Universities

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Image Source: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2015/april/muslim-women-and-employment.html

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report entitled “Employment opportunities for Muslims in the UK”, released on Thursday 11th August 2016, makes a great number of recommendations to the Government on improving the accessibility to employment for British Muslims. According to the report, unemployment rates for Muslims are more than twice of that of the general population at 12.8%. A further breakdown shows 41% of Muslims are economically inactive, 65% of which are women.

Addressing and removing barriers to employment for Muslims, and Muslim women should be an absolute priority for the Government. The recommendations made in the report about the need for better, comprehensive data, will go a long way in helping us understand better where the issues are within our systems and institutions. Once we have these, other suggestions, such as “equipping Job Centre staff with the tools and training to improve their understanding of employment issues”, and asking universities to publish “strategies to improve the under-representation of Muslim students” can be enacted effectively, based on evidence. The move towards “name blind recruitment” is also a welcome step towards ensuring equality and reducing discrimination at application stage.

Whilst addressing unemployment in Muslim communities must be a priority for Government, it must be a priority for Muslim communities too. And this is where I fear, we fall down. No matter how excellent the recommendations and proposals set out by the report are or how effectively they are implemented, they will only lead to minimal improvement for the biggest proportion of Muslims that are economically inactive: Muslim women. The report does well to highlight the additional barriers faced by Muslim women, borne out of cultural, parental and religious expectations and limitations, especially regarding matters such as going to university, childcare and traditional family roles.

For example, following on from the point made about the under representation of Muslims at Russell Group universities, the report rightly points out that for Muslim girls, parents will push for the nearest university rather than the best one- due to expectations that girls must stay at home, driven by religious beliefs or cultural norms that discourage Muslim girls and women from living alone or exercising their agency.  Another example is the statistic that 44% of economically inactive Muslim women are inactive because they are looking after the home, compared to the 16% of the national average. The report notes that there may be lack of awareness of free childcare available to individuals, however there is also still the reality of the stigma about “leaving your kids and going to work” when it is oft-repeated that a woman’s primary (and often her sole role) is motherhood.

Initiatives cited by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) such as their work with Reed employment agency to “access Muslim women” are welcome, as are requests by the group to the Government to “provide Muslim women with more focussed support”. However, what we also need to see is groups like the MCB engaging with their own hundreds of affiliates, mosques and Islamic community organisations to start changing attitudes towards women and pursue a more active gender egalitarian approach.  The Committee’s report states “mosques can also play an important role in promoting opportunities for women”- but who will make them? Apart from a few exceptions, to date, they have shown little appetite for such positive action.   The vast majority of mosques, affiliates of the MCB, are still hostile places for women, failing to offer adequate provisions and facilities for women, still running male only boards, making women sit in separate rooms and talking to them through doorways and publishing guidance that women must not travel alone more than 48 miles, wear trousers or have Facebook accounts.

Instead, efforts from some Muslim organisations and our so called community leaders are concentrated on much less significant matters. There is a recommendation for the Government to publish their timetable to introduce Shariah compliant student finance- groups, something the MCB lobbied hard to bring about. However, the lack of “halal” students finance is only a barrier for the tiniest of Muslim minorities. HSBC, who with much fanfare announced so called “halal mortgages” in 2008 after being led to believe there was an overwhelming demand discontinued the product in the UK in 2012 due to the lack of uptake. This should highlight how small an issue this is.  If only a similar amount of energy and efforts went in to our communities when it came to changing attitudes and working towards gender equality and economic freedom for Muslim women.  Instead, Muslim organisations such as Inspire and others that endeavour to undertake this work are attacked, rubbished and subjugated to misogynist abuse, highlighting how difficult the struggle for gender equality within Muslim communities is.

It is not only the intra-community gender discrimination that disadvantage Muslim women. The report correctly draws attention to the increase in anti-Muslim prejudice in our society and the disproportionate way it impacts women who are “visibly Muslim”.  There has been quite substantial evidence indicating that Muslim women are being discriminated against in the workplace, in job applications and during interviews; in fact in every stage of the recruitment process.  Muslim women experience what is often referred to as the triple penalty: discrimination on the basis of their gender, ethnicity and religion.  This is a clear violation of the equality act 2010 and the report is right to address this.

Yet whilst we ask the Government to ensure that employers are sensitive to the needs of Muslim employees, colleagues and team members with appropriate diversity and equality policies to ensure no one is excluded, it is also important for some Muslims to develop what the report calls ‘soft skills.’ Socialising at work is cited as a barrier, alongside the lack of these soft skills, which are developed through engaging and socialising with wide and varied circles. While employers can do more to ensure all staff socially feel part of the workforce, offering diverse out of office venues for example, it is also important to recognise the limitations and even harm of those who hold puritanical interpretations of Islam which often actively discourage socialising or striking up friendships with non-Muslims. I have seen how this can become an inhibiting factor when searching for work or considering an employment opportunity.

