Speaker’s Corner: Fatima Begum Rajina on “What’s in a language and dress? “, a response to the British PM

By Myriam Francois|February 2, 2016|Speaker's Corner|0 comments

What’s in a language and dress? A response to David Cameron’s comments concerning Muslim women

By Fatima Begum Rajina


It’s been over a week since our PM David Cameron made the comments about Muslim women needing to learn English or else they would be deported. One of the first things I thought of and tweeted instantly was the infamous speech by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835 titled ‘Minute on Indian Education’. In it, he carefully assures his fellow countrymen of the invaluable stature and inherent value of the English language, which should be chosen instead of Arabic and/or Sanskrit in order to educate the ‘native subjects’ because the English language ‘whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects’. He was adamant in ensuring the English language was embedded into every sphere of Indian society, and particularly, within a specific class of people who could act as ‘interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’


I mean, as soon as I read about his rather attention-seeking ways in trying to appeal to his electorate, I instantly thought of that particular class I took for my PhD when we discussed the imposition of the English language onto Indians. Not only did the language element cause me an unnecessary frenzy, but then to read that language learning is being linked to counter-terrorism – that’s when I sat feeling confused. If mothers don’t learn English, then somehow they are responsible for their children becoming radicalised? What about the English-speaking mothers who have already gone to Syria with their children? Lack of language proficiency doesn’t mean a mother isn’t able to communicate with her children. This suggestion implies children can only be disciplined or mothered in English, which, of course, is absurd and demonstrates Cameron’s illogical way of combining language with counter-terrorism.  He attempts to, I’d argue intentionally, absolve the UK’s responsibility in creating the conditions for the emergence of the mess that is Daesh/Isis; not to mention the forbidden f word, social deprivation, cuts to the ESOL classes over the last four years, and the list just goes on.


In addition to the above, I was reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s famous statement: ‘white men trying to save brown women from brown men’.  This was in reference to, once again, the colonial period where the white British officers tried to ban the practice of sati and save the women from the men enabling them to practice it. History is repeating itself again with Cameron trying to save the ‘poor Muslim woman’ from her oppressive, backward husband who is only too eager to have her remain submissive and stay behind closed doors. Once again, the assumption here is that only the English language can save her, which Cameron will be providing with his meagre £20m budget, in order to find freedom and the ability to be ‘less submissive”! However, on the other hand, the notion that Muslim women behave in ‘traditionally submissive’ ways was rather beautifully refuted by many Muslim women on Twitter using the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive, which resulted in over 30,000 tweets challenging David Cameron.


Moving on swiftly (merely following in the footsteps of our PM), literally overnight, we are suddenly exposed to the whole niqab hungama. Again! I thought we covered A-Z of the niqab map? What is this fascination with Muslim women’s bodies and dress? Interestingly, dress was another aspect of Indian life that seemed to bother the British officials. The most famous saying attributed to an Indian for his ‘nakedness’ was by Churchill when he referred to Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’. The British also found the sari profoundly disturbing, as many women wore it without the blouse thus revealing much of their back and midriff, which positioned the British to, once again, ‘educate’ these backward people on how to dress ‘appropriately’ to be deemed ‘civilised’.


In addition, the niqab is being incorporated into the Ofsted inspection and Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, ‘has now instructed his inspectors to mark down institutions if they judge the wearing of the veil is acting as a barrier to learning and to positive social interaction’. So what he is saying here is a WHOLE school can be downgraded to ‘inadequate’ on the basis of a niqab, or face veil. Not only do Oftsed inspectors have to look out for the pupils’ performances in lesson and their progress but now they are receiving additional pressures. This ‘requirement’ for Ofsted inspection is practically tantamount to forcing schools to ban it without making any references to the requirements of the Equality Act. This is troubling because, nationally speaking, there are only a handful of women who wear the niqab YET the whole country is focusing on this. Why?


What is profoundly alarming about all this is how the UK is no longer interested in maintaining or renovating the ideas surrounding multiculturalism, which it introduced but instead we are seeing an outright shift towards imposing a linear monoculture by solidifying and entrenching it in every sphere of British society, as we are witnessing with the implementation of the Prevent strategy. By continuing to focus on Muslims, day in day out, David Cameron is responsible for the hate that trickles down to society,  and leads to attacks on Muslims. We are no longer the ‘Pakis’, the ‘n***ers’ but instead we have become the ‘Muslims’. Racism has taken on a new name but very much continues to manifest itself in ways my parents witnessed in the late 80s and prior to that my grandfather in the 60s.



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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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