(WOMENSENEWS)– British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing backlash after singling out Muslim women earlier this month for needing special help in English literacy, for being “traditionally submissive” and for being more likely to be targeted by extremist groups.
“Whenever you single out any religious or ethnic minority for that kind of special treatment, you end up stigmatizing and marginalizing the entire community,” Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a phone interview. “It’s actually counterproductive to [Cameron’s] stated goals. I think it will subject Muslim women in Britain to more bias and stereotyping and it does nothing to deal with the actual problems of extremism.”
On Jan. 18 Cameron said British Muslim women who did not learn English were at risk of deportation. Cameron argued that insufficient English skills left people susceptible to ISIS’ message. However, other British political leaders were quick to criticize him.
Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, responded by saying that Cameron risked “doing more harm than good” with this announcement, and worried that such an initiative might actually encourage more extremism.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that singling out Muslim women “only serves to isolate” those Cameron says he wants to help.
Cameron’s announcement took place on the same day that Parliament debated a petition calling for a U.K. ban on U.S. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump–who is notoriously arguing for a U.S. travel ban on all Muslims–on the basis of hate speech.
Opponents called the petition an embarrassment, but Paul Flynn, the Labour member who began the three-hour debate, argued that those watching the debate had “seen Parliament at its very best.”
While any future decision-making on the subject is unlikely, Cameron came out last month in opposition to the proposed ban, saying that if Trump were to visit the U.K. he would unite everyone against him.
But while Cameron firmly stands against what he calls Trump’s divisiveness, Hooper, of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Cameron joins other politicians in using fear-mongering tactics to promote Islamophobic policies.
In addition to his call for a ban on Muslims coming into the United States, Trump also recently ejected a silently protesting Muslim woman from one of his rallies.
France’s Marine Le Pen, head of the far right National Front party, in 2010 compared Muslim people praying in the street to the World War II Nazi occupation of France and consistently delivers an anti-immigration, anti-European Union message.
In Germany, despite welcoming more than one million migrants and refugees in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to propose stricter border regulations after a series of New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities. In the aftermath of these attacks, Muslim migrants in Cologne have been targeted and attacked.
“What we’re seeing is the mainstreaming of Islamophobia, whether it’s by Cameron, whether it’s by Donald Trump or Ben Carson and these kinds of public figures,” Hooper said. “Even after 9/11, we saw attacks on Islam and Muslims, but it was from the fringes of society. Now, it’s directly in the mainstream, unfortunately, thanks to these public figures.”
Muslim women who have long been combating anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence were quick to respond online.
After Cameron reportedly referred to Muslim women in private as “traditionally submissive” and therefore more likely to be susceptible to the messages of terrorist groups, many of them responded to his claims on Twitter using the #TraditionallySubmissive hashtag.
My mother, raising 3 daughters to become: a pharmacist, a software engineer and a teacher. So tell me again who is #TraditionallySubmissive
— Sana Iqbal (@SanaSmileyIqbal) January 25, 2016
Islamophobia Rapidly Rising
These women have been tweeting under this hashtag primarily to respond to Cameron, but they are also responding to more universal stereotypes about Muslim women. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, Islamophobic sentiment is rapidly growing in the global sphere, but these Muslim women are consistently taking steps to reclaim their agency and their narratives.
The British government already requires spouses to speak English if they want to come to the country to live with their partners, but now Cameron wants them to be subjected to additional testing after 2.5 years of residence in the U.K. There are an estimated 2.7 million Muslims in the U.K., and Cameron’s government alleges that approximately 190,000 Muslim women in particular speak little to no English.
Cameron’s announcement came on the heels of his government’s new $28.5 million English language initiative for “women in isolated communities,” specifically targeting British Muslim women.
Critics say the logic behind his targeted English language initiative is a form of double talk: just last year, his administration cut over $56 million from funding for English programs for migrants.
Cameron also suggested that a minority of men were attempting to control or dangerously influence their female relatives, and that a lack of English-speaking ability contributed to this alleged subjugation. The narrative of white people wanting to “save” brown women from brown men is not a new one – indeed, it is often used to justify military action against Muslim-majority countries – but Cameron is now attempting to institute a policy that would perpetuate it, and many people have called him out on this.
One of them, Nafeez Ahmed, wrote a Medium post in which he pointed out that Cameron’s government had fudged the numbers involved in the proposal. Whereas Cameron said that some 190,000 British Muslim women cannot speak English well or at all, this figure excluded girls between the ages of 3 and 15 but included those who were 65 and older. When one factors in this information, the total number of British Muslim women between the ages of 16 and 65 who do not speak English well or at all is actually around 155,000, meaning that British Muslim women who do not speak English well or at all only make up 3.7 percent of all “functionally illiterate” British adults.
Victims and Outsiders
In the aftermath of Cameron’s announcement, Laura Bates wrote for The Guardian, “the conflation of these very different issues seemed to suggest that the rights and empowerment of Muslim women are only of particular concern when they are instrumental in protecting the rest of Britain from the threat of extremism, not to mention simultaneously casting Muslim women as suppressed victims and dangerous outsiders.” Many people took to Twitter to echo Bates’ sentiment.
— Sayeeda Warsi (@SayeedaWarsi) January 17, 2016
Cameron announces the government will be investing millions to help Muslim women learn English. Why were ESOL classes cut in first place? — Aisha S Gani (@aishagani) January 18, 2016
Islamophobic rhetoric is not new in the West, nor is the idea that Western countries must “liberate” Muslim women from extremism and subjugation.
In 2001, shortly after 9/11, first lady Laura Bush gave an address in which she discussed Afghan women and argued that the war on terror was “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” The war on terror was thus justified by arguments for women’s rights, while in the United States and Europe Muslim women became increasingly subject to hate crimes and violence because they chose to wear the hijab.