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Pakistani Immigrants: Home From Home? The Conclusion

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Iram Ramzan’s long second part to her analysis of the issues facing Pakistanis in the UK, and her conclusion.

Originally published for The Backbencher on 07/04/2011

 

 

On the eight-hour flight back to England (easily the best part of the entire ‘holiday’) I talked with a British Pakistani gentleman on many topics, including the two subjects in which one supposedly should not engage  with a total stranger – politics and religion. But when do I ever do as I am told?

Anyhow. I told him that I would never want to go back to Pakistan again and I had very little interest left in that part of the world, to which he replied: “We will never truly be accepted in Britain, among white people, but we will always be welcome back in Pakistan. People in Pakistan will always see us as one of them.” This led me to wonder if other Brits of Pakistani origin feel the same way. Are there others who, like me, feel disconnected to Pakistan or Kashmir, or do they all still feel as Pakistani as their parents and grandparents? How do they identify themselves?

Identity is a tricky issue, as it is very subjective and simplifies what is a very complex idea. As Omar Mehtab, a 22-year-old student from Ilford, said: You’re you, as soon as you try to define yourself that’s where you’re not able to; don’t define yourself, just be yourself.” Indeed.  Nonetheless, I wanted to give a voice to sections of society who have so much to share yet rarely have the platform to do so.

Pakistan

Factors that shape identities

I met up with Burjor Avari, Honorary Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, to debate on what factors influence our identities. He believes that there are a number of factors which can shape a person’s life, with the role of the parents being the most important one.

“If a child has been, for example, brought up with a strict Islamic life then I think that that one particular type of characteristic remains with them as part of their identity. The opposite to that is if children are secularised, then that child is going to grow up in that way, indifferent.

We will find that the majority of parents came from Pakistan  in the last 50/60 years. A large majority will be of the first category, and will be passing the message of the religion to the child. One of the reasons is that many Pakistanis come from rural areas. Rural people have greater faith in religion. They also have a lack of education of the modern type.”

oldhamtowncentre1

As I wrote in my previous article, the majority of the Pakistanis in the UK came from Azad Kashmir to work in the mills, hence why one will see a large concentration of Pakistanis in certain places such as Oldham, Keighley and Bradford. They came from largely rural areas, which still affects the way they interact with others and their outlook on life.

It frustrates me when the older generation insists that we have no morals, that we are ‘shameless’, but that is not true. We do have morals, they’re just different to their morals. We have our own values and beliefs because we are of a different generation, therefore our outlook on life is bound to be different.

Who do you think you are?

Bradford young

Growing up, I was never inculcated with much of the Pakistani culture, thanks to my mother, who shielded me from the more traditional aspects. Then there was the fact that I went to an all-white primary school, which meant that I was interacting with people who were of a different background to mine. Because of these two major factors, I found that I did not fit in with the Pakistani children in secondary school who had all been raised in a very traditional background, hence why even they were obsessed with the idea of a person’s ‘caste’ or what ‘sect’ they belonged to. I still, to an extent, described myself as a Pakistani because that is the label others gave me, despite the fact that I did not know where in Pakistan my family came from until I was 15.

I asked a few people of Pakistani origin how they identified themselves and their thoughts on ‘being Pakistani.’ I was surprised to find that there were many like me who did not feel a great connection to that part of the world.

Ghaffar Hussain, a former Director of Training and Consultancy at Quilliam Foundation, describes himself as a Brit with Pakistani heritage.

“However, I don’t feel connected to Pakistan culturally and struggle to appreciate the mindset and values of people that are born and raised there,” he said. “I’m also highly critical of Pakistani culture and feel isolated from the mainstream Pakistani community in the UK.”

Syma (not her real name), an accountant from Bradford, who sees herself as a British Asian first and foremost, put it a bit more bluntly.

“I couldn’t give a shit about Pakistan,” she said. “It makes no bearing on my life whatsoever, it is just a country where my parents were born and as a result means I have a nice brown skin colour. I care about Bradford, that’s where I live, things that happen here actually make a difference even if minimal to my life.”

