A sari doesn't make us fair game

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The Independent Culture
I AM sure people were giving me looks of pity on the Tube last Friday. I was wearing a sari. I was a visible Asian woman, born to be beaten, raped, killed by close members of her family. This, after all, was the week when we heard how Ruksana Naz was murdered by her mother and brother for getting pregnant through an affair with a childhood sweetheart.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, a girl rejecting a forced marriage was shot as she was talking to her lawyers in their office. Then came news of a 17-year-old Sikh girl, Anita, who had been kidnapped by her parents and forced to go to an Indian village to get married. Extraordinarily it was a British judge, Mr Justice Singer, who orchestrated her rescue because he believed that justice had to take precedence over cultural autonomy.

Now, many Asian women and girls are loved, and able to make choices in their lives. But far too many are not, and are instead brutalised in unbelievably cruel ways by God-fearing folk. Now that the brouhaha is over, it is time to look dispassionately at this issue, which is what we tried to do at a seminar I organised at the Institute for Public Policy Research last week. We had a dozen Asian women, including lawyers and domestic violence specialists, who spoke out. Ministers, civil servants, imams, MPs, policemen and other legal practitioners all agreed that forced marriages could no longer be ignored.

We are talking about hundreds of young women from Bolton, Bradford, Manchester, Glasgow, London - anywhere where there are families from the Indian subcontinent - a number of whom are in a state of crisis at present.

The abuse of children by family members happens just as often, if not more frequently, within white families. The difference is that the wider society does not know or understand the inner landscapes or the communal ambience that lead to such acts of horrific violence within sections of the Asian community.

Conventional psychological explanations are useless. These are not crimes of passion, the result of systematic cruelty or mental illness. The reason Ruksana had to die - and why few within her community will denounce her murder - is that she represented all that is most feared by traditional Asian parents, particularly those from rural areas.

They hardly understand how migration changes everything, not just your economic fortunes. A study carried out as far back as 1983 showed that only 24 per cent of Asian parents, as compared with 57 per cent of young Asians, thought that young people would rebel against forced marriages. Now they feel increasing panic as their values - which they believed would outlast the universe - turn to vapour, burnt away by an aggressive post- modern world which they can no longer keep their young ones away from, especially the women.

And as mainstream culture, especially youth culture, becomes more liberal and individualistic, commotion within these families is growing. They are being encouraged by Taliban-influenced mullahs from Pakistan and other religious leaders who again see themselves as foot soldiers in a culture war.

What makes it worse is that white social workers, teachers and even the police have been told that the culture of black and Asian people is sacrosanct and that to interfere is "racist". Anti-racists play this game of appeasement, too, claiming that talking about these problems distracts from the real oppression of white-upon-black racism. Call me naive, but I think the murder of Ruksana Naz is just as repugnant as the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Then there are the expediently silent politicians. I would love to know what MPs other than Ann Cryer are doing about this escalating crisis.

Well, change is finally in the air. The Muslim Parliament has publicly denounced this inhumane custom. Some schools are refusing to accept long vacations for Asian teenagers, which is when they are coerced into marriages. Individual social workers are losing their delicacy on these matters. We must thank the lawyers and judges who are now challenging unacceptable cultural values, in spite of being criticised by people such as Kishoree Pau of the Society of Asian Lawyers.

The Government is also taking this on with some commitment. Ministers need to say that there can be no compromises on forced marriage, and provide strict procedures for all the agencies involved in these cases. We need research to assess how many girls are affected. In the end much could be achieved if we simply started dealing with these cases for what they are: child abuse and domestic violence. Culture is important but not if it encourages either of those crimes.