Speech by Minister Mary White at the launch of the National Women's Council of Ireland Publication "Making our Voices Heard – The Stories of Muslim Women in Ireland",Thursday May 27th 4.15 pm


Let me start by thanking Rachel Doyle from the National Women's Council of Ireland for the invitation to be here for today's launch. I would also like to commend previous contributors, who shared their experiences, thoughts and key messages on the topic of women and integration in Ireland today.
I am happy to say that my own Office part-funded Making our Voices Heard – The Stories of Muslim Women in Ireland. It is a simple, easy-to-read publication, which gives us a very clear insight into the lives of Muslim women in Ireland. It will help to increase understanding of the integration experiences of women and will also challenge some stereotypes and myths around Islam and women.

What is striking about the publication is the fact that many of the women interviewed face so many similar challenges to other women in Irish society and therefore there are many commonalities to build on. We can see that many of the women interviewed experience the joys and concerns of bringing up children as best they can in a world of many temptations. We can also see that they are ambitious for themselves and their children and want to contribute fully to their local community. I was particularly struck by the number of women who undertook voluntary and community work.

This publication also gives us an insight into some of the religious and cultural beliefs of the 16 women interviewed. It shows that Muslim women are not a monolithic group and we can see that within the Muslim community, women have different experiences and diverse views.

The publication shows that the women interviewed have predominantly had positive experiences in Ireland and that they have generally been accepted within the communities where they reside. Indeed there were many comments made about the friendliness of the Irish people that they met. However, there were also some incidents mentioned where the women have been subjected to misunderstandings and abusive behaviours.

Abusive incidents on the basis of a person's faith or ethnicity are completely unacceptable and we all have a responsibility to speak out against them. I would remind anybody who is the victim of or a witness to a racist incident that there are a number of avenues open to you. For example, to report assaults, verbal abuse, damage to property or dissemination of material that may have the potential to incite hatred, you can contact either your local Garda station or the Garda Racial and Intercultural Office.

If you feel that in employment matters or in trying to access goods or services, you have experienced discrimination on a specific ground or indeed on multiple grounds such as race, gender or religion, you can contact the Equality Authority and the Equality Tribunal.

I can see from today's agenda that Nisha Tandon spoke on the topic of promoting interculturalism through the Arts. I believe that the arts have an invaluable role in breaking down barriers and fostering respect as many migrants living in Ireland are from countries with long established traditions of arts and music. In recognition of the special role that the arts have in integration, my own Office has supported the Arts Council in carrying out a significant research project - 'Cultural Diversity and the Arts'. The Arts Council is currently considering the findings of this research and intends to develop an intercultural policy and strategy before the end of 2010.

Internationally, migration has been shown to have the potential to increase women's status, economic power as well as contributing positively to their country of origin in terms of remittances. In Ireland, women migrants have made a massive social and economic contribution to our society and they play a key role in integration in their own right, and also as mothers where they can pass on positive attitudes and values to their children.

Undoubtedly the women interviewed for this publication are strong role models in their community. Those who were not born in Ireland have shown spirit and determination in moving here, making the most of opportunities and embracing the challenges of living here. However, we must also be very conscious that more generally the experience of some women has not been so positive and acknowledge that within the Muslim community, some women are marginalised and isolated. We must ensure these women's voices are also heard and that they are empowered to reach their full potential.

I am very passionate about equality for women and also integration and I feel very privileged to have both within my Ministerial brief. I have been busy meeting many migrant groups and NGOs since my appointment. I am also keen to hear from individual migrants and therefore I intend to shortly set up a Ministerial Council.

The membership of the Council will be drawn from the migrant community and will give advice directly to me on issues affecting migrants. In this regard, I would like to take this opportunity to reach out to Muslim women, and immigrant women more generally, who feel passionately about integration and encourage them to apply to become involved in this structure.

I hope to advertise details shortly and invite expressions of interest.

There are some recurrent themes in the contributions. I have already dealt with the issues of discrimination and racism. Another is the weather. Nothing can be done about that, whether one is a member of a religous group or none.

On a more serious note a number of contributors have raised the issue of the wearing of veils by Muslim women and commented on the negative reaction of some people to them when wearing the veil.

Anastasia Crickley, in her foreword, points out that the right to express one's identity with or without the veil is important.

All of us here will recall the relatively recent controversy over the wearing of the Hijab in schools, which was resolved satisfactorily. I have not seen or heard of any recent difficulties arising on that front.

One thing that did become clear during the consultations that took place on the issue was the professional view that the wearing of the Niqab or the Burka (Burqa) should not be permitted in schools because, by obscuring facial view, "an artificial barrier between teacher and pupil is created, making proper interaction between them impossible".

I think that the wearing of the Niqab or the Burka (Burqa) could create a barrier in society generally.

As Nuur Sahada Ramli says in her contribution "The Irish smile". When a woman is wearing a Niqab or a Burka (Burqa) it is not possible to know whether she is smiling or not.

One of the key factors in promoting integration is the raising of awareness and understanding between communities.

Dialogue is the way forward.

In the case of the women who have shared their experiences with us in this publication it is clear that they are anxious to contribute to that dialogue and many are already heavily engaged with their local communities, Muslim and non Muslim alike. I believe that the challenge now is to reach out to those who are not engaged with their communities.

I would like the NWCI to examine what can be done to meet this challenge as I believe that the Council is exceptionally well placed to carry out this task.

I am, of course, aware of the actions being taken in other countries on this issue but I want to say that there are no proposals for similar action here.

More generally, regarding measures to promote the equality of women in Irish society, I was delighted in my role as Minister with responsibility for equality to be able to launch the latest Equality for Women Measure three weeks ago. This Measure, which is supported by the European Social Fund aims to advance the role of women in the Irish economy. It also aims to advance women in decision-making at all levels and will provide funding of some €9 million over four years.

The objectives of the Measure are to make funding available to support positive actions which improve women's access to education, training and personal development to prepare for employment, to support women entrepreneurs and to support career advancement for women who are already in employment. The funding will be made available to community groups amongst others and the closing date for applications is 16 June.

To conclude, this publication will be of benefit to stakeholders across all sectors as well as anyone with an interest in the issues affecting Muslim women in Ireland. I would like to commend all of those who were involved in this project.

I will leave you with the words of Amel Yacef, who is one of the women interviewed for this project, and who has already spoken here today, "There are no magic formulas for integration, the veil or identity crisis and all that because we are human, we’re all different, we all carry our histories, our stories, our fears, our doubts, our hopes."

These are indeed words to deeply reflect upon- it is true that there is no magic formula and that integration is a long-term issue, but working together we can combine our knowledge, experience and talents and create an integrated and inclusive society.

It is a privilege to launch this publication.

Thank you.

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