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  • The bigger tragedy behind the assault on Afshan Azad

    by Sunny
    21st December, 2010 at 6:32 pm    

    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

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    1. Rumbold — on 21st December, 2010 at 7:40 pm  

      Great piece Sunny.

    2. joanne — on 21st December, 2010 at 10:03 pm  

      I don’t really see how religion is part of the problem,though. I mean white British nominal Protestants are not driven to abuse their partners by religious scripture.
      Isn’t it more filtering religion through one’s own “women in’t kitchen” view of the world, that is the problem?

    3. KJB — on 21st December, 2010 at 11:09 pm  

      This is an utterly fantastic piece - thanks, Sunny. Facebooked.

      joanne - When it comes to South Asia, it doesn’t matter whether religious scripture sanctions it or not, because as Sunny’s pointed out, religious identity is founded on a communalism that highlights the social, and not the textual, understanding of religion. For example, the Sikh holy scriptures say absolutely nothing about homosexuality - and yet the main heads of gurdwaras in India have condemned homosexuality.

    4. Golam Murtaza — on 22nd December, 2010 at 9:20 am  

      Well written.

      The ‘sentences’ being handed to this revolting pair are a joke of course, but then that’s part of a much wider problem with the justice system in this country.

      The fact that this case is only getting publicity because Afshan was an actress in Harry Potter does make me roll my eyes a bit. But at least the coverage is there, if not really for the right reasons…

      Going back to the two male thugs - it’s now up to their friends and relatives to try and compensate for the soft touch sentences by turning their back on them and ostracising (sp?) them. Maybe I’m pessimistic but I’m not too hopeful about that happening.

      Obviously I hope Afshan goes onto be a major success in whatever she does and puts the backward elements of her family well and truly behind her.

    5. damon — on 22nd December, 2010 at 9:56 am  

      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.

      Are the young people from those communities in Southall and Slough less likely to be like their older family members from 1997, to be interested in that India v Pakistan stuff? Do things always move on for the better? In some cases young people can be more conservative than their parents, and you also have the continual arrival of people dirrect from the Subcontinent which can keep a community more traditional. Guys in their mid 20s turning up from Punjab are going to be quite different to Asian origin people who were born and have gone to school here.
      In a multi-cultural society like London, you can live nearby and be pretty unaware of the particular developments and life of another community just a few miles away. As if you are not part of those communities you just don’t know.

    6. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2010 at 10:19 am  

      I concur with KJB and Rumbold - this is indeed a brilliant piece. Well done Sunny.

      While I hope our generation stands up to these fucked up attitudes - I am not so convinced. They tend to perpetuate the same old bollocks - not all but many. And the number grows the further you get away from London.

      The fear of the so called community is the excuse but actually its own prejudice.

    7. Refresh — on 22nd December, 2010 at 10:58 am  

      Excellent piece Sunny.

    8. Kismet Hardy — on 22nd December, 2010 at 11:08 am  

      There’s hope. I’ve been a professional Asian for 15 years (as in it’s my job as an asian magazine bod to write about asians) and while back then it wasn’t unusual for the work experience girl to ask members of the team about their religion before they felt comfortable even talking to us, not to mention the tragic capulet-montaguesque stories they’d share once they did open up, these days no one bats an eyelid to see 16 to 18 year old girls ending their working day by jumping into cars of boyfriends of all hues and creed. It’s a nice bit of social evolution to witness

    9. Golam Murtaza — on 22nd December, 2010 at 11:51 am  

      @ Damon
      In response to your two questions, from my experience I can only give the unsatisfactory answer of ‘yes and no’.

      Of course many younger British Asians are refreshingly oblivious to older conflicts and prejudices originating in the Subcontinent but you’ll always get a worrying proportion who regress. Often this negative behaviour is more a result of generalised yobbishness and lack of education rather than a conscious desire to be authentically South Asian (whatever the hell that might mean!)

      A few years ago there was a problem in Oldham involving clashes between gangs of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin. Whatever people might have thought this really had little or nothing to do with a wish to resurrect rivalry dating back to the 1971 war. It was just one bunch of dodgy youths scrapping it out with another bunch of equally dodgy youths. The Bangla-Pak thing was just a convenient excuse.

    10. A reflection — on 22nd December, 2010 at 12:11 pm  

      This article has so many truths to it Sunny.

