Home > Canadian Muslim Women: A Decade of Change – 2001 to 2011

Canadian Muslim Women: A Decade of Change – 2001 to 2011

The purpose of this study is to provide facts on Canadian Muslim women with the aim of correcting misperceptions, starting informed discussion and making facts-based decisions. The source of information is the National Household Survey 2011, which replaced the long form census.

Basic demographics, family size

Canadian Muslim female population reached 513,380 in 2011. In relative terms, Muslim females are 3.1 per cent of the total female population and rank behind Catholics, people not affiliated with any organized religion, United Church followers and the Anglicans.

As the population is growing, its composition is steadily changing. In 2011, Canadian-born Muslim females surpassed the entire Arab Muslim female population and are now poised to replace South Asians as the largest group. They are 28.5 per cent of the population, up from 24.5 per cent in 2001.

Contrary to the stereotypical large Muslim family, the Muslim fertility rate in 2001 was 2.4, moderately higher than the 2.1 replacement level. In 2010, there were only two children per Muslim child benefits claimant.

Muslim women are a highly urbanized group, with distinct regional preferences for settlement, informed by ethnicity, bilingualism and the historical patterns of Muslim settlement. Two-thirds live within 550 kilometres of one another. Toronto and Montreal account for 41.1 per cent and 20.4 per cent respectively. Muslim female population in Montreal, London and Windsor is mainly Arab. West Asians prefer Vancouver and Toronto. Ottawa and Winnipeg have large Black communities and South Asians flock to Toronto.

Family, early marriage, interfaith marriage, lone parent families

In spite of the transformative trends that have led to a decline in traditional marriage, marriage is still the predominantly Muslim family structure, but the traditional portrait of a Muslim family no longer describes the reality of life in Canada. A sizeable number of Muslim women live in single-parent families and 5,725 women (2.6 per cent of couple families) are in common-law relationship.

Early marriage is more common among Muslims than other faith communities. Some 14.1 per cent of young Muslim women were married by 24 years of age. Early marriage is a cultural tradition in some Muslim societies, in part related to the custom of arranged marriage. In spite of the freedom in Canada to choose a partner, some parents feel even more pressure to find a spouse for their sons and daughters because the pool of eligible single people is small and the opportunities for social interaction among young Muslims are scarce. While Muslims do cross cultural and ethnic lines within the faith, such unions are not commonplace.

As Muslims share social space with other faith communities, attitudes towards interfaith marriage are beginning to change, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, supported in part by new scholarship questioning the religious argument for barring women from marrying into other faiths. In 2001, the latest year for which we have the data, 6 per cent of the married Muslim women had a non-Muslim spouse. Canadian-born women are twice as likely to marry a non-Muslim as an immigrant.

In another trend reflective of the changing social landscape within the Muslim community, extended family system is under stress. Over 14 per cent of Muslim couple families are lone parent families with a woman as the head and in one out of five such families, she is under 35 years of age. Recognized as a family form in Canada, lone parent family would be an incongruity in the extended family systems.

Use of English and French

More than two-thirds of Muslim females can speak English, one in ten can converse in French and 15 per cent have the knowledge of both official languages. Only 6 per cent (or 31,435) speak neither English nor French. This national linguistic profile more or less describes all provinces except Quebec.

In Quebec, Muslims fit the province’s unique linguistic profile. Some 84 per cent of Quebec Muslim females can converse in French, 11 per cent speak English only and 5.7 per cent cannot carry on a conversation in either French or English. In the heat of the debate on secularism and laïcité, the limelight invariably turns on Muslim women’s dress, customs and lore, ignoring how much young girls are attached to French: 69 per cent of girls younger than 15 years of age only speak French. By this yardstick, they place above their peers in all non-Christin faith communities. Compared to the major Christian denominations, they are second only to the Catholics.


Participation in the electoral process is central to the concept of citizenship. New settlers may face barriers in other aspects of life, but access to electoral participation is unfettered. Almost a quarter million (248,655) Muslim women were eligible to vote in 2011. More have turned 18 years old since then. A good many of these young women will be joining the electorate for the first time.

While Muslims embrace Canadian citizenship enthusiastically, they are less passionate about exercising one of its core rights. They were at the bottom of non-Christian faith communities in terms of voter turnout rate in a 2004 Statistics Canada survey and there is little evidence of any significant change since then. Voter registering or update address is another problem. Geographical mobility is high among them as they are young and relocate in search of a job, to enrol at a university or get married. Some 39.1 per cent have moved since the last federal general election.

