David Cameron has recently announced the sum of £20million for English classes (ESOL) to help Muslim women who can't speak English. This he says, will increase integration, and thereby reduce the tendency towards radicalisation. If this is the case, one wonders, why has his party spent the past five years eroding funding for ESOL provision by £50million, particularly when there were ample warnings that this move would disproportionately affect women?
The funding for ESOL is very much needed. It never should have been cut in the first place. Ability to speak the majority language is not just important for inclusion; it is important for minorities to be able to claim their rights and entitlements. But it is not just Muslim women that are unable to access services due to language barriers: the second most common language in the UK is Polish, not Punjabi or Arabic. As a patron of the hardworking UK charity IKWRO, which supports women from the Middle East, I am very aware that abusive men can deliberately restrict their wives and daughters from learning English, in order to keep them in subordinated positions and prevent them from seeking help if they are at risk of violence or abuse.
However, I am extremely concerned about the suggestion that women who fail to learn English will be deported: what will happen to women restricted by their husband or in-laws from learning English, and then consequently returned to their families? Cameron's suggestions risk providing abusive men with an additional tool for their arsenals of oppression: not only can they prevent their wives from learning English, they can also hold the threat of deportation over their heads, intimidating them into living in fear of authorities, with no ability to regularise their status and obtain their rights, facing the fear of being 'returned' in disgrace. In traditional Muslim societies, they might face exclusion as divorced or 'shamed' women upon return; or at the most extreme, the prospect of 'honour'-based violence, from families unwilling to support an unmarriageable "shamed" woman. This, presumably, is Cameron's idea of inclusion: the scapegoating of some of the most vulnerable women in the country.
If anything, this rhetoric demonstrates the very low status Muslim women have in British politics. We are not encouraged to learn English for the sake of increasing our life satisfaction, to ensure our safety, to increase our employability, or to gain the ability to chat with our neighbours, but for the slight and speculative possibility that this might, in some unspecified way, decrease radicalisation. Very few radicals are grandmothers speaking Urdu, or young brides fresh off the plane from Bangladesh. They are mostly young men, educated in British schools, who pepper their speech with Arabic phrases delivered in distinctly British accents, who reject the local cultures of their parents' generation for the universalist fantasy of Islamic radicalism.
The problem with Muslim women is less that we cannot speak the language, but that no-one listens to us. Many times more Muslim women struggle with finding employment than speaking English. For years, the most prominent voices in the public discourse have been those of older, conservative males, courted by the political elite on both sides, while women's voices have gone unheard. Many of us have spoken out against racism, against terrorism and radicalisation, spoken for asylum seekers, for human rights, for legal aid, for the support of specialist domestic violence services. Meanwhile, we see attacks on Muslim women increasing, the imprisonment of women asylum seekers, the gutting of legal aid, and those specialist services that provide support for Muslim women cutting their services, or going out of business altogether.
Ten years ago this week, Banaz Mahmod was murdered, by her father, her uncle and their associates, in a so-called 'honour' killing. She appealed for help five times, and was rebuffed each time, in a devastating failure of services to protect her. She told the police the names of the men who wanted to kill her. It didn't help her: she still died, garrotted, gang-raped, buried in a suitcase on waste-ground. A recent report from HMIC tells us that nothing much has changed in the policing of 'honour'-based violence since then: that the recommendations made by the IPCC in the aftermath of her murder have been almost completely ignored. Banaz spoke perfect English, and was studying to be a care worker. If another woman like Banaz were to walk into a police station in many parts of the country today, she could tell the desk sergeant she was facing an 'honour' killing, and still he would not understand the risk she was in. She might as well be speaking Kurdish. If she sought help from people with expertise, she would find that many of the charities that could have helped her have disappeared. While violence against women is rising, the precious expertise of women who have fearlessly worked with passion and commitment for Muslim women is being squandered.
Speaking English is important, but Cameron is no hero for making a minor redress to the vicious cuts his party have made, coupled with a threat to those who are unable to meet his requirements. The inclusion of Muslim women will take political will, funding to the NGOs that provide vital support, a commitment to listening to Muslim women, and addressing the real problems that confront us: problems of violence, whether in the family, or in the streets. We have been telling the government this for years. But whatever language we speak in, they don't listen to us.