Muslim Women in New Zealand:

Problems and Prospects

by Qamer Rahman

 
"Praise be to Allah (SWT) and Peace on His Servants whom He has chosen (for His message)."

(Quran, 27:59)

This paper discusses some historical background of Muslim women in New Zealand, using data from the 1991 Census, as the 1996 Census results are not available as yet. It covers subjects such as the population of Muslim women by their age group, their ethnic background, their income levels, the problems that Muslim women faced, the changes they have brought about, and prospects for their future

The Census results of 1874 listed only 17 Muslims in New Zealand. These were all male Muslims of Chinese origin who came to New Zealand as gold diggers. From 1910 onwards, Muslims of Asian origin, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, migrated to New Zealand, but keeping with the tradition and culture of the time, they left their spouses behind in their domestic comfort. Muslim men adjusted themselves to tbe alien environment in New Zealand and sent their earnings to the home country, and made frequent visits to their home land.

Some Muslim men brought their spouses here in the mid to late 1940s. These women were alone, confined to their homes, often on farms Some of the men worked as share milkers, while others waited to own a small farm of their own. Gujarati Muslim migrants were business-minded. Therefore they were town-dwellers. Their wives often assisted in their small shops and businesses. These women often talk about the hardship they had to go through in the early years.

Muslim women were born in New Zealand as early as 194748. The 1991 Census Population Overview has recorded the population of Muslims in gender and age groups (see Table 1).

The total population of Muslims in New Zealand is S 769, as recorded by the 1991 Census, out of which 2 517 are women. About 6.6% of this number were of European origin, 48.9% of Indian origin (coming either direct or via Fiji to New Zealand), other Asians 20.7% and those belonging to other ethnic groups were 23.8% (see Graph 1). This figure would have changed considerably by now, as many women from Somalia, Bosnia, Arab countries and other parts of the world have come to settle here since 1991.

 

 

 >5

5-14

15-19

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

TOTAL

 MALE

 324 555 225 792 783 381 132 69 3252

 FEMALE

 309 495 195 582 537 273 81 45 2517

 TOTAL

                 5769

Table 1: Gender by Age Group

 

Graph 1: Ethnic Identity of Muslims in New Zealand

Table 2 indicates that 8.5% of the Muslim men have no income of their own, 65.4% are blue collar workers and 17.8% could be defined as white collar workers, as they earn $30 000 or more per annum. Nearly 20% of Muslim women, on the other hand, have no income of their own. This does not necessarily mean that they live on Social Welfare benefits like many of the low income people in New Zealand. Instead, in keeping with their cultural background, they are happy to be the home makers, despite their education and abilities. About 61.3% of the working Muslim women earn less than $30 000 per annum. This could be because of their lower academic and professional achievements, or because they prefer to have a part-time job, so they can devote time for filmily commitments. No figures are available for solo mothers, divorcees, alimonles, etc. It is safe to assume that this figure would not be significant, as Muslim women make morality the basic rule of their lives. This is because Islam is their way of life. Only about 5.3% of Muslim women in New Zealand are white collar workers. This figure, however, is certain to change when the results of the 1996 Census results become available. In May 1992, Immigration regulations required a points based system, giving priority to skilled and educated people. A substantial number of professional Muslims have migrated under this system.

 

 
nil
$1-5000
$5001- 10,000
$10,001- 15,000
 $15,001- 20,000
$20,001- 30,000
 $30,001- 40,000
$40,001- 50,000
$50,001 & Over
Not Specified
Total
 Male
201
171
387
258
276
462
213
96
114
198
2370
 Female
345
285
246
204
156
159
54
18
18
225
1713

Table 2: Income Group, Aged 15 years and over

Dr William Shepard, from the Religious Studies Department of Canterbury University, has mentioned that by 1984, 80 Kiwis had accepted Islam to be their way of life. Many of these conversions have been through marriages. This figure would also have increased considerably by now. No data are available for mixed marriages and divorces from the Census figures. Marriage of Muslim men to the People of the Book has been permitted by Islam, thus conversions are usually by choice and not through pressure or force.

