I was transported to the 1950’s where education was simply a route to marriage. Worse: I was back with my Muslim aunties, the matchmakers and gossips, for whom education is a hindrance to young women getting married, because educated women (so they tell us) have big heads, and are not properly domesticated.
In the subsequent days a storm erupted about the Mayor’s sexism and outdated views. He issued a clarification, saying that he was referring to a phenomenon called “assortative mating”: where women prefer to ‘marry up’ in terms of IQ, and so the smarter women are, the smarter the men they seek.
But such negative attitudes when put into the public space have a massive social impact and the leader of a city as diverse as London ought to be clearer about the context of his comments.
Muslim women in the UK for example are achieving more in education at a faster rate than their male peers, yet the idea that education will hinder marriage opportunities persists. They have a strong sense of being integrated into society as well as feeling woven into their own Muslim communities. These women have a great deal of pressure put on them to marry – the supposed ultimate fulfilment and destiny of an Asian woman (most Muslims in the UK are of Asian origin). Career success is considered at best a hindrance at worst a failure if she’s not married.
Rather than marrying to fulfil social expectations, most British Muslim women seek marriage for a partner and companion – like most other women. Funny that? Rather ironically though, they do have problems in finding husbands.
There are two reasons: Muslim men are trained through culture, and usually through the diktats of their mothers (so women have some blame here) to look for women who are less educated than they are, and usually younger too, on the premise that they will be less opinionated and domineering, and can be more easily ‘moulded’ into the family. The upshot is that it is still popular to go ‘back home’ to find a bride, as she is seen to be a better domesticated wife. One of the results of that is women who arrive in the UK with little knowledge of the country and the local language sometimes experience issues with identity, isolation and violence.
On the other hand, British Muslim women are not willing to marry ‘back home’. Unlike their male peers, according to qualitative studies, they would prefer to marry someone who is British or at least Western because they feel that will be a better match for their values, culture and aspirations.
The second problem is that such educated Muslim women are seeking greater equity in gender roles in the marriage, a partnership rather than a traditional male/female power structure. It is this deeper understanding of marriage through an Islamic lens driving this trend. There are many amazing Muslim men out there, but many haven’t adjusted yet. Which means that Muslim women either can’t find a spouse who is a match for their aspirations, or marriages are increasingly failing.
The irony is that Boris Johnson is therefore more spot on than we’d like to admit – how do we address the issue of these educated, worldly, community-oriented, faith-driven women being unmarried in increasing numbers? The reason his words hit a nerve is because this is not Muslim women’s problem – they are doing everything right and living up to our expectations of educated, liberated women as Islam demands. The issue with our social views is that educated women are somehow a problem, whether that be in helping perpetuate the unfair stereotype of the bossy, opinionated unfeminine graduate, or creating a marriage crisis.
Instead we need to turn our focus on the Muslim men we nurture. Our priority is to help men to step up, but today’s parents, especially mothers need to do the same. They can offer the kind of upbringing which can resolve these issues in a generation, and make comments like those of the Mayor a thing of the past.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf – Muslim Woman Seeks the One. She can be found tweeting here. She is the Vice President of Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first branding agency for Muslim consumers, and one of ‘Britain’s Future female leaders of the advertising industry’ according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.