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Casey pulls no punches but will anything change?

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Pic Credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr
Pic Credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr

This is a cross-post from Sedaa

 

A much-awaited report which contains no big surprises received reactions that were entirely predictable.

From segregation and misogyny, to the child grooming gangs and Sharia councils, Dame Louise Casey’s lengthy, evidence-based report pulls no punches.

Towns and cities with high Muslim populations, such as Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn and Bradford are mentioned as places of concern.

Some of them are areas with large numbers of people who came from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, particularly the rural region of Mirpur. They came to the former mill-towns which now suffer from industrial decline and high levels of deprivation.

Parents still ship their children ‘back home’ to get married, creating ghettos and a “first generation in every generation problem”.

Immigration itself is not a bad thing. The problem is when large numbers of immigrants arrive into areas where there are already large numbers of people from the same background. There is less of an incentive to integrate and learn English if most people in your neighbourhood are going to be from the same village in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Last week’s Policy Exchange survey “Unsettled Belonging” showed Muslims overwhelmingly identify with Britain. And there is a hope that Muslims will become more liberal and secular. But if Muslims choose to live in areas with a high Muslim population, those who are more liberal or non religious will find it difficult to express their views openly, for fear of being attacked. Islamists benefit from this type of environment, as they can say they are trying to cater for the growing Muslim population – remember the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham.

Of course, some have suggested that “white people need to integrate too”. The report says:

“In recent decades, it appears that in some respects, rather than becoming more of a classless society, sections of white working class Britain have become more isolated from the rest of the country and the rest of the white British population.”

White British boys are falling behind students from other ethnic backgrounds, which will no doubt only help foster the narrative that no one cares about the white population. It partly explain why we have seen Britain voting to leave the European Union and the rise of parties such as UKIP.

In Oldham, two schools with one dominant ethnic group were merged to form one large school. The majority white Counthill School and majority Pakistani Breezehill School became the Waterhead Academy. Though the school is not doing so well academically it is helping bridge the divide among two communities.

If this model can be replicated then this can help community cohesion, as secondary schools tend to be places where young people from different backgrounds will mix. But there is no point in the Government talking about the need to end segregation if it is continuing to approve the creation of faith schools.

The report also finds – again, to no one’s surprise – that Muslims tend to marry spouses from abroad, particularly Pakistan.

But even if those people marry their fellow Brits, it is more likely to be someone from their “own community” – that is to say, someone who is either related to them or has links to the same village/town in their parents’ country of origin. So communities are hardly becoming more diverse.

Dame Louise also mentions Sharia ‘courts’ and the fact that many Muslim women are in unregistered marriages, which leaves them vulnerable. Critics of the report claim Muslim women are unfairly targeted in the review. Let’s admit it. Muslim women do face more barriers – mostly from their own communities.

When Muslim women themselves are saying that they are restricted by their own spouses or families, then why is it all being dismissed as being ‘Islamophobic’? When Muslim – and south Asian women in general – used to speak out against forced marriages, or African women were speaking out against female genital mutilation, were they also being racist and ‘Islamophobic’?

An important part of the review, which has been missed by most, is the reference to Prevent, which was introduced following the July 7, 2005 attacks on London as part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST.

Dame Louise talks about the anti-Prevent lobby who “appear to have an agenda to turn British Muslims against Britain”.  The report states:

“These individuals and organisations claim to be advocating on behalf of Muslims and protecting them from discrimination. We repeatedly invited people we met who belonged to these groups, or who held similarly critical views, to suggest alternative approaches.  We got nothing in return.”

Well that’s a surprise…

The report tackles the myths behind some of the stories which were very critical of Prevent.

Dame Louise writes about the infamous “terrorist house” case, in which Lancashire Police were reported to have interviewed a pupil referred to Prevent, after he had simply misspelled “terraced house” as “terrorist house” in a class exercise.

In fact, the pupil had also written that “I hate it when my uncle hits me”.  The teacher quite appropriately and acting in the best interests of the child, raised a concern.  A social worker and neighbourhood police officer then visited the family and concluded that no further action was required.  No referral to Prevent was ever made.  No Prevent officers were involved and Lancashire Police rightly maintain that they and the school acted responsibly and proportionately.

In an earlier case in May 2015, the parents of a 14 year-old boy started legal action after their son was questioned following a French lesson in which he had been talking about “eco-terrorists”.  After the lesson, he was reported to have been taken out of class and asked whether he was affiliated with ISIS.  His parents sought a Judicial Review, saying he had been discriminated against because of his Muslim background.

The truth is that the pupil was never referred to Prevent or Child Safeguarding (nor removed from the class), and there was no police involvement.  A concern about the boy was correctly raised by a teacher to the school’s Designated Child Protection Officer, who spoke to the pupil in an interview two days later which included asking whether he had “heard of Isis”. The Judicial Review was thrown out of court as totally without merit.

Yet the latter is still used as an excuse to bash Prevent and the boy’s mother, Ifhat Smith, still tells this story to anyone who will listen, despite her dubious links.

It is important that we discuss the issues mentioned in the report and the problems with segregation and mass immigration, rather than denouncing it all as ‘racist’. Indeed, some Muslim commentators have come out with the usual accusations of racism and Islamophobia; they are only interested in being defensive rather than actually coming up with any solutions.

No wonder we are having the same debate today as we were ten years ago. We’ve had similar reports in the past and I have no doubt we will have more in the future, saying the same things. There is little point in recommending what should happen now because it will only fall on deaf ears. Until there is a real political will to actually do something then nothing will change. In the meantime, I await the next report.

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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?)

tumblr_lymuz5XI8w1qfe3tb

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

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

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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!

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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

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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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