Scrolling over my Facebook newsfeed, I came across the statement that British Prime Minister David Cameron had made regarding Muslim women and the urgent need for them to learn English or face deportation.
Even before I learned about the specifics of the story (not that it shed any light on the need for such drastic measures), it was disconcerting to see in the headlines that the prime minister of England was singling out an already demonised demographic.
While the measure should apply to all immigrants on a spousal visa, regardless of race and nationality, Cameron made Muslim women the poster representatives of immigrants struggling to assimilate in society — and also links that to terrorism.
Threatening immigrants with deportation if they do not clear this second English exam in the five-year process leaves this group vulnerable and their futures uncertain. The statement came as he announced a £20 million fund to help Muslim women learn English.
As someone who has been in this situation — moving to a foreign country without knowing the native language — I understand the nature of the exclusion that Cameron was referencing in his speech.
Moving to Ankara, Turkey, where they speak little or no English, I had a tough time getting around and performing basic tasks such as getting groceries, ordering food or finding addresses.
When people ask me about Turkey and its culture, I still politely refrain from commenting because I largely lived on the fringes of society.
Mind you, this exclusion did in no way incite me to wreak havoc and terrorism on the Turkish society as Cameron assumes is the natural Muslim instinct when left in isolation long enough.
Even if I did not speak the language, I was not ostracised for not knowing it. I found plenty of Turks willing to help out or be patient while I struggled through the basics, and slowly started to learn the language. Their hospitality encouraged me and went a long way in making me feel like home, in a land and amongst people completely alien to me.
If greater assimilation was the end goal of Cameron's measure, he defeated its purpose by singling out Muslim women.
In such a scenario, had Erdogan been inciting his nation against Pakistani women and their natural inclination towards terrorist activities, I assume I would be less willing or comfortable talking to people or asking for help and they would be reluctant to reach out as well.
There are obvious merits to knowing English as a UK resident i.e. greater participation in society, access to education and jobs, more opportunities to socialise, etc. And to ensure that immigrants are on the path to assimilation before coming to the UK, they already have to know some basic English before they can be cleared for immigration. However, assimilation is a complicated process that goes beyond the efforts and changes that immigrants can make to achieve it.
It’s a two-way street — the host country has to be tolerant and accepting of the immigrant’s culture as well — a quality fast waning in UK as is evidenced by the peak in the wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK after the Paris attacks.
Even as Cameron attempted to thinly veil his racist comments as concern for the well-being of Muslim women, it is obvious that if it was greater assimilation that was the end goal of this measure, he just defeated its purpose by singling out Muslim women from the multiple ethnic, religious and national groups that hope to make Great Britain their home one day.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Cameron’s statement contributes to the Islamophobic narrative that has become widespread in the West.
In fact, his statement, which was peppered with many unpleasant stereotypes of Muslims — that of being opposed to progress, being anti-liberal and oppressive — does not contribute towards helping them assimilate, it instead alienates them.