Twice as tough for Muslims

24th October 1997 at 01:00
"Just having qualifications isn't enough. It's hard trying to find work as a practising Muslim."

Mariam, a 25-year-old Muslim woman, set her heart on becoming an electrical engineer at the age of nine and has been fighting to realise her ambition ever since.

She is one of 100 young women interviewed by a research team charting the career destinations of Muslim women in Leicester, Bradford, Bolton and London. Their interim report says that the women, who are aged 16 to 25, all feel that they have to work twice as hard to succeed.

They face indifference at school, hostility at college, discrimination at work and a cultural-versus-religious struggle within their communities.

Low expectations of teachers and inadequate careers advice at school were cited by all the participants as major obstacles. When Mariam told the careers teacher at her all-girls' comprehensive she wanted to be an engineer, the response was "Why?".

She was advised that it was a dfficult career to follow "especially for an Asian girl". The careers teacher told her that she might get a job in textiles. It was only the support of her peers, who were "all for it", which stopped her from abandoning her plans.

The researchers, who have four years of funding from the Leverhulme Trust, claim that Muslim women need a "more structured and informative approach to careers", with dedicated career advisers who are aware of cultural difficulties and possible hostility at home to a girl's choice.

A multi-agency approach is recommended - one which encompasses schools, local education authorities, community organisations offering training, further education colleges and universities.

Several of the women commented that their teachers did not have high expectations of them and often had difficulty relating to them. This resulted in the girls being left behind academically or, if they were highly motivated, being left to their own devices.

Mariam claimed she should have received more guidance and individual attention, particularly in maths where she knew she was weak. She got three Cs and two Bs at GCSE. She then went on to do an engineering course at a local FE college where she got three credits and a merit. For the practical work, "plumbing and welding", she got 87 per cent.

When she joined an all-female BTech National engineering course she met with "a lot of heartache, a lot of trouble" from her family. Also, two-thirds of the course intake of 15 dropped out, over two years, Mariam said, "because of the sexist attitude of the tutors. Like one who said, 'Girls, do you really see yourselves getting a job?, I don't think so'."

Mariam passed everything with a merit, except for maths which she failed. She said: "That's when it started to fall apart because I didn't get any support. "

Muslims comprise the third-largest religious group in Britain, after Roman Catholics and Anglicans. But the researchers point out that Muslims do not speak with a single voice - the community is multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual.

One woman said that her parents had supported her studies because of the emphasis on education in the Koran while others said that the Imams (religious leaders) had told their parents not to let them attend university.

Mariam believes the Muslim community is "suffering because there are women who've got no educationI the men need educating into educating the women".

She has unsuccessfully applied for several electrical engineering posts and is now doing voluntary work, but refuses to give up.

"If you haven't got a job, you are not doing anything for society, for the community, for anybody really."

"Trying twice as hard to succeed: perceptions of Muslim women in Britain", by Professor Marie Parker-Jenkins, University of Derby, Dr Kaye Haw and Shazia Khan, University of Nottingham, and Barrie Irving, College of Guidance Studies, Kent.

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