Jess Phillips MP headshotJess Phillips Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

We Must Get Better At Talking About Integration

December 5, 2016 - 2:14pm By: Jess

Across the political spectrum at the moment there are difficult conversations being had. People defend immigration and are met with howls calling them “traitor”, others talk of needing immigration control and are met with a chorus of “racist”. I’m ashamed that as a country we have completely failed to recognise nuanced and complex issue. Everyone desperately mines every by-election or referendum result to extrapolate their own desired outcome. I’m told to think everyone who voted leave hates immigration by vitriolic Brexiteers, and that the same group of voters are all naïve and were easily led by patronising Remainers. I know that people are cleverer and more complex than that.
Instant feedback provided in a digital world has forced everyone in to a with us or against us polarised brawl. We are better than this. We are a nation of great thinkers and great talkers, from political philosophers right down to the lively insightful and intelligent debates in the local pub. Britain can do better than this pantomime act of goodies and baddies. What we all need is a stern talking to from my nan who were she here would tell us all to cool down and to sit in the corner and have a word with ourselves followed by the invitation to come back when we had something worthwhile to say.
I have lived my whole life in Birmingham. I suppose my upbringing in a vibrant and diverse city would have some sneer at me as being the liberal metropolitan elite. My dinner lady Nan would be delighted to hear I’d elevated the family so high. The street that I live on and the constituency I represent has around a third of its residents who are first, second and third generation Pakistani or Bangladeshi. My children are more used to receiving Iftar during Ramadan than they are receiving Easter eggs from our neighbours. My immediate neighbours are first generation Irish, second generation Cuban and third generation Pakistani. They are all Brummies. As a child I played Sita in the play of Diwali and a shepherd in the nativity. I’m all-in multicultural. If they gave out cards I’d be carrying one.
Today, Louise Casey has released her report on integration in the UK; for many it will make uncomfortable reading. It is fairly clear that for many the rapid growth of migrant communities has been difficult and that a growing conservatism in some communities is discriminating against some of the women within it. I can think of thousands of examples of brilliant sparky, matriarchal Muslim women I know who allow me to ignore what it says. I have hundreds of male Muslim friends and colleagues who champion me a radical sweary feminist. I can look to them to close my eyes to the results of this report.
For every example of bad practice highlighted in this report I could find you an example of the opposite or can find you an example of where this is happening in the white community. The evidence it presents will still be the same. 57% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are economically inactive, nearly three times higher than their male counterparts. If nearly two thirds of white women were economically inactive I would be screaming from the rooftops, after all I’m pretty good at that. I cannot and will not ignore what it says.
In Westminster I fight for these women. When the Women and Equalities Committee held an inquiry on the discrimination of Muslim’s in the workplace we uncovered all sorts of discrimination Muslim women face when they try to work, strive to get educated and live the life I took for granted. I busily make recommendations to stop Islamophobia and to allow them the freedom to get a job and bloody well wear a headscarf if they want to. I strive to see the woman, not the bit of fabric atop her head. I rightly blame the establishment, even though some of the evidence I hear is that a young women could have a mentor in her chosen field assigned by the university because she cannot be seen with a man in public, it might get back to her brothers. I hear expert after expert telling me that many Muslim women do not go to university outside of their home town as they have to stay near their family.
So it’s time for nuance. I know lots of British Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are making waves in work and education. I know lots of women are discriminated against because they are women and doubly because they are Muslim, but I also know that there are many women in the Bangladeshi and Pakistani community who fill typical gendered roles and cannot access the opportunities I was afforded. I am wary that my words will be used to hand a placard to right-wing bullies, or make for scary anti-Muslim headlines. These make me as sick as they make all other progressives, they make me as sick as the idea that women are held back for whatever reason. I will not allow this report to be used to vilify my community as if all Muslims are the same - they are not and it’s not what it says. I will use its findings to make sure I am not turning a blind eye to attitudes and cultures in my community that mean that some who live on my street are held back, hidden or isolated. I’ll do exactly the same for all no matter what community they are from. I will not let cultural sensitivities break my fundamental principles on equality of opportunity.
For too long actions of well-meaning liberals have made acceptations for a community who never asked for them. In Birmingham one year the city council branded a group of seasonal events as Winterval at the time causing allegations of them being anti-Christmas. I am yet to ever find a Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Jew who asked for Christmas to be culturally sanitised in our city. They simply don’t exist. They do not give a toss if we celebrate Christmas and frankly they join in. The message it wrongly sent was that we were changing our culture at the demand of newly settled communities, I can guarantee you it was a decision made and enforced by a British-born bureaucrat. This stuff handed an easy win to right wing press, it bred hate and resentment it didn’t stop it.
Louise Casey has toured the country, been to schools and homes in my constituency and in many others. I believe her report reflects what I have seen where I live. We must use these findings to be better, help every UK resident get the chances we all want. I want my happy multicultural experience to continue - I fear now more than ever it is being challenged from every angle. If we believe in equality and rights of women we must make sure we really mean it, even when it’s difficult. If we ignore growing divisions we should not be surprised when we breed more fear and isolation. I think we are big enough to talk about this with head and heart if we don’t we will be doing what my wise old anti-racist campaigning working class Nan would have called “coppin a deaf un”. Let’s try to see the complexities and all respond to them rather than blaming one group of people or another. We all have our part to play.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
First published online on 21/11/2016 at

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