God's own vigilantes

In Northern England young Asian men have found a new role: policing their wives and sisters, finding and returning them to their families. Many of these women are driven mad or to suicide. What can be done? What should be done?
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I don't shake hands with women," says Rehman. "Are you a Muslim anyway? Didn't your parents teach you nothing, like?" I tell Rehman, who is one year older than my son, that his mother would be horrified to see him showing such disrespect to an elder. He comes down slightly from the edgy, hysterical heights he has been perching on. His intense brown eyes, though, still dart about, reacting to every sound and imagined disturbance. He is thin, dressed in a baggy track suit with a face which reminds me of Jeremy Irons.

"Sorry, like. But you know it makes me very angry that our Muslim sisters are losing everything Islamic. Like you, why don't you cover your hair?"

I ignore this fresh insolence. After all we are alone in a graveyard somewhere in a small town in Yorkshire. It is the only place Rehman could think of where he felt able to meet and talk. He has reasons to be scared witless. It has taken weeks of making contact, sending messages and patient groundwork, to locate someone who will admit that he goes looking for runaway girls and women. Anonymous phone calls and off-the-record conversations confirm that Rehman is one of a large network of men. But they have gone underground even though, as Rehman says, they are doing God's work, acting as moral vigilantes.

"I am a community investigator. I help families to find their lost children. Those who are being stolen by the whites - like they stole black children before and adopted them and like they do with Aborigines in Australia. They are brainwashing our girls. I tell the families where they are hiding so that they can bring them home and show them the correct way."

He shows me a rusty knife which he claims he used to slash off the hair of a cousin who came home with a perm. Does he get paid for this community service? He would not say but instead broke into another deeply-felt speech on the poisonous spittle of the big, bad, Western wolf. Then he gets cross again.

"Don't write shit. I'll find you if you do. And don't say I'm a bounty hunter. I'll get into trouble like that Taher and Smiler."

Taher and Smiler were featured on programmes about bounty hunters on Channel Four. Taher - a bald, fat, unpleasant chap - proudly went about breaking into women's refuges and "persuading" distressed young women to go back to violent husbands or families. It was all for money really but carried in brown paper bags of sanctimony. After the broadcasts, local Asian women, disguised in Talibanesque chadors, beat up one of these heroes. What a sight that must have been. He also lost his job. Apparently Taher received death threats for shaming the community not by what he was doing but by bragging about it on television. Distorted lives bring such distorted values.

The programmes also showed the clients. One man, handsome like Al Pacino, wanted to reclaim his abused wife after she left him. His father spoke with moving dignity about how marriage was central to the Pathan way. He advised his hothead son not to fly into a rage but to be kind. And then, without changing his voice, added: "Get her back. Then we can do what we want. You can set her alight."

Other stories were just as chilling. All the while Taher is grunting on about how girls have no izzat (shame), no idea of family honour. Just like Rehman, only there is something about Rehman which redeems him, even as you feel the urge to throw him to the ground and place a stiletto heel over his neck until he apologises to womanhood. But merely to despise such men would be easy. We need to know them and learn why it is that in Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds, Halifax, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester and beyond they have made the control of young women in the community the focus of all their passions.

Rehman came here from rural Pakistan at the age of one. His mother is a widow. Their father had a heart attack in the park and died alone in 1988. Rehman and his brother have two GCSEs between them. Their sister, Samira - married off at 16 in Pakistan - has seven GCSEs. Rehman says I can talk to her to see how the girls learn to be happy. We call from a cheap and cheerless international phone call shop with him hidden behind a Palestinian scarf. Samira sounds lively enough: "I'm OK. Nobody spits on me here or calls me a Paki. My cousin's husband is a really nice person. But most of the other UK girls are so sad. Some have died, you know. They get beaten because they are too independent." The call has to be terminated because Rehman has no more money and as a man he cannot let me pay.

The next day I get to meet other such men. Again they treat me with a mixture of contempt ("I don't care about those fucking Jewish-owned papers that you write for") and genuine regard granted automatically to someone older. This protocol has travelled down their ancestral bloodstream. I realise that like the young black men who give life meaning by becoming flash hoodlums, these men have created a role for themselves which gives them (dubious) status. Spectacularly failed by the education system and their parents who could not equip them for the world, they have fallen upon this dangerous option. The other is driving cabs. The two are intricately connected.

I spend three expensive hours cruising with Mahzer, a singing cabbie. He cannot read or write but can tell you exactly everything about every female pedestrian. Once or twice we reverse ominously as Mahzer tries to reassure himself that young women we have just passed are not up to mischief. Another taxi driver - with a tasbi (Islamic rosary) hanging down, tells me that if it wasn't for them, all girls would be prostitutes. I learn later that he is a pimp who only deals in white girls. I feel sick with claustrophobia. Everyone knows everything about you here. They can find out your NI number, your refuge, the relevant benefit offices, or where you are within hours.

And this is one of the key reasons why so many girls and women are running away from home these days. Some 132 of them asked the police for help in 1995; by September this year the figure was up to 202. The post-Seventies generation is dramatically over-represented. I met 20 of them. Most of all they just wanted to be trusted and to have some choices. They wanted not to be watched for 24 hours - even when asleep. They were not craving the freedoms of their white peers. Only two had boyfriends. Seven had run away from newly imported husbands. Many had been badly beaten and emotionally depleted. One 15-year-old was kept isolated for three years in her bedroom. Sometimes all they want is higher education. Legends keep them going. Like the true story of a runaway who is now a graduate and successful businesswoman.

Philip Balmforth, Bradford Police's community officer, is the indefatigable local scarlet pimpernel who rescues these girls and who arranges new lives, new identities. I once saw him confronting an Asian youth who was pacing the floor like a furious beast. He wanted his sister back. She was 30 and had been his prisoner for months. As a teenager, she had got pregnant and was then whisked off to Pakistan. After giving birth (the child, she says, was burnt alive in front of her) she was forced to marry a widower. She now has two daughters and is in this country refusing to go back. There are so many such stories in the women's refuges. Those who have fallen in love face the worst fates. Even if they get married, they are recaptured through promises or threats and they "disappear".

Independent investigations have revealed that since abolition of the primary purpose immigration rule, forced marriages are rising. Home Office figures show that applications for visas for husbands have increased from 255 in 1997 to 1,132 in 1998. Many are perfectly legitimate marriages; some are cruel coercions. Desperate women, Muslims and Sikhs mostly, often contact me. Many more approach the High Commission or officials here. And yet this is not seen as a serious enough issue by our government. Because of dual nationality rights, British-born girls who end up in Pakistan are not considered our problem. What would happen if white British women were being brutalised abroad? Girls are dying and going mad on the subcontinent and here. Many are choosing suicide. But officialdom has retreated into silence. Balmforth is not allowed to talk to the press any more. Men threaten riots to stop his work. The Coroner's Office refuses to release any information about suspicious deaths of Asian women.

The good news is that key pillars of the community are now speaking out. Ishtiaq Ahmed of Bradford's Community Relations Council feels the pain of parents who fear cultural loss and family disintegration in the moral-free society which is what Britain seems to have become. But why are young men like Rehman so authoritarian? "This is one way they can prove their loyalty, their value," Ahmed says. He is clear though, that none of this should condone inhumane behaviour. And he uses the words of the great religious leaders to explain to families that their actions are ungodly. "We are giving our young people no choice but to reject us. Our good values will disappear."

The Deborah Ross interview returns next week