Last month the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote in The Times newspaper that a significant number of British Muslim women could speak little or no English language. He wrote:
“Consider this: new figures show that some 190,000 British Muslim women — or 22 per cent — speak little or no English despite many having lived here for decades. 40,000 of these women speak no English at all.”
In his piece, which was just over a 1000 words, the Prime Minster put forward that British Muslim women are dealing with a variety of injustices and challenges – from Forced Genital Mutilation (FGM) to gender segregation and isolation – the root causes of which could be attributed to what he described as “passive tolerance”, by wider society to some cultural practices.
According to The Telegraph, he also reportedly “privately suggested that one of the main reasons young men are vulnerable to radicalisation is the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women”“. These particular comments were met with incredulity and ridicule by many British Muslim women and beyond. Dr Sukaina Hirji , organised a Twitter Storm, under the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive (the hashtag itself was coined by author Shelina Janmohamed) to respond to David Cameron’s comments. The Twitter campaign resulted in over 30,000 British Muslim Women (and men), tweeting furiously at the Prime Minister.
At She Speaks We Hear we loved reading the tweets by thousands of inspirational Muslim women, who took part in the Twitter storm to tweet their photos and stories @David_Cameron. So we thought it would be awesome to speak to Dr Sukaina Hirji, the woman who organised the #TraditionallySubmissive Twitter campaign. The hashtag campaign made global headlines, and positively raised the profile of everyday Muslim women everywhere. See our interview with her below.
SSWH: So Sukaina, please tell us a little about yourself.
SH: I was born in Birmingham, my parents moved to the city from Tanzania after marriage. My father had moved to the UK originally in 1973, where he obtained a degree in Pharmacy from Sheffield University. Like many at that time, my parents came with very little, but through sacrifice and a great deal of hard work, they put my two younger brothers and I through education, as well as instilling in us the importance of contributing and giving back to society. We moved to north west London in 1991, where I completed my schooling, and in 1999 I started my medical degree at the University of Manchester. I have to say that the five years I spent at university were fantastic. It was a wonderful experience living ‘up north’ and the university itself offered me not only a fantastic education in my chosen profession, but also in politics and campaigning. The 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre took place during this period. The subsequent war on ‘terror’ and the involvement of students like myself in the anti-war campaign was significant and empowering.
I graduated in 2004, and married my soul-mate in 2005.
I qualified as a GP in 2009, and have since been working in Hertfordshire. I have three wonderful (albeit very active) sons!
“I took the Prime Minister’s comments on all fronts very personally.”
SSWH: Why did you organise the Twitter Storm? What was it about these particular comments from the Prime Minister, alongside his policy to teach migrant and Muslim women English, that motivated you to organise a campaign in response?
SH: I took the Prime Minister’s comments on all fronts very personally. He suggested that up to 22% of Muslim women are unable to speak English. To add insult to injury, he then loosely linked this issue to FGM, forced marriages and radicalisation. Let me deal with all these issues separately.
With regards to learning the English language, I and all Muslim women would have welcomed an initiative from the Prime Minister had it been universal and pledging significant levels of funding for English classes for all ethnic minority groups. I certainly do not take any offence at being given an opportunity to educate and empower individuals. However when a policy such as this is targeted at a specific group, the issues conflated and linked with other complex factors, then it becomes unacceptable.
Female Genital Mutilation is by no means a practice exclusive to Islam. It’s practice predates the advent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Egypt, where this practice is particularly common, it is carried out by the Coptic Christians as well as the Muslims. Muslim scholars of the highest rank have openly condemned this practice. Amongst these, both the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University in Egypt and the Grand Marja Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq have issued rulings condemning the practice, saying that it has no place in Islam.
The Royal College of General Practitioners have stated in all their training material that FGM is NOT a practice linked with ANY religion! FGM should absolutely be eradicated, and should undoubtedly be condemned regardless of who practices it.
Forced marriages again are a very emotive issue, and the PM again has enforced a negative stereotype by linking this to Muslim women. Islam does not condone this practice and it is not specific to Muslims. However it’s tradition is rooted very deeply in culture especially within the Indian Subcontinent. Many people are also unaware that it is also practiced in other communities, for example amongst the Irish traveller community, Eastern European communities and also some Chinese communities from the mainland.
Finally, the PM mentioned in his article that there is no evidence of any association between radicalisation and Muslim women who are unable to speak English. Yet he still made an association between these two issues. Radicalisation is well-known to be a very complex problem and a whole range of factors are thought to contribute towards it. Radicalisation is frequently linked to Islam and Muslims, but we see within Britain and across the Western world, the rise of the far-right, and radicalisation within these communities. The horrific attack in Norway by Anders Breivik, when he killed 77 innocent people, the intimidation by the English Defence League of Muslim communities and the ‘Christian Patrols’ carried out by groups such as Britain First are all examples of this.
