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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.


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.”


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


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.


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.


Guns and glaring stares: a fortnight in Pakistan/Kashmir

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As most of you will know, I was not looking forward to going to Pakistan/Kashmir at all. I can’t even handle Pakistanis in the UK, how would I cope with them in their natural habitat?!

I kept a travel diary and noted any observations throughout my time there.

Please bear in mind that these are only my views based on my experience and are not intended to reflect every Pakistani or Kashmiri. Nor is this intended to be a travel guide; it is simply the narrative of a rather bored, ranty beige lady.

Guns are unavoidable in Pakistan - even I had to get in on the act (mercifully this was not even assembled)

Guns are unavoidable in Pakistan – even I had to get in on the act (don’t worry, this was not even assembled)

11/1/2013: As the passengers boarded the plane, there were continuous announcements, requesting the ‘Khawateen o Hazraat’ (ladies and gentlemen) to claim a blue suitcase. Ten minutes later and still no one had claimed it.  I was beginning to panic slightly – what if it’s going to blow up? I don’t want to die in a plane that has not even taken off surrounded by strangers! A few minutes later I was positively hysterical, screaming in my mind, “khawateen o hazraat will you claim the goddamn suitcase?!” Fortunately the announcements stopped and nothing was blown up.

Later on, I asked my aunty if we would go exploring around the north of Kashmir. She laughed and replied, “Good luck with finding someone to take you!” *sigh* what a ‘holiday’ this was going to be; more like a jail sentence. But I was aware of the disputes that had been taking place around the Line of Control in the Poonch district of Kashmir, which meant that even if, by some miracle, my family had found their sense of adventure, it would have been very difficult to travel there.

12/1/13: Arrived at at Islamabad Airport (I refuse to call it by its new name Benazir Bhutto International Airport) at around 7am. I stepped off the plane only to be greeted with rain – and I thought we had left Manchester behind. The airport is actually located in the city of Rawalpindi and serves as a military airport too, something which, according to a diplomat source of mine, the army is not happy with. Thankfully, the new airport in Islamabad is under construction and due to be completed some time next year. We, that is my aunty, mum, brother and I, had to go to the ‘unaccompanied women and children’ counter at immigration, which, to be honest, made me feel even more vulnerable that I already did. We walked past immigration and I could feel glares of the men boring into me, something that I could not get used to during my stay there. The men in that country just stare, and stare, and stare until you are out of sight. ‘Land of the pure’ my foot.

After we collected our luggage, we made our way out and were greeted by my uncle and his friend. His friend took us to freshen up in his flat in Bahria Town, which is a relatively new development and a short drive from the airport, and fast becoming popular with expatriate Brits, such as my uncle’s friend. At the flat, which was lovely and had all the comforts of living in an English home, my uncle was telling his friend that he wanted to sell the family home in Kashmir (where we would stay for the next few weeks) and possibly buy a property in Islamabad instead. His friend thought it was not such a good idea. “It’s your dad’s home and where he’s buried,” he said. My uncle replied that he could not see his own children coming to Pakistan or to the house in the village.  He had a point. I for sure do not want to go back to that country and I said as much, which is why his friend then told him to take me out and about, “otherwise she won’t come back!” Aside from my grandparents’ graves, I have no other connection to the land, as all my family is in England.

In Pakistan, as my uncle claims, they cannot enforce the law. Every rule, regulation and code is broken there and in India. He also reckons (though I would take it with a pinch of salt) that there is ‘more money per square footage’ in the city of Mirpur, Kashmir, but the people don’t know how to invest their money properly. It was not difficult to see why he would say that. Looking around, people have spent a lot of British money in building lavish homes for themselves and their family (which would stay empty for 11 months of the year), with all the comforts in England inside, while the roads surrounding them are in no fit state to drive on and there are no pavements. Certain parts of Kashmir, especially Mirpur, depend on British money because of ex-pats which is how the city and the surrounding areas are developing but, according to my uncle, the place will stagnate, as the next generation will not go back there.

A typical example of a home built with British money - most of these properties remain empty for most of the year

A typical example of a home built with British money – many of these properties remain empty most of the year

The first thing I demanded when we were closer to home was a sim card, as my previous Pakistani sim, not having been used for over three years, was blocked. I was informed that obtaining a sim now was more difficult, due to the increase in terrorist attacks. Sims can no longer be purchased from the local bazaar (market) but from the network provider, and after showing your Pakistani ID card, the number must then be registered. Great. This meant that I was without any means of communication and could not rely on my friends in England to help pass the time.

