Language, Gender and Citizenship: Obstacles in the Path to Learning English for Bangladeshi Women in London's East End

by Nilufar Ahmed
Queen Mary, University of London

Sociological Research Online 13(5)12

Received: 11 Jun 2008     Accepted: 24 Sep 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


A key element of the Government's citizenship strategy is the requirement that all immigrants have a basic command of English. The lack of English speaking skills has been identified as a contributory factor to much of the social unrest amongst different communities in the UK. It has been argued that the ability to speak English will allow immigrants to integrate better, create more cohesive communities and reduce segregation. This paper will question the emphasis placed on language proficiency in reducing segregation and discuss issues around language and citizenship by exploring the experiences of Bangladeshi women living in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Drawing on qualitative interviews it will argue that while the ability to speak English may indeed enhance elements of women's lives and allow them to engage more actively in the community, there may be an over-emphasis on its role in reducing segregation. The paper also argues that learning English is not simply a matter of personal choice, multiple cultural and gendered factors intersect to sometimes limit individual's options. Within the Bangladeshi community, women's voices are the least heard, their opinions are rarely sought and it is usually the men from the community who speak on behalf of the women. This paper will show how whilst Asian men were denouncing policies to encourage learning English, women expressed a strong desire to be able to speak English, yet identified a range of obstacles preventing them from being able to learn. It is suggested that more attention needs to be paid to women's needs to help facilitate their participation in the community and aid them to achieve full citizenship status. This is turn can enable women to help create more cohesive communities.

Keywords: Bangladeshi Women; Citizenship; Learning English, Tower Hamlets


1.1 The recent Home Office paper, ‘The Path to Citizenship’ (2008) outlined the largest overhaul of the immigration system in decades. The paper emerged as part of an ongoing response to a number of inter-related policy themes, including immigration and asylum, community cohesion and counter terrorism. For the present Labour Government the issue of citizenship took precedence following the outbreak of violent clashes between Asian (mainly Pakistani Muslim) and White youths in four northern cities in England in the summer of 2001 (Hussain and Bagguley 2005). An inquiry launched to investigate the reasons for the riots and present solutions to prevent such future conflicts highlighted segregation as a major factor in the dissent leading to the riots and suggested the need for a ‘greater sense of citizenship’ to encourage more cohesive communities (Community Cohesion 2001: 11). In the aftermath of this report the Government set about implementing social cohesion and integration strategies to encourage a greater sense of collective citizenship.

1.2 The increased focus on cohesion and shared values as key to citizenship led to growing disavowal of multicultural policy (McGhee 2005) with accusations that multiculturalism, with its ethos of promoting and celebrating difference, rather than pursuing a core set of shared values, was a significant contributor to the problem of segregation (Phillips 2005; Kundnani 2002). Dustin and Phillips (2008) further argue that multicultural policies were highly gendered and to an extent propagated cultural stereotypes of women.

1.3 This gendering of policy continues with the current raft of policy around citizenship. Whilst much of the policy seems ostensibly geared towards managing the male 'Other', be that in the form of the stereotypically envisaged illegal immigrant, the problematic rioter, or the potential terrorist, the policies are highly pertinent to the position of minority women in society. Gedalof (2007) demonstrates how the female 'Other' is not immediately visible in reports such as Secure Borders (2002) but rather emerges from accumulated references made to women within and across Government reports. She argues that the documents problematise and construct migrant women as victims of 'linguistic isolation and limited awareness of cultural difference' battling with 'backward practices' of arranged marriage and gender subordination' (Gedalof 2007:90) . The representation of Asian cultures in this way does not allow for any internal differences within the communities based on class, gender, generation etc. instead presenting minority cultures as fixed and holding essential traits based on specific cultural markers including dress, religion, culture and language (Castles and Davidson 2000)

1.4 English proficiency quickly became the cornerstone of citizenship policy (e.g. Secure Borders 2002; Strength in Diversity 2004; Our Shared Future 2007), and the inability to speak English became grounds for pathologising communities, as backward and incompatible with progressive Western values and modernity (Alexander 2004). The focus on language clearly is more relevant to Asian women. Within Asian communities, first generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi female migrants have very low levels of English proficiency (Dale et al. 2002). Many of these women have little or no formal education and lack literacy in their own language. In addition, upon arrival to the UK a combination of community structure, family obligations and cultural milieu discouraged or prevented women from venturing out beyond their immediate neighbourhoods and networks, so they did not have the opportunities to pick up language skills in the same way as men (Ahmed 2005).

1.5 Lack of English skills have been highlighted as problematic in all aspects of life; low educational achievements of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community have been linked to a lack of English spoken at home (Henry 2007). However, Cassen and Kingdon (2007) have shown that any comparative disadvantage that children brought up in a non-English speaking household face is relatively short-lived, and any difference is made up by secondary school. Thus low achievement cannot be simply attributed to this one factor. Cassen and Kingdon found minority ethnic children were more likely to attend poorly performing schools which had a negative impact on their learning. The links with mother tongue being spoken at home ignored the fact that the majority of these communities lived in deprived areas with numerous structural problems such as poor housing, crime, low employment opportunities etc. The impact that this might have on ability to study and motivation levels was not considered. Castles and Davidson (2000) point out that these factors not only affect the first generation of immigrants but also limit the life chances of subsequent generations by preventing upward mobility, because such areas attract few and low quality options for work and training.

