The story of young actress Afshan Azad, assaulted by her brother because her boyfriend was not Muslim, has hit the headlines because she starred in Harry Potter.
But there are thousands of girls like her every year who aren’t able to tell anyone their story. They don’t just face domestic violence, but are sometimes forced into marriages to avoid any further such embarrassments. In extreme cases she could also be the victim of “shame” based violence.
Afshan Azad’s ordeal is common, and not just prevalent among Muslims.
When my mother found out I was dating a Muslim girl while at university, I faced a stern, disapproving talk about how she wouldn’t tolerate me marrying a Muslim girl (yes,most Asian parents are obsessed with marriage). But I got off lightly.
One night a group of Sikh guys came to our university and stabbed (in the leg) a Muslim guy who had been going out with a Sikh girl. In stark terms they told him to ‘leave our women alone.’
Indeed, there were gangs of Sikh and Muslim youths who wanted to ‘protect our women’ and aimed to destroy inter-religious relationships. Other Asians kept silent, partly out of fear and partly out of the belief that they had it coming anyway. The Chalvley Boys in Slough and Shere Panjab in Southall, or at least people purporting to belong to them, were a big part of this problem.
Though prejudice between some Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims goes back decades, even centuries, many of the flashpoints came through urban myths. This was a key one: which apparently urged Muslim men to convert Sikh and Hindu girls in return for money. I suspect it was Al-Muhajiroun. Nevertheless, the myth comes up constantly, sometimes thanks to a compliant media, even though the police claim they’ve never found one such case.
So there’s little doubt that age-old bigotry is behind this. There are no doubt several cases of Sikh and Hindu girls also being beaten by their brothers for dating Muslim men.
But the bigger problem is the deeply entrenched misogyny in Asian culture. This isn’t about protecting them, this is about controlling them. It’s always the girls who are asked to remain pure. It’s always the girls who are meant to stay true to the culture while the men can do what they want. It is always the girls who get assaulted for dating men of different religions; the most guys will get are disapproving talks.
Most Asians don’t want to wake up to this deeply ingrained sexism. Hell, our mothers are as bad as the fathers in mollycoddling the boys while treating the girls as objects who must not sully their reputations by doing anything the community disapproves of.
Religion is part of the problem too. Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims constantly cite scriptures that say that women are held in the highest regard in their religion. But that is used to simply perpetuate male dominance. The attitude is: ‘look, women are so important to our religion that we must ensure they remain pure. But boys will be boys, right?’
This attitude was widely prevalent even during the Partition of India and Pakistan.
So what can be done about it? At its root, very little because attitudes take generations to shift and it is an tricky area to legislate in. But just as successive governments have belatedly woken up to the forced marriage problem, they also need to offer such victims of domestic violence more protection. It is much harder for women to walk away in these cases and the chances of subsequent pressure, threats of violence or forced marriage is high.
Afshan Azad was brave to report her brother and father to the police because they could have done much worse. But I’ve known of cases where police have ignored pleas by women that they are being threatened with violence. It now looks like the perpetrators are being let off lightly too. This is a disgrace. Unless the law is used to send a message to families, attitudes will take generations to change. There also needs to be better funding for domestic violence crisis centres, which currently face severe funding shortages.
Lastly, I will point out that domestic violence isn’t just relegated to minorities: it is an endemic problem (along with rape) for our society more broadly. This is one area where the CPS and police need to go further to protect women.
Nevertheless, these incidents are underpinned by disgusting, sexist cultural attitudes, and it’s about time more of our generation speak out against it.
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Filed in: 'Honour'-based violence,Culture,Race politics,Religion