The village is in the Bhimber district of Azad Jammu Kashmir, the only region in AJK which consists of plains. Throughout my stay here, it would be very cold, with few spells of sunshine in the morning. Not having packed appropriate clothes or thermals (I packed very last-minute, as I had been trying to get out of going altogether), the nights were extremely cold. However, this has to be one of the safest areas in the whole region – whatever happens in the rest of Kashmir or Pakistan does not really have an impact on the village here, which means one can spend time with the family in peace.

The view from the house in our village

The view from the house in our village

13/1/13: We have satellite TV! Thank goodness for that! I spent most of my time finding out what was going on in the world, but the majority of the news channels were Indian. Their news programmes are very much like their dramas and movies – exaggerated and full of bizarre special effects. The reports are biased and alarmist so I wouldn’t be surprised if the population was constantly on edge, waiting for the next terrorist attack. What saddened me the most was hearing the report of the rape of a woman in the Punjab region of India – women in these countries (yes that includes Pakistan) are simply not safe.

Load shedding, or power blackouts, has become even worse here in the ‘fourth world’ (as my uncle describes it)  since I last came three years ago.  The power is supposed to go at set times, but often the power goes randomly, when you least expect it. At times, when there was power again, it was taken again after ten minutes, which can cause huge disruptions to people’s daily lives. But it is still not as bad as mainland Pakistan apparently, although this was of little comfort when, on a number of occasions I decided to take a shower, the power suddenly went out! There I was, cold, wet and naked (apologies for the disturbing visuals), in the dark bathroom with only a tiny book light to guide me.

The process is supposed to save money and is a response to a situation where the demand for electricity exceeds the power supply capability of the network. I found it hard to believe, given the close proximity of Mangla Dam, which is the sixteenth largest dam in the world. (If you can fathom this system then please comment below)

Interesting fact about Mangla Dam: Over 280 villages and the towns of Mirpur and Dadyal were submerged and over 110,000 people were displaced from the area as a result of the dam being built, something which, according to Ali Baraan, is still affecting people from that region.  Some of those affected by the dam were given work permits for Britain by the Government of Pakistan and, as a result, in many cities in the UK the majority of the ‘Pakistani’ community actually originated from the Dadyal-Mirpur area of the disputed region. So next time you meet a ‘Pakistani’ person in the UK, they are more likely to be from this region in Azad Kashmir.

15/1/13: The nights here are the worst; despite sharing a room with my mum and auntie, my fears are not alleviated after hearing the howls of the jackals all night.

For some reason, the issue of second marriages came up. In the village, there is a growing number of men, in their late 50s and early 60s, who are having second wives. Most pensioners take up golf or fishing in their old age; here, the men take up a younger wife,  younger than even their youngest child. In one case, I found that one of the new wives was just three years older than me. Suddenly, I could feel my breakfast coming right back up. One such man, trying to explain his decision, apparently said that “when we first got married, we were just children, we didn’t know what marriage was, we didn’t know what we were doing. Now we have got the choice to do what we want.” I suppose I see his point. In my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, marriage was a matter of convenience, decided by one’s elders and something you entered into with little or no objection. But what about their first wives? Women do not have the choice of having two husbands at the same time (quite frankly, one is enough), unlike their male counterparts, who can have more than one wife simultaneously.

Personally, I am not in favour of polygamy unless in very, very extreme circumstances and if all parties are happy with it. Most of the time, there really is no need for a man to take another wife. It’s usually done  for very selfish reasons, i.e. the man is bored of his ageing wife (you’re no spring chicken either mate) and because divorce is a taboo, and no one else will want to marry a divorced, middle aged woman, the men instead have co-wives – one to keep mummy happy and one to keep him happy.  The first wife has to put up with her husband frolicking around with a younger, firmer model, while she is left to have to explain to her adult children that their father is having some sort of Muslim mid-life crisis. The funny thing is that Muslim men go on about their ‘right’ to have multiple wives yet fail to fulfill their Islamic obligations, such as praying, giving to charity, etc. They forget all those requirements, but suddenly remember that they can have more than one wife. The first wife is left stranded and the second wife is sometimes kept hidden away. All because these men cannot stand up to their mummies.