1.6 Yuval-Davis et al. (2005) argue the lack of English proficiency amongst the mothers and grandmothers of the northern rioters posited them as the root cause of the riots. Blackledge (2004: 68) discusses the 'symbolic association' between Asian languages and the discourse around the riots; it might have been young men who were out causing the disturbance, but the underlying explanation for their behaviour could be found at home, thus firmly locating responsibility for the riots at the heart of the community, cutting across gender and generation, rather than any reflection on structural factors of disadvantage that might have been relevant.

1.7 Language clearly serves both a symbolic and functional role. Language proficiency is increasingly being used to regulate the rights conferred by citizenship, and thus exclude those who are found wanting. Lack of English is seen as symbolic of backwardness, whilst the acquisition of English speaking skills is seen to demonstrate the erosion of backward traditions and cultures and symbolise a move towards progression and modernity (Alexander et al. 2007)

1.8 In 2001 Ann Cryer, Member of Parliament for Keighley, a northern town in England with a significant Asian population, demonstrated the potency of the symbolic association of minority language to tradition when she announced that much of the deprivation within Asian communities was due to low levels of English language skills. She argued low levels of spoken English were primarily due to the continued practice of marriages being arranged in the country of origin, and suggested that the lack of English proficiency led to underachievement in children and thereby such migrants were responsible for 'importing poverty' (Stokes 2001). Again the cultural practices of minority groups were heralded far more significant in explaining their disadvantage than issues of deprived neighbourhoods and lack of opportunities.

1.9 Ms Cryer's comments were denounced by many commentators from within the Asian communities, and bodies such as the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Shahid Malik a member of the CRE and member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee described Ms Cryer's sentiments as 'sinister' and her opinion tantamount to the 'work of the extreme right wing' (BBC 2001). However, within the year David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, unveiled plans in the 'Secure Borders, Safe Haven' report (Secure Boarders 2002) for compulsory English tests for immigrants before they would be granted citizenship. This has been further shored up by recommendations in 'The Path to Citizenship' report (Path to Citizenship 2008) suggesting all potential immigrants pass an English test even before they enter the country (with caveats for those who can show holdings of one million British pounds or more) (Prince 2008).

1.10 The significance attached to the need for immigrants to learn English was attacked by sections of minority communities as an attempt to enforce assimilation on the part of new and established immigrants. Critics of the proposal argued the government was attempting to encroach upon private spaces and dictate practices within the home. Those approached to comment on Mr Blunkett's ideas were invariably men from the community. Shahid Malik argued that David Blunkett was 'targeting the Asian community' and would soon be telling them 'what they can eat'. Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, called the suggestions 'insulting' and defended the right to speak a mother tongue at home (Akbar 2002). The Labour MP Keith Vaz denounced Mr Blunkett's remarks as 'silly' and as apparently having 'no basis in reality' (BBC 2002). The point here is that nowhere in the media were the views of women solicited to ask how they may feel about learning to speak English, reinforcing cultural stereotypes of Asian women as not being able to speak out for themselves, and being given voice either by men in the community, or progressive White, non-Muslim women like Anne Cryer.

1.11 Despite the overbearing emphasis on English proficiency and the change in tone from encouragement to enforcement that recent policies suggest, it is worth considering whether the emphasis on language learning should be welcomed for the range of opportunities it opens up for civic participation. The issue is not whether learning English is beneficial to immigrants (the benefits are obvious, and English can be learnt without detriment to the mother tongue), but what barriers there may be preventing immigrants (especially women) from learning English and how these can be best redressed.

1.12 It has been argued that citizenship theories and policies often disregard the nuances of roles and positions of women in society (Bussemaker and Voet 1998) and that much of the debate around citizenship lacks empirical support (Lister 2007). This papers aims to explore gender and citizenship in the context of the salience attached to the relevance of speaking English in current policy recommendations. Using empirical evidence drawn from a two year study of Bangladeshi women in the east London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the paper contends that for Bangladeshi women in London's East End, the ability to speak English would indeed enhance their sense of citizenship and allow them to experience a more active sense of citizenship. However citizenship is multifaceted. Cultural and gendered structures exist in isolation or, more often, intersect to impede access to full and meaningful citizenship. And, for some, citizenship remains a passport rather than a lived experience. The paper will also demonstrate that language is crucial in enhancing people's choices and abilities in some areas (e.g. negotiating services and accessing employment), but integration and cohesiveness are not entirely dependent on language alone, and thus it is important to not construct language as the sole barrier to integration.