Additionally, later on in the week the PM suggested that he would consider deporting those (Muslim) women who came to Britain on a spousal visa and did not learn English within a certain time frame. A policy such as this will only seek to isolate the Muslim community further and do little to further the cause of integration and a strong society.
In my view the Prime Minister is a very politically astute individual and chose his words carefully, knowing that they would enforce negative stereotypes of Muslim women. I wanted to create a campaign that (for once) would show Muslim women in a positive and vibrant light, and as a significant part of British society.
SSWH: How did you feel about the reaction to the campaign? In particular the media coverage and response on Twitter.
SH: The response was phenomenal and totally unexpected. By the end of the storm at 9pm on the 24th of January, we had garnered 18,000 tweets, including support from JK Rowling who had retweeted a few of the fabulous pictures! A lot of Muslim men and non-Muslims also contributed to the lively campaign and many tweets praised our campaign for standing up to the Prime Minister’s remarks, and being NOT #TraditionallySubmissive! We had extensive media coverage in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian as well as Buzzfeed and BBC Radio 5live!
We also trended on twitter in the United States & Canada, and have received media coverage in those countries. Across the board I think we got over 30,000 tweets! Interestingly, the German media also caught onto the story!
SSWH: What do you say to critics who say that the #TraditionallySubmissive hashtag was a disservice to Muslim women who are caught up within traditionalist Muslim cultures and unable to to be socially assertive?
“This campaign showed that Muslim women are diverse and can defy this image.”
SH: I have to say their comments surprised me, particularly as some of these organisations claim to campaign on the issue of Islamophobia and women’s rights. This campaign absolutely was not about denying the existence of challenges that face the Muslim community. It was a protest by women who felt they had been misrepresented by the Prime Minister. Often when Muslim women are portrayed in the media, it is in a negative light, associated with oppression, concealment and lack of education. This campaign showed that Muslim women are diverse and can defy this image. Also it demonstrates that not all Muslim men are misogynistic and oppressive.
The phrase ‘Traditionally Submissive’ (which, by the way the Prime Minister has yet to deny using) is a very loaded term. It implies that Muslim women are inherently submissive due to the nature of their religion; Islam. It was wrong for the Prime Minister to use this term in reference to us.
SSWH: Are you against Muslim women learning English?
SH: Absolutely no! However, I’m against issues being portrayed in a misleading fashion, I’m against vulnerable groups being targeted unfairly, and I’m against policies that discriminate. And this initiative by the Prime Minister ticked all those boxes. We need properly funded English language courses for all newcomers to this country, not a paltry £20m thrown at Muslim women! I humbly request the Prime Minister to use this money alternatively on helping vulnerable families such as the Rutherford’s, who have been affected deeply by the bedroom tax. It is unacceptable that these devoted grandparents have to choose between a cut in their housing benefit and moving home, whilst trying to care for their severely disabled grandson!
SSWH: How do you think Muslim women who are dealing with serious challenges like FGM or forced marriage, can be supported ?
SH: ANY woman who is faced with these challenges should speak to her GP, practice nurse, social worker, or indeed get in touch with one of the many charitable organisations who work in these areas, to get support. I urge women to try and speak out about these issues so they can be dealt with. Communities themselves should also be aware of whether these practices are being carried out in their communities and try to support victims. These practices are not acceptable and should not be tolerated.
SSWH: Finally, who inspires you and what advice would you give to anyone who wishes to organise a campaign?
SH: My inspiration comes from Mary, mother of Jesus. Her story in the Quran is truly inspiring, from her birth where she was expected to be male and the Messiah, to becoming the first female servant of the temple, who then gave birth to Jesus as a virgin. She broke all the cultural barriers that existed towards women in her time – God loved her and elevated her status for this. This is an example for all women to adhere to, and one that God promotes in the Quran; the most valuable and righteous of women are those who submit ONLY to the truth, and not to anything or anyone else.
I also draw a lot of strength from Syeda Zainab, the daughter of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib. Her courage in the face of extreme oppression and her eloquent response to the regime at the time put many men to shame. She is the embodiment of justice and courage.
Finally, I believe firmly in the utmost importance of education…for all, both men and women, to truly eradicate ignorance. To quote James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey who said:
“To educate a man is to educate an individual, but to educate a woman is to liberate a nation”
Our thanks to Dr Sukaina Hirji for taking the time to speak with us.
Interview by Akeela Ahmed
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
Image courtesy of Dr Sukaina Hirji @SukainaHirji