18/1/13: It started to rain all day and night, with thunder and lightening, and would continue to do so for the next few days, which meant another day stuck in the house. As the roads become muddy and slippery in the rain, going for a drive to the city down the cliff would have been tantamount to suicide. After fuming for hours on end over being kept under house-arrest, I spent the whole day, along with my aunty, in bed, reading or just sleeping. However, my mum and brother suddenly became quite sick; when my aunty and I got out of bed we experienced feelings of nausea and dizziness. Outside, I collapsed and could not stop shaking. Why were we all feeling so ill? The it hit us – we had had hot coals in the room to keep us warm but had completely forgotten to keep the room ventilated. Effectively, we had almost poisoned ourselves to death. When my uncle found out he was livid and called us all idiots.

It was thundering all night. I have never been scared of thunder, but because of the mountains, the sound of the thunder echoed, which made it even more frightening.

We had a few guests come over, but as it was raining and most of us had decided to stay in bed, I really could not be bothered meeting anyone. Middle aged aunties who ask the same questions, discussing their bunions and latest antics of their daughter-in-laws really is not my cup of coffee. Usually, my uncle would warn me beforehand by announcing, “the biddies are coming, I’d get in your room if I was you.” Unfortunately that day he was nowhere to be seen.

An old lady who had known my late grandmother came to see us. Normally, I find old women boring and I managed to blank out most of what she said, with a John Grisham novel keeping me occupied.  However, what did make my ears prick up was when she began discussing her marriage (what is it with me and marriage, eh).  She was married off at the age of 14 to a much older man who had been previously married to one of her cousins. Her cousin died, hence why she was given to this man in marriage. I assume there were children in the picture, though she did not say – usually in south Asian cultures (and perhaps in the Middle East too), when a woman dies, leaving children behind, the husband will marry the late wife’s sister or another female from that family to help raise the children. In addition to this injustice done to her at such a young age, her husband also used to beat her. My heart went out to her – imagine being married off while you’re still a child, not knowing anything, not knowing who you are marrying, not knowing about relationships or men. I would have been terrified. But I suppose in those days it was common and men and women just got on with it.

21/1/13: My uncle once said that “Pakistanis don’t know how to be diplomatic.” I think, however, that he said that without bearing in mind the people of our village. Diplomacy is how everything runs here. Even if one person is not speaking to another, they are still invited to the wedding or funeral (or any other gathering) just for the sake of saving face. If you are not seen at a gathering then people will talk. “Did you hear, so-and-so wasn’t invited to the wedding,” or “So-and-so didn’t go to funeral, how insolent.”  I know people who have to live there need to do this to maintain harmony, but I found it all so bloody ridiculous. Personally, I do not know how to be diplomatic – if I do not like someone, I just do not speak to them. I cannot be doing with all this acting and pretending, it’s such a nuisance. At one event, the hosts of a gathering were not speaking to three of the guests who had turned up and vice-versa. It was silly! How can you go to someone’s house and not speak with the owners? Again, it was all so save face, but my God what a waste of time.

At one of these gatherings a middle-aged lady came and sat next to me while I was tending to my one-year-old cousin. The lady said: “You know Iram, he used to be so cute before, when he was fair, but now he’s gone so dark because they’ve been sitting him down in the sun.” About a baby for Pete’s sake! What is even more baffling is the lady herself was very dark. At least 95% of the people here are tanned because they are out working in the sun all day. Tip for you all: when you live in a hot climate, chances of you being dark are very high! You cannot live in a hot country and be pale as milk unless you stay within the four walls of your home and not venture out. But here, light features are highly coveted. It is one of the reasons why I am glad that at least my skin is not dark, otherwise the daily taunts over my skin colour would have been unbearable.

As well as Fair and Lovely, it's Fair and Handsome too!

Go away darkies, we only want fair and handsome blokes

22/1/13: We packed our bags today as we were setting off for Lahore, the capital city of the Punjab province. Every Pakistani you meet will remind you of the old saying that if you haven’t been to Lahore you haven’t lived. We reached the city of Mirpur where I was finally able to purchase a sim card. My auntie did not see the point – “you’ve got less than a week left, why bother” – but I needed to communicate with the outside world. And I had had enough of sharing her phone, knowing she would probably read my messages. Not that they were risque or anything – most of my messages were declarations of boredom and irritation of being here. Getting a sim was a bit of a mission. My uncle took me to the network provider where there was a huge crowd already inside. As I mentioned before, the increase in terrorist attacks meant that one has to register for a sim card personally and go through a rather long and tedious process. I had to ring a number and answer questions such as “is the number for you?”, “are you speaking on behalf of anyone?” and bizarrely, “what is your mother’s full name?”

