Johann Hari: What's at stake in the Battle of Brick Lane

Ali's crime has been to challenge the supremacy of Bengali men by articulating the life of Bengali women
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Brick Lane is a glorious streak of neon and curry, of clubbers and fundamentalists, of old Jewish immigrant stories and new Muslim ones, in the guts of the East End. It is my home, and over the past week I have been sharing it with a little news story - and with another small sign that free speech in Britain is slowly sandpapered down by reactionary mini-mobs.

It begins with one of the most tender and beautiful British novels I know. Monica Ali's Brick Lane is the almost Victorian story of one woman's liberation. Nazneen is an 18-year-old girl shipped over from Bangladesh to London's Bangla-Town, to marry an obese 40-year-old she has never met. At first she sees the East End as "a vast dump of people rotting away under a mean strip of sky", and she is forced to spend her days cutting off her husband's corns and trimming his nasal hair. She is discouraged from learning English or from ever leaving the house.

She has been taught to be limp and passive all her life. She is kept drugged by superstition, told constantly it would be a sin against God to rebel.

But slowly, Nazneen realises "she could not wait for the future to be revealed, but had to make it for herself". She learns English. She learns to ice skate. She has an affair with a beautiful young man. She even begins to develop a more liberal strain of Islam. In the end, she lets her husband pursue the immigrants' dream - Going Home - back to Bangladesh, while she stays here, a free woman in a free country.

When Ruby Films decided to make this into a film, they naturally wanted to shoot on Brick Lane itself - and the troubles began. A small number of Bengali men were enraged by Ali. A woman - a woman! - had dared to take the rest of us on an intimate tour of the Bengali community. She had even tried, in her subtle, tender way, to incite a rebellion of Muslim women, to encourage them to become Nazneens and discover the joy of being free-thinking sexual women rather than being terrorised into tethered livestock. They organised demonstrations to halt the filming, to shut up this uppity bitch once and for all. Their meetings talked of burning the book and of burning her.

This weekend I nipped down to the sweetshop where Abdus Salique has been masterminding this campaign. He is a neat man, sitting in front of a pile of newspaper cuttings, with a camera crew waiting to one side. "I have been here 37 years. It was a dark lane when we arrived," he says. "Through our hard work, we made Brick Lane. The National Front used to come and attack us but we built it up. We are proud to live here."

I instinctively warm to him as he says this. But when he speaks about Monica Ali, his face contorts. "She has targeted our community to get rich!" he says. "She is saying my father jumped from his ship like a monkey, that we are dirty, we are uncivilised!"

I pause in incomprehension. Where in the book does it say this? "She says it! She compares us to monkeys!" One of Ali's characters compares people from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh to monkeys. Then Nazneen rebukes him, pointing out that two of Bangladesh's great national heroes - Colonel Osmany and Shah Jalal - came from Sylhet. Don't you see, Salique, that a novelist can make a character say something she doesn't personally believe? He scoffs. "It is the same thing!" he declares, waving his hand. Salique claims to have read the book, but he keeps referring to events and passages that don't exist, like a scene where lice fall from a character's hair into food. But soon we get to the real reason for this rage.

"Women are not fucking around in this area," he says. "Our women, most of them, 99 per cent, respect their husbands and respect their tradition." He shakes with anger at Ali's challenge to this "natural" order.

Ali's crime has been to challenge the supremacy of Bengali men by articulating the secret experiences of Bengali women. I have lived among (and loved) British Asian communities all my life - and I can attest to its veracity. More importantly, British-Bangladeshi women are seeing it for themselves: according to the Brick Lane bookshop, thousands of women hidden behind veils are buying the Bengali language version.

This is not new. Over the past few years, there has been a cascade of protests by ultra-conservatives within Europe's immigrant communities trying to silence women from their own neighbourhoods calling for change. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Bezhti, was stopped by a Sikh fundamentalist mob. Fadela Amara receives constant threats for setting up the Muslim feminist organisation, Neither Whores Nor Doormats. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is living under armed guard because she dared to make a film exposing the domestic violence thumping Muslim women in the Netherlands. (The director was decapitated).

The logic of multiculturalism has made it hard for these thugs to be challenged. Multiculturalism treats immigrant communities as homogenous blocks, represented by elderly, reactionary "community spokesmen". It has created the bizarre situation where the often-great feminist Germaine Greer has ended up siding with the patriarchal protesters as the keepers of authentic Bengali culture against the carping feminists. Yet in reality, immigrant communities are diverse, clashing cacophonies like everyone else. As Amarya Sen has been arguing, we should ditch the outdated idea of multiculturalism and support the progressive wings of all and any communities. All along Brick Lane I find people who view Salique and his tiny band of protesters as an embarrassment. Jamal Abdul Quayam, co-owner of Taj Stores, the oldest Bengali shop on Brick Lane, calls him "a big-mouth who wants publicity", adding: "It is uneducated people like this who stop the progress of our community." Amzal Hussain, whose restaurant is only a few doors from Salique's shop, says: "I believe in free speech. It is why I love this country, and why many Bengalis do. I would be very happy for the film to be made in my restaurant."

But this sane Bengali majority has been ignored. The filming on Brick Lane has been stopped. Salique brags about his victory. This is only a small infringement - the film will be made elsewhere - but the pattern is yet again affirmed. Instead of holding open the institutions of a free society to support these women as they change their communities, we are allowing reactionaries to intimidate them with threats of force. Bezhti is now unstageable. Hirsi Ali has been driven from Europe. The Battle of Brick Lane has been another small deflating pin-prick for our free speech - and for some of the bravest women in Britain.