The problems that Muslim women face today are many and varied. These include: maintaining ethnic/religious identity in the New Zealand society; reduce feelings of racism and antagonism; coping with biased media reports; avoiding haram foods and acts; finding a suitable life partner for marriage; fear of children losing their religious identity; implementation of Islamic shariah in their daily life; adjusting between the two cultures, etc. It is obvious that we have a lot of issues to discuss, and find solutions to our problems and dilemmas. In the brief space here I would like to analyse a few of these problems.

Maintaining ethnic/religious identity in a non-Islamic environment is not an easy task. As Muslim women we have to wear hijab so at a glance we could be identified as Muslims. The problem with hijab has not surfaced yet in New Zealand as it has in France. This could be due to the tolerant nature of New Zealand people or the smaller number of Muslim women wearing hijab. We must bear in mind the verses of the Holy Quran, making hijab compulsory as a symbol of respect and honour:

 

"And say to the believing women, that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty."

(Quran, 24:31)

 

The language of any ethnic group is half of its culture and identity. Language is the means of communication and expression. No-one has the right to demand others to forsake their self-identity. Should a Muslim woman forsake her native language, it must be only for the language of the Holy Quran. As an alternative language, no language other than Arabic could be preferable. Allah (SWT) has said in the Holy Quran:

 

"We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran in order that ye may learn wisdom"

(Quran: 12:2)

and

"Thus have we revealed it to be ajudgement of authority in Arabic."

(Quran, 13:38)

Language can be a real barrier to the new migrants. Muslim women who migrated in the 1940s and 1950s relate the many problems of settling into an alien environment. These women came to New Zealand as spouses, forsaking their culture, family members and everything that ever mattered to them. Without any complaints and demands, they braved it all. Let us imagine being isolated in a hut on a distant farm with no-one to communicate, console, share feelings and problems and find solutions. The work on the farm begins at dawn, and ends at dusk, so the husbands, the only ones with whom they could communicate, were also away for long hours.

The problems of our younger generation of Muslim women include: obtaining Islamic knowledge and living in harmony with the two cultures. Many of us don't even try to understand the dilemma our younger generation faces. The biggest dilemma is: Will of Allah (SWT) versus individualism. At home they are taught Islamic values and virtues, and to affune their will to the Will of Allah (SWT). At school, they are taught individualism, that is, whatever you will and desire is most important. This often leads to disobedience to parents, who are considered to be backward and uncivilised. Arranged marriages are ridiculed, and assumed to be free of mutual love. Islam teaches us that all good feelings are bestowed by Allah (SWT), especially the feeling of love, while anger hate and jealousy are self-created by the rebellious. If some of our

girls begin to question their identity as Muslims, it is often because of the clash in their value systems.

As Muslim women in New Zealand come from various ethnic backgrounds, we have to discuss and concentrate on bringing them together as one united group. We must be united in the name of Allah (SWT), love and care for each other, only for \His sake. Allah (SWT) has said in the Holy Quran:

"Those of faith are overflowing in their love for Allah (SWT)."

(Quran, 2:165)

If we defer for our personal gains, then the loss is our own. The core cause of disunity without any doubt is selfish contumacy. The Holy Quran states:

"But the people... did not differ... except through selfish contumacy."

(Quran, 2:213)

When we think of placing ourselves above others, we must think of the Day of Judgement when we have to face Allah (SWT). The Holy Quran states:

"Mankind was but one nation, but deferred (later). Had it not been for a Word that went fore before from thy Lord, their differences would have been settled between them."

(Quran, 10:19)

Our future appears to be brighter than our past. Alhamdulillah, with the efforts and courage of some Muslim women, an annual Women's Convention is organised on a national basis. Weekly meetings are held with local centres to increase Islamic knowledge. Youth camps for girls have been effectively organised, providing an arena to further their Islamic knowledge, and discuss their common problems. With such knowledge and background, our younger generation no longer needs to question its identity as Muslims.

The problem of school uniforms that are not suitable for Muslim girls, is yet to be resolved. Individually, some girls are finding solutions to problems such as this one. There are no facilities available as yet at schools and universities for Salat to be performed at appropriate times. Some Muslim girls have made their marks at schools and universities, and their names are prominently engraved on school trophies, etc. They have, and are, securing extraordinary achievements in schools and universities. Along with such excellence in secular education, the efforts of some of the young women in their Islamic way of living are also noticeable.

Let us unite together in praying to Allah (SWT) to make the efforts of our younger generation fruitful and guide us all to the right path. Amin.