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It’s not just about race and gender – religious stereotypes need tackling too

Blogger Dina Tokio. Instagram

The social injustices experienced by women in the creative industries have been brought to the world’s attention by the high profile #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. While issues of race have also been highlighted in the discussion of labour inequality and exclusion with #OscarsSoWhite, the significance of religion has been missed out of the equation.

This is surprising given the wide recognition of the growing importance of the global Muslim market and increasing visibility of Muslim women leaders in the creative sectors. Blogger Dina Torkia, for instance, was one of seven women selected to appear in Vogue Magazine’s “The New Suffragettes”. The women were picked in recognition of the impact they were making in the “fight to empower women in the battle for equality that rages on”.

It is now estimated that the global Muslim spend on clothing is worth more than 11% of the total global market, with Muslim women spending around US$44 billion a year. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is a significant global player, ranked fifth in the world overall for halal media and recreation. Halal means products and actions that are permissible in traditional Islamic law.

British Muslim women and Islamophobia

What this shows is that young, educated and upwardly mobile British Muslim women in the media and fashion world are using their creative platforms to challenge stereotypes and tackle issues of Islamophobia and sexism in society and the work place.

Runnymede, the UK’s leading independent race equality think-tank, released its 20th-year anniversary report on Islamophobia in November 2017. It is noteworthy that Islamophobia, now widely recognised and reported as a social phenomenon – was only brought to public and policy prominence two decades ago. Runnymede defines Islamophobia as anti-Muslim racism. It involves religious hostility and discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities and their exclusion from any field of public life.

Islamophobia has been illegal in the UK since 2006 when the New Labour government introduced new laws under the Equality Act and Race and Religious Hatred Act. However, reported hate crime against Muslims continues to escalate – and was even reported to have risen by a shocking 500% in one month alone in 2017.

The Muslim employment ‘penalty’

Meanwhile, the Muslim “penalty” in employment and pay is stark. Muslim men and women are more likely than the average to obtain higher education degrees but have below average employment levels, especially at higher managerial levels. Academic research and investigative journalism show systemic discrimination with CVs displaying social markers of difference, such as the names of Mohammed or Aminah.

After submitting real CVs of two candidates who had very similar qualifications, Aminah and Emily, it was found that Aminah would need to submit twice as many applications to obtain a positive callback. Meanwhile, the Social Mobility Commission found evidence of discrimination at the stage of job interviews against those wearing headscarfs in non-Muslim companies. There is also a “chill factor” where minorities are deterred from applying for work in particular sectors, including the media, due to a reputation for hostility.

The fightback

Muslim women working across the British media, fashion, publishing and visual arts are tackling the politics of Muslim identity in the West. The impact of Torkia, award-winning work of filmmaker and producer Deeyah Khan, and the powerful poetry and podcasts of “The Brown Hijabi” (Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan) are only two examples. You could add to this the huge success of the Bradford Literary Festival, founded by Directors Syima Aslam and Irna Qureshi.

The diverse artistic contributions of these women are contributing to the British creative industries and challenging perceptions by speaking out about exclusion. Subjects tackled include being professionally straight-jacketed by the politics of Muslim identity), male criticism around choices of clothing, immodest speech and behaviour and also familial discouragement from gaining paid employment, particularly outside traditional professions.

Some of the highest social and economic exclusion in the UK is experienced by Muslim women. This is accentuated by negative media scrutiny which emphasises otherness, victimhood and subjugation. The contributions of Muslim women to culture and the economy more widely are very rarely highlighted.

More work is needed to understand how to better promote inclusion at all levels in the creative industries. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport called for action to diversify culture and the arts through apprenticeships and promotional pathways in 2016. But at the same time, arts and culture has been de-prioritised in the school curriculum and there are areas of the country where social mobility issues are entrenched due to uneven access.

Research funded by the Arts and Humanities Council is evaluating the roles of British Muslim women in the UK creative economy. Religion and faith are highlighted for the first time as key to understanding the changing contours of the economy and society. It is clear that the voices and work of leading Muslim women are pivotal to driving this changing landscape.

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