With the launch of the Casey Review, attention has turned again to the question of Muslim integration and in particular the relatively low proportions of Muslim women in paid employment.

For many critics of the report, it was seen as singling out Muslims for criticism since more reference was made to them than any other ethno-cultural-religious group. Where was the attention devoted to Hindus and to Jews and the problems of their communities, it was asked. The implication of this was that this was unfair and risked portraying Muslims as alien.

Muslims do feature more than most other groups but it is not solely a report about them. Also, it is worth pointing out that there is singling out but there is also standing out.

Muslims are Britain’s largest religious minority and have experienced extraordinary population growth in recent years. Between the last two censuses, the number of Muslims grew from 1.6 million to just under 2.8 million. That is a shift from 2.8 per cent to 4.5 per cent of the population and a growth of 72 per cent. While the Hindu population has grown at a similar rate, (71 per cent over 10 years) it is on other indicators too that Muslims stand out.

For instance, research by Anthony Heath has shown that some 50 per cent of Muslims are living in conditions of relative poverty (defined as household earnings below 60 per cent of the national median). This compares to around 20 to 30 per cent of Hindus and Sikhs and 18 per cent of the whole population.

Muslims also demonstrate high levels of residential segregation, although they are not unique in this matter. The index of dissimilarity, a standard measure of segregation and based on 2011 census data for England & Wales, stands at 0.68 for Muslims.1 This compares to 0.22 for Christians. However, for Jews (0.78), Sikhs (0.78), and Hindus (0.68) the score is comparable if not higher. However, none of these groups demonstrate poverty levels at the same rate.2

Muslims also stand out when it comes to women’s participation in the labour force. 28 per cent of Muslim women (aged 16-74) compared to 51 per cent of the overall female population work, either full-time or part-time. (Note that when women of working age, 16 to 64, alone are considered, then you have 35% of all Muslim women in employment compared to 69% of all British working-age women.) It is also substantially less than other South Asian religious groups  – over 50 per cent of Hindu and Sikh women are in work. Moreover, 27 per cent of Muslim women (16-74) are classified as ‘looking after home and family’ while for the population as a whole this stands at 7 per cent. Lack of female employment will contribute substantially to household poverty.

Then there is the question of speaking English and here not only do Muslims show the most difficulties but also the greatest difference between the sexes. The Casey Review shows that 16 per cent of Muslim adults cannot speak English well or at all compared with 8 per cent of Hindus and 1 per cent of Christians. Furthermore, 22.2 per cent of Muslim women speak little or no English compared to 9.9 per cent of Muslim men, 12.7 per cent of Hindu women and 5.1 per cent of Hindu men. While a similar pattern exists for Hindus, it is nowhere near as pronounced as for Muslims.

There is also the difficult issue of extremism and Islamic terrorism. As poll after poll has confirmed, support for these among British Muslims is minimal. But these things do exist. There are no Hindu or Jewish terrorist organisations targeting the United Kingdom. Nor have there been any tensions between these groups and the ethnic/religious majority comparable to those that flared up between young Muslims and whites in the early 2000s.

When you consider all these facts together, it is obvious that Muslims do tend to stand out and it should be expected that any analysis of integration will give more weight to them than other groups.

That said, I would have liked to have seen more in the Casey Review on the challenges of Eastern European integration along with more on those religious and ethnic minority groups who have managed to achieve far greater levels of economic prosperity. Might we not learn more from looking at successes as much as the problems? (It would also have been a good idea to use census micro data a bit more in order to dig deeper into the data – then you would see for instance that problems of English speaking are much more apparent for working class Muslims with little difference between the sexes at the higher social grades.)

Dame Louise’s attention on Muslim women in paid employment offered two possible sources of explanation. One focused on conservative attitudes among Muslims to the gendered division of labour while the other focused on discrimination against Muslim women holding them back.

The latter approach tends to have most sway on the liberal/cultural left. Examples of this approach can be found here, here, and here.

We know that discrimination does exist in the labour market. Studies have confirmed this. However, this can only be part of the explanation. When we look at what Muslim women think along with the social and cultural capital they possess, then another explanation strongly presents itself – that many Muslim women do not work because they do not want to and because they are located within a culture that has little tradition of women being involved in the labour market outside of the home.

My analysis of Understanding Society data on attitudes to gender roles, cited in the Casey Review and extended here shows a nuanced picture.3

Firstly, the encouraging news is that Muslim women are as likely as anyone, if not more so to agree that both men and women should contribute equally to household income: 72.1 per cent of Muslim women agreed compared to 60 per cent of Christian women and 72.9 per cent of women without a religious denomination. However, as the questioning becomes more pointed, we see the more conservative gender attitudes of Muslim women becoming more apparent. It seems that this question may very well be picking up a social-desirability bias although nevertheless it is certainly encouraging that Muslim women are open to the idea of egalitarian domestic arrangements.

When asked if husbands should work while wives stayed at home, 34.6 per cent of Muslim women agreed. This compares to 19.6 per cent of Hindu women and 13.8 per cent of all women. Note that young and specifically British-born Muslim women are more liberal on this measure, 21.8 per cent of whom agree that wives should stay at home.


When we ask Muslim women about the impacts that working will have on their families and most importantly their children, we see where the anxiety is most apparent. 53.9 per cent agreed that a child suffers when its mother works (19.1 per cent strongly, 34.8 per cent agreed somewhat). This compares to 25 per cent of all women.

