On Friday, BBC Radio 2 presenter Vanessa Feltz interviewed me about the case of Farzana Parveen, the 25-year-old pregnant woman stoned to death in Lahore, Pakistan, as well as other cases of extreme violence against women. International protests were just then building up against Sudan’s Sharia jurists – all men – who sentenced 27-year-old Meriam Yehya Ibrahim to death by hanging after first being lashed 100 times. Her “crime” was to declare herself Christian and marry a fellow Christian, Daniel Wani, a Sudanese-American biochemist. She is locked up in a squalid prison, with Martin, her 20-month-old boy, and last week gave birth to a baby girl allegedly while shackled. Then came news of the gang rape of two young low caste girls in a village in India, cousins aged 14 and 15, who were found hanging from a mango tree. Feltz asked me to describe my feelings when I heard such stories. I feel rage, revulsion and shame. Historical and religious threads connect me with these people and places. And so, yes, irrational though it seems, searing shame spreads through me.
Two male Asian mates rang me after the broadcast. One said: “Why should you feel shame? What have you done to make this happen? These killers are junglees, [meaning from the jungle], brainwashed ruffians. I don’t feel shame. I’m a lawyer, I’m British. My parents are from Lahore but I don’t feel these killers are my problem. Don’t take on this burden. Life’s too short.” The other, an Indian academic, had similar words of comfort for me. They meant well, but I didn’t feel comforted at all. These two are enlightened blokes, whose wives are well-paid professionals and kids go to excellent schools. Both have relatives on the subcontinent. Men who are economically and socially successful need to step up and fight misogynist religious directives, social mores and cultural norms. It is unacceptable that they slide and slither out of this fundamental duty.
In Britain, domestic violence is up (while other violent crime is down) among all races and classes – and a terrifying number of women are murdered by their partners every week. Child abuse and rape seem to be on the increase and among young people, as internet porn confuses and distorts the principle of sexual consent. Asian females across Europe and North America are increasingly oppressed, beaten, silenced and killed by families. Old injustices and new perils are making females unsafe across the West. But it is in the east and south that girls and women are most at risk. And as Farzana Bari, a Pakistani activist, warns: “Violence against women is on the rise.”
Why? I have two theories. First, as globalisation and modernisation spreads, it upturns old traditions, most of which discriminate against females. Millions of women want more freedom, and that longing unnerves family members and societal gatekeepers, who turn into maddened vigilantes. They can’t bear or stop these changes. Chillingly, Zulfiqar Hameed, the officer in charge of the investigation into Parveen’s death, thinks we need to understand the context and beliefs of the family and that the uproar is excessive and “imperialistic”.
To add further chaos to this volatility, women can be as ruthlessly reactionary as the men. A number of murders of “rebellious” Asian daughters in the UK had the backing of mothers and aunts. Female genital mutilation is practised and promoted forcefully by women.
Parveen chose to marry a man she loved, and left the husband who she was apparently married to. Very radical and bold. But she knew the man she chose to marry had allegedly murdered his first wife. The mob which stoned her included female relatives. The clashes are now not between genders or cultures, but modernity and barbarity.
The second reason is the indifference of men, all men, but most of all, those from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who are educated and powerful. Admittedly a few male university students in Khartoum did march for Meriam Ibrahim and some men were with women demonstrators in Lahore and other Indian cities. (They should be proud of this all too rare show of solidarity.) But mostly when these tragedies occur, women go out, carry placards, start petitions, fight in the courts, appear on the media, condemn and organise, sometimes at great cost to themselves. Two Muslim sisters I know were beaten up by their parents for going on a march against honour killings. Their brothers stood by and did nothing and then phoned me to tell me about the attacks. The girls are now in a refuge.
By now we should have had big demos organised by Asian male politicians, journalists, professionals, commentators and entrepreneurs. This is as important as the Iraq war and the Israel and Palestine conflict.
We women have been out there screaming for justice and rights for years, while sons, husbands, lovers, and male mates remain disengaged and therefore complicit. The 21st century world war is against females, young and old. Boys and men, it’s time to enlist, come, save lives and your own reputations. Nobody loves a coward.
London should hit back against those who complain about it – maybe we could become a separate state?
I love London. Scotland may or may not leave the UK, but it has revealed the hopeless state of this union. With deepening divides between the races, classes, town and country, north and south, the poor and the rich, political cynics and believers, the educated and seriously uneducated, exploited and exploiters, we are hardly an entity, let alone a nation.
Ukip types are most commonly middle-aged, white blokes and forever disgruntled ladies. London has no time for this party and its malevolence. We are more diverse and in many ways have harder lives than those in Sussex, say, but racism is lower in this city than many more affluent and low stress areas. The metropolis makes space for everyone. It is always transforming, renovating, filling up with fresh blood. It’s a wonderful, special place, all the more because it irritates right-wing bores and provincials who keep moaning about “London-centrism”, as if there is something inherently immoral about the capital’s amazing vitality and vibrancy. Londoners should stop taking this abuse and hit back. Too many absorb the unfair charges and are apologetic when they should be proud.
What about declaring London a separate city state? Well, why not? We can manage our productive economy and creative industries, have fairer taxation systems and immigration policies and – best of all – create a visa system to keep out anyone who threatens to subvert the complex and thriving social ecology of the greatest city in the world. Dream the dream Londoners. Let’s do it.