Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Emancipation of Muslim Women in the UK

“The age of men is over” –Gothmog, Lord of the Rings. Ok, so he was an orc talking about the demise of hobbits and elves, but he had the right idea.

The social status of British Muslims could be described as “a little bit rubbish”. Our patriarchal communities, led and dominated by men, are not working. We’ve been in this country since the 1950s and haven’t managed to be successful yet. It’s time for Muslim women to break free from the shackles of their back seat roles. It’s time to unfasten those back seat belts, buss open the safety locks and start driving the car.

As a designer who has seen the “Muslim fashion scene” blow up (#PunIntended) in the last three years or so and seeing in what direction it is developing in, the vast majority of new Muslim labels for the British market tend to have the Arabian aesthetic. That is, gown-like, glamorous, and full of bling. It has the kind of look that says “these clothes aren’t for the real world, they’re for looking pleasing to a man in”. They’re the kind of clothes that say “I conform to maintaining the status quo of traditional gender roles”. So if we keep on doing what we’ve always done, won’t we be stuck in this undesirable status-place forever?

Muslims have been in the UK since the late 50s, when Asians brought their cultures with them. Why is there still so much misunderstanding between ordinary British and British Muslim communities? Why don’t people know who we are? Is it because women –the gender that builds bridges and just gets on with things, have stayed at home for the last 60 years? If it is, it means the men have been doing a shit job at integrating. They’ve been bad at creating understanding between and balancing the two cultures.
Polish people have only been in this country for around twelve years. When they came, they faced a lot of resentment. But they worked really hard and were good at what they did and are now valued members of British society. You COULD argue that they came over as skilled workers, whereas Muslims did not. But isn’t three generations of Muslims being in the UK long enough to have gone through the education system, that’s the same system/ opportunities available to everyone else, to become skilled people?

So why haven’t women taken charge of things yet? We’re still brought up with the idea that once we’ve done our degrees and whatnot, we’re just going to get married and raise kids. A lot of us have the mentality that we’re not going to ever go out into the big wide world, we’re just going to be maintained by our husbands. But then we end up in our late 20s/ early 30s and realise that a high percentage of Muslim men available to us are “unsuitable” ( and that we have to become independent, as a consequence of singledom, rather than a deliberate decision. We didn’t have big ideas and ambition when we were growing up, the constant “housewife indoctrination” meant we all had an implicit understanding of our place in the world. We’re still being raised in the same way today.

So now there’s the actual deal of Muslim women going into the workplace and being important and making an impact. Many will say it’s impossible, that Britons are collectively too Islamophobic to “allow” us to. I personally, am a little bit bored of this “poor me” defensive attitude. Whilst I do not yet drive a Porsche (not that I want to, but success in monetary terms is easy to understand) I’ve achieved ok things. And although it wasn’t easy and I tried really, really hard and worked really hard, maybe harder than your average white man, wasn’t it in my interest to keep trying, if I wanted to be accepted and understood by those around me?
Not to appease The White Man, rather, so I had the choice to choose life; choose a partner, choose where I want to live, rather than get tarted up and waiting to be chosen. Maybe I’ve been lucky and that most of my interactions have been with liberal, intelligent, educated people and hence I’ve never experienced any Islamophobia, but maybe they’re the type of people, institutions etc that we should be trying to build bridges with. And until we have proven ourselves, like the Pols did, we’re going to have to work really hard. Then things will be better.

Muslim men have failed, so now it’s our turn to make things ok. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a traditionalist. I want to stay at home and have lots of babies, but there’s a world to save out there.