LONDON (Reuters) - 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.
Triggered by events from racial violence in northern England in 2001 to the London bombings, British policy on ethnic minorities has shifted from a “laissez-faire” approach to encouraging integration or “community cohesion,” said Rick Muir, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
But Shazia Qayum’s story illustrates the obstacles still to be overcome in a country with more than 1.6 million Muslims.
Qayum, who lives in the northern city of Derby, says her family kept her away from school for a year at age 15, planning a forced marriage to a Pakistani cousin.
She ran away from her family after her marriage: now aged 28, she works with women who are undergoing similar experiences: “In the eyes of my parents, I am dead,” she said.
“The surprising thing ... is that no one asked the question where I was. No one from education welfare. No one from social services and no one from the police.”
This sort of alienation and isolation is one problem that the “empowerment” scheme could address.
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.
“I want to see more done in communities to build the capacity of Muslim women to shape their communities and to engage with disaffected groups.”
It’s a message that resonates with the women at the Bellenden Old School in south London, but the policy has been denounced as patronizing and clumsy by some Muslim leaders.
“I know I can offer something to this country,” said Ines Meddah, a 26-year-old Algerian lawyer at the London school. “But sometimes I feel like I am in a prison because I struggle to share my know-how.”
From a new citizenship test for people seeking to live in Britain to a recent suggestion that young people swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, the pressure to integrate is mounting -- but it faces complex and deep-rooted obstacles.
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.
“We want the government to help those who are educated who want to (achieve) something in this country,” said Meddah, who has lived in London for two years.
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 favor 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 realize 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.
At the heart of the issue is the rise in tension between Muslims and other Britons since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the 2005 London attacks and thwarted car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow last year.
The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself Britain’s largest Muslim civil liberties group, said Blears’ initiative was missing the larger point -- discrimination.
“What Blears seems to fail to recognize is that women are unequivocally recognized by Islam as the moral authority in their homes,” the organization commented on its Web site. “They do not need condescending advice on how they can better fulfill their roles in this sphere.”
Another Muslim scholar said the scheme was ill-conceived.
“What does the government mean to say when they want to empower Muslim women? Against whom or what? Their men and their ‘traditions’, of course,” said Professor Werner Menski, chair of the Centre for Ethnic Minority Studies at SOAS.
“All this talk about wanting to listen will throw some money at a problem that is far bigger than just women’s empowerment.”
The women at the London school -- from countries as culturally diverse as Somalia, Iran, Algeria and Syria -- urged against generalizing Muslim experiences in Britain and in so doing propagating common prejudices.
“One must not put everyone in the same basket,” Meddah said. “Here there are pharmacists, teachers, engineers, we are not extremists. We just want to have a good life, that’s all. We want to live well in this country.”
In pockets of some Asian communities in Britain, the notion of “empowering” women is directly opposed to imported rural traditions restricting their roles. In extreme cases, women’s lives may be at risk if they try to break the mould.
A British government-funded study by consultant Nazia Khanum in early March found that in one town alone -- Luton, where the largest ethnic minority is Pakistani -- there were more than 300 approaches a year to external bodies for advice of some sort on forced marriage.
In Luton, as in other towns and cities in northern England, the Asian community is largely segregated from the white, and concerns are mounting over the number of girls whose parents are removing them from education in order to marry them off.
Britain’s Forced Marriage Unit receives more than 5,000 inquiries a year and last year intervened in 400 cases, many of them people forced into marriage with someone from overseas.
“Since it is mostly men who are perpetrators of forced marriages and domestic violence, the education of men is essential as a preventative measure,” Khanum’s report said.
(Editing by Luke Baker and Sara Ledwith)
For a video report on forced marriages in Britain, double-click on: here