After Rochdale

Asian women are suffering too.

There is a line in the film Four Lions where one of the terrorists suggests bombing Boots the Chemist because “they sell condoms and make you want to shag white girls". Everyone in my local cinema laughed, yet I know that abhorrent perception exists among some Asian men and women.  The furore over whether race, religion or culture played a part in targeting vulnerable white girls in the Rochdale "grooming" case, has failed to address a broader issue. The views of women who come from those northern towns has been absent in this debate. As a Bradford-born and raised Muslim woman from the Kashmiri/Mirpuri community, I understand the cultural complexities. Let’s be clear: it’s not just white women that are viewed as inferior: many from these Pakistani rural villages believe all women are second class citizens. The culture of the conservative Kashmiri/Mirpuri community has at its root a deep seated misogyny with the aim of controlling every aspect of a woman’s life and reducing her into subservience. 

 

This misogyny manifests itself in different ways. “They ripped away my dignity, my self-esteem,” said one of the victims of the grooming ring. Another stated that “she was persistently coerced or forced into submission by them”. Although the context is different, I have heard many Kashmiri/Mirpuri women in Bradford and other towns express similar sentiments about the men and families who control every aspect of their lives. White or Western women are viewed as promiscuous, are "up for it" and are objectified as sexual objects. A small minority can take this view alongside multiple factors such as criminality, to the ultimate extreme as in cases of grooming and sexual exploitation. 

 

There is a false and puritanical idea that all Pakistani women are "protected" at home and treated with respect. The reality is that many from this community also believe that their own women are inferior, their purpose in life is solely confined to the home serving their husbands and in-laws. Education and careers are unnecessary in a life of servitude as was the view before the early feminist movement and like white women, can also be objectified and viewed as sexual objects. 

 

There is a cultural attitude that women are singularly and disproportionately responsible for maintaining the honour of the family and that they carry the burden of preserving morality in society. They should therefore not do anything that would destroy this honour. Mirpuri women have endured abuse within families, yet because families want to be viewed as upstanding pillars of the community, many of these women are forced into silence. 

 

As a society we are losing out when bright girls from this community are denied the opportunity to pursue an education or career because of cultural restrictions. The psychological impact of being confined to the home for most of their lives is immense, as I was told by a woman who lived with her mother in-law and her husband, who would never let her out of the house. “I can’t even attend a women’s only sewing class,” she told me, crying. In many cases it is the older women in these communities who are perpetuating and maintaining these patriarchal attitudes. Some are still deciding third-generation first-cousin marriages and are prohibiting women from participating in public life.

 

In this debate, some commentators have not been able to differentiate between culture and religion. Women of my generation aspired to have an education and a career and saw Islam as an escape route. For some of these women, Islam offered freedoms to pursue an education, a career, the choice of choosing their own marriage partner, the opportunity to participate in British public life and, importantly, take control of their own lives. Moreover, the concept of rape in Islam should not be misunderstood: many of the early classical jurists, such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn ‘Arabi, viewed it as so abhorrent that it was defined as a form of terrorism. 

 

Misogyny exists within all communities and societies.  As Julie Bindel rightly says, there is no culture in the world where girls are valued on par with boys. Pakistani communities and Muslim leaders however can no longer deny the misogynistic attitudes that exist at the very heart of some of these communities. Young Pakistani boys and girls, and indeed all of our young people, need greater education about sex and women’s rights. Practical efforts that promote integration and social mobility will tackle attitudes and support women who want to play a positive contribution to our country. The enforced invisibility and subservience of women can be challenged through collective action to help dismantle the traditional and negative view that all women, whether white or Asian, are inferior.

Sara Khan is director of Inspire, a British Muslim women's human rights organisation

For many Asian women, Islam has been a path to freedom (Photo: Getty Images)
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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain