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)
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.