Another century, another witch-hunt: this time it’s poor Muslim women

Women praying in Birmingham to celebrate Eid al-Adha. Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Poor, uneducated, housebound women appear to be almost wholly responsible for the lack of integration of some Muslim communities in Britain.

At least, that seems to be the finding of a new report on social cohesion, carried out by Dame Louise Casey. She says that Muslim immigrant women who come to the UK by marrying British Muslim men tend not to speak English and are victims of their husbands’ and other Muslim men’s patriarchal, misogynist and abusive practices.

But it is confusing to blame these women for segregation, and to put their experience of domestic violence at the centre of this debate. As the legal scholar Sonya Fernandez has noted, anti-Muslim discourse reinforces a stereotype about Muslims that ignores the “concrete reality of the two (non-Muslim) women killed every week by their partners or ex partners in the United Kingdom.” The vast majority of all domestic violence cases in the UK involve white men hurting and killing their white partners and children.

Casey suggests that the reason we don’t talk more about Muslim domestic violence is because we are afraid of being labelled racist. But I would argue that the reason we don’t discuss it is because it is such a small percentage of the everyday cases of domestic abuse. People in Britain tend to ignore it, just as they ignore the plight of Muslim women in general.

In a companion article to the report for The Guardian, Casey suggests that this reluctance is dangerous:

Too often leaders and institutions have ducked these difficult issues. Not because they thought white women were more worthy of help, but for fear of being labelled racist or insensitive. You only have to look at Rotherham for that.

By Rotherham, she is referring to her 2015 report into the horrific case of Muslim men abusing young, predominantly white, non-Muslim girls over a decade at least. Some of the police reluctance to intervene earlier was initially explained by “political correctness”, whereby many police feared being labelled racist, Casey concluded.

That excuse was not wholly supported by another independent inquiry that found police failings stemmed from their tendency to disrespect the girls, and therefore not take their complaints seriously. That inquiry’s author, Alexis Jay, wrote that:

At an operational level, the police gave no priority to [child sexual exploitation], regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime.

Still, Casey has focused in her latest report on the practices of a tiny proportion of the population who are subjected to, she says, patriarchal, religiously-based sexist practices. The report suggests that Muslims need to take “an oath of integration” when they come to the UK. But, as my research shows, such an oath could be equally useful for some white English people – who refuse to have Muslims as friends or even as taxi drivers.

A mosque in Gloucester. JT Graphics/flickr, CC BY-SA

Islamophobia as a barrier

Casey states that “rates of integration in some communities may have been undermined by high levels of transnational marriage” – creating what she says is a “first generation in every generation” phenomenon.

The implication is that Muslim women should not only learn English, get out of the house more and get jobs, but more should marry non-Muslim men. But integration is not that simple. As Casey herself states: “Islamophobic hate crime attacks … can be disproportionately targeted at women. This appears to relate to more visible and identifiable forms of cultural dress, such as wearing a hijab, veil, niqab or burkha.” Crikey. No wonder they stay indoors.

Figures released by London’s Metropolitan Police in 2015 showed that Islamophobic attacks were mainly against women, and had increased by 70% from the previous year. Why, then, doesn’t Casey say more about the perpetrators?

What we are seeing in Casey’s report is yet another witch-hunt, like those in earlier centuries that occurred because societies needed someone to blame – and women were easy targets. The ferocity of debates about the veil and niqab are disproportionate to the tiny numbers of women who wear them in the UK and other “Western” countries. It is a symbol to some of religious adherence. As a sociologist of religion, I also understand that to many people it is a symbol of “otherness” and women not behaving as the majority may wish.

When I teach sociology of religion, my first task is to help students see that “religion” can be a catch-all phrase used to gloss over all sorts of issues that may better be described as political, racial or ethnic. Students learn that women in most societies bear the brunt of society’s angst.

And so, to borrow from a Christian value, it is time we removed the planks from our own eyes before trying to remove the specks from another.