Inquiry by MPs finds Muslim women face multiple discrimination

26th Aug 2016
Inquiry by MPs finds Muslim women face multiple discrimination

Muslim women face the “triple penalty” of “being women, being BME and being Muslim” in the job market, finds MPs Inquiry (Photo: Ahmed J Versi/Muslim News)

Ala Abbas

MPs have published a report on August 11 which looks into the unique disadvantages faced by Muslim women in the UK. The Inquiry was chaired by the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee and found that Muslim women faced the “triple penalty” of “being women, being BME and being Muslim”.

The Inquiry points towards the Government’s own hand in disadvantaging British Muslims by painting them as a “suspect community”. According to the report: “Some of the most significant concerns we heard during this inquiry were about Government initiatives on integration being linked to counter-extremism. In the course of this inquiry we came across individual Muslims who were reluctant to engage with us for fear that our inquiry was part of the Prevent programme.”

In January 2016, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced £20 million of additional funding to promote ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes for Muslim women. Writing for The Times, she said: “Issues like gender segregation and discrimination and the isolation of some women in society could help lead to a slide towards radicalisation and extremism.”

The Minister for Skills, Nick Boles, reinforced the link between extremism and Muslim women who did not speak English. “I said that there is a link between not speaking English and isolation, and some people who are isolated may then be more likely to fall prey to authority figures in their community who want to encourage them to take up extremist ideas,” he told the Inquiry.

Sufia Alam, who works at the Maryam Centre which is part of the East London Mosque Trust, criticised the link between ESOL funding and extremism. She told the Inquiry: “I know it is in the Prevent agenda and I cannot understand why. It is putting pressure on people and it is quite draconian in the approach, especially for Muslim women. It should be that ESOL courses are welcomed by all women and you need that diversity within the ESOL courses as well to get people job-ready and ready for society.”

The Inquiry criticised the way the Government is dealing with the Muslim community through the lens of counter-extremism. When it comes to discrimination faced by Muslims, the Inquiry said the Government “must set out how it will address the challenge and work to achieve equality for British Muslims. This aim is distinct and should be separated from the Government’s work to challenge extremism.”

Workplace discrimination

The Committee’s Chair and former Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller MP, said: “We heard evidence that stereotypical views of Muslim women can act as a barrier to work. The data suggests that in communities these patterns are shifting across generations but we remain concerned that this shift is happening too slowly and that not all Muslim women are being treated equally.”

Muslims suffer the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in society. The unemployment rate for Muslims is more than twice that of the general population (12.8% compared to 5.4%) and 41% are economically inactive compared to 21.8% of the general population. The disadvantage is greater still for Muslim women: 65% of economically inactive Muslims are women.

The Inquiry was given many examples of the discrimination that Muslim women faced when applying for jobs and “heard evidence that Muslim women were more likely than white women to be asked questions about their marital status and family life.”

The Muslim Women’s Network UK corroborated this: “One Muslim woman stated that despite the fact that she had spent three years at a university away from home to obtain her degree, in a few interviews she was questioned a lot on her ability to travel around the country for meetings and events and felt that the interviewers held a misconception that because she is a Muslim woman that she would not be allowed to travel away from home.”

When it came to discrimination based on the hijab, the Inquiry looked at evidence from the Young Foundation’s 2008 report, Valuing Family, Valuing Work: British Muslim Women and the Labour market, which found that: “Eighteen percent of women respondents in work stated that they previously wore the hijab, and in one case the niqab and that when they did so they could not find work. Once they stopped wearing the hijab and niqab they all found employment.”

Director of Nasiha Consulting, Ruhana Ali, told The Muslim News that “for those Muslim women who have a high level of qualifications and skills just the rise in Islamophobia and the fact that those women who wear a headscarf are visibly identified as Muslim also increases their chances of stereotyping and discrimination.”

The Inquiry also found that Islamophobia was a huge factor in the discrimination faced by Muslim women. “The impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women should not be underestimated. The Government should raise awareness amongst employers of what constitutes illegal discrimination,” the Inquiry stated.

One measure the Government has taken to tackle discrimination is the use of ‘name-blind recruitment’ in parts of the Civil Service. The Muslim Council of Britain has welcomed these plans, but points out that “this is only one of a variety of measures and approaches that need to be deployed to deal with the multiple layers of discrimination.”

Ruhana Ali believes the Government should do more: “If successful it should be rolled out across all areas of the civil service and not just parts of it. It will enable employers to select and recruit candidates judged on merit and reduce any stereotyping or discrimination that can occur from inferences made based on candidates’ names.”

When it comes to accessing higher education, the Inquiry found there to be a lack of data on the experiences of Muslim students. The Inquiry called on universities to break down their data on entry and attainment beyond the broad heading of BME, and further classify their data by the religion of the student.

The Inquiry heard that “for a small number of Muslim students the lack of Sharia-compliant ethical student loans is a significant barrier to accessing higher education.” Addressing this, the Inquiry suggested the Government should “provide more information about the timetable for the introduction of a Sharia-compliant ethical student loan.”

The Inquiry concluded with a call for the Department of Work and Pensions to do more research into the impact of Islamophobia in the workplace: “With strong evidence about the rise of Islamophobia within wider society, and many individual Muslims coming forward with stories of discrimination and the fear of discrimination within the workplace, we believe there is a clear need for the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out research in this area.”

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