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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 27-Jan-16 17:00:31

Guest post: "Muslim women are diverse, funny and opinionated – not #TraditionallySubmissive"

Stereotypes about Muslim women are not only damaging, but dangerous - and Sunday's Twitter storm shows they're not true, says author and blogger Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Author of Love in a Headscarf

Posted on: Wed 27-Jan-16 17:00:31

(214 comments )

Lead photo

"Actually, my husband runs my Twitter feed because I can't speak English #TraditionallySubmissive"

As a mother of two girls, I'm constantly anxious that they don't suffer from the gender penalty as they grow up. This is the penalty that props up the glass ceiling, that restricts their access to the corridors of power, that makes their pay packet lighter, or that reduces them to their body and looks, and continues to disproportionately burden them with childcare and household chores.

But as a Muslim mother I also worry that my daughters live in a society that does not see them for the people they are or give them the space to flourish as individuals. Instead, they are on a perilous slope towards being seen as part of a homogenous group of oppressed, dehumanised creatures. Front page headlines today proclaimed that "Muslims are not like us". It's yet another example of the constant hostility faced by Muslims – especially Muslim women – in the UK.

My heart sank last week when I woke up to the news that the Prime Minister had said Muslim women must do more to integrate. I mean, I love queueing, I can talk at length about traffic and weather, and I'm on Mumsnet. What more does he want?

His aim is to get more Muslim women to speak English and he announced a £20 million fund for English lessons. I've always been an advocate of how important it is to speak the main language of social engagement, and I've been involved in running workshops encouraging women to better express their voices and opinions. So I'm all for English lessons for those struggling with the language. But this was the same Prime Minister who cut £45 million funding for English lessons this summer.

The misleading portrayal of Muslim women undoubtedly exacerbates an increasingly hostile environment; attacks against Muslims are up 275% since the Paris attacks and Muslim women make up 60% of the victims.


His clumsy and lazy characterisation of the 'Muslim women problem' stitched together ideas of Muslim women as segregated from society and responsible for extremism, and led to the all-too-familiar headlines casting Muslim women as isolated, illiterate and oppressed. However, he admitted that there was no causal connection between not speaking English and extremism. But the damage is done. The misleading portrayal of Muslim women undoubtedly exacerbates an increasingly hostile environment; attacks against Muslims are up 275% since the Paris attacks and Muslim women make up 60% of the victims.

If I wasn't already angered enough at this, I nearly spat out my morning coffee when I read reports that the Prime Minister had privately suggested that a major reason young men are vulnerable to radicalisation is the "traditional submissiveness" of Muslim women.

I responded in the most British way possible – with sarcasm. After all, we are always being told to adopt British values.

"Actually, my husband runs my Twitter feed because I can't speak English #TraditionallySubmissive" I mocked on Twitter, adding "I bought a sports car and published a book (in English and eight other languages). I must be doing this wrong."

I wasn't the only one to feel incensed. Other Muslim women took up the hashtag. Dr Sukaina Hirji, a GP based in London, posted on her Facebook page "I and many others have been extremely hurt by David Cameron's article in The Times earlier this week, specifically (and incorrectly) targeting Muslim women's apparent inability to speak the English language and loosely linking this to radicalisation (multifactorial causes) and Female Genital Mutilation (cultural practice)."

She made a public call to Muslim women to "show solidarity and speak out against this discrimination" by tweeting and posting selfies during a coordinated period to create a Twitter storm with the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive.

On Sunday evening, the hashtag was quickly trending in the UK and continued to trend until Monday morning, with over thirty thousand tweets sent so far. These ranged from pictures of Muslim women graduating, hiking, fundraising, skiing and boxing, to others holding placards listing their achievements - including speaking multiple languages.

Coverage of the Twitter storm has been global – and this is important, because women's voices must be taken seriously, and Muslim women are part of the 50% of our population that is consistently under-represented and under-served. Muslim women are vibrant, diverse, funny and yes, opinionated. And that's a good thing. We want to make things better for ourselves and for those around us. And we hope you will support us in challenging the idea that we are submissive, pathetic little flowers.

By Shelina Janmohamed

Twitter: @loveinheadscarf

sportinguista Wed 27-Jan-16 17:40:07

This is brilliant and ties in with the ladies I know at my sons school, they are definitely diverse and have wicked senses of humour. I get the distinct impression that many of them rule the roost at home too!