Janied Inayat, a 26-year-old Project Manager from Blackburn, expressed similar sentiments.

“Personally I’ve never really identified with being Pakistani (beyond supporting the cricket team, mainly because of their highly entertaining gung-ho approach),” he said. “I’ve been to Pakistan  a few times and I spent most of my time with an un-shakeable uneasiness. Off the top of my head I have problems with their attitude toward women, education, class and religion. It is no coincidence that Pakistan  is a failed state.” He added: “Having said that, the emphasis that UK Pakistani communities place on friends, family and togetherness is a source of great pride, something I hope we can cling on to for as long as possible.”

Perhaps the issue of Pakistan being a ‘failed state’ explains why some young Pakistani people do not wish to be associated with that part of the world?  There seems to be an underlying inferiority complex amongst Pakistanis, which lends to issues with esteem and identity.

That is what Shoaib (not his real name), a 29-year-old from east London, believes.

He said: “When I am asked about my ethnicity I don’t say Pakistan I say I’m Punjabi as that’s what my true indigenous ethnic identity is. Through my own research I found the whole concept of Pakistan as a political entity completely fraudulent. States/countries should be made around cultures, not the other way round with cultures being prescribed to people around the concepts of states as Pakistan  was.”

However, he did add that he is sentimental towards Pakistan. He said: “I always followed the Pakistani cricket team and had a fondness for Punjabi food – I like lassi and find salwar kameez comfortable to sleep in. I find the Urdu language (although actually an Indian language) aesthetically luminous and incredibly polite.”

Perhaps this is the future – a generation who identify with Pakistan in an abstract sort of way, taking the positives, e.g. the food and clothes, and purging the negative aspects? This type of thinking though can only come from greater education.

Education Pakistan

Education

Literacy in Pakistan is shameful, ranking 113 among 120 nations, with only 55% adult literacy. One cannot deny the importance of education. As Mr Avari said, “Without [a proper education], you cannot think properly.” He went on to say that part of the problem is when schools have very little diversity. He said: “Local schools reflect the area and if the school is majority Pakistani, then young minds will have difficulties to some extent adjusting to other groups of people.”

Janied confirmed this by saying that, in his opinion, most British Pakistanis are not making informed decisions, because they “lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to truly feel empowered.” He said: “Their choices are restricted and they go with whatever is easiest, hence retreating back into the comfort zone of their insulated communities.”

Indeed, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation did not have as many opportunities to study and reach their full potential, because, as Mr Avari said, there was often very little encouragement from the parents to pursue an academic education. A lot has changed since then. Indeed, Syma acknowledges the change in men and women in pursuit of an education and careers.

She said: “My mum was not allowed to study after marriage and back then they got married early so she always wanted to be a doctor but was never allowed to pursue that.

“Nowadays its pretty standard for Asian people generally to be educated with degrees and careers and if anything the girls have a greater work ethic than the guys.

“Our family are looking for rishtay (suitors) for my brother and we have come across so many very highly educated intelligent women who are now allowed to have careers. This is the biggest step for me in terms of my generation compared to my parents.”

Pakistani women

Despite these advancements, sometimes it seems as though very little progress has been made, especially when one lives in a tight-knit community where everyone is judging you and ready to report you to your family if they see you outside the home.

It can be over something ridiculous such as clothing. My mother’s friend’s daughter, who is getting married next year, said that her future in-laws have told her that once she is married she cannot wear ‘English clothes’ because it’s ‘disrespectful’. One would think that this type of mentality would have died out by 2013, but alas, I am not wholly surprised that there are people who still think this way.

Pakistani woman

This is what happens when you have people living in such communities in small towns as Keighley and Oldham, where entire clans, or biradaris, live. One has to factor in the entire family and community when making even the simplest decisions. In fact, Syma, who is one of the most educated and financially independent young women I’ve ever come across, admits that even she faces forms of gender discrimination.