The Research

2.1 The material is drawn from a secondary analysis of data collected during a two year study examining the lives of Bangladeshi women aged between 35 and 55 years old living in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The study aimed to map their experiences of migration and their sense of identity and belonging in the UK. There were three phases to data collection; the exploratory phase comprised three focus groups and ten individual interviews with women in the target age group. A further focus group was held with young women aged between 21 and 23 years old who were born, or had arrived, in the UK before the age of three; this was to allow for intergenerational comparisons. The interview schedule was drawn up from analysis of the transcripts from the exploratory phase and this was piloted on ten women. In addition to this, two additional interviews were conducted, one with a woman who was older than the target age, at 60 years old, and one with a young woman of 21 who had recently arrived to this country. These two women were included to allow an insight into, and comparison with, earlier and more recent migration stories. All the women for the exploratory and pilot phase were drawn from community centres. For the main sample, 154 first generation migrant Bangladeshi women were invited to take part. The women were randomly drawn from the lists of health practices across the borough; one hundred women agreed to participate and all were interviewed in their homes for between one to three hours. Following the collection of the full set of individual interviews, a further two focus groups were held with younger women. One group was held with girls aged between 16 and 18 years old at the sixth form of a local school, and the other with women in their twenties who were working in the borough. Along with the first young women's focus group these interviews provided alternative views from a younger generation on issues pertinent to the study (see Ahmed et al. 2001, Phillipson et al. 2003, for full methodology and further study outputs). All names used in the data are pseudonyms.

The Population

3.1 The 2001 Census reports just under three hundred thousand Bangladeshis living in the UK, making up 0.5 per cent of the British population, with the largest concentration residing in the London borough of Tower Hamlets where they make up a third of the borough's inhabitants. The majority of Bangladeshis in the UK are from the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. Tower Hamlets is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, scoring highly on the Indices of Multiple Deprivation which measure income, employment, health and disability, education and training, housing and services, living environment, and crime (The English Indices of Deprivation 2007)

3.2 Tower Hamlets can be described as housing a segregated community. On the doorstep of the City of London and Canary Wharf – the financial hub of the UK, it is one of the designated boroughs to host the 2012 Olympics, and recent redevelopment of the area has brought in vibrant new shops and leisure facilities. These however are rarely utilised or enjoyed by the local Bangladeshi population who largely remain 'encapsulated' (Eade et al. 1996) within their own spaces in the borough. For Bangladeshis, areas such as Brick Lane remain functional spaces, places of business to buy and sell; whilst for many Whites, it is predominantly a space for leisure, be that strolling through the Brick Lane street market at the weekend, visiting the latest exhibition at the redeveloped Truman Brewery or perusing the various new eateries and fashion stores. This side of Brick Lane is one that is rarely encroached upon by Bangladeshis and certainly not by first generation Bangladeshis, despite Brick Lane being the heart of London's 'Bangla Town'.

Desire to Speak English

4.1 The evidence from this study clearly highlighted the fact that most respondents wanted to be able to speak English. In most cases this was not to be able to gain employment or pursue education but just to get by on a day-to-day basis. Fatema has two young children, and cares for her husband who has mental health problems, she says:
'I just want to learn to talk properly, so that I can go to the school with my children and talk to the teachers and understand what they say. Or for myself going shopping or to the hospital with my husband.' (Fatema, aged 35 years, living in the UK for 18 years)

4.2 Not being able to understand English is frustrating for her, she says:

'If I get a letter and I don't understand it, even after reading I don't understand it. So where do I go with that? That makes me feel really bad; I just think to myself "what have I been doing? I have been here this long and I don't even know the language", then I have to go to someone else for help.'

4.3 She recognises that there are opportunities available, but taking care of her husband has been her main priority, nonetheless she feels bad about not having progressed since her arrival:

'I feel that there are lots of things that I could have learnt from being in this country that I haven't. I could have done courses and learnt things, there are so many things that one can learn and know, but I'm still where I was when I came here. And now, I just feel bad about it.'

4.4 The desire to learn English was prevalent amongst the whole group predominantly to endow themselves with a greater sense of independence and agency to not only integrate but also tackle issues of inequality, Fahima is frustrated at her housing and says:

'These children need their own rooms, they shouldn't be sleeping together, boys and girls. If I could speak English then I would ask them, "You sleep children one to a room. Would you put a 16 year old girl and a 17 year old boy in the same room, in the same bed?" But you let Bengalis sleep like that'. (Fahima, aged 42 years, living in the UK for 17 years)

The lack of ability to be able to voice one's frustrations and pursue the interests of their family was something many commented upon.


5.1 'The Path to Citizenship' report discusses active citizenship – a level of demonstrable contribution to ones community which can lead to a shorter waiting period before one is eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain, and also full citizenship. Active citizenship pertains mainly to voluntary work in the community. This does not accommodate the efforts of women in raising families. Most of the women in this study had large families and their priority was always to their family first and foremost, beyond that, most viewed their chances of employment as being limited by their spoken English.

5.2 In terms of paid work, only two women in this study were currently in employment, with a further two describing themselves as unemployed. Ninety-one per cent of the women defined themselves as 'looking after the family, home or dependants'. Bangladeshi women have the highest rates of economic inactivity amongst working age women (75 per cent), they are three times as likely as white women to be economically inactive, with the majority looking after the home and family (Office of National Statistics 2004). The higher figures reported in this study probably reflect the specific age group targeted. Only a minority of the women in this study who were currently not working had ever been in any kind of paid employment. However, an important finding from this study is that of the 81 women who responded to the question about whether they would have liked to have worked, 38 (47 per cent) said that they would have liked paid work outside the home. The key obstacles to this were seen as pressure of caring for young children (38 per cent) and not being fluent in English (28 per cent).

5.3 The desire for work was especially strong amongst those separated and widowed, but women lacked the resources and networks that can identify employment opportunities within the community. Rukshana is 50 years old and has been suffering with ill health for some time which affects her mobility. This in turn is hampered by the fact that she lives in a high rise block with no lifts. She has been in London since she came to the UK 15 years ago with three young children to join her husband. Unexpectedly, her husband passed away a year after she arrived leaving Rukshana essentially stranded and alone. Her eldest two children are married and live away, and her youngest is rarely at home. Her health and resulting lack of mobility add to her isolation. She has never worked, and when asked whether she would like to, her response was:

'I would like a job if I could get one. The DSS are chasing me to get into work. They want me to go to work. For the last two years they have been telling me to work. Since I stopped getting Child Benefit for my son they have told me to work. That's not a problem; I have to live by the rules of this country. I have said "fine, give me a job – I have to get by, I need to live" but how can I work? I am so ill I can't even walk. But I do want to work; I will do whatever I can. But I can't speak the language, I have never worked, where would I get a job? Who do I ask? But I have gone and looked for a job. I have asked in sari shops but they laugh at me. They say "we have young girls asking for jobs why should we give it to an old person like you?" If no one will give me a job what can I do? But I am looking the only way I know how; I ask people wherever I can. I would rather stand on my own two feet than bother the DSS. But what can I do if no one will give me a job? (Rushana, aged 50, living in the UK for 15 years)

5.4 Here we can see Rukshana's frustration at her situation. She has made attempts using her limited resources to try and procure employment. Her benefits are at risk of being stopped if she does not enter in to some form of work. She complies with all the requirements and demands put upon her without fully understanding why she is being asked to do certain things, she explains:

'Tomorrow I have to go to [names college] again. They have been sending me there for the last few weeks. I don't know why they send me there. They don't tell me why I am there. And getting there and back is so difficult for me. But what can I do? I have to go. They take me to an office – I think it says "Working Link" on the sign. But only I know my pain. Sometimes the pain gets so bad I think that I will stop breathing. Getting to [the college] is so hard – I walk to [the tube] station and get a train to Mile End, then I go to B___ Rd and catch a bus to Limehouse, then I have to change buses and get another bus to [the college].'

5.5 Ideally English classes would not only teach the language but also be a stepping stone to other resources and access to information on employment. In Rukshana's case, her lack of English is no deterrent to the push for her to get in to employment, but there is no support for her to follow a logical route to employment. Her age and health are against her - certainly when it comes to the local Bangladeshi employers, and she lacks the skills and confidence to approach any other type of employer.

5.6 The present government emphasises obligations of citizens more than their rights (Lister 1998), and 'The Path to Citizenship' report discusses immigrants' need to 'earn the right to citizenship' (2008: 12). Rukshana, like so many women, wishes to take up those obligations but lacks the means to do so. The main problem is of course her lack of English; this is compounded by her ill health, which is something that she is unable to communicate to the benefits services. She describes her health problems:

'I have this condition on my leg [shows her leg – there are a series of very painful looking large sores/boils on her leg]. I don't know what it is called. The doctors can't even tell me. They don't tell me anything. And I have pains in my body all the time, especially my knee and stomach. Sometimes it gets very bad. The doctors don't tell me anything – that is what frustrates me so much. Whatever my illness is it has only happened because Allah has willed it, but shouldn't they tell me what it is? I don't go to the doctor for my own pleasure; I go for the pain I am getting. It is frustrating for me and it must be frustrating for them. What can I do? Whenever I go, all they do is give me paracetamols – if they give me anything at all. Now I don't go very often.'
'The doctor did send me to a hospital to have my leg treated. But the hospital said that they only treat people over 60 and I am not 60 yet. So they have told me to go to another hospital. They said they would write to the doctor and the doctor will write to the other hospital and then I will get an appointment there. I am still waiting. They won't give me any medication for it. I can't even walk anymore. I don't know what it is or how I got it.'

5.7 We can see how Rukshana's inability to speak English impacts on almost every aspect of her life, from leaving her isolated, to preventing her from accessing her rightful health and social services, to being able to participate in the labour market. As with so many women in this study, Rukshana was prepared to work, but did not know how to realise this ambition.

5.8 Whilst many women would have been unable to work, or would have actively chosen not to work when their children were still young, many would have liked to have explored this option once their children were older and out of school. For this generation of women, many had started their families young and therefore have a substantial number of working years available to them if they had the opportunity to work. There appears to be a huge potential amongst the sample to be able to participate in the labour market if the support and opportunities are there.

5.9 The Government definition of active citizenship promotes volunteering in the community – in a segregated community like Tower Hamlets this would predominantly lead to women volunteering in local women's centres. These centres are run by Bangladeshis and cater to Bangladeshis, the need and opportunity to speak English would be at best limited, and most likely not required at all. Whilst it might enhance women's social networks, it would not really achieve anything as far as integration with the wider community was concerned and does not redress issues of segregation. These are two different issues – clarity is needed as to whether women's participation in their own community would count towards a measure of active citizenship and therefore possibly lead to a shorter probationary period before citizenship is granted.

Family Responsibilities

6.1 Policies have changed from recommending that immigrants learn English upon arrival and before being granted citizenship, to proposals that they already have a basic command of English before entering the UK. For the group of women we studied most had limited or no education in Bangladesh and thus had low or no literacy in Bengali. To expect them to be able to demonstrate anything more than a rudimentary grasp of English is a big ask. No doubt speaking English is a valuable asset, but consideration needs to be made of women's own capabilities as well as other obligations which may obstruct their learning.

6.2 In this study women recognised the importance of being able to speak English and where they were able to, they took up the opportunity. This opportunity often came after their family responsibilities no longer took up all of their time. Ruji says:

'I have been thinking a lot recently - I don't know a lot of English. I had one child after another when I came to this country and so I couldn't go to classes. Now there are classes all around me, I could go to these classes and that would improve my life. For example, if someone came to my house to check the electric or the gas, then I couldn't really understand what they were saying. And what if they were lying - and just wanted to come in to steal something. I have to be able to understand what they say. I am happy that I can learn from my own children. The first couple of times I tried they laughed at me because I didn't get the sentence right. But then they realised that I was getting it wrong because I didn't know the right way of saying it and they would help me, and correct it for me. Now they help me all the time when I try to talk to them in English.' (Ruji, aged 37, living in the UK for 14 years)

6.3 Ruji is getting support and encouragement from her children in learning English. They are able to correct her and aid her learning in a much more active way than is she only had the support of attending a class. For women like Ruji, English classes only become an option as their children grew older, otherwise they cannot always meet the commitment needed to subscribe to a course. Some women such as Maya below, were encouraged to go to classes from an early stage of their arrival, however, their family obligations prevented them from doing so. Maya started to attend English classes once her children had grown older, but soon took on the childcare of her grandchildren which has again restricted her ability to continue with the classes. She says:

'I didn't do anything when I first arrived. My husband told me to go, but I didn't want to because of the children. Taking them and getting them from school, and they had entered school at a later age because they were quite old when they came here, so I wanted to be there for them all the time. My youngest was 3 years when we came. My husband told me to go so that I could learn some English, but I didn't want to, I wanted to raise them. Then when they grew up and were educated they made me go. They told me to go, so that I would be able to go to the doctor by myself, so I went for a while after that. I would still like to go, but because I am looking after my grandchildren I can't. I can't take them with me. (Maya, aged 50, living in the UK for 17 years)

6.4 Maya is providing an unrecognised service to her family and the community, by looking after her grandchildren her children are able to participate in full time employment. Her son is a head teacher of a school and his wife is also in full time employment; her daughter works at a local university. If she was not able or willing to take on childcare duties for her children, they might have had to resort to limiting their work in order to raise their families. This type of unpaid work that women engage in, which enables other members of their immediate networks to fully participate in active citizenship, is not always readily recognised or appreciated. Current recommendations and policies have made no mention of this.

6.5 For women like Maya, the only real time they can afford to learn English is when their family duties are absolved. This is apparent in the type of participants that attend English language classes in Tower Hamlets. Seema, one of the respondents in the young women's focus group teaches English and describes the make up of her classes:

'I teach English as a second language and I get the majority of the students in my class, like 90 per cent of them are Bangladeshis, and they're all older women. One of the things is that most of them have been in this country like 15 years, 20 years, but they don't know English. One of the reasons that they're trying to learn English now is that they've realised that now their children have grown up, they've got to come out of the house in terms of go shopping, take their children to school.' (Seema, aged 23, ESOL teacher)

6.6 Only as their children grew older and their own demands of education and employment prevented them from assisting their mothers with appointments and shopping, did the women start to realise just how important it was for them to be able to manage daily tasks on their own. But even when they took the step to start learning English, their efforts were thwarted by a lack of opportunities to practice what they had learnt in the classroom in an applied natural setting. As Fultara comments, in an area with such a concentration of Bangladeshis, it is hard to be able to attempt to speak English even if she wanted to, as there is simply no need.

