Cameron’s right: women who can’t speak English are kept voiceless in the family and society – and the left turns a blind eye
A friend talks sadly about communicating with her mother who speaks only Urdu, a language the daughter didn’t learn. For basic “mum stuff” — what’s for dinner, family news etc — they get by. But discussing matters of depth and nuance is impossible. Her mother has lived for decades in Britain but can’t follow a radio debate, struggles in shops and could never work. Imagine a whole life isolated even from your kids.
David Cameron’s announcement that the government will target language classes at 190,000 British Muslim women who speak poor or no English was dismissed as racist across the left. What about Costa-living Brits who don’t speak Spanish, eh? (And true, they should damn well learn.) But there is a difference. They have economic muscle, freedom, choice. A Pakistani bride brought to Britain, kept at home caring for her husband’s parents, unable to understand the world or earn her own money, call the police or brief a lawyer, does not.
But never mind. “In the Muslim homes I have visited it was clear the women were extremely busy cooking and caring for many family members,” wrote feminist Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, deriding the PM for noting that 60 per cent of Muslim women are economically inactive. He was guilty of a colonialist “white man saving brown women trope”.
Yes, better return to the white men (and women) letting brown women go to hell trope. The left specialises in that. Asian feminists entreated the Blair government to make forced marriage illegal. Too divisive, they were told, it would breed community mistrust. And so hundreds of girls disappeared from schools each summer, parents unpunished, until the coalition in 2014 made it a crime. Speak to campaigners against FGM and you won’t find a Tory among them, but they salute the coalition for bringing in compulsory reporting by teachers and medics.
Or read recent Ofsted reports, commissioned by Nicky Morgan, damning private faith schools — orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian as well as Muslim — exposing their barren, religious curriculum, social isolation and dire standards. Labour had sent in the inferior Bridge Inspectorate which did not balk at girls being taught that husbands were entitled to beat them. It was Islamic culture — who were we to judge? — and these were, after all, only brown girls.
Under Labour a network of Sharia courts, where imams deny religious divorces to women in violent marriages, daughters are granted less inheritance than sons and a charming solution to female infertility is that a man should get a second wife, grew unchecked. Only now has the Home Office grown the balls to instigate a review. In Iran, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan secular campaigners are murdered for questioning Islam, for demanding women’s rights to education, to dress as they please and enter the public sphere. The enlightenment, anti-clerical battle, upon which all our freedoms are founded, is being replayed. Yet this time people who purport to be progressive sit at the theocrats’ side.
Labour is hamstrung by its need for Muslim votes: fearing conservative male community leaders who deliver victory, it holds gender-segregated hustings. But the left is also afflicted by a crass, reductive liberal guilt: Islam is practised mainly by brown people thus those who fight its encroachment into the public sphere must by default be racist. So when Maryam Namazie, the Iranian human rights activist, spoke at Goldsmith College atheist society and her talk was disrupted by Islamic Society men who shouted, banged doors and turned off her PowerPoint projector, the university’s feminist and LGBT groups issued their support — for her assailants. Namazie’s challenge to Islamism and blasphemy laws made Muslims feel “unsafe”.
Naturally David Cameron’s stated support for schools that ban the full-face veil was damned as white men telling brown women what to wear. When really such rules safeguard the choice of all girls. If the bar of “modest” Muslim attire is raised, others will feel pressured to follow. The veil is not just another garment, a neutral choice: it is a deliberate erasure of the public female self. What feminist can ever endorse that?
True, the PM’s demand that Muslim wives learn English sounds harsh, targeted and a juicy bone for his party’s right. His record of slashing English teaching is laughable: he needs to funnel proper resources to prove he is sincere. But it is also designed to address a particular injustice. Pakistani village brides are chosen over spirited British Muslim girls with their western ways, education and knowledge of their rights. Unable to speak English, foreign girls are under a man’s control.
Campaigner Saira Khan said she had never met a Muslim woman who didn’t want to learn English: it’s the imams and menfolk who stop them. A friend who taught Pakistani women at home longed to take her students to a café or shop to practise, but husbands always said no. Threatening to deport wives after two years for not learning English is ugly — and probably unenforceable — but it is a warning blast at controlling men.
Being voiceless — in society and within your family — is a desperate, lonely fate: you are infantilised, politically impotent and ignored. The suicide rate of British Asian women is twice that of white women. Not speaking English channels you into sharia, not secular British law, and makes you vulnerable to violence. How can you tell if your children are being radicalised, let alone intervene? Routing out economic inactivity is not a Tory trick to make us all wage slaves — an income is a key index of women’s freedom. If Muslim women want to retreat to the home, to speak only of “mum stuff”, let them. But, as it is for the rest of us, it should be their choice.