Dr Altaf Hussain is the Shadow Minister for Social Services in Wales and a regional AM for South Wales West.
Gender equality in the UK in 2016 has undeniably come a huge distance – yet there remain significant stones to be unturned. Ignoring these stones is not only morally unacceptable but presents a real threat to our society’s cohesion and well-being. Furthermore, to so would be incompatible with modern attitudes to gender in every other respect.
With new measures being introduced that will see larger organisations forced to publish information about the gap between what they pay men and women, there cannot be a better time to call for further measures to enable all women to play the fullest possible role in modern British society. This also means drawing attention to the problem of low expectations within sections of some minority groups. Nicky Morgan’s call last month that there must be “nowhere for gender inequality to hide” is laudable, but the time has come to take this to its logical conclusion.
There are around 1.5 million Muslim women living in the UK and, whilst we have made major strides on integrating groups from different backgrounds into a more cohesive society, the fact remains that too many these women and girls still cannot dream of accessing opportunities that most rightly take for granted. In other words, a sizeable minority of the UK’s population may still, this year, be born into a default position of disadvantage due to their sex.
There has been much discussion – in the press and between my colleagues from all parties in the Welsh Assembly – about how we can ensure women are fairly represented in our boardrooms and in public life. There has been debate – particularly amongst members of the so-called chattering-classes – as to whether women have yet reached a ‘truly’ equal footing with men when it comes to balancing the demands of a career and family life. Discussions of this nature in fact show how far the discourse has progressed in just a few decades. There is perhaps a cruel irony, though, in the gently mocking characterisation of this type of chatter as a ‘first world problem’.
Bluntly, there are sections of UK society in which simply accessing the most basic education and language skills is not a right that girls and young women feel is theirs. Their plight could not be more removed from discussion of whether the new legislation – aimed largely at large corporations – is a catalyst for ‘real change’ or for a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. From birth, there are girls who will have been conditioned to carry tragically low expectations when compared to peers from different cultural backgrounds, even when their economic circumstances may be broadly similar. For these girls, the question of whether helping women balance the demands of family and career is a ‘legitimate’ aim of feminism could not be further removed from the challenges they face.
For too long, the fear of causing offence and appearing ‘anti-Islamic’ has prevented this issue being highlighted – including by some of the equalities agenda’s most radical proponents. The situation of girls in many immigrant families an intellectually inconvenient truth for the otherwise ‘progressive’ brigade. As a Muslim and a believer myself, I see no requirement for apology to me made to the teachings of Islam. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “Acquiring of knowledge is obligatory to every Muslim male and female”.
Islam, moreover, imposes a duty on every Muslim, male or female, to gain knowledge in a way so as to make the doing so a superior act of worship in Islam. In Islam, therefore, both men and women are created with the capacity to understand, to learn and to teach – Islam in fact mandates the cultivation of these human abilities.
I would not pretend that this case is not easier for me make than it would be for many of my white and/or non-Islamic contemporaries – even if they are, otherwise, middle-class males very much like me. It goes back to the worst of the ideas that have been associated with ‘multiculturalism’, pursued with ideological zeal and with little pause for reflection at a time when societal integration should have been the mantra. Separate cannot be equal and again, the Qur’an is incredibly clear about this.
Education – in the broadest sense – is beyond doubt the best starting point. The Prime Minister has been unquestionably right to pledge significant extra funding to boost literacy among Muslim women living the UK; this is absolutely the best route to empowerment and a broadening of horizons. There is a risk of real social harm when there are entire generations raised by a mother who struggles to read and write – separateness risks becoming entrenched across generations. In any other context, you’d call this point a ‘no-brainer’ and urgent action would be called for across the board.
With the power of an education, girls will also be better placed to resist practices such as forced marriage and FGM, which have no place in our society and must be eradicated. Most fair-minded people would agree, and this is how we achieve progress and change.
If we can agree education is necessary, is it also sufficient? Clearly, education is the core building block that will illuminate understanding – by both men and women – of other risks to our social cohesion. One such risk comes from having parallel bodies of law. The encroachment of Sharia jurisdictions into our civil law should be treated with extreme caution – with gender issues alone a sufficient justification for erring toward a ‘red light’ approach. A unified and integrated society is not generally well-served by competing theories of law attempting to operate in tandem under one jurisdiction. One country must mean one shared body of law, mandated under the Rule of Law and common to all.
To most modern understandings, this would imply gender equality in the law. There are aspects of Sharia law – for example when it comes to marriage, divorce and inheritance rights – that are not compatible with this. Certain Sharia principles can of course have a very positive role in facilitating commerce – creating a mutually acceptable ‘fit’ between specific financial structures and UK statute – but that is very different to an approach that could allow for half a population (girls and women) to enjoy a less robust defence in law of their basic civic rights, in a touch of the hat to moral relativism. We should be careful of discarding the principles of good jurisprudence for fear that some people – often, it must be said, with a vested interest in doing so – will claim to be ‘outraged’ at the suggestion.
We must never risk prioritising political correctness and cultural relativism over steps that prevent real harm. Let us not undermine the strides we have made to secure greater equality by ignoring a significant element in our society – because this may more convenient. You cannot discuss gender without recognising there is a big problem here that we have not yet solved. We walk over eggshells that it may sometimes hurt to tread on and which may occasionally break the skin; but we fail to walk at our peril.