My mother came to this country in the late 80s, leaving behind her family and everything she knew in her rural village in Bangladesh. She came to live with my father in London and I was born soon after. Newly announced plans to deport Muslim women who fail an English test would have seen me separated from her at just two years old. The Prime Minister claims these measures will empower women to behave as moderating influences in our communities but if my mother had been deported, I fear that the anger and disaffection would have come to define me.
Thankfully this didn’t happen and she devoted the next couple of decades to raising three children while my father worked most evenings and every weekend running a small curry house. My mother relied on a few bits of broken english and a healthy dose of goodwill from neighbours and shopkeepers. Luckily our doctor spoke Hindi, one of the three or four languages Mum could speak pretty fluently. As my siblings and I got older we began translating for her and she continued to run a tight ship at home, providing us with love and stability.
It wasn’t always easy and, like all young families, we got things wrong. It’s difficult raising children in a foreign land and it takes a tonne of resilience to do it well. It was when I or my siblings messed up that things would get really entertaining. Anybody who calls Muslim women submissive has obviously never been on the wrong side of a Bangladeshi mother. The Bengali language really comes into its own when it comes to dishing out discipline and that is something she excelled in. This, if anything, proved that fluent English is no prerequisite for keeping children away from extreme or negative influences. And don’t think my father was exempt - he got it worse than us.
We joke about it now but one thing we can’t deny is that it worked. My mother made big sacrifices to make sure we had opportunities that she did not have access to. The three of us are the first in our family to go to university and my sister is the first woman to do so. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody as proud as my mother was on the day my sister graduated. Her graduation photo promptly took pride of place in the living room while mine was relegated to a corner by the stairs.
Once it looked like the three of us became independent, only then did my mother turn her attention to her own personal development. She was lucky enough to find an ESOL class but plenty of her peers have struggled. Cuts to funding, however they are dressed up, mean places are in short supply. She picked up English with the help of a devoted tutor over a number of years. These were the first steps before she began volunteering in the community and, with a lot of perseverance and nursing a few knockbacks, she was hired at a local shop. This process can take a lot longer than five years for women who have never benefitted from a formal education.
Muslim women shouldn’t have to prove their value to anybody but if we are going to play this game we should begin by acknowledging the dedicated contributions they are already making. Speaking English is not a prerequisite for all of those contributions but it is an aspiration which nearly all hold. Threatening people with deportation and spreading dehumanising stereotypes just creates extra hurdles for Muslim women to overcome.