This week I’ve been told that women like myself are submissive, oppressed creatures who need rescuing by white, male politicians.
But at the same time, I’ve been told that women like myself frighten white, male politicians and that we are a threat to social cohesion in this country. Frankly I’m getting fed up with other people’s obsessions being projected on people like me.
If the government wants to tackle barriers to integration, how about tackling some of the real obstacles that we encounter? And, in this country, the widespread imposition of Islamic dress is not one of them – by any stretch of the imagination. In fact post 9/11, the most prevalent pressure on Muslim women is to NOT wear Islamic dress, out of fear for their personal safety.
That’s not to say that cultural and patriarchal pressures do not exist in the Muslim community. They do – and many of us are actively engaged in challenging them. I defend the right of women to choose, for themselves, to wear the niqab or hijab. But I equally defend the right of women to choose not to wear particular forms of dress, whether it’s in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran or Britain.
As a Respect councillor in Birmingham, a significant proportion of constituents visiting my surgeries are Muslim women. But the majority of issues I have to deal with don’t concern family or cultural conflicts – they are about a lack of affordable housing, a lack of school places, a lack of healthcare and a lack of real equality.
A recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that girls of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, 90 percent of whom are Muslim, are making remarkable progress at school. Despite lower family incomes, they have overtaken white boys in their GCSE performance, and are rapidly catching up with white girls.
The report goes on to say, however, that when it comes to getting jobs, they are faced with a brick wall of discrimination. And remember, only 1 to 5 percent of these women will be wearing the niqab.
But instead of addressing this wider problem of discrimination, Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, now backs universities that want to ban the niqab. Women who have chosen to wear a veil, and who value education and the greater independence and freedom that education brings, now have a new dilemma – remove your veil or get back in the home. How does this help women, for whom access to education is the key to empowerment and independence?
Unfortunately the consequences of government underinvestment in public housing, or of discrimination in education, don’t excite the headline writers in the same way as New Labour’s liberating crusade for Muslim women does.
But of course, this whole debate about Muslim integration is just a smokescreen – a smokescreen to divert attention from the government’s failure over the “war on terror”.
We are told by the government that there is no link between foreign policy and the growth of Islamic extremism, because such extremism existed before the 9/11 attacks. This wilful amnesia is breathtaking – the threat of Islamic extremism existed pre-9/11 because brutal Western intervention in the Muslim world existed pre-9/11. And the threat of Islamic terrorism has increased post-9/11 because our foreign policy has had even more brutal consequences in the Middle East post-9/11.
In Britain there has been a growth in Muslim radicalisation – not towards Al Qaida’s politics, but on the streets in the anti-war movement and at the ballot box in voting for anti-war candidates. That’s the predominant mood of Muslim radicalism in this country, and it’s one we welcome and wish to deepen.
The anti-war movement has done more for Muslim integration in this country than any number of government citizenship classes. We’ve won the argument against the war by standing shoulder to shoulder. We now have to win the arguments against racism and Islamophobia. If we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder, I am confident that we can win this battle too.
Salma Yaqoob is vice chair of Respect and a councillor in Birmingham. This is an edited extract of her speech at last Saturday’s Respect rally on Islamophobia. For videos go to www.respectcoalition.org
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