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BBC Radio 4 – Reeta Chakrabarti meets Iram Ramzan

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You can listen to the show on the link below  (available for over one year).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0477pgx

Reeta Chakrabarti, the BBC’s UK affairs’ correspondent, speaks to people who have found a voice outside the mainstream media, through the medium of blogging.

Today Reeta meets Iram Ramzan, whose blog reflects her life, as what she calls a ‘progressive Muslim woman’. She started blogging as a journalism student because it was expected of her, but some of her opinions have begun to attract a wider audience: she’s been interviewed by the Sun and quoted by mainstream journalists. However Iram has also been the subject of twitter-abuse. Reeta asks her if she’s taking a risk by blogging so openly – anonymity was something she never considered

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Written by Iram Ramzan

July 3, 2014 at 11:54 pm

Who represents Muslims? The answer is a resounding – no one

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Originally published for Left Foot Forward on March 25

Who represents, or who speaks for, Muslims? After countless debates and articles dedicated to this question, which is asked every so often (usually on a slow news day), it is posed once again.

On Monday’s Newsnight, Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz had just this debate with Huffington Post’s political editor (UK) Mehdi Hasan and Twitter celebrity Mohammed Ansar.

Oxford academic Myriam Francois Cerrah was also supposed to be on the show but was dropped at the last minute for ‘editorial reasons’ in favour of another male (Mohammed Ansar).

What we eventually saw was a group of South Asian Muslim men, aged 30 plus, shouting at each other (because we clearly don’t see enough of those do we?) The result was a tit-for-tat argument that descended into chaos, which left even Jeremy Paxman left looking bewildered.

There is clearly no love lost between Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz, but the pair wasted an opportunity to come together to have a much needed discourse on the issue of Muslim representation.

Ironically, Myriam Cerrah complained about the all-male panel, claiming it was not representing a diverse range of views but then suggested that ex-Muslims should not be able to speak about Islam.

Far too often, Muslims complain that there is no unity within their communities yet when debates such as the one on Newsnight are aired, they take one side against the other, declare one, or all, participant(s) as non-Muslim, or non representative.

This is a problem we have – as soon as a Muslim, or someone of Muslim heritage, gives an interview, they’re immediately pounced on, attacked, or vilified as not representative or not ‘Muslim enough’. Yet no participant, or writer, who ever speaks about Islam or Muslims purports to be representing everyone.

And, as much as I agree with many of Maajid’s views, even he does not speak for me. I speak for myself, though I understand that there are many people out there whose voices are not represented in the media.

This is why it is important to have a broad range of opinions (and this goes goes for anything, not just Muslims), meaning we cannot just play host to liberal voices. We must allow liberal, conservative, reactionary and even extremist voices, regardless of whether we agree with them or not

This includes people such as Maajid or Mona Eltahawy, Mehdi Hasan, Myriam Cerrah, even the extremist Anjem Choudary and those from groups such as the Islamic Education and Research Academy, who advocate segregation at University lectures, because stifling debate is not the answer.

As soon as you forbid one opinion or one person’s views, you send them underground and make them martyrs for their cause.

So who does does speak for Muslims or Islam? The answer is a resounding – no one. No one can, or should, speak for the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet, and nor does any one person or organisation represent Islam.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

March 30, 2014 at 9:29 pm

White Girls Are Not The Only Victims Of Sexual Abuse

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 15/9/2013

 

“We shouldn’t get away from the fact that there are gangs of Muslim men going round and raping white kids” – Kris Hopkins, Conservative MP, Keighley.

“Some men of Pakistani origin see white girls as ’easy meat’” –  Jack Straw, Labour MP, Blackburn.

“Our women are not halal meat” – BNP poster.

Asian and Muslim girls are abused and groomed by gangs of men. Disgusted? Yes. Shocked? No. In fact, I wrote an article just a few months ago, stating that the abuse of girls, especially Asian girls, was known by some. After I wrote that piece, I was attacked by some people for denying the cultural link, that Asian men only went after white girls, whom they saw as “halal meat”. Even the judge, upon sentencing the Rochdale groomers, said: “One of the factors leading to that was the fact that they were not part of your community or religion.”

Yet it took an in-depth report by the Muslim Womens Network  that it is not just white girls who are abused and groomed by gangs of men.

silent woman

MWN UK conducted research into the hidden experiences of Asian / Muslim girls and young women so that everyone can better understand how to support and protect them. In such a short amount of time, 35 case studies were collected.