“When it comes to socially, it’s still ‘where are you going, who with, what time will you be back, etc.’,”she said.  “Socially, I still feel girls are not allowed to go out for no reason or just to hang out with friends whereas guys are hanging about shisha bars aimlessly for hours on end.

“Living in Bradford as well, half the time my ground rules are not set by what my own parents would find acceptable but what other people would think. My mum wants me home by a certain time otherwise neighbours / family would see my car’s not at home and think I’m out too late.”

“Likewise, how much worse is the Asian community towards, say, girls that smoke, compared to guys? They wouldn’t even bat an eyelid for guys. Likewise having a partner before marriage.

“I noticed my brother, who is four years younger than me, always has his friends round at our house playing computer games, etc. One time three girls came and they were like ‘is your brother in’. My mum and dad said to him who are they, and he said ah they’re my friends from school and introduced them. And it was fine, they were allowed to come over whenever they liked to do homework, watch TV or just chill. If that was me and guys were coming to my house when I was 16, I’d have been killed!”

I can, of course, relate to this, not being allowed out as often as I like, despite being a grown woman. The mentality still remains that a woman carries the honour of her whole family on her shoulders, whereas the man, well they’re men, so what?

Trying to explain to my white counterparts that I still have a curfew or cannot go out sometimes can be quite embarrassing and frustrating. Maybe there is a north-south divide? Many of my Pakistani female friends in London do not seem to have this issue, whereas here in the north, regardless of how educated we are, regardless of how financially independent we become, there is always something to reign us in.

Clash between parents and wider diaspora

old muslim man

Naturally, there is bound to be a bit of a clash between children and their parents – both think they are right and that the other is wrong. There will be more of a clash because our way of thinking is different to our parents’. Or, as one friend put it, “we’re realising that what our parents told us all that time was just bullshit.”

Syma is in her early 20s, whereas her parents are between 55-60 years old, which is quite a big age gap, not just in terms of age, but experiences too. As I stated in my previous article, the earlier generation never intended to settle permanently in the UK, therefore they thought only on a short-term basis and brought their children up as though they were still living in the villages back in Kashmir or Pakistan.

Mr Avari believes it is precisely this obsession with ‘Muslim’ issues, or what is happening ‘back home’ in Pakistan that hinders these communities, leading to them becoming “obsessed with themselves, which builds up alienation.” This is not just a problem with the older generation – even the younger ones tend to be more preoccupied with what is happening in Muslim countries

As Syma (again quite bluntly!) put it: “They don’t see themselves as belonging in the UK, it’s like they’re here on vacation and home is still Pakistan. They watch ARY and follow the presidential elections, but won’t go to the polling station down the road in May.

“They follow closely what happens there, even though we’ve limited family that live there. Its more than just a healthy interest.”

So how does one pursue one’s ambitions when there are such restrictions in place? Is it simply a case of being rebellious? Syma believes so. She said: “Our generation is far more brave (rebellious perhaps?) and willing to question. There is nothing now that we will just accept, we’re constantly testing the waters trying to be able to do more and more for ourselves and finding out what’s acceptable.

“My sister was the first one from our whole area to go to university in a different city. When she initially asked, my parents said no. She didn’t accept that, and pursued with ‘why not’ and kept pushing till they gave in. This paved the way for me to live in a different city if I wanted.

“When I first asked about going on holiday when I was 20 I was told ‘no’. The generation before would never have mentioned it again. Four years later, I’ve booked a holiday with my best mate and told them I’m off on holiday.

“It might be besharam (shameless) really but essentially we probably listen to our parents less, mainly because we see a lot of what they say as unreasonable. They only set rules like that because its all they know from the generation before them.

“It is not just our experiences that are totally different, its the mentality. My world at home is so different to my world outside.”

In fact, I know of many young Pakistanis who live a double-life – they play the obedient son or daughter at home but outside they feel free to be who they are without fear of admonishment, because often strangers are more accepting of them than their own family.

Some, like Ghaffar, live in self-imposed isolation. He said: “I just don’t connect with [most Pakistanis] and find they have very different values to me which makes meaningful interaction difficult.