      The irony is that all this fear/power/control means so many young people are growing up living a multitude of different lives. And that gets dangerous because the people that these young people should be able to trust with their problems and their worries, they can’t. It means when they really get in trouble, Mum/Dad/Brother etc. feel doubly cheated / enraged and are even more likely to do something stupid, because all this time they were putting on a pedestal an avtar of their ideal Sikh/ Hindu/ Muslim woman rather than a real human being, their daughter/sister. Facebook and mobile phones mean it’s even easier to have this double life and double lives are lonely enough for people to exploit them.

    11. Shamit — on 22nd December, 2010 at 12:53 pm  

      A Reflection:

      Spot on

    12. Kismet Hardy — on 22nd December, 2010 at 3:44 pm  

      Do you think we should maybe start calling them something like WCA (working class Asians maybe), although that’s an insult to working class folk. I know UAP (Uneducated Asian Pricks). The educated Asians aren’t guilty of this backward crap

    13. Don — on 22nd December, 2010 at 4:05 pm  


      Are you sure about the education thing?

    14. Jai — on 22nd December, 2010 at 4:48 pm  

      Superb article, Sunny. And very good points by “A reflection” in #10 too.

    15. damon — on 22nd December, 2010 at 9:51 pm  

      As always, I wish we could get into this further.
      Just like when I ask my Lambeth high school going niece how it is there, with all it’s .. day to day issues that PP might be interested in .. and she just says that ‘it’s fine’.
      I know that it is, as she wants to stay there for sixth form, but I wish she’d tell me a bit more of the detail.
      So I have no idea what the high school kids and FE studets are like over in a place like Southall.
      The most I ever see as someone from ten miles away, is perhaps driving past the bus stops outside their scools in the afternoons as they all come out from school.

      But even my own school that I went to in Croydon in the 1970s has changed quite a lot race-wise, and become much more diverse than it was. The same goes for the local FE college I went to.

      My point is: I’d really like to hear some young people from Southall and Slough taliking about this issue and saying what they think of their older brother’s stories of being in the macho group/gangs that were refered to from 1997 in the opening post.

      And Kismet Hardy, if you are responsible for these kinds of magazines .. well good luck to you.

      It’s a dodgy business, but someone’s got to do it.

    16. douglas clark — on 22nd December, 2010 at 10:43 pm  


      What do you want from folk?

      Kismet Hardy @ 8 is making a hopeful point, not a negative one. I have said, from observation, similar things.

      It seems to me that the huge mass of humans in this country don’t give a shit for the arseholes on either side of this debate. They think for themselves, they get on with it and they will not be told.

      All this wailing about culture is so much flim flam. It is the last hurrah of a bunch of evil minded little male bigots from white and brown and black communities that see themselves as having a fucking right to control women.


      I don’t think you believe in that.


      So why can’t you get with the fucking programme and assert the bleeding obvious. All this macho male ‘ownership’ shite is shite. Women should be able to choose who the fuck they screw, who the fuck they marry and who they have kids with. Without a shower of male fucking bigots pissing on their parade.

      (Sorry about that but I am a bit angry about this relativism, there is nothing here worth being relative about.)

      Or would you rather just observe? Are you invariably going to point to some article that says the opposite? Just because you found it.

      This manifestation of sexual ownership is ubiquitous - all cultures, all religions and all nations.

      I think you niece will be just fine.

      Stop worrying.

    17. damon — on 23rd December, 2010 at 1:48 am  

      Douglas, if I knew how to do those smiley faces I’d have done one after that line I did about Kismet Hardy’s. It was just a throw away jokey line.
      The thread is a good one and it’s something that interests me - and mystifies me at the same time.
      Mystifies me, because like I said, you (one) don’t really have a clue what’s going on if you are not there and involved. Whether that be where I live now in Belfast (which still won’t give up its secrets) or in the lives of young people of Asian origin at an FE college in Southall or even amongst my own niece and her friends at their south London comprehensive.

      One can only catch glimpses from the outside, and it’s as frustrating as it is intriguing to not be in on what’s going on.

    18. earwicga — on 23rd December, 2010 at 2:10 am  

      As others have said above, great post Sunny.

      I was reading In Other Rooms, Other Wonders last night and was reminded of this post. If you take out the violence and the gross sexism (if that is possible) then it does make a certain sort of sense to marry somebody with a similar sort of background. It just makes things easier. But so many things go into ‘background’ and religion doesn’t have to be the largest part of it.