'In this area everything is Bengali, everyone is Bengali. You can't speak English anywhere, there aren't any shops or places where you could try and speak. Here they will just laugh at me because I can't speak it properly and I could get away with speaking Bengali. Otherwise I would have tried to practice speaking.' (Fultara, aged 42, living in the UK for 21 years)

6.7 Thus simply encouraging, or even coercing, individuals to learn English is not enough and cannot alone combat the issue of segregation. For those living in segregated communities, the ability to speak English may afford them little advantage, or indeed, as in the case of Fultara, lead to them being the object of mirth. Mann's (2007) description of adult learners of Welsh can be applied to Bangladeshi adults attempting to learn English.

'In attempting to accommodate and use Welsh in public, learners will often experience feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness. For adult language learners, learning is commonly an unstructured and ambiguous process with no set conclusion. Successful learning is also often dependent upon social relationships with first-language Welsh speakers' (2007: 212)

6.8 Where individuals have no access or social relations with first language English speakers their learning and retention of information is compromised. Many women spoke about the lack of opportunity to practice what they were learning in a formal environment, in a more natural setting.


7.1 There was a widespread recognition of the need and importance of not only being able to speak English, but also of the need for integration. This runs contrary to assumptions that immigrants choose not to integrate, and wish to hold on to and preserve their own culture in a rigid and untainted form. Most respondents saw the value and need for a degree of integration and recognised that this did not necessarily mean a loss of one's own culture. Nazmin says,
'In this country I can't bring them up exactly the same way as I grew up. There is a different culture here, and they are living in that culture. They need to have both cultures inside them. It is not good for them to become totally English, but then they can't get on in this country if they become totally Bengali. Look at me - what can I do? Nothing, because I don't understand this culture, I can't speak the language. If my daughters were to become like me then they wouldn't be able to do anything with their life. That is why they need both cultures.' (Nazmin, aged 46 living in the UK for 15 years)

7.2 Nazmin is clearly aware of the limitations that not speaking English or understanding and participating in the British culture have had on her life. She does not want this for her children, but nor does she want them to lose touch with their Bengali roots, for her the best outcome is a balance of the two cultures.

7.3 The significance attached to speaking English is warranted, but it is not the straight solution to solve issues of segregation and unrest. A level of tentative integration can and does occur without language. Shuara claims she has no friends other than Bangladeshis; however she gets on well with her neighbours. She says:

'I can't speak any other language so how would I make friends. They are nice to me and say "hello" and other things, but I don't understand what they are saying. They do try and talk, but I don't understand what they are saying. The English and Jamaicans in this area are very nice. There is a Jamaican woman downstairs and she adores my grandson, she always stops us to talk to him, I don't have a clue what she is saying!' (Shuara, aged 48, living in the UK for 10 years)

Whilst the ability to speak English might encourage friendships, good relations were formed and continue to exist in the absence of a shared language.


8.1 Learning to speak English and gaining a knowledge of 'British life' have been presented as crucial to enable new migrants to settle and integrate successfully and have a sense of civic identity (Blackledge 2004). The Home Office argues that without these key skills, immigrants would remain vulnerable and unable to fully take an active role in society (Secure Borders 2002: 32), and active citizens make for active communities that will engage with each other and thus minimise the likelihood of segregation.

8.2 Recommendations repeatedly assert that the ability to speak English will allow and encourage communication between non-English speaking migrants and the host population. In this study, all of the women interviewed recognised the difficulties and barriers that not speaking English posed. At the most basic level it could lead to fear and isolation. Women found their activities were limited by not being able to speak English; they lacked confidence in venturing too far from home. The respondent below describes how she felt unable to take her children out of the home:

'It was difficult for me. I couldn't speak the language so I couldn't go out. I was scared gong out with my children. What if something happened and we got lost, how would we get back?' (Dina, aged 52, living in the UK for 17 years)
This enforced confinement surely would have repercussions on the children too; their movements outside of the home were restricted because of their mother's fears.

8.3 However, the fear aroused from not speaking English was present within the seemingly safe confines of the home too. Rupa describes her early experiences of life in the UK; as well as contending with a whole new way of living, not being able to speak or understand English exacerbated her sense of confusion.

'At first it was a bit scary. Things like electricity - I didn't understand it. There were so many new things. I was scared of being so alone, my husband wasn't there all the time. It was just me and the young children. I was worried because I didn't know how I would get on. I couldn't speak English; I didn't know how I would manage. If an English person came to the door what would I say? What if they came in and killed me?' (Rupa, aged 50 living in the UK for 21 years)

8.4 Rupa has a very real fear of being killed by a stranger. Thus an innocuous caller would be viewed with trepidation and fear. This sense of constant fear of outsiders would naturally lead to an avoidance which could descend in to segregation, as it has for Shuara, who feels limited by her inability to speak English.

'Well what can I do? I don't speak the language, where can I go? If I could speak the language then maybe I could go out here and there to pass the time.' (Shuara, aged 48, living in the UK for 10 years)

8.5 Being able to speak English opens up opportunities for integration, individuals who cannot speak English stay within the safe confines of their known areas so to avoid the risk of being in an unsafe area. In areas that have a very high concentration of Bangladeshis, there is greater sense of safety as it is very likely you could find someone who speaks Bengali should a need arise, as one of the respondents from Shoreditch stated about her neighbourhood 'you might as well call this Sylhet!'. But for those who did not live in densely populated areas or wished to venture further, it was a decision that needed to be weighed up carefully.

