Some Muslim women are being stopped from going to top universities because their parents don't want them to leave the family home, MPs were told on Tuesday.
The women and equalities committee has been speaking to Muslims and other groups from across the UK as part of an inquiry into improving employment opportunities for British Muslims.
Using data from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the inquiry's website notes: "Of all religious groups, Muslims have the lowest employment rate at 47.2%, and the highest pay gap compared with those of no religion, earning 22.5% less."
In a session on Tuesday, MPs were told education was a key factor in women's employment prospects and that many were being held back for both cultural and financial reasons.
While Muslim women tend do better than their male counterparts at school, "when it comes to applying to top universities, this is where we see a dip," said Sufia Alam, a project manager at the Maryam Centre, a branch of the east London mosque devoted to women's services.
There are a number of reasons for this, Alam said, adding that the first is to do with cultural issues. "In some of the South Asian communities, there's a [negative perception] with leaving the family home," she said, "so better universities are not always a top choice because of the distance."
Alam later told BuzzFeed News: "Within some of the communities, for a woman to leave the home – even for education – is not a norm and it's out of fear that they might not be able to have the support network."
She added: "With renewed fears of Islamophobia... they want to be there to protect them."
Alam said she expected more conservative families to become more open about the idea after seeing other "great aspirational women" setting an example.
Speaking at the meeting, she also said that the trebling of the tuition fee cap to £9,000 meant some families were reluctant to let their children travel further for better universities.
"The other factor is the increase in tuition fees, especially at top universities," Alam said. "We have a very deprived South Asian community in Tower Hamlets [in east London] and we see the preference is to go to a local university because of that reason."
Nazmin Akhtar, the vice chair of the Muslim Women's Network, agreed that cost played a big factor.
She said: "We also need to consider that as well as high tuition fees, there are also issues of not having as many opportunities to get into the workplace and develop your career, and so you have parents who are saying to their daughters, 'Do you really want to get into debt and then not get a job?'"
The women's groups also questioned a heavily criticised documentary broadcast on Channel 4 last week.
The network claimed it had carried out “an extensive and rigorous survey to get a better understanding of British Muslims’ attitudes to living in Britain and British institutions” but its methodology for What British Muslims Really Think was questioned by researchers and Muslim groups.
Akhtar said Trevor Phillips, the former head of the EHRC, who fronted the documentary, "should be congratulated because he managed to draw up a consensus for 3 million Muslims out of 10,000, even though 3 million Muslims each year disagree when Eid is."
Alam also criticised the documentary. "These kind of things feed into the far-right thinking and it's going to cause tensions in communities," she said.
Siraj Datoo is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Siraj Datoo at email@example.com.
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