Marginalising people because of their faith, race or ethnicity has not significantly changed’…. writes Dr Saeeda Shah, Reader in the School of Education, University of Leicester. Dr Saeeda is joining the debate surrounding Nadiya Hussain’s victory in the Great British Bake Off
Nadiya Hussain, a British Muslim woman of Bangladeshi heritage, became the winner of BBC One’s The Great British Bake Off programme, aired on Wednesday 7 October 2015. For most people she was just that, a winner who had touched the hearts of the judges – Mary Berry famously shed a tear after she won and people took to social media to praise Nadiya’s achievement.
But not everyone was quite so delighted or generous with their praise.
Nadiya’s ethnicity and her Muslim background have been used in social media comments and also by some newspaper columnists to cloud her professional achievement by dubbing it as ‘politically correct’. The tweets, comments and discussions following this particular show are interesting and thought-provoking, raising questions not only about valuing diversity and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) contributions but also about equal opportunities in the wider society.
The Prime Minister in his speech on the same Wednesday said that equal opportunity is meaningless unless people are really judged equally, saying that ‘opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith’.
Marginalising people because of their faith, race or ethnicity is a widely researched area and in spite of different government policies to tackle discrimination, the situation has not significantly changed on the ground. The Prime Minister admitted in his speech that, everything being equal on a CV, job applications get rejected because of the first two words at the top: first name and the surname. He said that ‘even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names’; if the names are Muslim-sounding then the chances diminish further.
The message is loud and clear: people with ethnic-sounding names and Muslims in particular are neither valued nor expected to succeed at anything!
However, when in spite of all the challenges they do manage to outperform and succeed – as Nadiya Hussain did – comments such as from The Sun’s TV columnist Ally Ross claiming BBC executives ‘no doubt did a multi-cultural jig of politically-correct joy’ insinuate the achievement as being undeserving.
On the other hand, any negative act or activity gets associated with the Muslims, bracketing individual acts of violence with the whole community.
Even government policies and measure for ‘the prevention of terrorism’ indirectly and often directly target the Muslim community, providing fuel for the media hypes and public sentiments. It is ignored that every society and community, including Western societies, has individuals who commit vile and atrocious acts which cannot be used to define or label a community.
Negative images and constructions of Muslims and Islam enhance a sense of exclusion among Muslims. Parekh’s report (2000) mentioned a survey of White people which concluded that the ‘most hated’ community in the UK was Asian Muslims – hatred directed primarily at faith identity; and that was before 9/11 and 7/7. Muslims experiences have worsened since 9/11 which has not only added to social, political and economic exclusion of Muslims but poses challenges for societal cohesion, adding to social polarisation.
This social polarity is increasingly becoming obvious. Conversations on social media following the fire at western Europe’s biggest Mosque in Morden, Surrey, on 26 September 2015 are just one example of underlying tensions and hatred. Comments such as ‘The two young men arrested for setting fire to a mosque should not be jailed; they should be given a medal’, and ‘burn down every single one of them’, calling it ‘pest control’ cannot be messages from liberal democratic societies and cannot be interpreted as signals of inclusion for minorities. These are not examples of ‘passive tolerance’ but active hatred.
There is extensive research and literature underlining racism, discrimination and exclusion of BME groups, particularly of Muslims, impacting negatively on their educational achievement, economic engagement and upward social mobility. They are the worst target of crimes of hate. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Muslims are making efforts to engage with the society that they have opted to live in: the response from the local Muslim community following the mosque fire where they thanked the local community and praised the emergency services for their support is a case in point.
Nadiya Hussain, a housewife and mother of three, who did not have the confidence to go on the show, definitely had the talent to win. We as members of a democratic society need to appreciate and acknowledge that and simply celebrate her achievement.