They launched the ‘Unheard Voices’ report on Tuesday and presented its findings at the House of Commons. BBC radio stations covered the findings of MWN’s report on Wednesday, but it has not been discussed in such depth as the Rochdale and Oxford  cases did.

Any comment from the EDL or the BNP? No. They were silent of course, because they’re only concerned with their own, white girls, and more concerned with using the victims for their own political agendas. No one was willing to even contemplate that these disgusting men preyed on their Asian girls, because that would require us to put aside our initial prejudices, get off the racial bandwagon and actually use our brains.

Sunny Hundal wrote a piece soon after, highlighting tensions between Muslims and Sikhs. He wrote:

“This is conveniently ignored by the white, Sikh and Muslim men who want men of other communities to point fingers at. Where are the Sikh vigilante gangs against honour crimes , domestic violence  and rape perpetrated by Sikh men against Sikh women? These gangs don’t exist.”

It’s so convenient to blame race and / or religion.  We would rather believe that girls are being abused in far away places by wicked brown men because otherwise, we would have to consider the very uncomfortable fact that abuse is hidden in every community, including our own.It is a complete myth that white girls are seen as “easy” compared with Asian and Muslim girls. One young man, in the report, said of the Muslim girls:

“It is easy to trap girls just have to tell ‘em you love ‘em and will marry ‘em. Some of the lads are doing secret ‘nikahs’ [marriage ceremonies] to make sure da’ link don’t get broken – that way you don’t lose the link with the girl. Then they offer their wives around. I have heard people I know say, hey bro do you want my wife?”

Mussurut Zia, the general secretary of MWN, helped compile the case studies. What did she have to say about the theory that white girls are more vulnerable because they’re supposedly out on the streets and Asian girls are locked up? “Yes you have white girls going out at night, though now you do you do see more Asian girls going out too,” she points out, adding:  ”On the other hand Asian girls can be tightly controlled but they’re sitting ducks. They’re more vulnerable at home.”

She continued: “Asian girls have extended families coming and going all the time. That’s a mass group of people going in and out, and families have no reason to be suspicious. It’s all hidden. One girl spoke to her mother who then said put up and shut up.”

Speaking of families, the report states:

“There appears to be little or no understanding among families and communities about sexual exploitation and there is a tendency to blame the female victims rather than the male offenders.

Girls were being regarded as “temptresses” and assumptions were made about their lifestyles. Denial about sexual exploitation was also raised as a major concern. There is a tendency to prioritise protecting the “honour” of the community over the safeguarding of vulnerable girls…preserving honour is allowing men to continue operating with impunity, therefore fueling sexual violence against girls and women further.”

MWN's Shaista Gohir

MWN’s Shaista Gohir

 

No one asks why these men were out late at night or where they were going. Because that is the mentality – men are not to be questioned. The most disturbing thing of all is how families were aware. Shaista Gohir MBE, who has been an activist since 2005, set up MWN in 2007.

 “There are young men that I’ve spoken to – a lot of them are in the know,” she said. “It’s not just men in the know, it’s women too. There are enough women that know about it. In one case study in the report , a girl who was13 or 14 at the time, was kept by a man in her room. He locked the door, leave a bucket for her in the corner to urinate in, and went out. At night he would take her out and pass her around.

“When the police went to find her, his family, who was living in the same house, said he was looking after her because she had run away from home. Sorry but how could you allow that? If you’re that concerned you call the police or social services. It’s become like a third income for some families. First it was drugs, then fraud and now this.”

Nonetheless, we continue to be in denial. Whenever Muslims have been interviewed, they will insist that race has nothing to do with this, that religion has no part to play in any of this. But something is not quite right there.

As Mussurut said: “The first thought on Rochdale was that if you’ve got a community in uproar then part of me always thinks, the lady doth protest too much.”

We need to stop burying our heads in the sand.  Victims go for so long without any help due to this absurd notion of honour and shame, as if it is somehow a child’s fault that they have been sexually molested and groomed.

Asian gangs

Shaista added: “It’s our fault. I blame all the community. If anyone asks me why are you talking about it, you’re bringing shame on us, do you know what I say to those people? I say that it’s your fault if girls are getting abused. You may not be doing the rape but your attitude lets them get away with it. The shame is on these people for remaining silent. Shame on you all.”