Education, generational shift, international credentials, re-accreditation

The educational profile of Muslim females reflects the concern in Canada over the years that the demand for high-skilled talent is increasing more rapidly than we are actually educating people. No less important is the role of immigrants’ own conviction that good education is the best asset to give their children in an increasingly competitive global economy.

In 2011, there were 369,060 Muslim girls and women 15 years of age and older. Some 56.7 per cent possessed postsecondary diplomas and degrees. Nearly a quarter (24.2 per cent) had completed a high school diploma. Of the 19 per cent that had not completed a certificate, many were still in high school and others were admitted into the country under sponsorship program.

At the postsecondary level, Muslim females choose one of three pathways. Trade and apprenticeship is the least popular. Only 8 per cent with postsecondary education had an apprenticeship or trade certificate. More than a fifth (22.3 per cent) graduated from a community college, a CEGEP or similar institution. A majority, however, aspire to university education. Two in five Muslim females had attained a bachelor’s degree. Over 12 per cent had completed a master’s degree and 1.7 per cent (3,640) held earned doctorate degrees. There were 6,245 (3 per cent) medical degree holders, including graduates in medicine, dentistry, optometry and veterinary medicine.

Rejecting the patriarchal notion of female education that put limits on what many of their immigrant mothers and grandmothers could study, more and more young Muslim women are ‘trespassing into male spheres’ of education and opting for specializations that are sought after in the Canadian labour market though they may be frowned upon in some conservative Muslim communities.

Almost 35 per cent of Muslim women age 65 years and over, who had completed their postsecondary education in their native countries before landing in Canada, specialized in arts, humanities and education. Only 10.4 per cent majored in a field in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the subjects that were regarded as fit for men.

But young Muslim women are increasingly moving away from traditional specializations. There is a smooth and steady transition towards STEM as a major as we move from the older to younger women. More than a fifth of Muslim women in the age group 15 to 24 years, who attended Canadian colleges and universities, specialized in a field in STEM, while fine arts, education and humanities only attracted 15 per cent. In their choice of specialisations, younger generations of Muslim women behave more like their Canadian peers than their mothers and grandmothers.

In another indication of social change, Canadian-born Muslim women are also choosing different pathways to postsecondary education. Many are shifting to community colleges. In 2011, 30.5 per cent of Canadian-born Muslim females as compared to 21.7 per cent of the immigrant population went to a community college, a clear indication that younger generations have their eyes set on the labour market after the graduation. In a tight labour market, industry-oriented, hands-on education offers a better chance of employment.

There is said to be a perception, especially among some employers, that the degrees and diplomas of Canadian Muslim women are not up to Canadian standards. The facts call for a reassessment of this assumption.

Canadian-born Muslim women graduate from Canadian institutions and they are an increasing proportion of the Muslim population. Some of the foreign-born Muslim women also completed their postsecondary education in Canada while others did their studies in countries with high standards of education before migrating to Canada. Nearly a half (49 per cent) of Muslim female postsecondary graduates obtained their highest degree or diploma in Canada or the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France. The figure rises to 58 per cent in the case of doctorate degree holders and 68 per cent for community college graduates and apprenticeship and trade certificate holders.

The second issue is institutional and concerns credential recognition and re-accreditation requirements. There are numerous professional occupations that are regulated. Canada brings professionals for their potential economic contribution but re-accreditation requirements act as barriers to the realization of their full potential. Only a few international medical graduates are said to successfully meet the re-accreditation requirements. A large number of Muslim female healthcare graduates are affected. Of the 6,245 physicians, dentists, optometrists and veterinarians, about a quarter received their degree in Canada and another 6 per cent graduated from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, while 71 per cent that graduated from other countries face difficulties. They are recent immigrants — 58 per cent came to Canada during 2001-2011 — young and have many years to contribute and relieve shortages, if they can be trained.

High unemployment, underemployment, working moms

Muslim females encounter more difficulties in the labour market than other communities with similar demographic and education profiles, and in spite of the favourable changes in the Muslim female labour force, the labour market outcomes have not improved for them.

Unemployment among Muslim females is high and persistent. Some 16.7 per cent of Muslim females 15 years of age and older were unemployed in 2011, a figure more than double the national average of 7.4 per cent for all Canadian women. They fared poorly compared with other faith communities. Only the women practising traditional spirituality (Aboriginal) faced higher unemployment than Muslim women and girls. This is in spite of the fact that proportionately twice as many Muslim women as all Canadian women specialize in STEM and twice as many use both official languages at work.

