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David Cameron should celebrate Muslim women, not strip them of their identity

The wrong message. Reuters

By announcing that £20m will be spent to “teach thousands of Muslim women to speak English”, David Cameron’s portrayal of them as linguistically deficient, culturally suppressed and visibly alien is reminiscent of a long line of colonial repression.

The prime minister is playing the “white male saviour”, seeking to rescue this meek and downtrodden Muslim woman from barbaric and backward Muslim males, by giving her the freedom of the English language, the power of speech and by unveiling her to the world.

It is powerful men like Cameron who are the real cultural oppressors, who can dictate political and media agendas to humiliate and disempower British Muslim women, turning wider society against them.

As a consequence, British Muslim women will continue to face already sky-high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim abuse and attacks.

The prime minister’s plans for language lessons have been greeted with sighs and scepticism, particularly in light of extensive cuts in adult education and English language classes.

Although the money is welcomed by adult education professionals, why has there been a specific focus on Muslim women? This money would be better distributed for the good of all those adults who are seeking to develop their literacy, numeracy and employability skills.

It is laughable that Cameron claims the purpose of the new funding is to tackle segregation and extremism, while at the same time admitting there are no links between a person’s level of English and extremism. Muslims responding to these outrageous declarations by their prime minister are quite rightly angry at the continuous demonisation of Islam, and scapegoating of Muslims.

Marginalising Muslims through political, policy and media practices and rhetoric is responsible for making British Muslims – who call Britain their home – feel like they don’t belong to Britain. Disturbingly, even when ethnic minorities self-identify with Britishness or British values, they may find themselves excluded.

Viewed through an ‘alien’ lens

Rather than celebrate diversity and difference, the government’s current disproportionate focus on Muslims is repetitive and tiresome. Cameron is guilty of an age-old Orientalism, the word used by cultural theorist Edward Said to describe a patronising attitude in the West to the culture and beliefs of the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.

Orientalism on display in The Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix in 1834. The Louvre Paris; Wikimedia

The government’s rhetoric has worked to strip Muslims of their agency, identity, religious and cultural attachments. Political debates on integration have a “punitive streak” with the onus on migrants to actively demonstrate their assimilation to a nebulous idea of “British Values”.

Yet, racist values are the real problem. For instead of recognising that institutional racism pervades social structures such as the police and the NHS, we have come to define the Muslim community as strange and alien through the lens of the “war on terror”.

Politicians perpetuate incorrect and problematic assumptions about integration, for multiculturalism is not dangerous, and does not lead to terrorism. Yet the “failure” of multicultural policies in creating social cohesion is often cited in relation to Muslim communities as a big societal problem.

Meanwhile, perceptions and experiences of other minority groups and of the white majority are rarely investigated. Ethnic minority communities have long had strong affiliations to British identity. Muslims of all ethnicities identify strongly with Britishness: according to one study they are “stronger in fact than the white majority”.

Let Muslim women speak

I am a British Muslim woman who has taught the English language to students from diverse ethnic backgrounds in the multicultural cities of Manchester and London. I call Britain home, but I feel like my identity and belonging are frequently called into question by pernicious political and media narratives. I have some recommendations for how the government could do things differently.

It is important that politicians allow Muslim women to speak for themselves, in whichever language in their repertoire they choose to use.

They should ask them about their realities of belonging to Britain, about their dreams, hopes and ambitions; about how austerity is impacting upon them personally, as well as on the students they teach or the patients they treat, about their vision for a cohesive and progressive society and so on. Rather than claim to speaking for the Muslim woman, how about we let them speak for themselves?

If the government is committed to promoting social equalities and social justices, then how about the prime minister makes concerted efforts to steer away from stereotypical Orientalist depictions of submissive Muslim female and threatening men?

Instead of targeting the Muslim women as alien, and so playing into the hands of Islamophobic ideologies, Cameron should celebrate the wealth of female Muslim politicians, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, teachers, academics and all the very many other integrated achievers.

Rather than threatening to deport our Muslim mothers, Cameron should applaud their resilience, ambitions and everyday successes. Instead of speaking for the Muslim woman, he could do well to read their articles and hear their views on the issues that affect integration and cohesion.

Rather than stating unverified statistics about Muslim women and the English language, Cameron should read and cite authoritative empirical evidence regarding extremism and radicalisation, and ensure he is not guilty of distorting realities.

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