Many Muslims were outraged that Islam even had to be mentioned in the same sentence as this abuse. But the fact of the matter is, when a society or community is centred around a particular faith and when the culture is influenced by that faith, then to say otherwise is such a huge denial.

Take this account, from  page 58 of the MWN report:

My mate called me and said ‘Bro I have a surprise for you, come over to this house.’ When I got there 15 of them were sitting in the living room. My mate told me to go upstairs for my surprise. When I went into the bedroom, another friend was doing this girl (she was a 20 years old of Pakistani background). The lads went up one by one and took turns and while they were waiting they were calling their mates, cousins and uncles to come over and join in and showing off. Others turned up too including two older men who were taxi drivers, who went straight upstairs. One older man said I am going to call my son over so he can practice on her and later his 15-year-old son arrived in his uniform. Everyone took turns and it took 6 hours. I did get concerned and said, ‘the girl is going to get broke, who will marry her?’ The girl is not paid but she gets looked after, she is given food and the boys make sure she gets home safely if it gets late. There are set days Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays but some of my friends don’t like doing stuff like that on a Friday because it is Jumu’a (holy day) and they go mosque.

Amazing isn’t it – that young lads and men can be abusing and raping girls one day and praying to God the next. How does that even work?

“People know Islam is against it, when you’re brought up, you know it’s wrong,” Shaista said.  “But it’s become acceptable. They think if that you go on Hajj (pilgrimage) or do your Friday prayers, your sins are wiped away.

Asian child abuse

“One girl said to she that she didn’t feel like being a Muslim any more because most of the offenders were bearded men. One man would pick her up after Friday prayers. Another girl, who was 13,was abused throughout Ramadan. Where’s the morality gone?”
Where indeed.

There has been a lack of response in general. I tried contacting several women’s organisations and children’s charities here in the north west, to no avail. One organisation claimed that they had not even heard about this report. That could be down to either the lack of press coverage on this, or that they just did not want to discuss the issue, perhaps out of fear.

The MWN report highlights what some of us have known for quite a while, yet sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Otherwise, stories such as Safa’s, whose uncle raped her before introducing her to his friends, will never be heard.

Kudos to these activists and others who have worked so hard over many years for women’s rights, and to those brave, young girls who shared their stories of abuse. They are the real heroines out there.

Written by Iram Ramzan

September 16, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Great (marital) Expectations – the woes of a nontraditional Asian journalist

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Runaway_Bride_jw

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” ~ Albert Einstein

The whole evening was a mixture of embarrassment and expectations, with a whiff of desperation. Or maybe that was the smell of the samosas frying.

For a start, I was told to put on a nice pair of salwar kameez. I refused point blank to change out of my skinny jeans and tee shirt, but wearing western clothing in front of Asian guests is not ‘proper’. Denim is kryptonite to the auntie brigade.

I didn’t care. It would set a very bad precedent – why should I let these people think that I was traditional and conformist when I am neither of those things?

“At least put a dupatta around your neck,” my aunty insisted.

Then there was the fact that my mum and my aunty, her sister, had cooked a three course meal for our soon-to-arrive guests: samosas, a big pot of chicken and spinach, homemade ras malai and store bought gulab jamuns and jalebis. It was as though I had already said ‘yes’ and they were celebrating.

In case you’re confused reading this, I am recounting my excruciatingly uncomfortable rishta ordeal, which I live-tweeted, might I add (am I shameless or what!). I was told of a very ‘suitable’ proposal which had recently come my way. “A doctor!” My aunty exclaimed, showing me his picture sent to her phone. The gold standard of proposals. A doctor! How could I possibly say no?

 Woohoo

In many, Muslim and Pakistani households, this is how proposals and marriages are set up. I’m not completely against this at all; I know some happily-married couples who have met each other in precisely this way.  I’ve been given the choice to find someone myself (although this should go without saying) but I guess my family are getting too impatient waiting for me to bring someone home that they decided to speed up the process.

Anyhow, the guests arrived late (Asian Standard Time) and sat in the living room. I stayed in the kitchen and then the conservatory for nearly an hour after, not knowing what on earth was going on or what I was supposed to be doing.

After hearing the men discussing mosque politics behind closed doors (standard topic for some of the older Asian uncles), it quickly dawned on me that this wasn’t a meeting for me, or for this suitor, whoever he was. No. This was a meeting of the elders, the men in particular, for them to catch up and arrange the whole thing. I knew more about them than the would-be groom!

