Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Wicked mothers-in-law destroy lives

This abomination surely calls for a new abolitionist movement led by Asian women
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The Independent Online

What? Only seven years for the flint-eyed bitch? She'll be out in half the time, none the wiser I imagine. I don't know Naseebah Bibi, 63, from Blackburn, Lancashire, but the sight of her on the pages of the newspapers on Saturday turned me into a snarling fiend. I wanted her to feel extreme pain and terror and never be redeemed. Ugly, I know, such dark wrath directed at a stranger. Somewhere inside there is a mobber in all of us.

Bibi enslaved three young women sent over from Pakistan to marry her sons who were cousins and so family. Two of the men had white partners with whom they had children. The brides were treated, said the judge, "like dogs". They were expected to breed, were physically abused every day, forced to work all hours, kept indoors mainly by the vicious progenitrix who was given a minimum sentence because the judge was concerned about her health and mental condition. What a show mammy must have put on.

My excessive reaction may be connected to a sense of defeat, of failure even. I was writing on such cases 30 years ago. Things would get better, it all takes time, I was told then by Hindu and Sikh priests and Muslim mullahs who knew that every single day, in British homes, young Asian wives (many newly married with henna flowers still fresh on their hands and feet) were picked up by ambulances if they were lucky.

The women were scalded and blistered, or dosed-up on painkillers, or thrashed to breaking point. Hospital wards were full of these fragile victims of domestic sadism. Some could not speak of what had been done to them; others said they had fallen down the stairs or had had a cooking "accident". Attempted and successful suicide rates for this section of the population were double that of the general citizenry. I remember visiting a hospital burns unit where most patients were young Asian females whose faces were grotesque masks of red and yellow, eyes and noses in various states of waxy meltdown. Investigating officers confirmed that the worst attackers were female members of the husband's families, mostly mothers-in-law. Hell hath no fury to match the cruelties these matriarchs could devise.

Traditions and distorted religious beliefs give licence to vile and violent mothers-in-law in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and throughout their diasporas. Bollywood films have always had storylines about these hideous moms who spoil their boys and hate their wives. One actress Lalita Pawar, whose face was mean and menacing, made her whole career playing the villainous role. When I was a child in Kampala, Uganda, our next door neighbour, a Sunni Muslim divorcee destroyed the women brought over from India to marry her sons. She stamped on them as they cowered and locked them in rat infested rooms. Another awful dowager hit her daughter-in-law, Khusa, with wet, leather sandals ( apparently this ups the pain). When she gave birth to twin boys, her husband softened towards her and so his evil mother – or so the gossip went – killed them by placing honey and mercury on their small eager tongues. When these tales of woe were published in my recent memoir, I had a letter from Khusa's relative who said Khusa had lost her sanity before she was 50 and died soon afterwards.

That was then you might say, but it never ends. Today in this modern nation which has enshrined human rights in law, there are households where wives are still ill-treated and violated by other women. It is an open secret. Occasionally we get tragic autobiographies written by tormented Asian wives who finally escaped and found their voices. They are reviled because they break the rules of cultural protectionism. Bibi's behaviour only came to light after her three-year-old grandson told staff at a nursery school that the bruising they had noticed on his mum was caused by his gran. One crime has receded in the last decade. We are seeing less "dowry violence", the victimisation of brides deemed by their mothers-in-law to have brought insufficient cash and goods, rife in India, now rare in Britain. But other kinds of habitual oppression and abuse of wives carries on and may even be getting worse.

One reason may be that as immigration laws tighten, many more families in the Asian community use bride and bridegroom importation from the subcontinent to get relatives over. In Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi villages, families will do anything to get one of these arrangements. Some are desperate for life chances, others simply manipulative. Girls become the currency of these deals. They arrive already of inferior status and most never see the lives they imagined. The mothers-in-law went through the same and only want to perpetuate the cycle of suffering.

Of course there are mothers-in-law who are kind and loving. The mother of my ex-husband was a treasure and I love her deeply to this day. Friends of mine who have found affectionate second mothers say they feel themselves to be blessed because even now, the bad mother-in-law too often rules the roost.

Our government and those of the three subcontinental nations have started to take forced marriages seriously. However, no policies or measures seem to be in place to help wives who are imprisoned and exploited in homes. No leaflets at GPs' surgeries or hospitals and schools tell them of their rights. Politicians from their old homelands do not protect them and nor do they educate their people about the dangers of sending girls off to the west to families they foolishly trust.

Social worker Pramila (not her real name) recently described a Hindu woman whose hands were pushed down on the plate of a hot electric cooker by her mother-in-law because one chappati failed to rise: "What can she do? She knows no one in this country and so she is back with them. It is so wrong."

Damn right it is. This abomination surely calls for a new abolitionist movement, maybe led by powerful British Asian women. By the time Bibi is out, we should do all we can to ensure it is over for the witchy slave traders like her. If she comes out only to resume business as usual, we will have failed again – and that is a possibility too appalling to contemplate.