|Muslim Women: Your country needs you|
|Monday, 09 February 2009 12:26|
I recently spoke at the 'Muslim Women Pioneering Change in 21st Century Britain' event at the Inspire Conference in London.
It was a wonderful event and I was honoured to speak. The text of my speech is below.
I greet you with the greeting of peace: Assalaamu Alaikum.
I am delighted and indeed honoured to be joining you here today at this ground breaking conference, which is dealing with an incredibly important and topical issue.
Let me start by congratulating the Inspire team for all their hard work in putting this event together. A conference organised by women for women in a location that should be the heart of the community.
The topic I have been asked to address is a rather interesting one of 'Muslim women: your country needs you'. And you know, on a micro and macro level, you are needed. Muslim women are needed to fulfil your own fullest potential for your own individual benefit, for the benefit of your family, for the benefit of your local community, for your region or city. Off course, our country (and it is our country) needs all of us to maximise our potential and especially some of the untapped talent of British Muslim women. And frankly our planet needs you.
As I look around this room today, the sheer talent that all of you together represent is nothing less than awe-inspiring. I speak as a father of two gorgeous daughters. 9 and 7, who are relying on you to be their role models. They will walk in your footsteps.
As I look around this room at all of you - I feel proud as a Muslim, as a Brit and as a Minister.
For me, all of you today represent nothing less than the spirit of those role models who have gone before us - the entrepreneurship of Khadijah, the knowledge and wisdom of Aiysha and the steadfastness of Fatima.
Turning my mind to the title of my talk, in these troubled times - whether economic or otherwise-the enormous pool of talent that you represent means your country of course needs you- it needs your professionalism, your commitment and your dedication to making Britain a better, fairer and more just home for all of us.
But what we have to recognise is that whilst so many of you are at the top of your profession or on your way, there is a difficult truth that must be spoken. That truth is many British Muslim women face more significant barriers to succeeding than most sections of our society.
A recent report on Muslim women and the labour market makes for sober reading.
The report shows 51 per cent of second generation British Muslim Women (these are women born, raised and educated in the UK) are inactive in the labour market compared to for example 17 per cent of second generation Hindu Women. 13 per cent are unemployed compared to 4 per cent of second generation Hindu Women.
In 2007, British women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin earnt 56 per cent of the average hourly rate of British white men. Muslim women are the least likely of all religious groups to be working in management and senior officials jobs.
And 43 per cent of Muslim women interviewed stated they felt they were treated differently or encountered discrimination at interviews because they were British Muslim.
But it is not just about economics.
In politics whilst we see at least four Muslim women in the House of Lords - including Baroness Uddin who is a good friend and has been a good mentor to me and is actually from this area - we only have two Black women MPs and no Muslim women MPs.
And the challenges for British Muslim women don't stop there.
In my recent Fabian booklet on British Muslims called Fairness not Favours - I clearly outlined the fact that we cannot talk about fairness in our society without addressing the issue of equality for British Muslim women.
It remains a difficult truth that whilst women's rights have increased as a whole in society generally, we still face challenges in achieving gender equality in numerous areas.
But I am pleased to say under this Government we have moved closer to achieving this than ever before.
In the case of British Muslim women, I am fully aware you often face multiple levels of challenge - one that all women in general society face and an additional one as a Muslim (whether that be because of the way you dress or your social habits). We are all aware of the discrimination Muslims can face in the labour market due to their faith. This was one of the reasons we have introduced in the UK some of the best Anti Religious Discrimination legislation in the world and it hasn't stopped. Very soon, we will have a Single Equality Act which will provide further tools to make our society more equal.)
But, often and unfortunately British Muslim women face an additional challenge from within our communities. We cant duck this.
I am absolutely clear that a failure to deal with the inequalities of British Muslim women would fly in the face of any attempts to build a socially just and fair society.
But it also has serious consequences for preventing extremism, given that the majority of the extremist and radical ideologies that lead young men to turn themselves into human bombs are also deeply misogynist. The Taliban and their barbaric laws towards women are a good example of this misogyny.
But there are additional difficult social issues that affect many British Muslim women in some parts of the Muslim communities that have to also be directly addressed by both communities and the Government. As outlined earlier, with the help and support of Muslim communities, whilst the Government has tried to deal effectively with the issues of honour crimes and forced marriages through both policy and legislation, all of us in the Muslim communities must also unequivocally agree that honour killings are murder and forced marriages are kidnapping. The same is equally true of the heinous crime of female genital mutilation, which is still practised in pockets of certain ethnic and religious communities in the name of culture, tradition and religion.
These traditions have no place here or anywhere. In fact the Islamic injunctions against honour killings and forced marriages are unconditional in their condemnation of these acts. The noble tradition of our Prophet Muhammad was the honouring and empowering of women, never degrading them.
All British Muslim leaders and opinion formers must also be united in their condemnation of these practices and have a positive duty to educate their communities about these issues. British Muslim organisations playing leadership roles should also be willing to take bold steps in putting women's rights before community politics.
One example is the recent unwillingness of some organisations to call for a new approach to Muslim marriage contracts, which have for years left British Muslim women vulnerable and without legal protection.
