My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this important debate and pay tribute to the Government’s work in advancing women’s equality and rights globally, building on the work of successive Governments and the incredible work that has taken place around the world. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and I pay tribute to all the work she has done as well.
I come to this as somebody who has been involved in gender equality and working with women, particularly women from ethnic minority communities, for many decades. I founded the first domestic violence project for Turkish, Kurdish and Middle Eastern women 25 years ago, and I am proud that it is still going from strength to strength. Many of the women who initially came there for support have gone on to become empowered women, much more in control of their lives, and to help other women. That has been something that has followed down the track and been successful.
My contribution today is on the public discourse on black and minority ethnic women, particularly Muslim women. I want to touch on this because I have become increasingly concerned that narratives and stereotypes persist that Muslim women are either victims—subjugated, oppressed, controlled by their families and unable to speak English—or, at the same time, blamed for bringing up children who become radicalised. My contribution may not be popular but it needs to be said, because I have become increasingly uncomfortable. I have been at various events this week with other women from Muslim backgrounds—younger, empowered and educated women—who are fed up with this narrative that persists.
For example, whenever there are Questions in your Lordships’ House that refer to Muslim women, they are inevitably about forced marriage, FGM or child brides. They are never about anything positive. I recognise that these things exist, but this is not the only dimension in which we should look at women from these backgrounds. We are missing the opportunity to support and empower Muslim women if we stereotype them and put them in a box of oppressed women. I come from a Muslim background. My mother was a Muslim woman and I can tell you nobody ever controlled my mother; she barely took suggestions, let alone instructions. That is the line of women I come from and I know many women like that from other communities.
I want to touch on some facts. British Muslim women face various layers of discrimination. They are women, they are an ethnic minority and they are Muslim. A 2015 study found that 35% of Muslim women are employed, compared to 69% of all women, but we are told that Muslim women are not allowed to work. But they do want to work. Some 16% of Muslim women are always looking for work—that number has probably gone up—compared to 5% of the rest of the female population. Looking at the figures, Muslim girls and women are doing extremely well in exams and schools, and going on to further education. They are pushing at the door, wanting to get into more professional jobs, from which they have traditionally been excluded. They want to be part of, and integrate into, British society. Let us accept that that is what we all are; I am one of those who is part of British society. There is no other, and Muslim women need our support to reach their empowerment.
Many factors directly impact on Muslim women. Forty-six per cent of the Muslim population live in the most deprived areas of the country. That has an impact and we must recognise it. There is strong evidence that Muslim men and women are being held back in the workplace by Islamophobia, racism and discrimination, and they are less likely to be in full-time work, not for want of trying.
“Muslims are being excluded, discriminated against or failed, at all stages of their transition from education to employment … Taken together, these contributory factors have profound implications for social mobility”.
Academics cite similar problems. Students face stereotypes and low expectations from teachers. There are fewer positive role models in the classroom. Young Muslims routinely fear becoming targets of bullying and harassment and feel forced to work, as one put it, “10 times as hard” as their white counterparts to get on and be accepted.
I come to headscarves, because this is such a big issue. There is an obsession with what women wear. Women wearing headscarves face particular discrimination. I do not know why what a woman wears should be of such consequence, particularly to men, but apparently it is. It is a controversial and emotive subject, and it is sad that the previous Foreign Secretary likened Muslim women in niqabs to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, which led to an increase in abuse and attacks on women. That was unfortunate.
We need our political and civic leaders to act responsibly in the public discourse. We need to stop this narrative that Muslim women are all victims who need saving or figures of fun. Let us not tolerate this casual racism. We need more positive role models, and it is very positive, as the Minister mentioned, that we now have eight Muslim women MPs in the other place. That is a record number and it is great, but we need more. We need more here as well. We need more BME teachers. We need more role models, because schools and pupils are losing out on the talents and skills of BME teachers, who are unable to advance their careers.
As I said, however, women and girls are doing better. If we value the contribution of all women in our society and are serious about BME women and men feeling valued and integrating into our society, we must create a level playing field, and dispel the outdated narrative that women from different communities are all oppressed and simply need saving.
I shall close with this. BME women are now leading in the media, the arts, business and sport. I meet so many talented young women, who have come here from around the country and are doing so well. Let us celebrate this and ensure that these women’s voices are heard, celebrated, valued and encouraged. The “Balance for Better”, the theme of International Women’s Day, can be achieved only with the efforts of men and women in positions of influence to give all women a strong voice in our society.