Question Time: MEND’s Shenaz Bunglawala tackles Baroness Cox’s claim that British Muslim men have ‘up to 20 children’
Shenaz Bunglawala, Head of Research at MEND, offers her thoughts on recent comments in the press by Baroness Cox that British Muslim men have ‘up to 20 children’.
Above: Shenaz Bunglawala
It is almost par for the course that we often see some peers of the realm engage in behaviour that one might reasonably consider as bringing the House of Lords into disrepute. Whether it is the former UKIP leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch who wants Muslims to “address the violence in the Qur’an” and who is currently at work on a guide for “integrating Muslim communities better,” or Baroness Shreela Flather, who thinks Muslims are “all on benefits and all vote Labour,” we’ve become accustomed to hearing nonsense spoken on the floor of the venerable chamber.
The amplification of such nonsense by the newspapers in the form of news reports highlighting the comments can seem incendiary when one considers (a) the newspaper titles most likely to report on these things (b) the ‘fitting in’ of the coverage with a newspaper’s general tone on Muslims, benefits and, in particular, Muslim women.
Baroness Caroline Cox’s recent remarks about Muslim men in Britain living in polygamous marriages and fathering up to 20 children might seem like a favourable nod in the direction of ‘Eurabia’ fantasists dressed up as a regard for gender equality, but her comments and news reports on them tell us quite a bit about standards in journalism and Islamophobia in the British press.
Take for example, the fact that the Baroness pointed only to “Muslim friends” as her basis of evidence in claiming that Muslim men were engaging in polygamy and that “20 children” was the cost of such errant, illegal behaviour. Might it be too much to expect that journalists reporting on her comments probe the soundness of the ‘evidence base’ offered? Or indeed seek to probe the claim further by investigating whether an evidence base exists to verify that claim, or one approximating it?
Might Muslims fairly ask if newspapers would blindly repeat claims such as the one about Muslim men by Baroness Cox if the faith group was something other than British Muslims?
The proposed ‘test’ that newspaper sub-editors substitute ‘Jews’, ‘Blacks’ or ‘gays’ for stories proposed about ‘Muslims’ seems a sensible one given the observed tendency in sections of the British press “to portray Muslims in a negative light,” as Lord Leveson put it.
Let me share the findings from new research MEND have commissioned on the representations of Islam and Muslims in the British press from 2010 – 2014. The research builds on the brilliant analysis by Professors Tony McEnery and Paul Baker, and Costas Gabrielatos, in the largest study ever done on Islam and Muslims in the British national press. Their book, Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes: The Representation of Islam in the British press, covers the period 1998-2009. This year, we commissioned McEnery and Baker to extend the corpus to cover the period 2010-2014 and compare and contrast the results with the earlier corpus. The new research is due for publication next month but here I want to share some findings with respect to Muslim women, and also regarding the subject of the veil.
One of findings from the new corpus restates a pattern familiar from the old, that “the main picture is a continuation of older discourses which focus on Muslim women as victims, receiving special treatment, victimisation or problematizing their dress.”
The finding is relevant in consideration of the justification offered by Baroness Cox for her Arbitration and Mediation Bill, and her fulsome support for a review of the work of shari’ah tribunals, namely that these discriminate against Muslim women.
The second finding I want to share is the way in which the ‘veil’ is reported in the British press and how this has changed in 2010-2014 compared to the earlier period analysed by McEnery and Baker, 1998-2009.
There are two things that are worthy of note. Firstly, there has been a sizeable decrease in reporting on the veil as a ‘right’ exercised by Muslim women and a disturbing increase in news articles which see Muslim women as being ‘forced’ to wear the veil (increase of nearly a third) or ‘demanding’ to wear the veil (more than doubled). The shift in the pattern of reporting which regards Muslim women as passive in the face of aggressive religiosity imposed by others (that they are forced to wear the veil) or themselves aggressive in exercising religious freedoms (demanding to wear the veil) tells us something about the wider dynamics in which gender equality operates when the subject is a ‘Muslim’ woman.
The second point to address is the prevalence of particular frames in particular newspaper titles. The comments made by Baroness Cox were reported in at least three national titles: the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.
If we look at the ways in which these individual titles have reported on the issue of the veil, we find that in the 1998-2009 corpus the Daily Mail framed the veil as a ‘right’ with ‘forced’ coming a close second in its coverage. Surprisingly, the Daily Express framed the veil as a ‘right’ with women as ‘choosing’ to wear the veil coming second in its coverage on the topic. The Daily Telegraph published a greater number of articles referring to the veil as being ‘forced’.
In the 2010-2014 corpus, the Daily Telegraph still predominantly regards the issue of the veil as being ‘forced’. The Daily Mail’s coverage is evenly spread with the highest number of articles framing the issue as ‘forced’ and as women ‘demanding’ to wear it. The Daily Express shows the biggest shift with zero articles in which the veil is described as a ‘right’ and the highest number of articles in which women are regarded as being ‘forced’ to wear the veil.
I posit this information as a wider context to the way in which Muslim women are constructed in the British press and the reasons why comments such as those espoused by Baroness Cox might resonate with particular titles.
If Muslim women get a bad press in general and are regularly constructed as a group devoid of agency and voice, is it any surprise that efforts to advance their equality, ironically without their agency or voice being invited, are amplified?
Should this mean that we throw the baby out with the bath water and treat spoken nonsense of this type as broadly dismissive? When responding to an earlier set of outrageous comments by Baroness Flather, the Muslim Council of Britain retorted, “Her consistent bigotry has unfortunately forfeited the right to be taken seriously.”
I would venture to say the same applies to Baroness Cox.
But I hasten to add this, the issue of nik’ah marriages and legal rights is greater than the obnoxious messenger who purports to care about the Muslim women trapped in legal limbo. It is why I was intrigued by the inclusion of Aina Khan in the Community Engagement Forum established by the PM. I am tremendously supportive of her ‘Register Our Marriages’ campaign. But should a review of shari’ah tribunals be conducted under the auspices of a counter-extremism strategy? Should the focus be exclusively on shari’ah tribunals and not on other religious arbitration forums (I’m back to the sub-editors’ test)? And when the securitisation of Islam is so pervasive – witness the inclusion of shari’ah tribunals, forced marriages etc in the counter-extremism strategy – is it any wonder that a peer of the realm can conflate polygamous marriages and “20 kids” with the idea that these “dysfunctional families may be vulnerable to extremism and demography may affect democracy”?