I had to go in and introduce myself to the potential mother-in-law, a woman in her 50s or 60s. Wearing traditional clothing with her hair covered, she had an air of sternness about her. Oh I will fit in so well in that household, I thought sarcastically to myself.

The young man later came in, said ‘salaam’ and sat down at the other end of our corner sofa. I thought, at last, perhaps this will be an opportunity for us two to speak and see what we had in common. But that was all the conversation we had. We were never given the chance to talk to each other privately.

Then, to top it all off, the potential father-in-law, who was also a member of the mosque committee (Citizen Khan eat your heart out) took great pleasure in telling me how closely related we all are. As though that was supposed to impress me.

 harry2

I was furious; I was adamantly told that these people were not related to us at all. I had been duped.

The following day I was asked on my thoughts, would it be a yes or a no. How was I supposed to make an informed decision on a mere “salaam”? As it turns out, the young man was not a doctor. Not even close. And once we’d eventually started talking, he started laying out a few ground rules, such as the fact that I would have to live with him and his mummy, wear salwar kameez most of the time and that I would have to stop seeing my male friends, because “what would people say?”

Imagine how that must have made me feel. Like no one cared what my opinion was. Like I was not in control of my life, the back-seat passenger instead of the one controlling the steering wheel.

Oh, but I have it lucky you see, as I’m constantly told. “We didn’t have a choice when we were younger,” the busybody aunties tell me. “We’re not forcing you into anything, we’re allowing you a choice here.” Oh thank you, thank you so much for allowing me to choose my own shackles.

Then they tell me: “Get married and you can do whatever you want.”

There are two problems with this: a) isn’t is slightly ironic to depend on some man to liberate you, and that too in the form of marriage? And b) this is a lie that some families tell their women to coax them into marriage and then as soon as you’re married, they say: “You can’t do that now, you’re married!”

Eventually I know I will have to submit to my family’s will and tie the knot, because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, the next step in life we’re all expected to take. At the grand old age of 25, my designated expiry date is looming ever closer and according to the elders, when I hit 26, no one will even want to look at me.

Yet somehow, I don’t think I’ll be happily-married. My ambition is to be a foreign correspondent. I cannot do that and be a doting wife and mother. It is just not possible. Okay, maybe not impossible but it is downright difficult because for some reason, some Muslim and Pakistani men still seem to have an aversion to independent women.

Then there’s the fact that I know I’m not alone in thinking this way. There has been an increase in the number of British Muslims women having ‘part-time husbands’ in order to maintain some freedom – should it be this way?

Maybe it’s my age. I may change when I’m slightly older and wiser and I’ve found a younger, Asian version of Jeremy Paxman (dream on, right?)

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Most of these suitors are going to be the same because my family’s social circle is very small – we don’t venture away from blood relations (the thought must be icky to some of you out there).  Consequently, every suitor and their families can’t help but be the same: very conservative and traditional. I don’t, however, have the option to marry a man of any other ethnicity because this is still a no-no in our family. I dread to think what would happen if I brought home an Arab or Indian man. They use religion when it suits them but the same religion, which allows us to marry Muslims of any colour or creed, is quickly disregarded.

I haven’t been raised in a traditional environment.  To go from that to a traditional family where I will have to seek the approval of my husband and the mother-in-law would be going backwards, not moving forward.

I have my own dreams and plans, but does anyone care? No. I have centuries of tradition, culture, religion and elders all working against me and as the eldest child, there is even more pressure for me to comply. Their collective weight is very difficult to resist. I announced my new job as a local reporter to my family – they hardly blinked. They are saving all their excitement for my wedding day, I suppose.

It’s dawning on me that this entire marriage thing is all more for my family, not me. It is a chance for them to look respectable in the ‘community’, to proudly boast to people (people, who we really don’t like might I add), look, we have married our daughter into an ‘honourable’ family. We have finally fulfilled our obligations as parents. Should I give in for an easier life? It would be simpler; to please not only my parents but my wider family as well. Those who can’t seem to see that what was right for them isn’t automatically my preference. That maybe my best interests lie elsewhere. That as communities change and meld not every tradition has to be held on to so determinedly. That there can be adjustment that is ultimately beneficial.

I just hope that one day, my mum realises that the reason why I am so strong and independent, why I refuse to bow to society’s expectations and take notice of their double standards, is because of her, not despite her.

And, also, as one of my friends once asked me, “why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out”. I have things that I want to do.