Whenever we go to Pakistan, we always travel to Lahore too. Usually, we travel by a hired van or car. This time, we took a coaster. The way my uncle had raved on about it, I was expecting a long, air conditioned, luxurious coach. It was essentially a converted van with a dozen seats, in which we were packed like sardines. After an hour and a half, my entire lower body had become numb.

On the journey I noticed many school girls and college girls wearing niqabs (face veil) as well as headscarves. In our village, a niqab stands out like a sore thumb, so imagine my surprise when I saw a veiled lady just hours earlier. My auntie said it was part of their uniform, though I found that hard to believe. Why would a niqab be a mandatory part of the uniform? A friend later clarified for me that in some government schools, the headscarf is a compulsory part of their uniform (though many girls here wear it anyway). The headscarf is not mandatory by law in Pakistan, but it is worn by many and in some areas you will not see a single woman without it, or even without a full face veil, and in government and official buildings, the women who work there will wear a headscarf, so in a way there is the pressure to wear one.

It did lead me to wonder: does wearing a headscarf ensure better gender relations? Does it protect women from unwanted glances from men? I remember when we went to Auriga Bazar in Lahore, a market-place run by Pashtuns, the men there were leering over several women, including myself, with such a dirty gaze. They stared, and stared, as though they had never seen a woman before, although given that many of their wives and women were probably confined to the four walls of their homes, most likely wearing a burqa when venturing out, for them it probably was a rare glimpse of a woman’s face and hair. It was only out of principle that I did not cover my head – maybe I should have, who knows, but I refused to be bullied into wearing a headscarf because of some drooling me. At the same time, I cannot blame some women who, when going to that particular bazar, wear long chadors, often covering half their face with the fabric to avoid the leering gaze of the market men. It made me feel uncomfortable, so sometimes I’m not surprised that women cover up.  Is this then why men stare inappropriately when a woman is not dressed to fit in with the norm? Or are there deeper, underlying issues there?

Does covering up protect women or does it re-enforce this idea that a woman must cover in order to go about her daily business without being harassed or molested? Does it give men and women appropriate boundaries and a framework within which they must, and should, live, or does segregation and veiling exacerbate tensions and misunderstandings between the two sexes? (I would like to hear your views below)

A hair advert...showing no hair!

A hair advert…showing no hair!

24/1/13: I love this city! It makes a change from the sleepy village environment.

Lahori street art

Lahori street art

The girl, whose family with whom we’re staying, is surprisingly quite talkative and more liberal than I imagined. When I first met her a few years ago, I assumed that she was very quiet and dull. First impressions can often be quite deceptive. It did not take much for her to open to me  – I think she was ready to burst. Her parents are stricter than I had seemed them to be. Living in a city, I imagined thy would be quite open minded. But as the saying goes, you can take the person out of the village, but not the village out of the person. The girl, (I’ll call her Zahra) is not allowed to watch television, except news channels, watch movies, or even read books!

At the moment, Zahra is doing her masters’ degree in I.T.  Her university is about one hour away from home, so she leaves the house at 6.30am each day and returns quite late in the evening. She asked her father to let her live in the hostel, mostly for convenience and because she is the only girl o her course who still lives at home. Predictably, her father said no.

Zahra was studying medicine some years ago but found the course dull so she decided to change her course. Her father did not approve of this decision, but there was little else that he could do. Her parents told her to stop studying after completing her undergraduate course, but she wanted to continue studying – she wants to do a PhD and eventually start working. Daddy dearest does not approve and instead wants her to get married, probably with a boy from their village with whom she will have little in common.

When talks of married come up, parents come out with the classic line: “We need to fulfill our obligation as your parents.” As long as a girl’s marriage is sorted, that’s it – end of one’s parental duties. I suppose that’s fair enough, wanting to see your children settled and married, but isn’t educating your children just as much of an obligation? Girls are raised primarily to become wives and mothers – anything else is just an extra. So what if a girl is educated, can she make a good wife is what is more important.