8.6 The demographics of Tower Hamlets have changed significantly in the last few decades. Rupa's recollections are of her fears when she first arrived to the UK. However many of the issues of isolation and fear that early migrants were faced with still confront new migrants today. Afia, is 21 years old and was interviewed as part of the exploratory interviews to compare recent migrations. She had a five month old baby and had been in the UK for a year. Many of her feelings echo the older women's memories of their experiences when they arrived in the UK. Afia could not speak English and felt that unable to learn due to having a small baby and pressing worries about her housing situation. She says:

'I'm too scared to leave my house. I feel restless. I can't leave the house because I don't know how to get anywhere and I am scared if I leave of getting burgled.' (Afia, aged 21, living in the UK for one year)

8.7 After the interview she brought out a large amount of post and asked that it be explained to her. It was a mixture of junk mail and official letters, she was unable to distinguish between them, and found the concept of junk mail difficult to comprehend. She assumed that any correspondence addressed to her must relate to her in some way. Thus regardless of the size of the community a migrant enters into, without appropriate support they remain isolated, and not being able to speak the language heightens fears and worries. Afia fully recognised how debilitating her lack of English rendered her, but was not in any position to seek out and pursue classes due to her own health and childcare demands.

Barriers to Learning

9.1 Whilst the main barrier to taking up English classes may have been the needs of their children –this was not the only one. Some women in this study only had access to mixed classes which made them feel uncomfortable. Learning a new language can lead to awkwardness and embarrassment at getting things wrong, but this is heightened when compounded by being placed within a culturally inappropriate setting. In certain generations, it would not be the norm for a Bangladeshi woman to mix with unknown men, and thus mixed classes would be culturally incongruent and unlikely to be taken up.

9.2 As well as structural barriers to learning (such as the location and mode of delivery of classes) for some women there were other barriers which had to be negotiated within the parameters of cultural and patriarchal structures. For some women, their desire to learn English was thwarted by the wishes of their husbands or in-laws. When Saleha was asked about whether she would have liked to have learnt English she said:

'Yes I would have tried. I would have gone to school to learn the language. I went once, but then all the time guests would come around. People were always coming by to visit my in-laws. So if someone was coming around, I wouldn't be able to go. I joined the classes, and went as often as I could, but it wasn't that often. I wanted to learn to speak English. But I couldn't learn to do it properly.' (Saleha, aged 37, living in the UK for 20 years)

9.3 She was frustrated at this lost opportunity, and continues:

'If I can speak English, then I won't need to take my children or my husband with me, will I? I can do everything myself. Its all for your own good isn't it? If we have this much common sense then why should we object to our children studying and working? And my parents-in-law, they are from a different time, they don't have that sense, they think "Why should the daughter-in-law go out? What need is there for her to go out? Daughter-in-laws don't go out".'

9.4 Fultara's husband prevented her from attending classes as he did not see a need for her to learn; now she is separated from him and rues the lost opportunity.

'My husband wouldn't let me go to classes; he would tell me off and say, "Why do you want to do that? What are you going to do with English?" But what could I do with it now? I couldn't get a job now, could I? Now there are so many young girls looking for jobs why would they want to give me a job?'

9.5 Others were more explicit about their husband's worries regarding the independence that this might afford their wives and the possible consequences of this:

'I had been going to English Classes - he [husband] argued about that too. He accused me of only going so that I would be able to get a Social Worker and take him to court. He would moan about how bad Bengali women had become after coming to this country.' (Toslima, aged 39, living in the UK for 23 years)

9.6 Concerns that learning English may change women are articulated by men, not only about their wives, but as head of the household about the whole family. Sani discusses the imminent arrival of her daughter-in-law from Bangladesh, and although she and her son can see the need for the new arrival to be able to speak English and hence have some independence, they are struggling against the views of her husband:

'It will be hard for her. When she comes she will have to study a little here. She will have to learn the language. I want her to learn, my son wants her to learn, but my husband doesn't want her to. He is worried in case she becomes bad. But I think that if I am a good person then it doesn't matter if there are a hundred people around me; if a hundred people are dancing naked around me, if I don't want to dance naked then can they make me? What matters is the person. We'll see what we do when she comes.' (Sani aged 45 years, living in the UK for 18 years)

9.7 The barriers to learning are manifold and cannot simply be overcome by insisting that individuals learn English. Just as citizens have obligations, they have rights to choose how to spend their time; for women with large families and young children, attending classes may not be possible, especially with such few venues offering any form of childcare.


10.1 English language proficiency has come to be presented as the most important element of integration. There has been a meteoric rise in the importance attached to it. In the Community Cohesion report (2001), the first of the wave of reports seeking to understand and redress segregation, it describes consulting with 62 different organisations and their representatives. Of all those spoken to, only '[o]ne respondent registered support for the idea of applicants for British citizenship being required to achieve a minimum standard of spoken and written English before British nationality being granted' (Community Cohesion 2001: 61). From such relatively humble beginnings this minimum standard is now the standard for all would-be immigrants, perhaps because English proficiency is by far an easier measure than the vague notions of 'shared values' that are also called for.