But above all, British Muslim women should not face barriers to playing a full role in both the Muslim communities but also and more importantly wider society. British Muslim women must have the right to play a positive role in their communities. This must include access to all mosques and community centres.
I am pleased that today's pioneering conference is being held in a mosque and community center to demonstrate that with British Muslim women playing a full role in communities, the path to success for all British Muslims will be both easier and more complete.
I have outlined the challenges that face British Muslim women not to dampen your spirits but to raise them and to give us all hope.
Because once you know the size of the mountain, it makes it easier to climb it.
Your country, your society needs you. That means we all have to work together to overcome any barriers, any challenges.
From the Government, we promise you the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in the world to protect all British citizens- including Muslim women. The Single Equality Bill is currently being drafted. You need to be interested in this and involved in its formulation and how it passes into legislation to make sure we do the best we can as law makers. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is there to help British citizens with multiple identities achieve fairer treatment in society. For too long Muslim women were left unprotected by Race and Gender anti discminiation law and Race and Gender Commissions. No more.
All government consultations aimed at the Muslim communities - will proactively seek the opinion of as wide a range of Muslim women as possible. Better feedback will lead to better Government proposals. It's a no brainer.
As with the wider Muslim communities, whilst reaching out and consulting women proactively can only be a good thing.
One of the reasons I believe the legislation this Government has passed over the last 11 years has been better than any other 11 year period is we have a more representative Parliament. We quadrupled the number of women MP's in 1997. We need to carry on making Parliament more representative and that means Muslim women MP's.
We will do our best to ensure that leadership and empowerment training is more readily available for British Muslim women. Baroness Uddin is leading a taskforce looking at better women participation in politics.
And as we go forward with consultations on Imam training, why shouldn't there be a positive duty on all mosques and Imams to consider the issue of gender equality and access for women?
In terms of greater access for Muslim women to government, I am pleased to say that we have already made a good start.
Most of you are aware of the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group that comprises a group of 19 women who are in positions of leadership or are working with the communities. They have collectively identified three priority areas for Muslim Women and in sub groups are currently addressing these areas through various activities in partnership with government. Members of MWAG met Foreign Office Ministers and myself last week to discuss what more can and should be done to help the plight of those in Gaza.
In a similar vein we have appointed the Young Muslims Advisory Group - which also includes an amazing set of awe inspiring young British Muslim women. In fact I am spending the afternoon with them straight after this.
And as Minister for race, faith and cohesion - you have my promise that I will make myself available to engage, listen and work with British Muslim women in achieving their vision for British Muslim communities and society as a whole.
But this has to be a two way street. All of you here today - all British Muslim women - have to continue to ensure that the opportunities you have are not eclipsed by the challenges you face.
Islam is a faith of self-empowerment. Our history is rich with those who have prospered - even in the face of adversity - both men and women.
And even looking at the countries of origin that most British Muslims come from - women have reached the highest pinnacles of power, authority and influence. For example the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh is a Muslim women - as is the main opposition leader. Benazir Bhutto led in Pakistan whilst Indira Gandhi left a lasting mark on India. Even Afghanistan - a country I visited last year - where women have often faced adversity after adversity - there are more women MPs than in many western countries.
What the examples I have mentioned demonstrate to me is that challenges are only opportunities waiting to be found.
But above all, the women I have mentioned are hope-givers - a concept I have spoken about before.
As Muslims today in Britain we have contributed greatly to every walk of life. As British Muslim women you are a vital part of Britain.
But when ordinary people look at us all, do they see hope?
You may say that this is a lot to ask.
But I promise I am not asking the impossible from us.
So how do we become hope-givers today?
By being good neighbours, good citizens - both local and global. By contributing to every part of our society.
And by ensuring that where those who want to divide us through hate - whether they be the far right or those from within our own faith claiming to act in our name - we are the barrier they face.
I believe British Muslim women have a particularly important role to play in facing down hatemongers - particularly those from within the Muslim communities.
Misogyny is an integral part of their ideology - which preaches that women are inferior to men. By being the best you can be- as professionals, as citizens, as proud Brits and Muslims, as hope-givers - British Muslim women can prove the hate-mongers wrong and weak in the face of strength.
And it is that strength that we need when we face the problems that we often see around the world, like the current crisis in Gaza. The violence, deaths of innocent people - on both sides- can drive us to despair if we let it. But as strong citizens - as British Muslims - our response should be to do all we can to work together to end the suffering through peaceful and democratic means.
But we cannot offer hope if we isolate ourselves from others in our society.
We will only be the illumination, the light and the hope that others turn to when they see themselves in us, and we in them.
Our Prophet repeatedly taught that when we live in a society, we must truly be a part of that society.
The Prophet was not talking about a mono-cultural society. Remember the Medina of Muhammad - was a multicultural city - with Muslims, Jews, Christians, pagans and many of no faith. So living in diverse integrated societies is nothing new to Islam or Muslims.
We can both Muslim and British. There is no contradiction in that. It is a fact of pride for us. Our faith gives us the strength to be better and stronger citizens.
So to conclude - British Muslim women - your country does need you - as professionals, as role models, as leaders, as citizens, as hope-givers.
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