Ethnic_Pakistanis_in_Britain

Next generation

Maybe there will always be a debate on identity and self-perception.  Janied believes that, “Negotiating a British Pakistani identity is a constant battle, I think you have to be adaptable, rational and confident in order to reach a well balanced outcome.”

Ghaffar believes that it will become more about what you believe in. He said: “My Pakistani heritage informs my self-perception and how I see things but not because I’m informed by Pakistani culture or values in any meaningful way. It’s more a case of me remaining cognisant of this heritage and making room for it in my thinking.”

It will be a case of going out of one’s comfort bubble and interacting with others. With Britain boasting a population of approximately one million mixed-race people,  inter-race marriages could increase among the Pakistani communities, despite the prejudices I highlighted previously, such as, for example, the caste system. It may become less of a taboo for Pakistanis to marry someone of a different race and ethnicity to theirs.

Mr Avari claims that it depends on how the next 30-40 years pan out, but in his experience, many young, inter-racial couples can be seen at the university. After all, there are many benefits to marrying out.  Omar said that he takes many different things from other cultures, boasting a mixture of Indian, Pakistani, German and Polish background.

“I’ve got such a mix,” he said. “Right now in my fridge the gulab jamun is sitting next to the Pierogi and Kapusta.

“I’m glad I’ve had this. It’s given me different cultural and religious viewpoints. My generation is a product of a mixed environment – we love it.”

When one is raised in such an environment, differences are not seen as unusual, but celebrated rather and appreciated. At the moment, there is still that clash – the expectations of society and those of our parents versus wanting to be who we are.

On a positive note, I do admit that there has been a big change since my mothers’ generation. From an age where Pakistani women could not pursue education or careers to one where most women now are educated and setting the standards for the next generation, I would say that that is pretty damn impressive. Go girl power!

But there is still room for progress – I wonder what discussions the next generation will be having. I only hope that they will not be telling their own children that wearing ‘English clothes’ is ‘disrespectful’, or that boys will still be treated like princes who can do no wrong.

One thing is certain though – I’m still not going back to Pakistan.

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2 Responses

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  1. A well written article which touches on some of the key issues facing the Brit Pakistani of today,

    From my experience of being born in England and being of Pakistani origin and going to Pakistan a few times you come to realise you dont quite fit in Pakistan.All the people there no matter if they are family or whoever they don’t treat you as “one” of them, your considered a “walaityaa” and outsider almost. And i feel the same here in England i dont quite fit in with the usual culture you associate with the normal common English man. I don’t see this as a dis-advantage as i feel we are in unique position to take what suits us from both lifestyles this makes us more accepting and culturally diverse.

    But having studied a little bit of the history about Pakistan its hard not to feel a connection,the struggle sacrifices made in its creation and to to know your ancestry comes from that land it hold sentimental value. Having said that coming to England as an economic migrant like most British Pakistani fathers/grand fathers did could not have have been easy.So you are greatful to them for affording the liifestyle you live today. But some really move on from village mentality which still exists sadly to this day.

    Atiff Ghafar

    April 7, 2013 at 9:18 pm

  2. “In fact, I know of many young Pakistanis who live a double-life – they play the obedient son or daughter at home but outside they feel free to be who they are without fear of admonishment, because often strangers are more accepting of them than their own family.”

    YES!

    So I took the next step and bridged that gap; rejected all those expectations and realised I was not going to live my life according to guilt-tripping by the people I happen to be related to.

    Where you’re born and the family you’re born into are inflicted. I decided I wasn’t going to be forced into a life that I didn’t believe in. I’m an atheist and now rejected by my family, I would be just as rejected(more so!) in Pakistan as I am by my family here; but that doesn’t matter either. Location may have an impact on your outlook but it’s still just where you’re from, where you decide you’re going is much more important.

    I know it’s hard for people to think they have to choose between living the life they want and their family, but when your parents are dead are you’re years down the line in a life you never wanted then you might regret not taking the stand.

    sim

    May 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm


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