I could resonate with some of the stories she told me of her fellow classmates. Some of the girls who live in the hostel do not like going back home to their parents because of the crap they have to deal with. One girl, a close friend of Zahra’s, goes home every so often only to find a rishta (potential suitor) waiting for her, and in-laws asking questions such as, “can you cook? What can you cook?” and “will you be able to look after our son?” etc. If that was me, I would have responded with “your grown-arse son should be able to take care of himself without hanging on to mummy’s apron strings” but fortunately my own family has never put me in that awkward situation. I do not know how people do that – if I was put through the farce of making tea for prospective in-laws and their beloved son, while adorned in a sparkling salwar kameez (no western clothes allowed) being judged like a prize-cow, I would run out of the door faster than you could say ….

Anyhow, I digress. Zahra wants to move out as soon as she gets a job, but given how her father is, that would be nothing short of a miracle.

What makes her situation even more difficult is that her mother contracted TB a few months ago, which took me by surprise. I did not think that anyone in this day and age, especially the more affluent, can get TB but clearly I was wrong. Her eyesight has completely gone – she can only see blurred shapes, which means that she cannot do many household tasks without any help. Over dinner one evening, she was saying how she is trying to find a second wife for her husband, as he needs a wife who can look after the house.  I assumed that she was joking – after all, what heartless man would take another wife while his first wife is ill – but apparently she was serious. Her husband, however, told us a few days later (on our way back to the village) that he could not do that to her. “She looks after my both my parents, takes them to the toilet, cleans them and feeds them too. In addition to that, both her parents are dead and so are her brothers. She has no one left in this world except me – how could I possibly do that to her?”  My sentiments exactly.  I hope he was being sincere and not just saying this for our benefit.

If there’s anything Lahoris know, it’s how to eat. I awoke each morning to be greeted with a rather lavish breakfast feast, too much for my delicate English stomach. Parathas, channey, halwa poori, stacks of fried, sweet bread, you name it – all the, er, delicacies of the Punjab were laid out for us. It is not wonder that many Lahori people are on the large side, eating such heavy food and sleeping most of the day, only venturing out after dark. I managed a fried egg with toast and a glass of orange juice. It would have been nice to have washed it down with a nice, hot cup of black coffee, but this is Pakistan – they only do tea here. Coffee drinkers are marginalised, our desires and needs suppressed. Here, “I don’t drink tea” is translated to “I’m not in the mood for tea right now” – they simply cannot believe that there is a person out there who does not drink tea.

Masoom's Cafe - I highly recommend their apple-pie shake

Masoom’s Cafe – I highly recommend their apple-pie shake

We ventured out shortly after breakfast. There was a protest in front of Governor’s House, staged by the PML-N party over a murder in Karachi just a few days earlier. There seemed to be more policemen than protestors though.

The one thing I dislike about Lahore is the sewage system. In certain parts of the city, one can expect to get a whiff of smog mixed with the smells of the open drains. My theory is that this is precisely why there are so many veiled women in Lahore – to protect their delicate noses from the noxious fumes. I found this report on the Lahori drainage system really enlightening and explains what causes such problems in the city.

My mum wanted to visit Daata Darbar, which is one of the oldest Muslim shrines in the sub-continent. Sufi shrines can expect to be visited by both Hindus and Muslims, but since partition most visitors have been Muslims. On special occasions, such shrines will be decorated with bright lights. Apparently, whatever you pray for at Daata Darbar is granted. I can’t say I believe any of that. I also find it amusing how Pakistani Muslims make fun of their Hindu neighbours for worshipping idols, but they do something similar themselves at these Sufi shrines. A few Pakistanis have told me that this is not that case, that no one prays to the saints, they just pray to God there for their wishes to be granted. If that is the case though, why are only prayers granted at such a shrine? Surely God answers your prayers regardless of where you choose to pray? My mum and auntie asked Zahra’s father if they had gone to pray at Daata Darbar for his wife’s eyesight to be restored. Zahra and I rolled our eyes at each other.

We had the opportunity to visit Daata Darbar the following day. I went because, well, it was a day out. All the phone networks were down as it was Eid Milad ul-Nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Apparently, terrorists in the past have used mobile phones to detonate bombs, hence why the decision was made to close down all mobile phone networks in the major cities.  Our relatives in Kashmir had been trying to contact us all day with no success – the networks were still working there.

For several nights, because of the religious holiday, mosques were brightly lit, with the sounds of prayers and religious music being heard all across the city.

Because of the bomb blasts in 2010, security at Daata Darbar was tight, meaning we could not take any bags or even mobile phones inside the shrine. However, when inside, I noticed a few women using their mobile phones! Clearly they had managed to sneak them in, probably inside their bras (no one checks there). The security women were something else though – after we had generously donated money at the shrine, probably a con (so I’m cynical-sue me), the female guards came after us and asked us to ‘donate’ to her. My aunty told the lady that we had no money on us, having left our bags in the car. However, two minutes later she came after us. “Baji (sister) do you want me to come and wait for you outside the car?” Er, no we bloody don’t thank you! My aunty managed to get rid of her eventually.

