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Human Rights Culture & Asian Women in Britain
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Yasmin Alibhai Brown came to this country from Uganda in 1972. After completing her MPhil in literature atOxford in 1975 she went on to teach adults, particularly immigrants and refugees. Since 1985 she has beena journalist writing for The Guardian, New Statesman and other newspapers and is now a regular columniston The Independent. Since 1996 she has been a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
She is a member of the Home Office Race Forum and advises various key institutions on race matters. 2001will see the publication of the paperback of "Who do we think we are?", an acclaimed book on the state ofthe nation, and "Mixed Feelings", a book on mixed-race Britain for which she was awarded a fellowship bythe Rowntree Foundation. In the year 2001 she was appointed an MBE for services to journalism in theNew Years honours list.
I apologise for the daft title of this talk, I think that the presumption that any one can speak for allAsian women as if they are one homogenous group is ridiculous – so this is not at all a sort of Fool’s guide to Asian women. I think that would be an insult to the diversity of Asian women in this countryand elsewhere. I have however spent a lot of time over the last three years talking to a largenumber of people, including a large group of Asian women, for the different books that I havewritten and it is the diversity that is the first thing that strikes you, the enormous differences inlifestyles in the way people see themselves and so on. But also it seems to me that the onegeneralisation I can safely make is that, on the whole, Asian women of all generations, including mymother's generation, have been through deeper and faster changes than the men have. Some menhave had to change but most men, even the younger generations have not gone through the samelevel of transformations and the reasons, I think, are quite easy to guess. To be an Asian man,particularly if you are economically secure is possibly one of the best lives you could lead, if there isan after life I definitely want to come back as a middle class Asian man. But for Asian women it is adifferent picture. It is quite important to remember that almost no Asian women made the decisionto migrate, that decision was made by the men in the family, the women were rarely consulted. Butthere was a presumption that continents could be moved and decades could pass and somehow thewomen would stay the same. So I think there is something important to explore there, to look at the diversity and examine why the human rights agenda is particularly relevant to the lives of someAsian women in this country; bringing up the very interesting possibility that the people who will dothe most to improve the human rights of those women in the Asian community will, in fact, beother Asian women.
To illustrate this diversity I’ll give you some examples. The story that is most often in the papers andthat which is most obviously about human rights is the one which concerns forced marriages or aforced lack of education that some women and girls still have to suffer. Those are realities and I willnot buy into the protests, which I get everyday on my email, saying don’t talk about this, this is astereotype because this stereotype happens to be the truth. Too many young Asian women in certaincommunities are being denied their fundamental human rights - this needs discussing. When we talkabout Asian women and marriage I am talking about these awful stories of girls, aged 13 or 14, whoare sent off, who are being whisked out of schools, some disappear never to be seen again somereappear many years later as mothers with husbands they despise ,often objects of domesticviolence and they are trapped for their lives. People may not know that the rates of attempted suicide and actual suicide amongst young Asian women is almost twice the national average. Thisissue needs to be discussed.
But this is only one side of Asian women. A report was published a couple of years ago byRoehampton University which looked at the role of Asian Women in Business which I foundastonishing. 7000 Asian women run businesses in this country, some with up to 2000 employees.
These are not just the wives of businessmen but independent businesswomen. Parwin Warsi, whocame to this country from the Punjab as part of an arranged marriage when she was 18 was unableto speak English, today she runs two companies employing 2500 people. She has gone from being anunwanted Paki to being responsible for regeneration in an area which was devastated after people lost their jobs when mining closed down.
But what you are getting is a complete and clear class and regional divide, those women from theAsian community who are from the middle classes are doing extremely well and are really breakingthrough barriers. So there is great success but at the same time there is, in this country, and in theUS and Canada stories of truly horrific oppression. Often these girls are the children of parents whoare going through what all parents go through; a real fear that everything is falling apart, that girls of8 are going to be reading magazines about how to get a man, a real fear that whatever you do yourchildren are being influenced by so much elsewhere, that they are on the way to ruin. I think this is ashared anxiety but within certain groups especially groups of Asian people who come from ruralbackgrounds where there is very little education, where the communities are very tightly knit wherethe notion of shame and guilt are extremely powerful control mechanisms in those communities.
There is in these instances greater oppression in 2001, than there was in 1990, there has been atotal failure to understand what is happening to the kids and the numbers of children running awayis growing dramatically, especially girls. Boys are also of course suffering, I don’t want to give the impression that all Asian boys have an easy time because young Asian boys are also forced intomarriages that they don’t want. Sometimes imported husbands have a miserable time here becausethey don’t know this country at all, they are brought over again under educated, unable to speakEnglish, not through any fault of their own. The girls on the other hand, know the system, know thecountry, they were born here.