Written by Iram Ramzan

August 14, 2013 at 10:39 pm

‘Grooming’ Is Not A Racial Or Religious Issue – It’s Societal

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 30/06/2013

 

abuse

 

Throughout this week, the story dominating the headlines and discussions has been of the Oxford grooming gangs. We have been asking ourselves: what made the men do this? Was it their culture  and religion; do they view women as lesser beings? And so on.

No doubt these questions should be asked and debated. We live in a free society after all and when many of the men who have been convicted are Asian and Muslims, then it is almost inevitable.

However, we have become so obsessed with what part race and culture may have played in this that not once have we stopped to think: why were these children failed by the system, what help and guidance are the victims receiving and what action is being done to support them now?

 

There is no doubt in my mind that social services, the police,  families and friends knew, but all kept silent, as was revealed in a BBC Asian Network discussion.  In fact, one of my sources informed me that authorities showed ‘willful blindness’ because of political correctness; they were too scared to take action because of the ‘race card’.

It was not just white girls who were abused. I know of Asian girls who have been raped and abused in such a way but because communities were too concerned with appearances – not wanting it to be broadcast that one of their ‘own’ girls had been ‘defiled’ – the reports and stories were buried, especially by those in positions of power.

As a result, the EDL and BNP were able to exploit it because they depicted themselves as breaking the silence.

Dispatches grooming gang reconstruct

 

Some action is finally being taken by a number of communities to tackle this issue. Together Against Grooming (TAG) said imams at hundreds of mosques had pledged to read a sermon to congregations during Friday prayers condemning the sexual grooming of children.

However, Alyas Karmani, the imam and youth worker from Keighley who wrote the sermon, admitted on Friday’s Newsnight that it was unknown how many mosques had actually read the sermon.  

It was bold in the sense that mosques and imams do not usually discuss these topics, least of all for a Friday sermon, and shows that they are finally taking action.

I am sure TAG’s intentions are good, but with all due respect, the sermon fails to address the issues. One part of the sermon says:

“Islam promotes a strict moral code of conduct on men and forbids any sexual activity outside of marriage. We are obliged to be active in ensuring the prevention and avoidance of any behaviour which can lead to inappropriate and unacceptable sexual behaviour and indecency.”

I do not see how abstinence would have prevented those girls from being abused, especially when some of the groomers were married, and it is rather insulting that they do not even make a distinction between pre-marital sex and the rape of children. It seems to be more of a PR exercise full of piety quotes from the Qur’an and hadith, trying to save the honour of Islam rather than actually addressing the issues.

We are all taught from a young age what is right and wrong and certainly Muslims in particular are brought up to abstain from alcohol, drugs and sex before marriage, so it is not as though this is brand new information. But what does need to be reiterated is that if anything like this is happening in our communities – if children are being abused – then we must all speak up against it.

People are still burying their heads in the sand. Some Muslims believe that a mosque is not the right place to talk about such things which is quite ironic because many Muslims always insist that scholars and imams are the first people we should speak to on such matters, (“leave the debating to the scholars”, they say) yet now that some mosques are doing something at last, they are complaining.  It is a no-win situation.

oxford-skyline

 

Monawar Hussain, founder of The Oxford Foundation, which runs educational programmes to promote religious and social harmony, said the sermon was a “fundamental error of judgement” that would play into the hands of far-right groups.

We are so concerned with keeping up appearances and refusing to tackle the problems in our communities lest the far-right groups will exploit this, but brushing this under the carpet actually fuels the far-right even more.

BBC’s Adil Ray, who explored the subject of on-street grooming in a documentary , has been vilified in the past and recently for daring to speak out. Many of those have been Pakistani Muslims, who have accused him of being a sell-out. The attitude seems to be to keep your head down and keep quiet.

The phrase ‘culturally sensitive’ is thrown about when such stories are brought to our attention.  But as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams rightly said , “If cultural sensitivity is going to be used as a junk drawer, to toss things into when you can’t find a place for them in mainstream debate, that’s not good enough.

 

See-what-children-feel-like-stop-child-abuse-8860789-295-321

 

According to some of the victims , they are still being let down by the authorities.

Anjum Dogar, one of  the groomers from Oxford, said: “The way I see it is troubled kids making up allegations. I can get people to talk about their characters here. They are well known, some of these girls.”