News crew near Daata Darbar

News crew near Daata Darbar

ARY News Channel capturing the Milad gathering

ARY News Channel capturing the Milad gathering

Gatherers for Milad - we spotted one woman, though it may have been a mirage

Gatherers for Milad – we spotted one woman, though it may have been a mirage

We also went to see Badshahi Mosque, or the ‘Royal Mosque’, which was built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It is also the second largest mosque in Pakistan, the largest being the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. The Tomb of the poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who is widely regarded as having inspired the Pakistan Movement, is located at the entrance of the Badshahi Mosque.

Allama Iqbal's tomb

Allama Iqbal’s tomb

A Sikh temple, Gurdwara Dera Sahib, is also situated near the mosque. The gurudwara was built by the Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the memory of Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth guru, and is a major Sikh pilgrimage site.  It is also Lahore’s largest GurdwaraI wanted to go inside but we were told that it was not possible. Why, I am not sure. I assume maybe it is only open for Sikh people, which goes against the principles of inclusion which Sikhism is supposed to promote.

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi

Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi


The gurudwara is visible here The gurudwara is visible here

Naturally in the mosque, I draped my dupatta over my head. I was the poster girl for modesty that afternoon. Unfortunately, it did not stop some men from gawping. I think this is a disease prevalent in the sub-continent – the people there just stare at you until you are out of their sight. I came to the conclusion that people here stare no matter what.

At Badshahi Mosque

At Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

But this did not stop me from enjoying the sites.  From inside the courtyard, Minar-e-Pakistan,  or “Tower of Pakistan”,  is visible. The tower is constructed on the site where, on 23 March 1940, the Muslim League passed the Pakistan Resolution demanding the creation of Pakistan. Unfortunately, we did not get to see Minar-e-Pakistan – I just had to make do with seeing it from the distance, within the walls of the Badshahi Mosque.

From here one can get a glimpse of Minar-e-Pakistan

Minar-e-Pakistan in the distance
Minar-e-Pakistan in the distance
The closest I got to Minar-e-Pakistan!

The closest I got to Minar-e-Pakistan!

Photo2810 Photo2812





Photo2840 Photo2844

Incidentally, Heera Mandi, or “Diamond Market”, i.e. the red-light district, is very close to the mosque and other religious places too. But, ahem, I am sure this is coincidental…

A glimpse into the famous red-light district

A glimpse into the famous red-light district

27/1/13:  We were informed that the family’s driver, whom they hire regularly, especially when we come to visit them, had had another girl. He and his wife were trying for another boy, making it a grand total of four girls and one boy. Why they wanted another boy is beyond me. One of his daughters had received a scholarship to study at university. In a country that spends less than 2% of its budget on higher education and almost 20% on the military, a scholarship for poor families is a godsend. That, along with allocating enough funds for a wedding, having a daughter in this country is seen as a burden.

Two days before our flight back to England, we had to go back to the village first. I was sad to see the back of Lahore, but I consoled myself with the fact that it was not long before I was finally back in England.

On the way to the village, we passed Mangla Cantt, an army garrison near Mangla Dam in the Jhelum District of Pakistan. During the construction of Mangla Dam, several villages were evacuated to build residential colonies and offices. According to Zahra’s father, who had kindly offered to drive us back, “the army just seize a piece of land that they like and occupy it.” Having observed several soldiers around our village and the surrounding areas, I was rather hard-pressed to know exactly what they do all day.

Mangla Cantt

Mangla Cantt


29/1/13: (writing on the plane)

I went to a house where I came across two fellow British girls – one was 17 and one was 16. The 16-year-old sat down with us and, when asked, insisted she was having the time of her life. Readers: I had to force down the glass of coke which had been given to me in order to stop a sarcastic comment coming out of my mouth. You will be pleased to know that I was the model of restraint and dignity (oh shut up).  When asked what she did all day, she replied: “Nothing, just watch TV, hang around with my cousins.” I thought, the how could you possible be having such a good time doing nothing?

