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Family, Citizenship and Islam Book Cover Family, Citizenship and Islam
Nilufar Ahmed
Ashgate
2016
243

This study draws on research conducted in 2000-2002 on the lives of first-generation Bangladeshi women, followed up by interviews ten years later  with  twenty, randomly drawn from the original cohort of 100. The author provides an account rich in its citations of academic research as well as an awareness of the socio-cultural changes taking place in the East End of London, particularly Tower Hamlets. It offers ‘a new and different perspective on Bangladeshis in the UK by moving away from predominantly health-based research on the older generation and exploring more subjective experiences of identity and relationship with and use of space.’

The account is based on five themes: Belonging; Language, Citizenship and Britishness; The Family; Care and Welfare; Religion. All the twenty respondents were Muslim, with an average age in 2011 of 55. These respondents were on average 26 years old on migration, so more than half their lives had been in Britain. Not surprisingly, ‘an emotional sense of belonging to their new homeland has taken time’,  confirming the ‘myth of return’ can well and truly be put to rest. The author is told by one lady,

This is my country. I believe that everything of mine is here now. Before I would think that if only I had the money I would go back to Bangladesh. But  now I feel that this is my country, this is my home . . . We spend all our time in this country, and my family, my children are here, they don’t want to go to Bangladesh. This is my place, this is where I belong.

Dr. Ahmed’s observations on English language proficiency are particularly relevant, given the way Prime Minister Cameron recently linked poor proficiency with extremism (1). She notes,

The overemphasis on English proficiency serves to pathologies minority communities as inherently responsible for their disadvantaged circumstances. The opportunities of employment and upward mobility that learning English promises Bangladeshi women are limited by a range of structural factors, such as living in deprived areas, racism, poor schools, limited employment opportunities, gender inequalities and family responsibilities, which interact in different ways at different times and cannot be resolved through speaking English alone.

The author also reports on social mobility,

When respondents were visited in 2011 in almost all the interviews the greater affluence was starkly obvious; from impressive cars in driveways to expensive furniture and gadgets inside the home. Most of the women reported being financially comfortable.

Among the contributory factors were mutual family support, greater educational attainment within the second-generation.  She is  also alert to the impact of second generation males leaving behind the restaurant and catering trade to mainstream jobs, which benefits both the family and economic circumstances,

through the time that the men in the family can spend with their wives and children. . . with men and women able to engage equally in the labour market if they wish. First-generation female migrants had to contend with their husbands working gruellingly long hours, and with no recourse to childcare had little choice but to be at home if they had young children.

Dr. Ahmed also has a word of warning of the imminent increase in Muslim elderly, with at least one respondent fearful that services may not meet cultural and religious needs.  Citing other academic research, she notes,

Whilst multigenerational Bangladeshi households are still a common feature of this community, the numbers are decreasing. Increasingly, the second generation are living in nuclear units. . . family carers cannot be taken for granted; this necessitates the need for appropriate care services to support families in providing care, and also for those who do not have family to rely on.

If ever there was a call on Muslim civil society to take action on a social reality, surely it must be this.  The Muslim Council of Britain, in its report British Muslims in Numbers (2), has called  for long-term planning to start now to care for the increased elderly population in a decade.

The deployment of the word 'Islam' in the book's title suggests an extensive treatment on the role played by faith in the individual and collective lives of Bangladeshi women. In this regard the work is disappointing, with only passing references, for example with reference to the religious value of  caring for elderly parents. There is only one paragraph on the thriving and dynamic East London Mosque and Maryam Centre - and the author has not picked up the significant role of Bangladeshi women in fund-raising for these projects, or the women's networks within the Tablighi Jamaat. Similarly the impact of 7/7 is also not apparent. Perhaps this is because of the study's limited sample size, or possibly Dr. Ahmed's own ambivalence to the role of faith in people's lives? Notwithstanding these lacunae, the book does live up to its secondary title as an account of 'the changing experience of Migrant women ageing in London'.

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(1) http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/21/davids-cameron-will-support-muslim-women-but-only-when-it-suits-his-scaremongering-narrative

(2) https://www.mcb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/MCBCensusReport_2015.pdf

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M A Sherif, March 2016

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