This is precisely the problem. These children, for that is what they were least we forget, were treated like dirt, dismissed as ‘unreliable witnesses’ whose stories would not be believed by ‘respectable’ members of society. It is no wonder then that it took so long for them to receive justice, if at all.

Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, issued ‘Ground breaking’ new guidelines for prosecutors on how to tackle cases involving child sexual abuse earlier this month. This is certainly a welcome step and I whole-heartedly hope that this leads to the protection of our young people.

But as we all know, the problem is not always with the law, but when it is not being enforced. Victims must not be left to suffer in silence and those who exploit them should be brought to justice.

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.

Take Up Thy (Spare) Bed And Get Out!

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Originally published for The Backbencher on 17/3/2013

 

Take Up Thy (Spare) Bed And Get Out!

 

When I first heard of the phrase ‘bedroom tax’ I imagined it to be something kinky (or perhaps it was wishful thinking), a silly joke on social media. The reality, however, was less amusing and far more sinister. The new rules, due to come into effect in April, will affect housing benefit, which is paid to less well-off tenants to help with rent. Typically claimants receive between £50 and £100 a week. This change will affect council tenants and those who rent from housing associations, who are housing benefit claimants. The government estimates that 655,000 households will have their benefit cut.

social housing

The ‘bedroom tax’ will penalise households in social housing deemed to have more bedrooms than they require. Under the government’s so-called “size criteria” (how do you decide what is the ‘right’ amount of space a person needs?) families will be assessed for the number of bedrooms they actually need.

The government says that it is a necessary policy to get the £23bn housing budget under control and that the savings to the taxpayer ‘will amount to £505m in 2012-13′, and ‘£540m in the year after’.

Photo3258

That’s the theory anyway, but reality doesn’t quite work like that, as there is no way the local authorities will be able to move everyone around and put them in the ‘right’ properties. As Theo Paphitis rightly pointed out on Question Time this week, it’s just ‘theoretical economy’.

Ministers have pointed out that foster carers and families of armed services personnel will be exempt from controversial changes to housing benefit. Furthermore, anyone with severely disabled children is supposedly exempt from the spare room subsidy, yet Guardian’s Patrick Butler  highlighted the fact that government lawyers were still actively seeking to quash an appeal court ruling last May that would ensure exemptions for severely disabled children did not apply.

Katy McCauley, a volunteer at the CAB in Rochdale, believes the policy is “not thought through.” She said: “They’re forgetting that people on housing benefits are on a low income anyway.” She was among the many who came out to protest in Manchester city centre on Saturday in solidarity with the 60 or so towns and cities that had planned demonstrations against this policy.

The government has persuaded many people that all benefits recipients are scroungers and shirkers and so this discussion of the welfare budget always seems polarised. What some people don’t seem to understand is that some of the people who will be affected will have lived in their home for decades.

Take Janet Southgate, a 55-year-old disabled woman from Hyde who came to the demonstration in Manchester. She ‘under-occupies’ a three bedroom house in which she has lived for 27 years, a home where her children grew up. She cannot afford to move out and there are no bungalows available for at least two or three years in her area – to move out would cost her £1000, assuming she has somewhere to go.

“I’m stockpiling food, tins of soup, or I won’t be able to afford to eat,” she said. She will be left with £150 to live off each month, before what is spent on the gas and electricity bills. She adds: “The doctor said I’m suffering from trauma because of all this. I’ve done jobs you don’t want to know about to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. I’m epileptic, disabled and trapped.”

Photo3260

Andy Bentley, a 50-year-old ex-soldier from Halifax, said that some of his friends would be made homeless come April. A disabled friend of his ‘under-occupies’ his house because he can’t get upstairs, so he sleeps in the living room. What will he do?

When I suggested the possibility of living with his mother, he replied that she did not want him living with her, which begs the questions – what will happen to vulnerable people who cannot rely on family or friends to help them? More people now still live at home with their parents in the UK, but what about those whose parents do not want their children living at home any more?

Yes, housing benefit is a huge bill but that is because property prices and rents have been allowed to rise without control. It is clearly an ill-thought out policy or, as Andy from Halifax put it, “It’s lunacy.”

There are many more in this desperate position and although the government’s explanation suggests that there is an element of choice, that people are being asked nicely to decide whether to downsize or pay extra to have a bit more room, in practice there really aren’t many suitable smaller properties for people to move into, nor can those people afford to have their benefits reduced.

Is the theoretical half-a-billion pounds savings really worth it?

Written by Iram Ramzan

March 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

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