I was sleeping with the enemy

When I decided to marry my English husband, accusations and warnings arrived, uninvited but insistent

Remember the unseemly hysteria in this country when Jemima Goldsmith announced she was marrying Imran Khan? Was there ever a marriage so devoutly damned by millions? Her close friends, distant commentators, celebrities who had frolicked with her in ritzy joints, the chic and shallow, all rushed up to be heard. This was a foolhardy decision by a young, blonde innocent, who had been smitten, manipulated or duped by the big, handsome Pathan who slept on satin. Yes, he was a magnificent cricketer at one time, but did he really imagine this made him one of us? Give it a year or two at most. That is if the English beauty isn't by then imprisoned in a shroud, her tongue cut out.

The clamour of disapproval almost wholly dwelt on Imran Khan's ethnic identity not on his previous philandering lifestyle or his conceit.

Reactions among Pakistanis were far worse. He was their son, their cricketing hero, the man who helped them feel proud of their nation and Pakistani masculinity. Most would gladly have given Imran Khan all their daughters if he had only asked. They were, and remain, unforgiving. Their tongues kindled flames of such prejudice against Jemima that it is a wonder she didn't turn to ash. She was a Jewish sorceress, probably an Israeli spy, a sleep-around hussy, not from a good family. Imran too was made to feel the heat of their disappointment. "What, Muslim girls not good enough for him now?" "Take away his passport. He has shamed our country and religion."

Today, both sides will be feeling vindicated - their chauvinism boosted and confirmed. Purist families all around the world will become even more hubristic, more certain that to marry out is wrong, sinful and always disastrous. It makes me want to kick all their heads in.

I recall the doomsters and puritans who piled in when, 14 years ago, I decided to marry my English husband. I was then a fiery and somewhat obdurate anti-racist warrior always positioned against the "demons" - white, middle-class men who owned and ran everything. As soon as I got together with Colin, accusations and warnings arrived, uninvited but insistent. By sleeping with the enemy I would become a traitor in the anti-racist movement. I was mulligatawny soup, appealing to an Englishman's inferior tastes. As a Muslim woman I was committing a terrible sin marrying a Christian. My son would suffer from being in a mixed-up family. The gora (whitie) would surely betray me, they said, and leave when the next temptation came along.

These alarmists haven't yet had their moment of victory, but every time a high-profile, mixed-race relationship stumbles or falls, I do worry.

My first marriage, with a man from my own faith and community, lasted 17 years. It was a love match and happy, but it was not a marriage of real equality and mutuality. He was, like Imran Khan, a devastatingly handsome, modern Muslim man who came to believe I was not good enough for him. Months after my ex-husband left, I met Colin at a railway station, very romantic. I was still crazed with grief and had lost confidence in myself, in love and in the idea of enduring marriages. But almost instantly we both felt safe with each other.

We came from startlingly different backgrounds. He has an English sensibility, nourished in Sussex, in the green hills and downs and beaches, where his kith and kin have lived forever. Through hard work and prudence, they moved up from working-class roots to lower-middle status and became small homeowners with conservative values. Until I appeared in their lives, they had not met an Asian. Although some relatives are active Christians, my in-laws seem uninterested in the established religion and its practice. Colin did go through an ardent religious phase as a young boy but he is wary of people who too overtly parade their faith and gods.

Ugandan Asians are rootless people, always on the move - migrants from the subcontinent to Africa and now spread around the world. We have no place to call absolutely our own. We have gained and lost continents. Perhaps this is why we are adaptable and flexible and yet deeply traditionalist. East African Asians take religion very seriously and, although they tend still to marry in, the rates of inter-racial and inter-communal marriages are rising fast.

Our closest family members were supportive when we married and the bonds between our worlds have deepened over the years. That and unconditional love helps to keep us together and happy. But it is never easy. Even in this relationship, even though my husband is a true and just egalitarian, he can succumb sometimes to old imperial attitudes. I trust him more than I trust anyone in the world, and yet I can unfairly resort to cheap jibes about his colonial history simply to disable him. The Empire is the third person in our marriage.

Faith and values cannot be taken for granted and need to be negotiated constantly, particularly if you are raising children. Our daughter is very aware she is bi-racial, a product of different cultures. She is being brought up as a dual-faith child. In the end she will define herself as one or the other, both or neither. That is her right. People say I will go to hell for not claiming her as only a Muslim. So be it. I don't see myself as a recruitment agent for my faith.

Some mixed-race couples avoid this exhausting business by one partner surrendering to the world of the other. I could never make that choice. What gives anyone the right to ask a person to dissolve their parental histories and erase their personalities? Pocahontas did this - surrendered her native American heritage to marry her lover, the Christian, Anglo-Saxon, John Rolfe. She assimilated so much there was nothing left and she died young, here in this cold place. The irony is that the most vociferous advocates of such assimilation today are people who clamour for diversity in public life.

Jemima obeyed these injunctions for perfectly honourable reasons. From what we know of their lives, Imran dictated where his young wife should live and how. As he became more fanatically nationalistic and fervently Muslim he insisted that she should follow his ways. And she obviously went as far as she could go. But it wasn't enough and that is another reason such capitulation is wrong.

Britain is believed to have the most mixed-race families in the Western world and the numbers are rising fast. Inter-faith marriages are also on the increase. According to various surveys, white attitudes to this trend have become dramatically more tolerant over the past five decades. But a third of the white population still has reservations. Up to 75 per cent of Muslims, 38 per cent of Hindus, 42 per cent of Sikhs, 49 per cent of Jews and 33 per cent of Caribbeans have problems accepting relationships between certain ethnic groups in Britain.

Most of the time the objectors say they are worried that marriage is hard enough without the added baggage of race and religious differences. So why then do millions of in-marriages fail so abysmally?

The problem is not difference but equal respect. Imran Khan, it appears to me, did not give his wife the respect she deserved. I didn't get it in my first marriage either, but it is the necessary basis of any marriage, mixed-race or not. I hope mine lasts long enough to defeat the sceptics.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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