“I have so much bread on my back,” my mother told me one summer day as she looked at her reflection in the full length mirror in her bedroom. I was confused until I realised that she had mixed up the phrase "rolls of fat" with "bread rolls" and had come up with her own neologism that was a hybrid of both expressions. My mum’s first language is Urdu, so if she speaks in English it’s common for her to make funny mistakes. Urdu was the only language she used to communicate with my five siblings and I when we were growing up, meaning that we’re all fortunate enough to be bilingual adults. I’d say 99% of the conversations I have with my mum are in Urdu and it’s very rare that she’ll utter an entire sentence to me in English, even though she knows it well. When I recently heard David Cameron say that Muslim women and their children could be more susceptible to extremism if they’re unable to speak English, I found it both perplexing and upsetting. I stop reading or listening when articles and interviews contain words like counter extremism, integration, identity, Islam and Muslim women because I feel like they don’t mean much anymore. They’ve become buzzwords that are tossed into the same bowl of alphabet soup that I like to call the "Muslim Melange." It goes without saying that I agree that investing money and services in English classes for Muslim women is a wonderful initiative – it empowers and creates opportunity. It should be applauded and is essential for the reported 22% of Muslim women who speak little or no English. As Aisha Ali, a Pushto-speaking Muslim woman who came to the UK a year ago tells me, she wants to improve her English so she can “take her three girls shopping, pass her driving test and get a job."
However, suggesting that not speaking English is connected to radicalisation – as Cameron has recently done – is an extremely damaging rhetoric that alienates those very people that Cameron says he wants to help integrate. Plus, it doesn’t have enough evidence to back it up; the three British schoolgirls who went to Syria last year were well educated and from English-speaking families and according to Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi in the Guardian, “gang culture, Islamophobia, [and] responses to foreign policy are greater drivers of radicalisation” than a lack of English. Of course, Cameron admits that there isn’t a “causal link” between not knowing English and extremism. But then why create a £20 million fund for Muslim women to have language lessons? Why not give all migrants the same opportunity, no matter what faith or gender they are? Just like a child denying that he’s eaten all the sweets when his mouth is full of marshmallows, Cameron’s actions belie his words. It seems to me that Cameron is singling out Muslim mums and suggesting that they’re contributing to radicalisation because they favour their mother tongue. Which undermines them as parents in suggesting that they need to communicate with their children in English to stop them becoming ingratiated into radicalisation. He makes it sound like Muslim households are beset with wormholes that instantly transport children to ISIS training camps; that parents don’t communicate with their kids; and that Muslim mums are incapable and ill-equipped to care for their families. I find it insulting.
My mum knew about all my influences but she herself was the biggest influence on my life.
I know what it’s like to live in a household where English isn’t spoken and it’s just like any other home – all the same values, ideas and support are there but expressed in a different language. And I’d say that, rather than it making children more vulnerable to extremism, it can make for more of a tight-knit family with stronger, more unique bonds. Knowing a different language made me feel special and it tied me closer to my parents and siblings. I felt secure because the language gave me a connection to my roots, my background and my history; it made me the opposite of vulnerable. My mum knew about all my influences but she herself was the biggest influence on my life. And her character and nature wouldn’t have changed if she spoke to me in English. She was still able to teach me how to be a good, kind citizen even though she thought a chest of drawers was called a Chester drawers for years and she still pronounces ‘Saturn’ as Satan. When we argued she’d win because her Urdu vocabulary was obviously far better than mine, although she would occasionally switch to English and tell me she “couldn’t ‘assept’ my argument”.
“For many years, first generation parents have instilled values and principles in their children without necessarily being able to speak English.
Bradford Muslim Women's Council
As an adult I find it tricky to talk to her about things like tax returns and the phenomenon of Donald Trump, not because she wouldn’t understand but purely because it takes too long for me to find the right words to explain them; I have no idea how to translate the phrase "utter pillock" into Urdu (I settle for "crazy scoundrel"). But all the things that matter – all the important stuff – is stated and understood. My local Muslim Women’s Council in Bradford, agree with me: “For many years, first generation parents have instilled values and principles in their children without necessarily being able to speak English. While there is a need to learn English in order to help families in their journeys to become British Citizens, this has certainly not stopped parents and their children from working hard and becoming successful.” My issue has never been that Muslim women shouldn’t learn English. What concerns me is that Muslim mothers are being portrayed as unfit parents that leave their children open to radicalisation simply because their English needs improvement. The politicised image of Muslim mums as abaya-wearing mutes is far removed from the reality of the family life I lived and am still living with my own three-year-old daughter. Speaking English isn’t some sort of divine panacea that will fix all of life’s ills. It doesn’t matter what language you speak in to your children, as long as you’re saying the right things.