WildeWoman Wed 27-Jan-16 17:52:08

Ok. I'm probably going in like a lamb to the slaughter here but...........

Do you in any way feel that David Cameron's approach is trying to ringfence and utilise the powerful influence mothers and women in general have, in order to counteract radicalisation?

We know the issue he is trying to tackle.

Do you feel that there is a reason he has particularly chosen women for these language classes?

Owllady Wed 27-Jan-16 18:04:22

I saw this this morning
He's such an ignorant nob

Noeuf Wed 27-Jan-16 18:19:10

I don't know. I feel uncomfortable about head scarves - men don't have to wear them and it's not something I can relate to, that women have to cover their heads in the presence of other men. It does appear slightly submissive.

dog123 Wed 27-Jan-16 18:25:00

There are Muslim women (and people of other religion, race, ethnicity...) who cannot speak english. If some of them are helped I think this is a good initiative. Of course the majority can speak english, use social media, have jobs....but some can't and we mustn't let their predicament be drowned out because of some clumsy language used by a politician offending some people.

Owllady Wed 27-Jan-16 18:29:08

It's not clumsy, he stated Muslim women
A gender
A religion
I think he was rather specific, don't you?
My christian, granny wears a headscarf outdoors. Lots of her generation do

Elllicam Wed 27-Jan-16 18:46:25

Is it accurate though that 22% of Muslim women in the UK have little or no English compared to 10% of men? Because it's great that so many Muslim women are independent and can write books and speak 6 languages but surely we should help those who can't speak the language of the country they are living in? It surely makes it much more difficult to access services, to make friends outside their immediate community, to report problems if they need to. From personal experience from volunteering with asylum seekers from Africa , the children learned English at school, the dads picked it up outside the home but the older women's grasp of English was by far the poorest, even years down the line. It is shocking that language classes have been cut they are so necessary.

dog123 Wed 27-Jan-16 18:50:33

Owllady - I'm not looking to cause offence. I was commenting from my experience at work, where these women come in to discuss "female intimate issues" and they need an interpreter.... it must be very unpleasant for them. Anything that empowers them to be more in control of their lives (accessing healthcare) must be a positive??

Elllicam Wed 27-Jan-16 18:55:20

Also don't mean to be offensive agree with Dog123

GhostofFrankGrimes Wed 27-Jan-16 19:01:24

Great post. Ignore Cameron he is an opportunist using the refugee crisis as a political football. Some of us are proud to live in a (largely) tolerant multicultural society.

Owllady Wed 27-Jan-16 19:02:59

Fair enough. But that issue doesn't only affect muslim women, does it? sad

dog123 Wed 27-Jan-16 19:05:00

Agreed - please see my first post - I said "and people of other race, religion, ethnicity" to try and make that clear. I could have added gender too ! Basically english classes are a good thing for all! Glad we agree.

MistressMia Wed 27-Jan-16 19:07:18

Constantly amazed at how you rail against the oppression and discrimination supposedly directed at you by Western society but have nothing to say against the very real & powerful religiously mandated subjugation imposed on you by your own religion.

In fact you go the other way and all out embrace it, propping up Islam and perpetuating the misery for millions of muslim women the world over.

You and I probably originate from the same part of the world. What have you to say about this latest blow for protecting muslim girls ??

Bill aiming to ban child marriages shot down

... and don't bother with the usual crap about 'how Islam has been twisted and misinterpreted' and that 'the Hadith's are wrong' & that Mohammed's didn't marry a 6 year old, because if the Ulemma don't accept it, what makes you think you know better.

Easy to be diverse, funny and opinionated in Western countries. Beyond tragic that poor 9 year old Shazia in Multan will never get the chance to be as such and live her life in servitutude to her 50 year old husband.

I know who my sympathy's lie with and it isn't with those giving succour to such a foul ideology.

cruikshank Wed 27-Jan-16 19:10:42

As the article points out, if Cameron really was all about helping the poor little Muslim women, then a better way for him to show it would have been to not cut £45 million from English language lessons funding, not to mention the wholesale swathes of budget cut from adult learning in total since his lot rocked into power.

However, he did make the cuts, so clearly whether or not Muslim women speak English isn't, in itself, the issue for him.

Instead, as with any pronouncement his govt makes about 'Muslims', the issue is othering, is making up a problem in order to have people say 'Oh well that's really bad but at least Cameron is doing something about it' when actually for the people who are supposedly a problem they had previously just been getting along with their lives without anyone batting an eyelid about them.

