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Muslim Women: Beyond Perceptions

Report - Beyond PerceptionsThis report provides a demographic portrait of Canadian Muslim women. Its aim is to illuminate the discussion and issues and to provide inputs to strategic planning for the community.

Islam is the principal non-Christian faith and seventh overall among all denominations. In terms of numbers, however, it is still small; the 2001 census counted 579,645 Muslims, 2.0 per cent of the population. Just under one-half, 276,075 were women. It is the fastest-growing religion in the country. The number of Canadian women affiliated with Islam increased by 140 per cent in the 1990s. Native-born Muslim women are the single largest group, outnumbering Canadian Muslim women born in the Middle East or South Asia.

The Muslim community is a blend of the descendents of families that settled here more than a century ago and the newcomers. Nearly one-half of the Muslim women in Canada today immigrated in the 1990s and about one-third as recently as the second half of the 1990s. Community organizations ease their transition but adjustment can be slow and sometimes arduous, depending upon the help and attitudes of their families.

The community has evolved with the society. From an overwhelmingly European base, it has grown to be a vibrant representation of the Canadian pluralist society. In 1871, almost all Muslims traced their lineage to Scottish ancestors; Muslims of Scottish descent now comprise only a small minority in a mosaic that includes cultures and ethnicities of all the continents. Although South Asian and Middle Eastern communities dominate, French, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Inuit, Métis, etc. are integral parts of the Canadian Islamic tapestry. A vast majority (86 per cent) is identified as visible minority.

Muslim women are an important building bloc of the knowledge society. There are enough doctoral degree holders among them to staff the entire academic faculty of a medium-size university. They are not only highly educated but also specialized in leading edge technologies. Nearly two-fifths (37 per cent), as compared with 31 per cent of all women, specialize in a field directly related to the Internet, biotechnologies and health care.

In the domestic market, they offer services in both official languages; Muslim women have the highest percentage of workers using English and French at work, along with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox women. For Canadian firms conducting business in the global markets, they offer knowledge of a wide variety of languages and cultures.

Yet this human capital is seriously unutilized or underutilized. Rigidities in the labour market and rules and regulations as well as cultural constraints and social norms play an important part. More than 16 per cent, more than double the national average, are unemployed. When they land a job, more often than not, it is not in their field of specialization and likely to be term, casual or part time. Only 38 per cent of Muslim worked full year, full-time in 2001. The rest worked either part-time or only for a portion of the year.

Contrary to the perception, shared by many Muslim men, the majority of Muslim women in the labour force are not single women. Over one of the Muslim female labour force is comprised of mothers with preschoolers and school-age children. For many, it is the realization of their full potential as a person. Others are forced by necessity, i.e. the husband is either unemployed or does not earn enough to support the family. This represents a significant change from the traditional Muslim family in which the man was supposed to be the provider.

While the dual earner family phenomenon has imposed an additional burden on Muslim mothers, there is little evidence of a perceptible change in the traditional spousal roles concerning the housework and childcare. As a result, Muslim mothers with young children have far less – by one-third or more – leisure time than Muslim fathers, to engage in activities such as reading, hobbies, watching television. And they devote, on average, one-half of that leisure time to their preschool and school-going children as compared to less than one-third of the fathers’ leisure time being spent with them.