What’s bad for white women is bad for all women

Louise Casey

I have spent the past year touring the country conducting a review into integration and opportunity in our most isolated communities. I have heard numerous personal accounts that have brought home to me the disadvantage still being suffered by some people, including those in white working-class communities.

But the inequality suffered by so many black and minority ethnic women has really stood out for me and this has been particularly apparent in some Muslim communities. I think it is time we talked about this in a more open and honest way.

From the outset I want to say that no culture or religion can ever excuse violence and oppression against women, but my review has caused me to reflect on whether we – myself included – have been as active in promoting opportunity and as vigilant and robust in calling out sexism, taking on patriarchy and standing up to misogyny in some minority communities, as we would have been for white women or girls.

Not because we thought that white women were more worthy of help, but because we thought we were less qualified to comment on cultures we didn’t understand. To be blunt, I wonder if our abhorrence of racism and fear of being called racist, along with our desire not to cause offence, has sometimes got in the way of our feminism.

Analysis of 2011 census data produced for my report shows that 44 per cent and 36 per cent of women born in Bangladesh and Pakistan but living in the UK were unable to speak English well or at all, compared to 20 per cent and 13 per cent of Bangladesh and Pakistan-born men.

And while 20 per cent of all British Pakistani and Bangladeshi men were economically inactive in 2015, the rate for British Pakistani and Bangladeshi women was nearly three times higher, at 57 per cent.

Not only are all those figures too high, they are shockingly gender unequal. Not enough of us have spoken out against this unfairness and/or supported those Muslim women, many who have been courageously fighting these battles and whose voices have not always been heard.

We should not think that this is a problem that affects only older women who arrived in Britain 30 or 40 years ago, as 44 per cent of non-UK born Pakistani and Bangladeshi women aged 16 to 24 are currently unemployed or inactive and not in full time education.

Some ongoing patterns of inter-cousin marriage and a custom of bringing in brides from “back home” have meant young women are continually arriving into patriarchal Muslim communities with a lack of English, a lack of education and a reliance on their husband for their income and immigration status.

This first generation in every generation can have knock-on effects in their ability to understand even basic legal rights, to access health or domestic abuse services freely, as well as for their children who may not speak English in the home and are less well prepared for school as a result.

I fear that we have been too afraid to talk about a lot of this, along with other issues of violence and abuse including female genital mutilation, forced marriage and so-called honour-based crimes, or the worrying prevalence of male-dominated Biraderi (meaning brotherhood) politics that has taken a hold in some councils and parts of our political parties and system.

We worry about lacking the understanding and confidence to confront such problems, unless laws are clearly contravened. It is more difficult to challenge or act on behaviours that fall into grey areas along this spectrum – where one person’s arranged marriage is another’s forced marriage; or where one person’s religious conservatism is another’s homophobia.

Those of us who regard ourselves as progressives rightly don’t want to be racist and hold back from calling out wrongdoing for what it is.

But the best case explanation for what happened in Rotherham is a lesson here too.

By failing to confront known child sexual exploitation because the majority of perpetrators were Pakistani-heritage men, for fear of upsetting race relations in the town, the council and police only made things worse: for the young women and girls who suffered the most appalling abuse and for race relations as well.

So I hope more resources can now go back into English language and domestic abuse services.

But we also have to be honest about abuse, discrimination and disadvantage wherever it occurs. If we wouldn’t stand for it with white women, we shouldn’t stand for it with any women.

I want to stress that feminists and those who have campaigned for women’s equality and against racism and discrimination down the years are not the enemy here.

They are, in so many ways, heroes who deserve our gratitude and respect. But I hope that the next wave of our fight for women’s equality is one that reaches far into all communities and not just those that we are most comfortable criticising.

By uniting around our common values in a way that allows for and celebrates our differences but also guarantees our fundamental rights, we can start to provide a route map through the difficulties as well as the opportunities of our increasingly diverse nation.

And, by unlocking the potential of all women, we can tackle both the gender and race inequalities that still persist in this country and that all progressives, of whatever political persuasion, should want to end.

This article is based on a chapter Dame Louise Casey wrote for the report A Sense of Belonging: Building a More Socially Integrated Society, published by the Fabian Society and Bright Blue, in partnership with The Challenge.