Dame Louise Casey has officially reinvented the wheel. In her "review into opportunity and integration", there is a persistent figure: the Muslim woman – particularly the Pakistani and/or Bangladeshi Muslim woman – who is simultaneously a victim of domestic violence, socially isolated, facing discrimination in the job market and unemployed, failing to learn English and, as a result, struggling to manage her children.
Casey is last in a line of re-inventors of the same wheel. Before her, in January 2016 of this year, in the context of young British people travelling to Syria, then Prime Minister David Cameron explained that "passive tolerance" of separate communities was the problem, leaving Muslim women isolated and unable to learn English and, by implication, to foster British values in their children.
Cameron announced the launch of a £20m language fund and his proposals required migrant women to demonstrate sufficient English if in the United Kingdom on a five year spousal visa or risk deportation. Cameron, in turn, stood in the time-honoured traditional British queue behind the Cantle report and the political debate and immigration law that followed the 2001 "race riots" in the North of England, which linked understanding English with social cohesion and ultimately led to what is now commonly referred to as ‘the citizenship test’.
Applicants for citizenship or permanent residence must now take a multiple choice test on "Life in the UK" and demonstrate evidence of English fluency, followed by a citizenship ceremony and, often, a passport interview.
Dame Casey aims to reinvent this process through which one becomes a British citizen "which is of huge national, cultural and symbolic value". She proposes reviewing what is required to become a British citizen and including "an Oath of Integration with British Values and Society on arrival, rather than awaiting a final citizenship test". She acts in the name of integration and also for the rights of women "in some communities" who "are facing a double onslaught of gender inequality, combined with religious, cultural and social barriers preventing them from accessing even their basic rights as British residents".
Migrant women, and specifically migrant mothers, often figure in these kinds of political debates as both threat and victims, for example as dangerous "health tourists" coming to have "anchor babies". Here they are victims of some men in their communities and of social isolation and need "targeted" intervention to learn English, both for themselves and so they will raise young people who have the correct (British) values. Is it any wonder leading Muslim female MP Naz Shah has criticised the Casey Review in a Guardian interview?
Swept under the carpet?
The Casey review makes repeated reference to forms of abuse that are "swept under the carpet" and labelled "cultural or religious practices" by people often too afraid to speak otherwise for fear of being considered racists. In contrast, Casey speaks boldly and extensively of Female Genital Mutilation, forced marriage, so-called "honour killings". But there is a resounding silence in this account of Muslim women as victims, failed citizens and parents. Experiences of Muslim women who try to become citizens, and who experience first-hand the inequalities embedded in the process, are in fact swept under the carpet with her proposal that a new and improved citizenship test can somehow act as a magic bullet to solve the "problem" of integration. Some of these inequalities are quantifiable: the outcomes of the test process vary considerably, with pass rates by nationality ranging from over 96 per cent (USA, Canada) to 44.3 per cent (Bangladesh) between 2005-2010. Yet inequalities also become evident in examining migrant women’s experiences of preparing for the test.
In my study with colleagues at the University of Leicester of migrants’ experiences of the citizenship test process, we explore the UK citizenship test process as a whole: deciding to enter the process, preparing, taking the test, the ceremony, and what follows. With respect to preparation in particular, we find that migrant women who actually try to become citizens and acquire knowledge of life in the UK and English language proficiency (when they do not already have it) face a situation where there is little state support of the ‘journey to citizenship’.
The test process must be set in the context of the withdrawal of state support for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, the effects of which on migrant women have been documented by third sector organisations and denounced by ESOL activists and experts. Cameron’s pledge to support Muslim women to learn English and Casey’s very general recommendation to support "targeted English language provision" do not acknowledge or take responsibility for the legacy of cuts to funding of ESOL which have contributed to social isolation and hindered some migrant women’s participation in the citizenship test process and public life more generally. Instead culture and religion are the problem, and English language training and a new and improved citizenship test process the solution.
Government funding to ESOL has been continuously withdrawn and an Equality Impact Assessment conducted in 2011 demonstrated that women and ethnic minorities would be disproportionately affected. In July 2015 the Skills Funding Agency announced that ESOL courses for students receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance would be cut with immediate effect, affecting 16,000 individuals and again a disproportionate effect on female and ethnic minority learners. In Leicester, one of our research sites, it has been noted by critics of Cameron’s policy that Leicester College, a key provider of ESOL, lost £1.5 million of ESOL funding making them the second worst hit college in the country.
This withdrawal coincides with increasingly difficult test requirements through which it is no longer possible to obtain citizenship through the "ESOL with citizenship" route, which was a realistic route for migrant women with little language proficiency who could take these classes instead of a test. Since October 2013 both language proficiency and passing the Life in the UK computer-based test are now required.
All of these changes take place in the context of the British government's policy of economic austerity and cuts in public services where social services and free or affordable childcare are reduced or withdrawn. These broader changes combine with unequal caring responsibilities and division of domestic labour at home.
These inequalities are not unique to any one community, though they are experienced differently depending on race, class, gender and nationality. But reading the Casey review we are overwhelmed with references to Pakistani and Bangladeshi women as uniquely challenged (and problematic) because of their cultural, religious and social barriers to integration. Government cuts are invisible, or briefly give pause for thought as to how they failed to solve the problem, defined in cultural and religious terms, rather than recognising the role of policy in creating new barriers as well as making existing inequalities worse.
Experiencing ‘the journey to citizenship’
For some migrant women in our study, of different religions and nationalities, a combination of barriers effectively prevented them from being able to study and prepare for the citizenship test (which some participants were quite sceptical of to begin with, viewing it as a form of border control rather than a measure for integration). This was because:
- They simply did not have time, given domestic responsibilities
- The test and preparation materials were difficult and daunting, especially for those with little English
- The entire process was too expensive and competed with the cost of childcare (costs reported were over £1000 for each adult, including the test, naturalisation fee, plus any preparation courses, solicitor fees etc.)
- They faced difficulty or were unable to access language training that is no longer freely provided and/or where there is no crèche facility and they are not able to afford childcare
- They are socially isolated as a result of: racism (for example in the job market, the hospital, on the street, from neighbours); not speaking English but also isolation acting as a barrier to learning English when women lack information about where to learn and how to get to classes and lack of support; cuts to funding of crèche and childcare that enable leaving the house to begin with.
The demands of the test process– the time, money, energy and social capital it requires – can make existing inequalities worse and create new challenges. These experiences are absent in the Casey review. Adding an "oath of allegiance" on arrival and reviewing the citizenship test process by making it more demanding will hardly act as a magic bullet. Instead reinventing this wheel rolls us toward further barriers for migrant women in a context of heightened immigration control.
*Leah Bassel is Associate Professor in the School of Media, Communication and Sociology at the University of Leicester. She leads on The UK Citizenship Process: Exploring Immigrants' Experiences project and authored the Media and the Riots: A call for action report. This is her own analysis and should not be read as representing the views of her colleagues.