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Why Muslim women fit into European society faster than men

When Miriam Bouzid was 9, her parents asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer shocked them: a pilot.

"My mother told me, 'You have a strange way of thinking. That's a man's job. You have to choose something else,' " Ms. Bouzid recalls.

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Her ambition was foreign to her parents, who had moved to Belgium from Morocco in the 1960s as part of a wave of "guest workers" who ended up staying. But at 32, Bouzid is only a few flight hours away from becoming the first Moroccan-Belgian woman to become a professional pilot.

Educated, motivated, and multilingual, she is part of an emerging group of young Muslim women who are outpacing their male counterparts in making the transition into mainstream European society, the workplace, and even political office.

Their success is a hopeful sign that new generations of women may break the cycle of unemployment and poverty prevalent among Europe's migrant populations. What many find troubling is that young Muslim men are not making similar gains.

"Some firms feel that they are a progressive firm if they hire migrant women - but not the men," says Rachida Mohout, a Moroccan-Belgian teacher in Mechelen, Belgium. "The future is getting better for girls who further their education but for boys it is getting worse - they get fewer chances in school and in work."

The gender gap in integration begins in the family. In Belgium's Turkish and Moroccan Muslim communities, boys typically enjoy relative freedom to come and go, while girls are often restricted to the home. As a result, girls often study hard - and find themselves on a family-approved route to independence, says Christiane Timmerman at the University of Antwerp's Research Centre for Equal Opportunities.

"Girls know from that start that if they want more independent living, and they want to have a greater role in public life, education is their only way out," says Ms. Timmerman. "Boys have all the freedom they want in the public sphere so they don't have to do anything to get there."

When boys reach high school, they drop out more frequently amid anti-intellectual peer pressure, or shift to vocational schools that prepare them for a shrinking number of jobs in Belgium's service economy. Their lack of interest may be rooted partly in perceptions of young Muslim men as responsible for crime and violence, a view that can carry over into treatment at school. Although it is illegal, Ms. Mohout says many schools are beginning to reject male Muslim students who are perceived as a problem. They are sent into the remedial education systems instead.

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"There is so much frustration among the boys because they feel they are being treated differently from Belgian boys - blamed more often for problems and viewed as criminals," says Mohout. "It creates a vicious circle."

Muslim girls, while they have more incentive to study, still face social and family pressures. Even Bouzid's route to becoming a pilot was not direct. At her family's urging, she agreed to an arranged marriage at age 16 to a Moroccan man she later learned had married her to secure Belgian residency. Bouzid dropped out of school and became an assembly-line auto worker. She spent six years mired in Belgian courts before getting a divorce, then took adult education classes to finish high school and pursue the advanced science degree needed for pilot training.

"A lot of it depends on your own attitude - you can't expect presents to arrive at your door," says Bouzid. "You have to have a goal in life, but if you say, I am Muslim, I wear a headscarf, I will never get anywhere, then you really won't."

Still, young migrant women who are friendly, educated, fluent in European languages, and not overtly religious, are more easily accepted into European schools and workplaces than men. "What makes integration more difficult is that Westerners often start with a negative attitude towards Mediterranean Muslim men, but the attitude toward women is that we pity them," says Timmerman.

In most European countries, ethnic minorities have at least double the unemployment rate of natives. As a result, many countries have started new migrant integration programs focusing on language and job skills. But the current generation of young migrant men who are are out of work receives less government attention.


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