Other communities with many of the same characteristics as Muslims like ethnicity, culture, language and quality of education do much better in the labour market. For example, only 10.9 per cent of visible minorities were unemployed in 2011, well below the jobless rate of Muslim females 87 per cent of whom identify themselves as visible minorities. Visible minority women also had slightly better labour market outcomes than Canadian-born Muslim female graduates of Canadian educational institutions.

The unemployment rate has not budged since the last measure was taken in the 2001 census even as more and more Muslim females entering the labour market are Canadian-born graduates of Canadian universities and do not have language proficiency or fluency issues.

Data on underemployment are hard to come by, but a Statistics Canada study provides some useful information about its magnitude. Using data from the 2006 census, the study calculated match rates, i.e. the extent to which foreign graduates trained for a specific regulated occupation in their native country were working in that same occupation in Canada. It covered 15 regulated occupations, ranging from architects to lawyers to physicians. For about a dozen Muslim countries covered, the match rates, including both men and women, ranged between 7 per cent and 30 per cent, with most of them scoring in the20s. Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia scored the highest, with all of them coming in the 50s, with 59 being the highest score. Assuming a typical match rate of 20 per cent for Muslim countries would imply that as many as 80 per cent of Muslims trained for these 15 regulated occupations could be working in unrelated fields or occupations.

Defying traditions that limit their activities to the home, and unfazed by those Canadian employers who undervalue or overlook their credentials, Muslim mothers with children at home are in fact entering the labour market and in the process transforming the economic roles of husband and wife. Indeed, some of these women are the primary breadwinners of the family. In 2011, 50 per cent of Muslim women with pre-schoolers and school-age children had or were looking for a job, matching or exceeding the labour market participation rates of European women in countries like Italy and Spain.

Some take on the dual role of homemaker and breadwinner, in spite of the extra burden, in order to realize their full potential. While some Muslim Canadian women are keen to put their degrees and training to work, others have been pressed into the role of provider by circumstances. Included in this group are women who are divorced or separated. They have to work to put bread on the table and a roof over their children’s heads, and they also have to be available for the care of the family. Their number is not trivial: 11 per cent of Muslim children in Canada live in a single-parent household and, in 90 per cent of these families, that parent is the mother.

Income, sources of income

Income is a broad summary measure of the economic success of a community. It reveals how much the society values and rewards skills and knowledge and conveys a sense, however vague, of the combined effect of such unquantifiable and intractable labour market imperfections as underemployment, glass ceiling or sticky corporate floors.

In 2010, the median income of Muslim females was $15,763, more than a third (36 per cent) less than the median income of $24,606 of all women in Canada. The disparity was broadly based across age groups and educational levels. For example, Muslim woman with a graduate degree — master’s, Ph.D. and professional — earned $20,638, still 16.1 per cent below the national average for all women.

Some explanation as to why a well-qualified labour force earns less than its peers is found in the size distribution of income earners. Proportionately, fewer Muslim women are in the high income group earning $100,000 and above and more in low income groups earning $15,000 or less. This is partly due to underemployment. People who usually populate the high income group are professionals or hold senior management positions. As many Muslim professionals are unable to work in their professions, a majority of them slip down the income scale.

A more meaningful estimate of the incidence of low income is the after-tax low-income measure (LIM-AT) because it measures a community’s income relative to the nation. By this measure, one-third of Muslim females fell into low income group. Lone-parent families headed by a woman fared the worst, with 52 per cent classified as low income.

A majority of Muslim women derive their income from employment. In 2010, wages and salaries and income from self-employment contributed 66.9 per cent of the total income. Investment income, which is usually associated with high income earners contributed very little, only 3.6 per cent, as did pensions and superannuation income reflecting a young population.

Over a quarter (27 per cent) of the income was comprised of various transfer payment from government. The comparable figure for all women was 17 per cent. Reflective of a young population, child benefits topped the list and contributed nearly 14 per cent of the total income (3.5 per cent for all women). Some 31 per cent of Muslim population (including both male and female) qualifies for child benefits. This works out to two children per claimant in 2010, again busting the myth of large Muslim families. Income from other sources such as social assistance, worker’s compensation and refundable tax credits, was the second main source.

Employment insurance benefits amounted to only 2.8 per cent, as compared with 2.2 per cent for all women, in spite of the very high unemployment rate of Muslim women (16.7 per cent versus 7.8 per cent overall). There could be many explanations for it. Muslim women might not be qualifying for employment insurance or staying on it for a shorter duration of time or they may be drawing less on maternity and parental benefits.