Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Muslim fathers

3 March 2010

While most of the UK research into the experiences and needs of Muslim fathers has focused on families emanating from Bangladesh and Pakistan, it should be noted that other Muslim cultures are also a major part of British Muslim society as are the growing number of converts. A significant number of British Muslims are of African descent; and other substantial populations are found among communities from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia.  Understanding all these experiences would contribute to a better understanding of Muslim fathering experiences (Khan, 2006).

British Muslim fathers:  continuity and change

While recognising cultural influences on fathers’ attitudes and behaviour, it is important not to overemphasise or stereotype these:

*      A small UK study of fathering in Pakistani, White British, Black Caribbean and Black African families found more similarities than differences across these cultural groups in the fathers’ behaviour, attitudes and aspirations and the challenges they faced; and while the BME groups tended to express more ‘traditional’ attitudes, these were moderated by the practical, social and cultural factors associated with living in a modern English society:  behaviour was often considerably more westernised than intention (Hauari & Hollingworth, 2009).
*      Generational differences were also found, with more traditional aspirations and beliefs expressed by fathers born outside the UK (Hauari & Hollingworth, 2009; see also Khan, 2006).  This suggests quite rapid ‘acculturation’ among some men
*      Similarly, studying Moroccan Muslims living in the Netherlands, Pels (1999) found generational differences, but also found the practicalities of everyday life dictating many fathers’ actual behaviour, irrespective of beliefs.  For example, in first-generation immigrant families in which mothers held very traditional beliefs, only half of the fathers stayed aloof from practical childraising, despite cultural prescriptions so to do.  Furthermore, Pels found education more predictive than time-in-the-Netherlands of more equitable role sharing in these Muslim families.
*      A UK study of fathers in four cultural groups (Bangladeshi Muslims, Pakistani Muslims, Gujarati Hindus and Punjabi Sikhs) found religious and ethnic identities important to fathers in raising their children but – again – great diversity in how men performed their fathering role in practice. Fathers in all groups were closely involved in infant/child care, with many actively distancing themselves from the ‘typical Asian father’ (perceived as remote and authoritarian) and seeking to be close/a friend to their children.  Some hid high levels of involvement in infant and childcare from their parents. A few were even primary carers of children (Salway et al, 2009).

While 86% of English fathers overall are now at the births of their children, this falls to 67% in areas of high minority ethnic population. Some of this may be associated with social disavantage rather than ethnicity, since fathers in poor families are less likely to be at the births of their children than more advantaged fathers (Dex & Joshi, 2005). The likelihood that at least 2 out of 3 Muslim fathers in Britain witness their babies’ births despite strong cultural disapproval will probably reflect acculturation, but the men are also sometimes present because their English is better than that of their wives, and they are needed as interpreters during labour (Miller, 2005).

Patriarchal attitudes and employment challenges

In common with some other religious traditions (e.g. Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity) Islam is patriarchal – that is, it defines the father’s ‘proper’ role is as head of the household, moral guide, custodian of tradition, breadwinner etc. (Seto et al., 2010; Khan, 2006). These are the criteria for success for Muslim fathers, with nurturing children accorded lesser priority (Khan, 2006).  Fathers in Muslim communities may therefore face particular challenges when immigration lowers their social/economic status:

·         54% of Pakistani/Bangladeshi families are in the lowest income group, after housing costs – three times the rate of white British families (2009a)
·         only 56% of British Bangladeshi and Pakistani fathers are sole breadwinners, with 13% in workless households and 2.8% ‘at home’ while their wives are employed. These last two percentages are both double the rate for other minority ethnic groups (Dex & Ward, 2010).
·         even where the fathers are employed, they may be unable to speak proudly about their employment, with many facing challenges from limited career opportunities and language proficiency, lack of cultural understanding and the experience of being a minority (Seto et al., 2010).
·         living apart from children also tends to compromise fathers’ role/status.  This sometimes occurs due to separation during immigration (Khan, 2006;  Pels, 1999; and while fathers are more often co-resident in Pakistani and, especially, Bangladeshi, families than in other cultural groups in Britain, 1 in 6 Pakistani/Bangladeshi households is now headed by a lone mother (Kiernan & Mensah, 2010).