      (damon - type : ) without the space. For a winking face replace the : with ; )

    19. fugstar — on 23rd December, 2010 at 2:48 am  


    20. damon — on 23rd December, 2010 at 8:40 pm  

      :) Cheers Earwicga ;)

      This was an interesting thread I think many people will agree. I think it’s a pity that more people wouldn’t open up on it and give their opinion, even if they weren’t entirely sure about what they were saying.
      That’s never stopped me.

      On a point from the OP that it can take generations for things to get better, and my wondering if that was always the case …. I was just reading these articles from Prospect magazine today, about a British journalist in Afghanistan before 9/11, helping his local Afghan interpreter come to England as an asylum seeker. It was the subject of a book called Kandahar Cockney - and here is the outlines of it in this article.

      When Wahidallah woke up on his first day in London three years ago, he was appalled. Allah, he thought, must be playing some kind of trick. He had fled Afghanistan via Pakistan, where for several weeks he was treated as a second-class citizen, cold-shouldered in the bazaars of Islamabad and unable to work. There, he had been just another penniless refugee from beyond the Hindu Kush. Here, on the other side of the globe, it was as if nothing had changed. His neighbours were Pakistani, all the way up and down his street. Wahidallah rang me in shock. “Pakis!” he hissed down the phone. “The Pakis are everywhere!”

      Are the Afghan community a community apart from what this thread is talking about, as like the Somalis they are a newer community, with a whole different story?

    21. damon — on 24th December, 2010 at 1:11 pm  

      I’m not sure if my last post would be deemed by some as pushing this off topic, but these attitides are endemnic in South Asia, so my point was about new arrivals from there, having an affect on the already existing British Asian communities.
      Or even visiting aunties who come over for family visits might tut tut at how their sister’s family were allowing their British born children to live their lives.

      I don’t know if anyone was interested in the story of that Afghan asylum seeker in the link I did, but there’s more to the story.
      After feeling quite alone and missing his family, he fell in with Abu Hamza’s crowd at Finsbury Park Mosque for a while, but was overjoyed when some members of his family turned up in England on the back of a lorry from Calais.

      But things didn’t go well in the end, when one of them who had been working as a mini-cab driver in east London (using a fake drivers licience) was charged with raping one of his passengers.
      It’s quite a long story, but I thought it shon a light on a world that many people are completely ignorant of because the multi-cultural society can be such a compartmentalised one.

      I know next to nothing of the what must now be quite established Afghan communities in England. They must be having families and their children going to school.
      And have a disproportunate number of single young men living here.

    22. Golam Murtaza — on 24th December, 2010 at 3:46 pm  

      Yes, have read ‘Kandahar Cockney’ and really enjoyed it. Good book. Warts and all account of modern immigration.

    23. damon — on 25th December, 2010 at 11:54 am  

      I agree Golam Murtaza.
      Looking for information of Afghsns in the UK I came up with this piece from the Comment is Free section of the Guardian. I don’t know if the guy who wrote it expected the kind of reaction he got in the readers comments, or even whether he has unintentionally done the Afghan community a diservice by writing it, but some of the things he says were kind of funny too.

      London’s Little Afghanistan
      The capital has a vibrant Afghan community, with characters from poets to gangsters and every subdivision in between

      When reading this, as well as rolling my eyes about some of the things said, I also had in my mind this thread and thought of how this situation might be working itself out in what sounds like very traditional communities.

      One of the ‘facts’ about the Afghan community that got raised several times in the readers comments was this:

      In general, the Afghan community in London is divided into three main groups, the Islamists, the communists and the royalists. These main groups are subdivided; the Islamists are divided into pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban, supporters of the mujahideen and, finally, those who are politically neutral.

      The communists are equally divided into the old factions; Khalqi, Parchami and Maoists, and then subdivided into supporters and opponents of Dr Najibullah. The pro-mujahideen group is divided into supporters of the various factions; the Islamic Association, the Islamic Unity and the Islamic Party. Then there are the supporters of regional power-holders such Masoud, Esmael Khan, Akbari, Khalili and even Mohaqeq.


      Better news is this perhaps - but it still doesn’t sound so promising that the Taliban had support here in the first place.

      BIRMINGHAM, England - Time was when young ethnic minority Pashtuns in Britain might dream about returning to the lands of their forefathers to fight for the Taliban, following links of blood and tribe.

      Now, when Pashtun teenagers discuss the hardline Islamist militia, they see the mostly Pashtun force as the enemy.

      Pashtuns in Britain, among Europe’s most insular and traditional Muslim minorities, are reacting with horror at the loss of life and destruction produced by conflict in the Swat valley and other parts of Pakistan’s northwest.

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