I personally find myself increasing disconnected from this entire process - the 'Muslims' that Cameron talks about, en masse, as though they are some kind of homogeneous group, are unrecognisable to me, just as I'm sure they are to most other people. The Muslim women I know are a mix of working mothers and sahms, and also a mix of single and married and divorced. Some are British citizens, others are what I would loosely call cosmopolitan international types - the UK isn't the first country outside of home they've lived in, and it won't be the last - others again are from outside the UK originally but are choosing to make their homes here. They are, in short, just as impossible to generalise about as any other of my friends, and this nasty lazy attempt to do so just shows above all else that his govt has really run out of steam - when you invent a problem purely in order to invent an initiative to go with it, despite having just months before decimated the funding for the very 'problem' that you are supposedly trying to address, things must have got pretty bad.

cruikshank Wed 27-Jan-16 19:13:52

Plus, given that the Tories are traditionally always accusing Labour of being a nanny state, I can think of fewer more controlling measures than to try and dictate what language people speak. Fair enough for school pupils, but for grown-ups? I'd like to see something similar fly for the ex-pats in bloody Lanzarote, for eg.

cruikshank Wed 27-Jan-16 19:15:08

Sorry, that should read '... for the British immigrants to Lanzarote ...'

(I'll shut up now.)

Owllady Wed 27-Jan-16 19:18:12

He does it about everything, all minority groups. He has not had a life outside of his iwn experience and he doesn't have the passion or enthusiasm to find or learn any more about it.

i hope he goes to hell in a handcart to be honest with you

Noeuf Wed 27-Jan-16 19:20:33

And what about the Muslim women that you don't know because they don't speak English and don't socialise? I am very pro accessible language classes for people new to the country and if this increases access to services, it can only be a good thing. My only concern is people finding out about and attending them.

cruikshank Wed 27-Jan-16 19:27:31

Actually, I do know Muslim and other women who don't speak English - friends' parents and other relatives, mostly. They seem to get by well enough with family and friends translating for them, and a smile and a nod goes a long way in terms of social interaction, just as it does for all immigrants including, as I have previously referenced, the millions of Brits living in other countries who don't speak a word of their host nation's language but are, by their own account, doing just fine thank you. None of them are isolated. As for increasing access to services, Cameron has cut those services. He has cut adult learning hand over fist and he specifically cut English language teaching by £45 million just a few months ago. He isn't increasing access. He isn't improving services. He is cutting them - this 'new initiative' represents a £25 million drop in what funding there was previously.

So this isn't about accessing services. And given the many many uses of the word 'Muslim', the incessant generalising about 'Muslim women' and the 'problem' they represent that this pronouncement is generating, just what could it in fact be about?

GhostofFrankGrimes Wed 27-Jan-16 19:35:04

Cruikshank good posts. I really worry about some attitudes in the UK especially in the light of rising hate crimes against Muslims.

DioneTheDiabolist Wed 27-Jan-16 20:14:55

Brilliant post OP and excellent response to our PM's disgustingly sexist and Islamophobic idiocy.

regenerationfez Wed 27-Jan-16 20:21:25

Cruikshank I don't think it's OK if a child has to translate for their mother in a doctors or the council. It's not a child's job to commit. In worked in an FE college and had many a child miss class because they had to accompany a mother to somewhere or other because she couldn't speak English.

Yes, Cameron was an idiot to say that it's just Muslim women this applies to, because its not. And as someone who works in further and adult education, I have seen funding cut year on year to ESOL services until they have disappeared. The fact that he is an idiot doesn't change the fact that learning the language of your country gives you freedom and options you would otherwise not have. Not knowing English also gives some men in some communities the freedom to opress women keep them hidden away and in some cases, use their postal vote, disenfranchising them. This is not about all Muslim women. It is about the ones who aren't able to use their voice. They shouldn't be forgotten about just because most Muslim women are fine.

littleducks Wed 27-Jan-16 20:23:28

I am delighted by this.

Likereally Wed 27-Jan-16 20:33:10

Seriously, Cameron needs to get out more. Out of his social circle - out of his cultural circle.

So he cuts spending on English language classes then picks on the language skills of a FAITH group - seriously?

It is ignorance and prejudice.

It's one thing to speak about helping people in a positive manner, encouraging education and learning the lingo etc. It's a totally different manner generalising and sensationalising - as he has done in a purely nasty political manner - and not put his money where his mouth is.

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