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