Yasmin Alibhai Brown: Where is the voice of Asian women?

'When I was with northern politicians during the election, I saw no other woman at any of the election meetings'
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The Independent Online

The Muslim Council of Great Britain wants a Scarman-style inquiry to look into the racial riots that have flared up this summer in northern England. This idea (first suggested by Independent leader writers, by the way) does make sense although I wonder how much now that we have a hard-hitting Ouseley report. This tells us what a number of us have long argued, that many multiracial areas around the country are rotting, oppressive, hopelessly segregated and mistrustful, and lacking in any sense of optimism or civic culture.

Racism is rife and now has a place to go with the re-emerging influence of the far right. For several years, Margaret Thatcher and her coterie neutralised extremist nationalists and we had a credible organisation in the Anti-Nazi League (This is why I want Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader. The others are too wet-New Labour, which means right-wing voters will have no respectable option and will be drawn to the increasingly urbane BNP leadership). It is horribly different today. We must never underestimate the power of racism and xenophobia to influence resentful whites left behind in this bright, new, zappy, digital age.

Those clamouring for an inquiry will be very satisfied if the focus is on the threat of the BNP in the disputed territories, or if we have a race audit to show that local councils have operated with criminal indifference, and at times active racism against brown Brits. Gurbux Singh, who chairs the Commission for Racial Equality, is horrified at the levels of discrimination in Oldham and Burnley. The Muslim Parliament is demanding a "statutory commission", based on the Northern Ireland model, to combat religious discrimination. Complaints are rising about inadequate resources. Call me a cynic, but watch now as voluntary and help organisations use the riots as a lever to get more funding. Always happens. Happened in Brixton, Tottenham, Liverpool. Some of these organisations can make a difference. Many of them are worthless and actually part of the problem.

But if this investigation begins and ends with such a limited analysis it will be a useless document and may even make the volatile situation worse. Other aspects of the problem need to be addressed urgently before effective interventions can be planned. No, I don't think that all the young Asian men rioted solely out of frustration that they are not given opportunities or because they have had enough. Being abused and rejected as "Pakis" all their lives must have had an impact but, like some of the white thugs involved, these British Asians are now nihilistic and unmoved by the pain they cause to others, even their parents.

Their upbringing has been distorted by families who want them to belong to some mythical land in a magical time where all good and Allah prevails. The Burning Mirror, a sharp new book by Suhayl Saadi, a young Scots Muslim, reveals how this plays out inside the heads of young men. The imagined far-away held on to by the elders was important once as a way of surviving the hardships so many of them faced here. But to force these escapist fantasies on to their sons is resulting in an anarchic mindset. None of this is inevitable. Many young Asian men with just such a background have made a great success of their lives and they need to be part of the story told by the inquiry.

Too many furious Asian men expect respect, control and a life of ease. A son born into an Asian family is treated like a deity, especially by his mother. Only now, this automatic status is fast slipping away from them. The culture shock must be devastating. This leads on to the next issue, almost invisible so far. Where have all the women and girls gone in these conflagrations? At the launch of the Ouseley report there was a shocking lack of Asian women who could give their version of what life is like. One bright young woman did ask why the female perspective was being ignored. Her teacher was so frightened for her, she took off her name-tag.

When I was with northern politicians during the election, I saw no other woman at any election meetings. They are excluded from this discourse because they deviate from the anti-racist agenda by describing their hellishly circumscribed lives policed by the same young men we saw on the streets. These women are desperate to go to college – one reason why so many of them run away from home.

I have just received the annual report of the Muslim Women's Helpline. Racism is indeed one of the problems people seek help for. But the majority of the problems are to do with forced marriages, child abduction, polygamy. (A new interim report, Forced Marriage: An Abuse of Human Rights, by the Southall Black Sisters, claims that the state is still not taking real responsibility for these violations.) When there is this much anguish within families and communities, is it any wonder we are getting so many dysfunctional young people?

Other thorny issues must be tackled if we want these places to thrive: the conscientious Labour MP Anne Cryer has not joined the conspiracy of silence one sees in Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman, Jack Straw, Marsha Singh and others who know about the internal crises among many (not all, obviously) Asian families in their areas of influence.

This week Ms Cryer was once more attacked for saying something that needs consideration at least. If Asian families could start to arrange the marriages of their children with other British Asians, the marriages would be more fulfilling and the economic potential of the couple would be better than if they marry people from their home countries who take years to learn the language and the system.

The uproar that followed said people had the right to choose who to marry. The point is that in most cases, the young people have no choice. Any real inquiry would have to confront this and immigration regulations which are leading to forced marriages abroad.

Separate schools so encouraged by New Labour (but now worrying Estelle Morris, the new Secretary of State for Education and Skills) are another major fiasco. Muslim parents did not move to their enclaves only because of racism. They do not want their children to become too British. I have interviewed Asian parents who never let their children stay overnight with white friends. White parents are just as nervous. Segregated housing was partly a result of poverty, harassment and housing policy. But both groups will resist any attempts to create mixed communities because, in spite of sharing space for decades, they don't know each other at all. Confidence-building projects are needed urgently.

Finally, what about the white people who feel so disenchanted? Are we going to dismiss them as "powhitetrash" or damn them as racists? How does increasing anti-discrimination activity help these people feel more at peace? And what if some are victims of Asian abuse? Do we do nothing? If so, the fires next time will be bigger still and we may just get BNP MPs and local councillors. Democracy can be an effective form of revenge.

So yes, let's have a worthy to ponder the past and the future. But let him or her have broad vision and courage. Otherwise don't bother. It will only waste expectations on all sides.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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