A thinly veiled political gesture
Ruth Kelly’s call for more women in hijabs on TV was a shallow attempt to show that the government is listening to ‘Muslim voices’.
Ruth Kelly, Britain’s minister for women and communities, announced last week that she would like to see the promotion of more Muslim women wearing headscarves in the media, to boost their image. The call followed the publication of a government report that found that some Muslim women were finding it hard to get jobs because of stereotypes in the workplace.
It’s true that Muslim women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin tend to experience low employment rates – at about 24 per cent (Indian Muslims are much more likely to be employed). But these stats don’t show widespread prejudice. Many of these women choose to stay at home and look after children, often in keeping with family expectations and cultural values.
While some Muslim women are no doubt discouraged by their family to enter the workplace, this is a rapidly diminishing trend. The Equal Opportunities Commission published a report last month which found that 90 per cent of Bangladeshi girls did not agree that their parents would ‘expect them to get married and have children rather than follow a career’, which wasn’t significantly less than the 97 per cent of white girls who said the same.
Fifty-two per cent of young Pakistani and 47 per cent of young Bangladeshi women employees aspire to be their own boss, a senior professional or in senior management, compared with only four per cent of their white British counterparts. The idea that these bolshy young women need ‘positive images’ is laughable. In fact, they are much more likely to wear the headscarf than their mothers, because they are more assertive and not easily intimidated by stereotypes.
‘Muslim women’ are often presented as meek, vulnerable and in need of state protection from a hostile culture. While it would be good to improve educational opportunities for this group (especially older women returning to work after child-rearing), the problem is seen as being about ‘image’ and ‘self-esteem’. In the report of the government’s Preventing Extremism Together Taskforce, one of the more bizarre suggestions was that Muslim women should be taught Arabic, to give them some confidence with their culture.
Kelly’s call is not really about helping Muslim women; rather, it is a gesture to show that the government is listening to ‘Muslim voices’. However, the more it does this, the more Muslims will begin to feel like a race apart from everyone else, with their own needs and concerns. And that would end up making them feel more excluded.
Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London.