In a school in south London, women in headscarves are learning English, childcare skills and citizenship, to smooth their integration into British life. The courses are encouraged under a new government policy to “empower” Muslim women, ultimately to combat the threat from Islamist violence, a threat made brutally clear when four homegrown suicide bombers killed 52 people in London in 2005.
The policy’s backers say the main goal is for Britain’s estimated 800,000 Muslim women to become more influential in their communities, which might stem the threat from disaffected young Muslim men. “Muslim women have a unique role to play in tackling the spread of violent extremism,” Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said as she unveiled the plan, backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
In a document published in January, Blears highlighted figures showing almost two-thirds of Muslim women in Britain are “economically inactive” – as opposed to about a quarter of all women. Her plan would see tens of millions of pounds spent through local communities to raise their involvement. But despite visible backing for the scheme from Brown, some Muslim community leaders are alienated by the way it has been presented.
“Why is it that anything that has to do with Muslims, has to do with terrorism?” said Reefat Drabu, Chair of the Social and Family Affairs Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain. While in favour of female empowerment, she said linking it with reducing the threat of terrorism was ludicrous. “If they want to combat terrorism, they really need to get out of their denial and realise that they need to look at the policies, as far as foreign policies, policies at home, domestic policies to win the hearts and minds of people,” she said.
The Muslim Public Affairs Committee said Blears’ initiative was missing the larger point – discrimination. “What Blears seems to fail to recognise is that women are unequivocally recognised by Islam as the moral authority in their homes,” the organisation commented on its Web site. “They do not need condescending advice on how they can better fulfil their roles in this sphere.”