How do gender attitudes relate to actual employment outcomes? The Understanding Society data show that of those women who are looking after home and family, 48.8 per cent agree that wives should stay at home while husbands go out to work. This compares to 25.7 per cent of women in employment. This is perhaps an encouraging picture for two reasons. Firstly, a majority of women who stay at home are not convinced that a traditional division of labour is necessarily the way to go (23.6 per cent disagreed, 27.5 per cent were unsure). Secondly, there are many Muslim women who do have conservative views on the domestic division of labour but work nevertheless.

Perhaps a more powerful line of enquiry is to consider the cultural traditions from which Muslims (and women in particular) living in Britain stem from. 38 per cent of British Muslims living in England and Wales at the time of the last census were in terms of ethnicity, Pakistani while 14.9 per cent were Bangladeshi. What are the employment rates for women in Pakistan and Bangladesh? 22.1 per cent of Pakistani women are in employment while in Bangladesh, the share stands at 29.9 per cent. Compare these to roughly 30 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women living in Britain who work (aged 16 to 64).

If we look at economic activity by migration status then we see those Muslim women who are taking care of home and family are overwhelmingly 1st generation immigrants: 73.5 per cent. Of those who are employed, 48.9 per cent are 1st generation immigrants. While immigrant Muslim women are not bound by any means to be engaged in domestic labour, they are more likely to. It is certainly credible to argue that these are women who are often coming from places where women’s employment tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

What of the tradition of women working within families? The data show us that 20.6 per cent of Muslim women who at the age of 14, had mothers who were working. Of those who are taking care of family and home, 84.8 per cent had mothers who did not work while for those who are working, 66.4 per cent had mothers who did not work.

Some argue that women’s withdrawal from the labour market is down to ‘triple’ discrimination – Muslim women do not work because they are discriminated against on grounds of their gender, ethnicity, and religion. But how can such an explanation be sufficient if we see women in Muslim-dominated countries having similar outcomes? In such places, they might be being discriminated against on grounds of their gender but ethnicity and religion, certainly not.

It is also worth noting that the lack of Muslim women in Britain being employed is nothing new and predates the 9/11 attacks on New York, the rise of Islamic State and al Qaeda as well as the surge in anti-Muslim bigotry that followed. It even goes back to beyond the Rushdie Affair which was when the British public at large first became aware of conservative Islam.

Moreover, the participation of Muslim women in the United Kingdom has risen steadily despite all these things. For instance, for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, these being mostly Muslims, employment has risen from 20 per cent in the early 1990s to nearly 30 per cent today.

So, the idea of discrimination as the key variable seems more tenuous. I am not arguing that it does not exist but rather that there is a cultural explanation that needs greater prominence and acceptance among the liberal/cultural left which has become emotionally tied to discrimination as the most important thing in explaining what happens to ethnic and religious minorities. For such commentators, these are people to whom things are done, usually by bad white men.

It is worth remembering that there are stark cultural differences within this country and across the globe and as Britain increases to diversify through mass immigration, so we will come to take on the traits of the root cultures. All too often we fall back on discrimination to explain differences because it is where we are most comfortable.

We should also consider whether or not this is a religious question. In the wake of the Casey Review, the Ahmadi caliph Mirza Masroor Ahmad was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“Islam says there is a division of labour between men and women. The man is supposed to be the bread basket and the [job of a] woman is to train the children to become good citizens.”

Or consider this from www.islamweb.net:

“The most important role for a woman is motherhood. This special role that Allah, Almighty, has created for her, affords her honour and respect in Islam… A woman should not work in a non-Muslim environment unless there is an extremely compelling reason for her to do so… Allah, Almighty, has not prohibited women from working, but He has provided numerous protections for women, that are primarily concerned with where, how, and with whom she associates. She should seriously consider the costs and benefits for herself, and the impact on her ability to fulfil her primary responsibilities…”

Islam is of course rich in interpretation and these views represented here are there to show there are religious viewpoints that are not fully conducive to Muslim women engaging freely in paid employment. Whether or not their interpretation of Islam is correct is not the issue. Neither of these quotes go as far as to prohibit women from working but certainly you can see a strong emphasis on home and family.

It is sad that sociologists in particular seem so reluctant to consider religious explanations when sociology itself was founded in studies linking theological details to social facts – Durkheim and suicide and Weber and the rise of capitalism.

Any account of Muslim women also needs to consider Muslim men as well as non-Muslims. Generally, they are even more conservative on gender issues than Muslim women although this is not evidence of them imposing their will – 41.7 per cent of Muslim men agree that husbands should go out to work while wives stay at home compared to 34.6 per cent of women. Dame Louise found many examples of women’s choices being constrained by men while Islamweb.net states that a woman needs the consent of her husband or ‘guardian’ before going out to work. I think the crucial point though and the one we find the most hard to swallow is that sometimes women actually do agree with the conservative views of their husbands, have agency just like everyone else, and are living their lives in accordance with what they value.


  • 1 It ranges from 0 to 1 with higher scores meaning greater segregation
  • 2 ONS census England & Wales 2011, own calculations
  • 3 University of Essex. Institute for Social and Economic Research, NatCen Social Research and Kantar Public, [producers]: Understanding Society: Waves 1-6, 2009-2015 [computer file]. 8th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service [distributor], November 2016. SN: 6614

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