Analysis: Free to live and learn

November 2, 2001

Fauzia Ahmad is conducting research that challenges the stereotypes about Muslim women in the UK. Claire Sanders reports.

Since September 11, Fauzia Ahmad has been very busy. As a project manager of the Forum Against Islamaphobia and Racism, she has been talking to journalists constantly.

"Attempting to challenge stereotypes and prejudice, conveying British Muslim responses in the wake of the atrocities and talking about the anti-Muslim backlash is important but tiring work," she said.

Ms Ahmad, formerly a lecturer in the department of social work at Brunel University, is writing a PhD on "British South Asian Muslim women, academic achievement and identity" at the department of sociology at Bristol University.

The oppression of Muslim women in Afghanistan and the debate about the role of women in Muslim societies has put the spotlight on Muslim women in higher education in this country. Ms Ahmad's research is aimed at exploring British Muslim women's motivations and experiences of higher education and the impact these experiences have in terms of personal identities and family expectations and roles.

In focusing on a group that has previously been neglected in research literature, Ms Ahmad hopes the work will challenge many stereotypes about South Asian Muslim women in Britain.

It allows women to say how important higher education is to them, to describe its relationship to their religious beliefs and how important family support is to them. It is their fathers who emerge, time and again, as the champions of their education.

When the results of the 2001 census are published, research in this field will be able to call on a strong statistical base. Previous censuses have not asked about individuals' faith, but in 2001 that changed.

Estimates of the numbers of Muslims in the United Kingdom, based on previous census data and surveys such as those conducted by the Policy Studies Institute and Labour Force Surveys, vary from 500,000 to 2 million.

South Asians, that is those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are believed to form about 80 per cent of the UK Muslim population, with those from the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East making up the remainder. Asians who came to the United Kingdom via Africa, such as the East African Asians, are counted as South Asians.

"A striking degree of polarisation exists between British South Asians with higher qualifications and those with a few, or none at all, although the reasons behind this are as yet unclear," Ms Ahmad said.

Statistics show that among ethnic males, Indian and African-Asian men are the most likely to possess degrees, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are the least likely to. "Participation rates for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are improving," she said.

Tariq Modood, director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at Bristol University, said: "The more dramatic rises are at GCSE level and in specific authorities, such as Tower Hamlets. This suggests that the increase in participation by Muslim women from these areas is about to become more noticeable in higher education."

Ms Ahmad said: "As the figures come through, we need more research. Research on British female Muslim students and graduates as a whole is at best scanty. The fact that there are more professional, highly educated women emerging from South Asian Muslim families needs to be recognised."

Ms Ahmad has interviewed 35 South Asian Muslim female students and graduates for her PhD. There have been no significant signs of ethnic or sectarian differences in the experiences and perceptions of the women interviewed, and the majority are studying at old universities.

"For the majority of those interviewed, 'Muslimness' was a deeply embedded sense of consciousness and unconsciousness, governing and prevailing upon their thoughts, behaviours and choices," Ms Ahmad said.

"Higher education was not viewed by these women or their families as being incongruous to the Muslim way of being. In fact, contrary to other research that implies that arranged marriages are the norm for daughters soon after the age of compulsory schooling is passed, most women in this research reported that their parents viewed higher education and careers as a necessity."

Parents, concerned about potential discrimination in the workplace, saw a degree as a tool to fight this and encouraged both sons and daughters to pursue degree study. Higher education also brought prestige to a family.

While sons were seen as breadwinners and encouraged into higher education as a way to lucrative professions, daughters were not always expected to participate in full-time employment - though most in the study were encouraged to do so.

For women, higher education was also seen as an insurance policy if they did not marry or their marriages broke down - and it meant they could attract a better-qualified husband.

Mothers tended to have had few educational opportunities themselves, but did not object to their daughters' ambitions.

"What is of interest here is that fathers were often far more determined to see their daughters achieve academically. This was especially apparent in families where there were no sons," Ms Ahmad said.

"This is in stark contrast to research that situates Muslim fathers and families in exercising extreme patriarchal restraints on the education of their daughters.

"Parents with educated daughters are able to distance themselves from the stereotype of the patriarchal and non-educated family, often believed to confuse tradition with religion by observing strict purdah and restricting the education and movement of women," Ms Ahmad said.

Within this spirit of encouragement, there was a sense of foreboding about the impact of exposure to western secular education. But many of the interviewees found that higher education had strengthened their Muslim sense of identity.

"The women I spoke to gained confidence, not only in their abilities, but also in their cultural, religious and personal identities," Ms Ahmad said. "There is so much ignorance about Islam among non-Muslims and Muslims. I was recently on a radio programme talking about women in Afghanistan and in Islam, when a young Muslim man rang in saying that the Taliban's restrictions on women were Islamically correct as Islam forbade Muslim women from working.

"I simply referred him to the Prophet's first wife, Khadija, who was an educated and successful businesswoman and who was actually the Prophet's boss. She proposed marriage to Muhammad and carried on working after she married him - with his full support. She also became the first Muslim. The caller had no idea who I was talking about.

"Muslim women should have spoken out more on the fate of Afghan women. That is one thing I regret not speaking out about more. If we are to prevent Islam being misinterpreted by non-Muslims, we need to also focus on educating ourselves."

Case study: Sarah Chowdhury

Sarah Chowdhury is in her first year at Durham University reading English. She hopes to become a teacher and said that both she and her brother had always been encouraged to go to university.

"It would have been a huge issue if we didn't go," she said.

"My faith is enormously important to me. I would never go against the Koran. And the Koran teaches us to seek wisdom. It is so important for women to be educated at degree level."

Her father, Shafi Chowdhury, has been a strong influence on her life. Mr Chowdhury came from Bangladesh to the United Kingdom with a degree in commerce.

"We cannot have half the population without an education. We will never progress that way," he said.

Mr Chowdhury has worked for most of his life for the customs service, before retiring with back trouble. He is now a volunteer imam in the prison service and in hospitals, working alongside people of other faiths.

"We work with each other, that is the way forward," he said.

Like his daughter, he stresses the Koran's teaching on wisdom. "Knowledge or wisdom is the most valuable gift Allah gave us. It is obligatory upon men and women to seek it," he said.

"And the Koran also teaches that a mother needs to have authority for a home to be happy. Allah wants parents to be the teachers of their children. An educated mother is the best sort of teacher."

Ms Chowdhury has so far enjoyed her time at Durham. "It is a Christian-oriented university, but that is not a problem. I've got a little group of friends here and they are all interested in my faith. I have never felt threatened."

On watching images of the Taliban's treatment of women, she said: "That is just not the faith I know."

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