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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times