I later found out that she had been there for 11 months too! 11 months! I had been there for two and a half weeks and was ready to jump off a cliff! The reason why she was practically a prisoner there, along with her sister, was because “she had been messing about” (code for being caught with a guy) . They were both getting married to their first cousins, who live in the same house where they are staying. Disgusting? You bet. I doubt that this was their choice – it was written all over the face of the girl who sat down with us. I wonder if she was being forced, or if she had, like many, accepted her fate.

This will always continue. In the future, such marriages will not be as common but they will still happen. Because of the fact that in some instances entire families from the same village/town will move to the same area in the UK, this attitude of ‘what people will say’ continues and the people will bring their way of thinking with them and refuse to move forward with the time. What is funny is how some of the homes int he village have changed. They are plush, decorated and fitted with all the modern conveniences and en-suites in every bedroom (it was obscene almost). Yet the people have not moved forward with those homes. Bringing spouses from abroad continues this cycle of tradition. It is no wonder that some British Asians can feel confused, torn as to what their identity is.

I came across another British girl who told me that she was enjoying her stay in the village (what is wrong with people?!). Her brother got married to a slightly older woman (cousin of course) here, last year. “He was really  happy, he didn’t want to come back,” she told me. This was not quite like the version that my auntie had recanted to me.  “He couldn’t bloody get out of there fast enough,” she said, and he did not even want to get married. His wife was a teacher – she stopped after she got married (of course). She is now learning English so that she can join her husband in the UK – I bet he can’t wait.

During our conversations, she revealed that the new marriage rule, whereby a British citizen needs to earn £18.5k in order to bring a non-EU spouse from overseas to the UK, is being appealed. Apparently, the Asians in Britain think this rule is ‘too unfair ‘ mostly because most of us don’t earn that much. We both hoped that this law would stay in place. “Thank God they decided to do this,” she said. I concur! This has to be the only decent thing the Coalition has actually done – and I don’t say that often.

I managed to get this confirmed with a solicitor later on- the £18.5k rule is being challenged. But this law is certainly a step in the right direction. I did wonder though, what about the two young girls who were being married off? How on earth would they get their husbands to join them in the UK, considering that they have no qualifications and are not even working? Unless they are going to stay there in the village permanently, though that is very unlikely.

I was happy to be finally going to the airport and saying goodbye to the place. I had had to sit on my suitcase to close it. I was hoping that the staff at the airport would not open my luggage. But they did-sod’s law. Only my suitcase was opened – I’ve never been more embarrassed. My clothes were spilling out, my unmentionables there for the whole world and his two wives to see. What was worse was that after we had had our luggage checked, another airport official stopped us and told us that we needed to have our bags checked. We informed him that we had just had our suitcases checked, but he would not take no for an answer. He was clearly after a bribe and , out of the corner of his mouth, told us to slip his some money discreetly. If it had been up to me, I would have yelled the place down and embarrassed him in front of everyone, but my mum decided to just pay the man. Corruption is rife – many British expatriates have complained that they are routinely hassled and disrespected. In fact, a gentleman who I was sat next to on the plane was telling me that he refused to bribe one official and instead went to ‘complaints’ department.  The official there, after being told how the man had been mistreated, simply said: “It’s nothing to worry about.”

Here, it is still a man’s world, and a rich man’s world at that.


When I visited Pakistan and Kashmir in 2009  I loved it – the mountain scenery used to take my breath away, but now – nothing. I felt absolutely nothing. This is probably why I cannot see myself marrying anyone from Pakistan or from my grandparents’ village, because if I do, I will have to go back there regularly, and that is something that I really do not want to do.  I must sound so heartless and as though I’m turning my back on my culture and people, and I know for a fact that many Pakistanis reading this will not like what I have written. Their experiences will be different to mine, they will enjoy what time they spend in that part of the world, but for me it’s completely different. My connection to this place died when my grandparents passed away. Now, I am sad to say, I just feel that there is nothing to bring me back here again.

Divide and rule: the hidden discrimination in the South Asian communities

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Originally posted on Mancunian Matters: 15/06/2011


I absolutely hate walking home from the bus station, because it is a mile away. I confess: I am a wee-bit lazy. But also, gangs of teenage boys loiter on street corners, thinking it is hilarious to shout profanities at any girl who walks past.

On one occasion, I was on a busy road when someone shouted ‘paki’ at me. It was not the word that really shocked me, despite not being called one since I was 11 years old. What surprised me was that it was not a white person of the skinhead variety or even a black person.

It was another Asian person, a young Bangladeshi boy, who had used this offensive word towards me.

Living in a predominantly ‘Bengali area’ of Oldham, I am used to receiving stares and probing questions about my ethnic origins. This may sound strange to non-Asians, but believe me we can differentiate between one another. We hear of prejudices between Whites and Asians (2001 riots anyone?), but what about within the Asian communities?

The one area where segregation is evident is in housing. Even the 2009-2012 Oldham Housing Strategy recognises that housing is a key priority for addressing these tensions and aims to rectify this issue, but they have not outlined exactly how.

The Asian communities do not see themselves as one, collective group, despite the fact that the majority of them are Muslims.

Dr Burjor Avari, Manchester Metropolitan University’s multiculturalism lecturer, said the differences between Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are rooted in history, in part due to the war between West Pakistan (modern-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Dr Avari said: “There’s no point blaming the English, this is a problem of the people themselves.”

West Pakistanis were seen to be imposing their culture and language on the East Pakistanis, who became resentful. Consequently war broke out between the two states and in 1971 East Pakistan declared independence.A child of Bangladeshi or Pakistani parents can be born and brought up in England, and still continue the prejudices of their elders.

This view is echoed by Waseem Altaf Khawaja. An ex-immigration consultant, 60, he has lived in Oldham for many years, and is a respected member of the community, even occasionally arbitrating on delicate community issues. He believes many immigrants in Oldham did not change or ‘advance’ their lifestyles in order to blend in with their new surroundings.

“It is a hidden segregation, a hidden discrimination,” said Mr Khawaja.

It is all about their attitudes and mindsets towards each other.

Oldham has a large Pakistani population of expatriate Azad Kashmiris and Punjabis. Both are extremely similar with only slight linguistic differences, but both also view the other as inferior to them. Why? Partly because of the caste system.

The caste system of the sub-continent is a hereditary system, describing someone’s occupational background or social status.  Although this concept is absent in Islam, Dr Avari said that it is still a practice that continued among the Muslims.

He said: “Muslims normally tell you ‘we’re Muslims, we believe in equality, we don’t practice that’, but history tells us a different story. Out of the lower group you have the Muslims groups who were converted. They thought it was better to become a Muslim than suffer from the Hindu elite but all these castes continued.”  He added that sectarianism further fuels the tensions.   He said: “Islam could not isolate itself from Hinduism; every community in India has been influenced by Hinduism.”

This can be reflected all too well in Oldham, where there are currently 34 mosques.  In Glodwick, two of the mosques are just a stone’s throw from each other- I won’t mention the names. They are both of the ’Sufi Barelvi’ denomination. So why are there two mosques? Quite simply, the former is managed by Pakistanis and the latter by Bangladeshis.  So in this instance, it is not necessarily sectarianism (as they both of the same sect), but ethnic and linguistic prejudices that prevent the two communities from sharing facilities.

Mrs Nessa, who has been a Bangla interpreter at the Royal Oldham Hospital for nine years, finds no problems with community relations, but she agreed that in the Coppice area people usually go to their ‘own’ mosques, but things are changing slightly.   She said: “Bengalis will go to Bengali mosques, and Pakistani people will not go to Bengali mosques. The majority go to their own mosques. Recently, some mosques are mixed. We’re overcoming that now.”

Mr Khawaja believes the mosques play a vital role in the community, but they are not promoting social cohesion. He said: “Their motives are to create their own parties and affiliations. They should educate their youths.”

He went on further to say: “I am against government funding to mosques. Instead of these mosques, they should provide sports activities for kids to play so they’re not becoming victims to drugs.”

But not everyone has an un-favouring view.

Councillor M. Afzal Khan, a Labour politician who was the first Asian, and Muslim, Lord Mayor of Manchester, has a more positive outlook to community relations, and life in general.

He said: “On the whole, my experience is very pleasant. I believe an overwhelming majority are decent people; it’s always a small minority.”

While admitting that there is history, and differences, he said that at the end of the day we all share the same values. He said: “The key point to remember is we cannot live in the history, we have to live in the now.”

Indeed. We are all the same underneath, despite exterior differences. There is more that unites, rather than divides, us.

And there is much promise for the future. A new academy school opened in Oldham last September with the stated ambition of promoting integration. The academics hope the Oldham Academy North may help overcome the town’s segregation.

As for the boy that called me a ‘paki’, I hold no grudges against him. His parents, however, have a lot to answer for.


Written by Iram Ramzan

June 15, 2011 at 1:15 pm

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