Last week the Government finally published its Integrated Communities Strategy as a Green Paper. Whatever you think about it, you cannot deny that it does speak up for the empowerment of black and minority ethnic women who are on the margins of society.
Many of these women have had reduced life opportunities, partly because of prejudice, as well as a lack of skills, patriarchal values that stifle their confidence and a lack of real training and development opportunities. The economic downturn has heavily impacted on the poorest and most marginalised in our communities – and that includes women in minority communities.
Thankfully women are now front-and-centre of the suggested new integration approach. Under the new £50million proposals, Ministers said the strategy will focus on helping people learn English, encouraging more women to find work and promoting “meaningful discussion” between young people.
With English language classes included in the new strategy, those who do not have the ability to engage, advocate and be independent in their own right can have the basic tools to do so. This is particularly welcome, since women in this position are overly reliant on husbands, partners and children, and can never achieve their full potential. I have seen this time and time again when working in the heart of communities, where women who do not have a grasp of English struggle daily for their dignity as husbands and children get tired of speaking for them and sometimes make decisions on behalf of wives and parents. I have even see the dynamics of families break down as children who speak English become dominant in families, looking down on their mothers and parents who are isolated because they simply cannot speak the language.
With the strategy comes the first real investment into social cohesion. The £50million proposed investment is much needed, at a time when hate crimes and social cohesion are under pressure because of national and international incidents. This support needs to be pointed into the heart of communities and through the Government’s localism agenda.
But while the sum is a much-needed boost for social cohesion and integration work, this is an area that is still has huge under-investment and which can really cause lasting damage if community fractures turn into social unrest. There is therefore little that is ‘woolly’ about this work – although many used to think that it was about having ‘tea and samosas’. Thankfully, those days are over and this work is now about ensuring that people train, work and attend school together, within environments that develop probing and enquiring minds. We have moved from the ‘celebrating difference’ era to one where shared values need to be nurtured and defended.
Within the strategy, the government also seeks to consult on changing the marriage laws, so that it would become a criminal offence if a religious marriages was not pre-registered through a civil marriage. This is again a much welcome step. For far too long, this loophole has allowed some men to enjoy sexual and emotional relationships with many women, without those women having any rights or access to resources that the male in the relationship may have. These relationships have been weighted towards men who have used these situations for their own needs, with many women feeling humiliated and materially neglected when men abandon them.
Thankfully, we are also in a space where people are increasingly confident to challenge cultural norms. These are sometimes misread as religious practices and sometimes couched as the latter to defend patriarchal and misogynistic practices. It is this approach, driven by the racism of low expectations for communities from Commonwealth countries, that has allowed such cultural practices to fester – at the expense of women’s rights. Thankfully, such low expectations are now being challenged and questioned, so that we can all enjoy and share the same rights which we should also be defending.
Lastly, we must ensure that the Integration Strategy also ensures that schools and universities are given the opportunity to defend core values of pluralism and the defence of free thought. They should be bastions of enquiry where the boundaries of learning and debate should be challenged. We cannot have organisations that bully, mob or intimidate such institutions because they believe that they have the right to hoist their views onto schools and over and beyond school governors, school staff and those who work in these institutions. Such mobbing actions should be vigorously challenged in the defence of institutions. What we need are enquiring minds and not inculcated ones.
Fiyaz Mughal is director Faith Matters and founder of Tell MAMA