‘Strict father/kind mother’?

All fathers experience some ‘gender role strain’ – i.e. disjuncture between their culture’s definition of ‘good masculinity/fatherhood’ and their social performance as men/fathers – but this may be particularly stark for immigrant Muslim fathers:

·         A family hierarchy which positions the father as distant from his children, discourages him from saying ‘I love you’ or from expressing his affection physically, and polarises parental roles into ‘strict father, kind mother’ may cause him to be perceived as rejecting (Seto et al, 2010).
·         Both women and children in Asian communities tend to acculturate more quickly into mainstream society, sometimes leaving fathers isolated in their attempts to carry on family traditions (D. Sue, 2005; 1996, cited by Seto et al, 2010).
·         Acculturation is a stressful process, requiring resiliency and adaptation, during which Muslim fathers in Britain commonly experience a sense of loss and isolation (Khan, 2006; Fathers Direct, 2005).
·         For Muslim fathers, loss of ‘respect’ and ‘authority’ is a recurring theme in parenting, combined with difficulty in communicating with children who increasingly hold differing cultural norms (Khan 2006).
·         One study identified particular difficulties in relationships between fathers and sons – both ‘up’ and ‘down’ the generations (Khan 2006).
·         Muslim fathers seem particularly ill-equipped to help their children with sexual health issues (Khan, 2006).
·         US research suggests that stress arising from failure to match up to cultural expectations may increase domestic violence risk, contribute to conflict with children and be linked with the higher-than-average rates of mental illness found in Asian American males (Seto et al., 2010).

However, the traditional functions of a father in the Muslim tradition may also have positive meanings. One small US study found children in Muslim families respecting and appreciating fathers who sacrificed their needs to provide financial stability – and feeling loved by them.  Some of these fathers had ‘acculturated’ in expressing their affection to their children openly; and those who integrated positive fathering characteristics from both Asian and American cultures expressed the greatest sense of fulfilment as men and fathers (Shwalb et al,2004).


British Bangladeshi and Pakistani fathers perceive themselves as more involved in their children’s education than white fathers (Hunt, 2009b).  Similarly, Razwan (2006) in a small scale study of twenty-three  British Bangladeshi and Pakistani fathers (87% of whom were born outside the UK) found all with high aspirations for their children’s educational achievement, most involved in their children’s schools or supplementary education after school and 39% attending parents’ evenings and helping with homework.  However:

*      39% said lack of English meant they could offer virtually no homework help and 22% were constrained by work and other commitments
*      in respect of engagement with their children’s schools, two-thirds cited cultural barriers, two thirds lack of information about the school and one half social barriers including their own long hours of work, unsocial working hours and having to sustain families in the UK and dependent elderly relatives abroad

Khan (2006) found the majority of British Muslim fathers keen to integrate but cautious of the perceived Islamophobic attitude of wider society to Islam and Muslims.  Retraction/failure to engage with schools and other services was also linked to:

*      Fear about conflict with cultural and spiritual values
*      Clear irrelevance of local services to the needs of Muslim fathers
*      Perception of standard youth activities as mono-cultural and unsuitable

Supporting Muslim fathers

Muslim fathers’ faith plays a major role in their re-evaluation of their lifestyles with religion seen as a force for good both in their own personal development and that of their children’s self-esteem and confidence (Khan, 2006).  Thus, interventions which align positively with the men’s religious commitments and which help them establish and maintain a sense of belonging to both their traditional and adopted cultures are likely to be most productive (Seto et al., 2010;  Khan, 2006).  In addition:

