Like many others this January, I have set in motion plans to get fit as part of a New Year’s resolution. As a full-time working mother, there remain few hours in the day when I have the energy to exercise. As a solution, I decided to multi-task. I now run to my daughter’s school to collect her, rather than take the bus.
Feeling virtuous I set off on my run yesterday only to be met with a string of uncomfortable encounters. Part of my run takes me through an inner city suburb of Manchester with a prominent South-Asian community. There are many road works taking place on this busy road and as a result the pavement is restricted in size. While in full stride I could see a man ahead of me carrying shopping bags in each hand. As I approached him I said ‘excuse me’ hoping he would let me pass. Instead, the man widened himself, holding his shopping bags out to the side. I had no option but to slow down to a walk. About half a block later, when the pavement grew wider, I was able to pass him. As I ran by, the man gave me a demonstrably disapproving look.
Only a few metres ahead of this last incident, I was met by a group of young male teenagers walking towards me. As I ran past, the teenagers made rude comments about my body. Stung, I ran on.
Further down the street, I encountered a Muslim women standing at the bus stop. A South-Asian man was verbally assaulting this young woman wearing a hijab for not being a good Muslim. At volume, and in her face, the man criticised her for being out in public without a man. The young woman said nothing, but stood resolved not to be flustered by the actions of this man.
As I approached my daughter’s school I reflected on historical efforts that millions of women have made, often sacrificing themselves, to ensure that girls and women are treated with respect and dignity in their communities. It angered me that in 2016 I should experience and witness this unacceptable treatment of women.
Walking through the gates of my daughter’s school – a school founded in the 19th century when the very idea of educating girls was generally unsupported – I realised that more needs to be done. Cameron’s plans to educate vulnerable Muslim women is a start. It is important that Muslim women living in this country are able to experience the same rights as non-Muslim women. And, as I strongly believe that education is one of the most important tools in improving the lives of girls and women, it is about time that the government made stronger commitments to advancing the protection of women’s rights in vulnerable communities within Britain.
However, the responsibility cannot only lie with the Muslim women. Some Muslim men living in Britain need to be educated that women are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. Young Muslim men in particular, must be informed about the rights of women and the implications this has for them. Empowered girls and women are essential to a healthy and happy society. When girls and women feel valued, they participate in politics, they become positive role models, they become leaders.
It shouldn’t be the case that women are verbally abused in the street. Of course women are regularly intimidated in public by men of all ethnicities, nonetheless the attitude of some Muslim men that women should not be out on their own, and should not be allowed access to the English language, intends to limit women’s power and curtail their rights. All political parties need to ensure a commitment to women’s rights that takes account of cultural differences but also does not shy away from overriding them when necessary.
Education is an essential factor in ensuring the advancement of girls and women within society. Making safe spaces available for girls and women is crucial to achieving this educational goal. I hope the government’s new commitment to Muslim women will help transform attitudes as those I experienced on my run.