Is it time for the British government to stop Saving Muslim Women yet?

Content notes: Islamaphobia, colonialism, imperialism, misogyny, orientalism, racism.

Yesterday David Cameron announced that a £20 million fund to teach Muslim women in the UK to ‘speak English’ will tackle segregation and help prevent ‘radicalisation’ – though he also said there was no causal connection between radicalisation and English language…

Now, my initial reaction, beyond an eye-roll, was to wonder how and why this policy was appearing in 2016 when a very similar urge existed in 1960s and 70s Britain.

So, aside from the obvious practical and specifically Islamophobia implications of the policy – which are already being outlined and circulated elsewhere – there’s an historical significance here I want to quickly bring attention to.

To answer why it is that Muslim women in particular are being targeted; to answer why this is being linked to anti-radicalisation and to answer why this is being presented in such a commonsensical way – we have to think a little bit about how Muslim women have been historically perceived by Britain.

There are a number of simultaneous discourses at work when we think of Muslim women. Orientalist ones which depict them as unchanging, oppressed, submissive and passive-yet-sensual; imperialist ones which depict them as more broadly ‘uncivilised’ and ‘uneducated’ – illiterate, unhygienic and childlike; Islamaphobic ones which depict them as living always under the domination of Muslim men – who we know, ‘commonsensically’, to be the worst perpetrators of patriarchal violence in the world – and which imagine them as completely ‘unfree’ and ‘unequal’.

I’m going to argue that all of these discourses which mix misogyny and racism are key to understanding David Cameron’s policy.

When else have we tried to educate Muslim women? What have we educated them on?

Okay, so missionary-esque education is the education that was imposed upon Muslim women in colonies of the empire to teach them ‘true religion’, to ‘enlighten’ them, and thus civilise them. It was unquestionably true that Muslim women needed this education, and it was unquestionably true that Christian missionaries had the key to emancipating women…

Skip forward to 1960s Britain and the arrival of Muslim women into the metropole bringing the colonial encounter home. How do we assimilate these problematic women – who represent everything we imagined ourselves in opposition to? Well, broadly, by teaching them English – the guaranteed way of integrating them, but more importantly liberating them.

Woman wearing face veil in east London in 2006
Looks like somebody needs saving! [image of Muslim woman in burqa.]
You get three main trends. 1) Church groups taking their own initiative to teach Muslim women English. Now, you can’t criticise volunteers who I am sure approached the job with kindness – and you can’t deny that some Muslim migrants wanted to pick up English quickly. What must be said though, is that this policy directly carries through the missionary ideals of Empire.

Okay, 2) – and this is where it gets interesting. You get government imposed classes. The British government begin a policy of ‘integration’ which puts Muslim women at its centre. Why Muslim women? Well, because of everything we know about them from colonial experience: they’re illiterate, uneducated, uncivilised, housebound and submissive wives. Education is a way of liberating them and a way of Westernising them. Funnily enough, these exact same tropes were used by Cameron yesterday and by politicians celebrating that ‘women in Britain are equal’ and somehow by teaching Muslim women English they too will attain the truly complete and emancipatory levels of ‘equality’ that all English women enjoy…

Interestingly, another facet of the government led approach in the 1960s and 70s was that it actually wasn’t so much about women themselves, as it was about their children. Muslim women represented the ultimate threat  to an assimilated Britain because they would pass on their language, customs, religion and ‘other’ culture to their children – the ultimate victims of their illiteracy. To me, it seems that Cameron’s suggestion that – despite causal evidence – teaching Muslim women English would help prevent radicalisation; is actually another way of saying, we need to force Muslims to assimilate in this country (women could be deported if they don’t learn English to an ‘adequate’ standard) because only through learning English – only through becoming more English – can they be saved from radicalisation.

Here is the ultimate plot-twist. Radicalisation of Muslims is not happening because of social alienation, has nothing to do with socioeconomic factors, disenfranchisement, foreign policy, Islamaphobia, or anything else – instead, it is the result of something inherent in Muslim people. Only through educating their mothers – the transmitters of culture – can we save Muslims from themselves.

This, is the problem with the policy, and this is why it targets Muslim women explicitly – because we all agree – from the orientalist, imperialistic, patriarchal and Islamaphobic discourses we’ve heard for years – that Muslim women are inherently unfree; Islam is inherently backwards and thus, in a final stroke which redeems the British government of any responsibility, Muslims themselves are the inherent cause of their own radicalisation too. What an argument.

What a relief, it’s their own fault. [image of text: Radicalisation.]
As you can see, we’ve been saving Muslim women for a long time now. In part its because Muslims don’t change – I mean, we know that, right? Muslim societies are not only backwards, they’re static. Only The West progresses – and so, we have to keep saving Muslim women, again and again. It’s interesting to note though, that saving them is usually – very conveniently – also a great help to our ideological justification of really quite problematic policies (did someone mention foreign policy?). This brings me to my 3rd trend that is visible in the 1960s – teaching Muslim women English to improve industrial efficiency, prevent industrial unrest, and increase profit. One arm of the ‘teaching’ was from companies who sold lessons to industrial companies with the ultimate aim of increasing capital – especially in the industrial north. Here, English language lessons worked hand-in-hand with capitalist needs of a well-trained, disciplined work-force.

Hopefully from this brief overview of the historical significance of saving Muslim women, you can see that ‘educating’ them is based on a whole host of flawed and deliberately skewed assumptions. The language used by David Cameron and the media is one that continues to suggest Muslim women are themselves inherently the problem. Muslim people and cultures are the problem – and the best Britain can thus do is to teach them English.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure some Muslim women want to learn English, I’m sure a lot of immigrants want to learn English – but when its presented as a policy that Cameron is introducing to save Muslim women from their own culture – that’s when I get angry. These tropes have a long history and they have a recent past too. Twenty-first century invasions and occupations of Middle-Eastern nations are often justified as part of Britain ‘saving’ Muslim women from their own culture.

Maybe instead of saving us from ourselves, you could start by saving us from you. Save us from these orientalist, imperialist, racist, sexist, Islamaphobic tropes which allow us no agency, no nuance, no space to change, no space to exist outside your minds. Save us from the irony of telling us what is and isn’t ‘unacceptable’. In fact, instead of saving us from ourselves, why not deal with the everyday realities that Muslim migrants and women face everyday. Why not deal with economic injustice, racial prejudice, disenfranchisement, discrimination – why not see Muslims as people whose problems extend beyond the fact of them being Muslim. Why not see that they need saving not from the inherent fact of themselves, but from your continued oppression and marginalisation of them. In fact, I appeal to David Cameron to maybe just, stop saving us at all.

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