great step, an even greater one would be to come together to work against all forms of sexism and oppression.