·         Early fatherhood (and motherhood) are common and tend to be positively regarded (Higginbottom et al, 2006).  This will require a different approach from professionals who may be used to more negative perceptions of early parenthood in other cultural traditions
·         Appropriate religious references can be drawn on to ‘give permission’ for involved and intimate fathering (Fathers Direct, 2006)
·         Khan (2006) found Muslim fathers only actively searching for information on fatherhood/parenting through the internet on Islamic sites, suggesting engagement with fathering issues via cultural portals to be crucial.
·         Facilitating opportunities for healing father/son relationships by creating ‘quality time’ activities for adolescent and young adult males with their fathers may be particularly valuable (Khan, 2006).
·         Bilingual/bicultural match between Muslim men and the professionals who engage with them is likely to be ideal (Seto et al., 2010).   However, workers’ skills and positive attitudes are the most important, and are likely to be more important than age, gender or even cultural heritage (Fatherhood Institute, 2007).
·        Those who would support first generation and ‘traditional’ Muslim fathers must be able to help them re-negotiate fathering without loss of status and responsibility (Khan, 2006).  In addition, Seto et al (2010) identify the need to:
o        help the men explore the significance of immigration
o        maintain their personal dignity via genuine caring and respect (including framing help-seeking as a healthy coping mechanism rather than as representing shame/failure)
o        identify their strengths (but within the cultural norm of ‘humbleness’)
o        recognise the cultural sensitivity of some emotions: for many men, and  Asian men in particular, expressiveness and personal disclosure may be perceived as signifying weakness
o        assist with masculinity conflicts
o        understand the relationship between cultural orientation and father-child and parent-child relationships (Seto et al., 2010)


Dex, S. & Ward, K. (2010).  Employment trajectories and ethnic diversity. In K. Hansen, H. Joshi & S. Dex (eds.), Children of the 21st Century: the first five years. Bristol:  the Policy Press.

Fatherhood Institute (2007). Case Study:  female worker proves herself with Pakistani dads.  http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/index.php?id=8&cID=658

Fathers Direct/An-Nisa Society (2006). A Prayer & Praise Guide for Muslim fathers.

Fathers Direct (2005).  Case Study: parenting training for Somali fathers.  Available at: http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/index.php?id=8&cID=163.

Higginbottom, G., Mathers, P., Marsh, M., Kirkham, J.M., Owen, J., & Serrant-Green, L. (2006). Young people of ethnic minority origin in England and early parenthood: views from young parents and service providers. Social Science and Medicine, 63(4): 858-870.

Hauari, H. & Hollingworth, K. (2009).  Understanding fathering: masculinity, diversity and change.  York:  Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Hunt S.A. (2009a).  Major demographic trends. In S.A. Hunt (ed.), Family Trends:  British families since the 1950s.  London:  Family and Parenting Institute.

Hunt S.A. (2009b). Fathers’ involvement in family life.  In S.A. Hunt (ed.), Family Trends:  British families since the 1950s.  London:  Family and Parenting Institute.

Khan, H. (2006).  In conversation with Muslim dads.  London:  Fathers Direct/An-Nisa Society. http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/uploads/publications/268.pdf

Kiernan, K. & Mensah, F. (2010).  Partnership trajectories, parent and child wellbeing. In K. Hansen, H. Joshi & S. Dex (eds.), Children of the 21st Century: the first five years. Bristol:  the Policy Press.

Miller, T. (2005).  Making Sense of Motherhood.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Pels, T. (1999).  Muslim families from Morocco in the Netherlands: gender dynamics and father’s roles in a context of change.  Paper presented at the University of North London’s Conferenceon Muslim Families in London.  London:  23-24 April.

Razwan, S. (2006).  Fathers’ involvement in their children’s upbringing and education. http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/index.php?id=8&cID=446

Salway, S., Chowbey, P., & Clarke, L. (2009).  Understanding the experiences of Asian fathers in Britain.   York:  Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Seto, A., Becker, K.W., & Narang, N. (2010). Working with Asian American fathers.  In C.J. Oren & D. Chase Oren (eds) Counsellling Fathers.  London: Routledge.

Shwalb, D.W., Bubb, R., Daveline, A., Humpherys, C., Evans, K., Erickson, M., et al.  (2004). Coming to America:  Asian fathers cross cultures.  Marriage & Families, 12,19-25.

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