There is a crisis happening and the forced marriage group, that I was happy to be on, was trying tocreate, I think for the first time ever, a new idea for British Asians and most other communities thatwe are now living in a period which is beyond multiculturalism, in some ways that we have to startthinking much more about human rights than we have done so far. For decades now, for obviousreasons of racism and so on, the idea grew that you couldn’t touch so called minority communities,you couldn’t criticise them, you couldn’t examine them, you couldn’t call on them to behave bettertowards their own people or their children, that this was racist. A female Muslim barrister, whospecialises in family law contacted me last week, she had been phoned up by social workers inBirmingham who were terribly worried because they had found a child from a Hindu family whose parent had stuck hot needles into her head. The social worker was terrified that this was a culturalritual that she didn’t know enough about it; should she do anything about it or should she leave thischild alone because, what if this is Culture? She had another example of a 13-year-old Muslim childwho had had a baby; nobody in the family was able to explain where this baby had come from. Firstthey said she was the result of rape and then said that they did not want anything investigated andthat they are going to bring this baby up. In any other situation there would be an investigation toexamine what was really going on. But because they were Muslim it was felt that they couldn’tinterfere with the culture. And this lawyer explained that this is one of the biggest obstacles, thatthrough all the right intentions these feelings prevail.
This is part of a much bigger debate about how racism has been an excuse for excessiveintervention; in the sixties and seventies children from mixed race and black families were forciblytaken away. But I think the pendulum then swung completely the other way to a situation when nojudgement apparently can ever be made about how people can be treated in families who don’t havewhite skin which is extraordinary. If someone is in danger you do what you would do whether she isa white girl or a black girl. This was the argument in the forced marriage report; for the first time agovernment actually said that cultural diversity can be no excuse for moral blindness. It is significantthat this is written down now, teachers, social workers, police men and women at least have adocument which at least says you have the right to question what is going on. This is an attempt tochange the culture from a very self protective multiculturalism to a more open multiculturalism and diversity where we agree that there are limits which can not be crossed because human rights haveto apply equally. You should not be able to say that in my culture you have the right to take a 13year old girl away from her family and force her into marriage, no religion says that. Yet thecommunity and the religious leaders have made this part of a culture and most of the time theseleaders are men with the collusion of older women. The irony for me is that this battle over humanrights is much harder in the UK, Canada and the US than it is in Pakistan and India. In Pakistan andIndia if you say you’ve got to start talking about human rights there is no problem being able toargue strongly and cogently against practices conducted in the name of religion or culture whichviolate human rights. Asmar Jahanghir who is the Head of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistanbelieves it is much easier for her to communicate this message in Pakistan than it is when she comeshere because here racism interferes with the dialogue. Now I accept that it is much more difficult totalk about some of these evils in a racist society because there will be racists who will jump on thebandwagon, but my argument is that racists are going to be racist, but that you have to not beimprisoned by the fear that you will exacerbate racism. I think that we quite rightly got shocked andupset about the death of Stephen Lawrence, which encapsulated so much which is wrong with our society, but that the death of on one girl forced into a marriage, the suicide of one young Asianwoman whose life was intolerable should be just as important.
We need to get much more clear headed and fight racism every inch of the way, but we also needto fight these other gross injustices and violations that are going on, hidden in our owncommunities. I can’t tell you how many times I’m called up in the middle of the night, because I’mone of the very few Asian women in the media. The phone will ring at 3am, a teacher will say 'Iknow that two young girls in my class are being held prisoner in their house and there is nothing Ican do about it. If something happens to them I will feel guilty.' I have had women turning up at myhouse in the middle of the night. Young women who don’t know me, who don’t know who I amwho put their lives at risk trying to find somewhere to go. I just feel more and more angry that sofew of our leaders are prepared to get up and talk about this in the way that there are some manywho are willing to get up and talk about racism in general. I do not think it should just be left toSouthall Black Sisters or to the various women’s groups who are seriously under resourced, whothemselves have a terribly hard time from the members of their own communities.
I went to Bradford Police Station about 18 months ago to write an article about bounty hunters,young men who are capturing run-away young Asian girls for a price. They would be paid about£3000 by the family to storm women’s refuges and recapture the girls. I met about 16 youngrunaway girls or women. Several times I asked them why they were running away, was it for thesexual freedom or a boyfriend? Only two of them said it was because of a boyfriend, half of themsaid it was simply because they wanted space because when they had become teenagers the familieswho loved them suddenly became filled with a fear that they should never be allowed to be alone,not even in their own bedroom. They just wanted the space to talk to a friend without someonelistening in. The other half left because they wanted an education. It seems to me that those people who intervene to rescue us completely from Asian culture to liberate us to sexual freedom arewrong. We don’t all want to be Julie Burchill. This is a gross misunderstanding of what the problemsare. That is not what it is about. It is about the violation of human rights and I think this is one ofthe most important discussions/ public debates that we should be having at the moment and whilstsome women are already heavily involved there needs to be a far wider response.


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