By Sarah Baz
In popular media and discourses the struggling hard working lone mother is often presented through images of White lone mothers. In contrast, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim (PBM) women are depicted as passive, lacking agency and embedded in old fashioned and authoritarian families (Qureshi 2016). Diversity in experience and family structure has hardly been explored. Through exploring experiences of PBM lone mothers these racialised narratives of PBM women are challenged and instead their strengths and struggles as mothers and providers for their children are presented.
PBM lone mothers are a diverse group of parents whose experiences of lone motherhood have traditionally been neglected in public, policy, and academic arenas as well as race, gender, and family studies. For my PhD research I explored the lived experiences of PBM lone mothers. This included migrant and British born lone mothers. I was situated in a South Asian women’s organisation in the North of England for eighteen months, where I conducted seven months of participant observations with lone mothers while providing one-to-one support with everyday issues such as applying for housing and calling benefit services. I also carried out sixteen semi-structured interviews with lone mothers and fourteen interviews with organisation advocacy workers, trustees and partners. The research took an intersectionality approach focusing on women’s experiences at the intersection of their gendered, ethnic, racial, religious and class identities, as well as their migrant status. It also explored the central role of South Asian women’s organisations in gaining access to resources, establishing recognition for marginalised groups, and providing everyday support to PBM lone mothers.
Challenging dominant racialized narratives of Muslim women, the research presented PBM lone mothers’ everyday struggles and sacrifices. During interviews, participants described facing constant “struggle” providing for themselves, their children and attending to material needs. Many lone mothers described managing on a tight budget, facing material deprivation and poverty. This can be illustrated via the experience of one lone mother, Maymoona (pseudonym):
“…they capped it down…my Housing Benefit I get like 50p a week so rent I’m having to pay out of my own money from what I get for my kids erm and d’you know it’s really hard because I’ve got five kids and like you know what I’m left with is hardly enough for us to survive… it’s really big struggle for me.”
At the time of the interview Maymoona had just finished a vocational college course, was looking for work and received unemployment benefits. She faced reductions in her benefits due to the Benefit Cap measure. The Benefit Cap limits the amount of benefits non-working households receive per week and according to Fenton-Glynn (2015) particularly impacts lone mothers and discriminates against women. As a result of this cap, Maymoona only received 50p a week for her housing benefit and had no choice but to use money from her child benefit to pay the rent. Maymoona stated that she struggled to afford necessities such as paying for children’s clothing, school activities, bills and at times had no money. There was further struggle in the school holidays when children were at home and food expenses increased. Furthermore, Maymoona faced gendered discrimination by potential employers based on her identity as a lone mother. There was an assumption that she would not be able to balance work with childcare responsibilities. This can be coupled with employers stereotypical racialised assumptions of PBM women where their role as mothers is seen as conflicting with commitments to employment (Tariq and Syed 2017). It was evident in the interviews that such everyday struggles had a negative impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing, as described by another unemployed lone mother:
Asma: “you catch me on some days I’m broken myself inside…because I don’t want to see my children see me down or upset you know if I can if I can give the best to my children then I’ve done something right…”
The experience of financial struggle was not limited to mothers out of work. Suwaybah, a migrant lone mother who was in part-time employment, stated that she had to sacrifice her own needs, spending less on herself, while putting her children’s needs first and managing on a tight budget. Such personal sacrifices were described by many lone mothers in this study, alongside strategies to save money including, reducing the use of heating in the home, cooking at home rather than eating out and buying used clothes.
Furthermore, the significant role of South Asian women’s organisations in lone mothers’ lives was demonstrated. The women’s organisation was an essential lifeline for participants and provided access to resources, support and funds in times of hardship. For example, when Maymoona moved homes, she could not afford an essential kitchen appliance and was unsuccessful in receiving a support grant from the local council. An advocacy worker at the organisation supported Maymoona to successfully apply for a scheme which provided appliances to households facing financial hardship. The organisation also provided emotional support and was a site for everyday sociality where women could share their circumstances and feelings with other attendees and advocacy workers. This offered a mental break from the everyday and supported women through precarious situations.
Overall, this illustrates the prevalence of poverty, including food insecurity, food and fuel poverty and material deprivation amongst PBM lone mothers and reflects previous studies findings focusing predominantly on White lone mothers (e.g., Stack and Meredith 2018). PBM women’s positionalities as lone mothers, ethnic and religious minorities, women and being working class resulted in experiences of structural inequality, financial struggle, poverty, and deprivation. These experiences can only be further exacerbated during the pandemic where, according to the Economic Affairs Committee (2020), food prices and electricity bills have increased, and people have been staying at home more.
Thus, it is important to further explore the everyday experiences of poverty amongst PBM lone mothers and recognise how this intersects with their gendered, ethnic and class positionings. The crucial role of co-ethnic voluntary sector organisations in supporting ethnic minority women who face marginalisation from mainstream services is also highlighted. There is an increasing demand and need for such services despite constrained resources and increasing cuts which disproportionately impact BME organisations (BBC 2020; Harries et al 2020). Crucially, PBM lone mothers’ experiences challenge dominant negative racialized perceptions of Muslim women as being passive and lacking agency. Instead, their strength, agency and sacrifices are illustrated.
Acknowledgement: This PhD research project was funded by the ESRC.
All participant names used in this article are pseudonyms.
Economic Affairs Committee., (2020). Universal Credit isn’t working: proposals for reform. London: House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.
Fenton-Glynn, C., (2015). Austerity and the benefit cap: In whose best interests? Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law. 37(4), 467-469.
Qureshi, K., (2016). Marital breakdown among British Asians. London: Palgrave.
Stack, R. J. and Meredith, A., (2017). The impact of financial hardship on single parents: An exploration of the journey from social distress to seeking help. Journal of Family and Economic Issues. 39(2), 232-242.
Tariq, M. and Syed, J., (2017). Intersectionality at work: South Asian Muslim women’s experiences of employment and leadership in the United Kingdom. Sex Roles. 77(7), 510- 522.