10.2 Learning English will no doubt enhance women's lives and open up a myriad of choices. But it is a proposal that will not be as easy to deliver upon as policy makers may hope. Not all immigrants will be able to access the resources available to them. As shown, the barriers to women learning English are multiple, concessions and considerations need to be made for those with young families; strategies need to be developed with and from within the community to engage with families and especially husbands to encourage and support the learning of their wives. Greater opportunities must be created to allow those who are learning to practice their newfound skills, with perhaps excursions to areas outside of the locality being provided as part of the course. Depending on the nature of these excursions they could fulfil further elements of the citizenship criteria in helping individuals to understand the British way of life.

10.3 Whilst the Bangladeshi women in this study have formal citizenship in the sense of a right to abode and holding a British passport, it is what Sayyid (2006) terms 'ironic citizenship'. They lack many of the rights that citizenship claims to afford – the right to equal opportunities and full access to various social arenas including work, welfare systems and education. As this paper has demonstrated there are multiple factors that obstruct women's participation. Enabling women to become more 'active' citizens and achieve the full status of citizens through tackling the barriers that prevent them from doing so, will not only benefit them individually but allow them to contribute more effectively to achieving social cohesion and integration.

10.4 The current emphasis on actively participating in the community makes no obvious concession for the active participation of women within the home which for many constitutes their primary community. Gender roles change over the life course and have an impact on the ability of women to engage in active citizenship such as work (voluntary or paid) that is promoted by government (Lister 1998). Women who are raising young families or have care duties may not have the time or the resources to devote to learning the language and more visible work in the wider community whilst they have these obligations (Ahmed 2005). At a later date when their families are older, or care duties subside, women may be able to make contributions to society outside of the home.

10.5 If strategies can be developed which facilitate women's learning without compromising their family obligations, it will allow women to engage with the community from an earlier stage in their arrival. It will also force elements within the community to change: if it is a legal requirement to have a demonstrable command of English, then patriarchal structures such as husbands and in-laws cannot obstruct the learning of women. This clearly is not an issue for all women and it is important that it is not constructed as being so in order to avoid further reification of patriarchal stereotypes, but nevertheless for some women it is an issue. This is partly due to fears of what might come from learning English and Alexander et al. (2007) argue that in acquiring a language one inevitably acquires a culture. But in order for a greater cultural and familial acceptance of women learning English, mechanisms must be in place to ensure that women are able to take on the challenge of learning English without feeling their responsibilities to their families are being neglected. There needs to be a much greater recognition of the variation of women and their divergent needs within minority groups (Aston et al. 2007)

10.6 The focus on English proficiency firmly places the onus on the immigrant - established (as in the case of many Northern families of the 2001 rioters) or new - to learn English. Whilst this undeniably will facilitate living in the UK, it will not eradicate the problems of racism, poor housing, religious and cultural misconceptions, inequalities in employment and social deprivation which subsequent generations of immigrants continue to be penalised by. These problems continue despite the second and third generation of migrants having the benefit of a full command of English and a British education. And it is a combination of these factors that contribute to divided communities and social unrest.

10.7 Explanations for segregated communities need to move beyond accusations of self segregation based on inferior values and lifestyles characteristic of minorities (Castles and Davidson 2000) to the recognition of the role of disadvantage or exclusionary policies (Smith 1993; Kundnani 2001). As welcome as the drive for English speaking is, if the assumption behind this is that the acquisition of English language skills will remedy problems such as segregation, social unrest and be the solution to create the cohesive communities that the government seeks - this shows at best a gross misunderstanding of the issues that underlie the tensions within and between communities - and at worst, a deliberate misrecognition of issues, and creation of policies which perpetuate racialised constructions of minority groups casting them as (sometimes deliberate) creators of their own misfortune. The riots of 2001 were not caused by those who could not speak English, rather the Asian youths involved were predominantly born and/or raised in the UK and had a full command of English. And, a lack of English speaking was not the sole reason for segregation identified in the 'Community Cohesion' report (2001). Similarly the 2005 London bombers were not devoid of English language skills. Framing structural inequalities such as disparity in employment, education and housing sectors within such narrow parameters as the ability to speak English ignores the wider social and policy issues that are at play.

10.8 Speaking and understanding English is a crucial element in enhancing citizenship and improving the lived experience of immigrants. But while it can absolutely aid integration, in and of itself it will not eradicate segregation. The overemphasis that has recently been put on English proficiency serves to pathologise minority communities as inherently responsible for their disadvantaged circumstances. The opportunities of employment and upward mobility that learning English promises Bangladeshi women are limited by a range of other structural factors such as living in deprived areas, racism, poor schools, limited employment opportunities, gender inequalities and family responsibilities etc. which cannot be resolved through speaking English alone.


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