My Lords, I am grateful that your Lordships’ House is again acknowledging this important day. I welcome that we pay tribute to the achievements of so many women and continue to push for full and proper gender equality across the world. Women are the pillars of our families and communities. They have played invaluable roles in our history, including during the two world wars, yet they struggle to gain equal treatment. Much progress has been made since the first International Women’s Day more than a century ago. However, there is still much more to be done.
I shall address the situation of women in the Islamic world. I appreciate that there is a negative perception among some people relating to the role and status of women within the Muslim community. I believe that we all, in particular the Muslim community, must develop a greater appreciation of this perception and do more to tackle it. This means ensuring equal rights and opportunities in a social, educational and economic context. As is the case in all other religious and non-religious circles, we must always seek to achieve genuine parity between men and women. The Muslim community must also speak with a louder voice on gender equality and do more to mark occasions such as International Women’s Day.
It is important to look at the facts in order to understand the challenges. In Islam it is believed that the most important person in one’s life is the mother. We are taught the respect and dignity that should be provided to them. Muslims in fact believe that paradise lies at the feet of the mother. We should also remember that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, worked for a lady whose name was Bibi Khadija. In fact, Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, married Bibi Khadija, who was the first person to become a Muslim. It is therefore important to realise that females are not secondary to males in Muslim life.
With regard to education, girls actually now comprise an encouraging 43% of full-time Muslim students. A study last year also found that more Muslim women than men are now obtaining degrees. The same study found that average scores in school tests at ages 11 and 14 were higher for Muslim girls than for Muslim boys. Every year I present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers and I can say that girls always outnumber boys in relation to high achievement. However, there is a problem for young Muslim women more widely, particularly for those not in education. Only 29% of Muslim women aged between 16 and 24 are in employment, compared with 51% of women in the general population. We need to investigate this paradox of increased education but low economic activity.
There is a disturbing disparity between single and married Muslim women’s career aspirations. Single women are one and a half times more likely to be in employment than married women. This unacceptable situation must be looked into as a matter of urgency. I would like to see dedicated programmes promoting the empowerment of Muslim women, perhaps most notably in workplaces. This could be in the form of providing practical training to assist with employment, or comprehensive childcare services. It is important that the Muslim community acknowledges these disparities and works with relevant organisations to help remedy the situation.
I must also mention that there has been criticism of sharia councils in some quarters, particularly among Muslim women. It should be noted that these are mediation services and do not claim to be making decisions that are legally binding. There is evidence that some decisions made are unfair to women. It is important that the deliberations and procedures of such a system are fair to men as well as women if the sharia councils are to have the confidence and respect of the people. Equality, equity and fairness must always be maintained at the heart of any system of dispute resolution. I would like to see the establishment of a national body, self-regulatory in its constitution, of which every sharia council should become an accountable member. Furthermore, I would like to see each sharia council have at least one female adjudicator.
Another social ill faced by some women is that of forced marriage. There are unfortunately no reliable statistics available on this in the UK. The hidden nature of such activity means that incidents often go unreported. However, I pay tribute to the work of the Forced Marriage Unit, the information it collects and the support it provides to victims.
I must emphasise the difference between arranged marriage and forced marriage. Arranged marriage requires the free consent of both parties. Forced marriage is where pressure or abuse is used to force one party into giving consent. I emphasise that Islam does not permit forced marriages. The bride and the groom must be asked by the imam in the presence of witnesses whether they both consent to the marriage before it can take place.
I emphasise that forced marriages unfortunately occur across a number of communities and religious groups. In 2014, forced marriage became a criminal offence. I believe it is as important that we educate all communities about the dangers of it. All communities must ensure that it is understood that forced marriages are forbidden and, more importantly, work towards changing cultural attitudes where it is a problem. I pay tribute to all the charities which work so hard in this area, such as the JAN Trust.
I have spoken many times of the pride I feel in living in a country where those of different cultures and faiths live alongside each other in relative peace. The United Kingdom is a symbol of tolerance and inclusivity to the rest of the world. It is therefore important that all communities work together to lead the way in promoting gender equality.