In conclusion, yes the Government needs to separate their attempts to tackle inequalities within Muslim communities from their counter-extremism policy, provide more support through their systems and job centres. Yes, employers need to look at how they can be more inclusive and ensure universities are more accessible. And yes, we need to deal with the barriers brought about by anti-Muslim prejudice and preconceptions.  But there is also a huge amount of work that needs to be done from within, that can only be done by Muslim communities.  These include challenging patriarchal attitudes and beliefs put upon women either culturally or religiously, which limit their potential in life and have a negative impact on our society and our very own communities who, as we have seen, continue to remain economically the most disadvantaged in the UK.  We need to and can do better.

Yasmin Weaver

Inspire Project Manager

 

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I believe that education is the cornerstone of our society. It is crucial to building the knowledge and skills of our young people, and also in nurturing their values and beliefs.

In my work as a Muslim Chaplain at the University of Bristol, I promote what I believe to be the fundamental rights of students; equality, freedom of speech and expression, the right to study and live in a safe and nurturing environment, the right to question and the right to be protected from prejudice and extremism.

It is vital that students are taught and encouraged to practice critical thinking. Teaching students to constantly question what they are told or shown is so important in developing the skills needed to resist those who aim to force ideas and values upon them.

Over the last 18 years I have worked in the education sector, I have had the opportunity to observe and share in the challenges faced by students who are away from home for the first time. While many embrace their newfound freedom, for others this situation can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Our duty should be to help and support these students. However, as I have witnessed first hand, there are those that seek to manipulate and exploit these insecurities.

I recall an upsetting case of a talented and bright young man who following a personal trauma whilst at university began to attend presentations at a mosque at which he was exposed to the ideologies of particularly extremist thinkers. He then went on to listen to extremist speakers online.

His behaviour changed for the worse and his mother shared her concerns with me. Previously a very promising student keen to learn, he dropped out of his course as he no longer considered it compatible with his beliefs. He also began circulating hate-filled messages on campus and around the local community including statements such as the local Mosques were not true followers of Islam and should be shut down.

This is only one of many similar instances I have encountered where, had his lecturers been aware and equipped to deal with the situation, he could have received support. This could have come in many forms, such as theological mentoring. Sadly, he was never given this opportunity and instead decided, with little or no guidance, to throw away his future.

For that reason, I find it deeply troubling when those who are supposed to represent and stand up for the welfare of students appear unwilling to accept the responsibility to challenge extremism. This fills me with sadness and frustration, because in doing so, they are actively failing to support vulnerable students, and allowing hateful ideologies to spread on campuses. As a parent of children at university I have spoken to many parents who share my concerns.

We all agree that education is a universal right. So too is the right to learn in a space that is safe and secure, and one which is not coloured by the ideologies of hatred, bigotry and extremism.

My concern is that in our misguided anxiety not to offend, we actually risk failing those who we should be helping to protect. Extremist ideologies, unless challenged, can find fertile breeding grounds among vulnerable members of society.

It’s imperative that as a society we must all work together to combat extremism. As part of that effort, student groups and their leaders play a critical role in standing up to extremists on university campuses.

Let’s be clear. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of academia, just as it is a principle that we hold dear as a nation. Equally, students have the right to learn in an environment where they are not regularly exposed to extremist ideas, which among other things advocate the demeaning of women, express hatred towards gay people and attack democracy.

We should not underestimate the damage that the unchallenged propagation of extremist ideas can cause on university campuses. Sadly young people continue to make up a disproportionately high number of those arrested in this country for terrorist-related offences.

In recent years, there have been a number of instances in which university students have attempted to commit acts of terrorism. In November 2014, Erol Incedal, a law student at London South Bank University, was found guilty of possession of a bomb-making manual. Others believed to have been radicalised whilst at university include Glasgow Airport attacker Kafeel Ahmed, who was a student at Anglia Ruskin University.

That these individuals could have fallen under the influence of poisonous and violent ideologies whilst attending British universities prompts uncomfortable questions – which we need to address with candour and courage.

If we regard extremism as anathema to the values of tolerance, pluralism and free speech that we value in our universities, then it is right that we work in partnership to challenge it and create an environment where freedom of speech and freedom from harm co-exist.

The student movement has in the past shown determination in tackling hateful ideas, for example in campaigning against racism. But in turning a blind eye to vile extremist ideas, and in refusing to acknowledge the threat they pose to students, they do a disservice to themselves and the wider community. If they had seen the way that extremism can wreck young lives, as I have, they would surely not be so complacent.

Kalsoom Bashir

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Inspire have been working with teachers and schools across the country to help equip them to challenge extremism.  We provide training, support and consultancy and as experienced trainers offer a offer a wide range of training programmes for teachers, parents and pupils which can be adapted to meet specific needs of the target audience

Please contact us for further information or to discuss your needs.

For more information , please do click here: http://www.wewillinspire.com/working-with-schools/ 

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Inspire is proudly partnering with the Association of Schools and College Leaders (ASCL) to help equip teachers with the tools to counter extremism.

Read more about the seminars here: http://www.ascl.org.uk/news-and-views/news_news-detail.seminars-launched-to-help-protect-young-people-against-radicalisation.html

Additionally, Inspire is also partnering with the London Grid for Learning, who have put together short videos online answering common questions about the role of schools challenging extremism.

For more information, please see here: http://counterextremism.lgfl.org.uk/index.html

Inspire have also been in the news speaking out on the issue of countering extremism within our schools and amongst our children, appearing in both The Guardian and on BBC Online.

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