A much older cousin lived in London’s Turkish neighbourhood of Green Lanes for forty years, and never learnt to speak English. She earned money tailoring clothes from a sewing machine in her living room. She shopped in local stores owned and frequented by other Turks. She socialised with her family. There was —as she saw it— little urgency for another language. In fact, there was little time. Above all, she had raised two children to speak English perfectly, have English friends, and to contribute to British society with good jobs in IT and wins at martial-art championships.
Attributing blame to a woman who does not learn the language of a country, is as good as forgetting we are not the sum of every ambition life got in the way of. Being a working mother of two will almost certainly “get in the way”. Depression and social nervousness ever present will play their part.
The first four months of moving to New York, I could barely bring myself to speak to anyone despite advantage of a shared language. I arrived with a partner whose company made moving as easy as possible. It was also my choice. I moved —not from an abusive financial economy, or war— simply, because I was bored. Nonetheless, migrating was a grief; a despondency which consumes, born of the separation from everyone I have ever loved. We had started again; moving to a house that wouldn’t feel like home, finding our feet in the buzz of someone else’s (albeit familiar) culture, amid the overwhelming loneliness of it all. To think, there are only two of us, not young children in tow. If it had been demanded that during this already difficult adjustment, I had to learn, say, Russian on top of it, this may have been too much.
So unresolved is the value of integration, that there has been no such thing as an agreed global technique, nor expectation of our response to a move. I repeat sentences in my accent to impressed Americans, explaining phrases and slang until they parrot them back to me. Grateful for new words and information —which shows do I watch? Can I recommend British music in turn? Assimilation here is two-sided.
The most powerful motif of integration always seem to belong to those communities who have replicated a home away from home; the Indians in Southall, the Caribbeans in Tottenham and Peckham, the Greeks in Edmonton, the Jews in Golders Green. This is not rigid self-governing, nor division, rather the fluidity of continuity. Likewise, they cannot exist without the understanding and reverence of the host nation, whose own culture widens and benefits simply by accommodating.
Simply put, the only rule is acceptance, which is a must from both communities who mix like a kind of venn diagram until there is something of its own in the middle. But a £20m fund so immigrant women may learn English bares none of this. A worthy idea placed in a box of razors. After two and half years, women on a spousal visa will be tested on language. On failing, she will be faced with deportation. Young Muslim men, David Cameron said, are susceptible to radicalisation because Muslim women cannot speak out against Imams. Muslim women, he believes, can learn English to help their sons from turning to extremism.
So strong is the control of fear that foresight and evidence are neither provided, nor requested anymore. The existence of Daesh has become enough in Britain to simply imagine outcomes and separate women from their children.
The denial of humanness is to see a woman who speaks only her mother-tongue and blame it on her religion. It is to forget that she too experiences the very same every-day chores, stresses, and distractions that have limited us all in some way. She is given one narrative —a procedure of white supremacy— in which black boys who wear hoods cannot be cold, nor fashionable, they are “thugs”; where Jewish business owners are not hard-working, contributors of economy, but greedy and miserly; where Muslim women who do not speak English are complicit in acts of terrorism, not people who are busy, or mentally ill-prepared to retain a new language.
No matter. There is nothing new in throwing accusations of terrorism at Islam and hoping something sticks. On explaining why Muslim women were singled out in a plan considered for all non-English speaking women, a government source said, “David knows that the traditional submissiveness of Muslim women is a sensitive issue […] At the moment, too many Muslim women are treated like second-class citizens who may speak only basic English at best, and have no jobs or independent financial standing.”
Credible reasoning cannot be found in a statement that relies so heavily on “they all look the same”. The way of life for a Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia will differ from that of a woman in Turkey, who in turn will differ from that of a woman in Eritrea, and so on. That is to say, there is nothing theocratically traditional about submission, rather it is a varying product of nationality. In fact, when it comes to gender, it is worth remembering that “women as second-class citizens” is maintained worldwide.
But the portrait of Muslim men as patriarchal appeals in a way that white men controlling a woman’s modesty — we have all known the man who has met his partner’s outfit on a girls’ night out with rage; we are heavily aware of a jurisdiction that believes the length of a woman’s skirt may contribute to her rape — or her financial stability (the pay-gap) does not.
The one who cares about the well-being of women will not do so only within the parameters of criticising Islam. Domestic violence refuges have closed at such a rate under Cameron’s government that vulnerable women and children have been put back 40 years. A woman is killed by a man every two days in Britain, a statistic that is not likely to reduce any time soon. Every year 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales, where 97 per cent of these see no justice. Submission is submission, no matter the language —or two— a woman speaks.
Now consider this: Since the Paris attacks, violence against Muslims has increased 300 per cent where the vast majority of its victims are women. Muslim women have spoken for some years of being spat at, hit, or having their veils pulled from their bodies by white men in public spaces. If we had reached the denouement of integration and its value, we would know that in order for it to work it must be reciprocal. Offering English to non-speakers would then share a platform, say, with a project to unteach white men bigotry that manifests in violence.
Only understanding the use of Muslim women as props can explain how there may be concern for a woman’s wellbeing around brown men, but not white. Why this plan does not target all failing participants of a harmonised society has yet to be asked.
There is, unfortunately, real fear of extreme behaviour from a man who grows loathsome of a country that defamed his mother, then separated her from him as a child. Never because of the language she loved him in.
Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London of Turkish / Middle Eastern heritage. She writes opinion pieces, contributing to The Independent as well as regularly featured writing for online blog and events organiser Poejazzi. She has represented the UK at the International Biennale, Rome 2011 with spoken word. Her poetry collection “Outside Looking On” published by Influx Press is out now. She collects photos of Canary Wharf. Find her on Twitter: @chimenesuleyman
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