Archive for the ‘Muslim Women’ Category
Perhaps there was some accuracy in that acerbic adage that we’d grown up with – the one about Pakistanis owning all the houses – from the days when it was customary on the streets of Bradford to spitefully truncate the very word which defined our ethnic origin. The stories mum recounted of her kin, from before her marriage and migration to Bradford, offered us a window into the mind-set of the class based rural society she came from, and reminded us that aspirations of home ownership ran deep in mum’s Pakistani blood. In a culture where the ultimate security was land, to be a ‘kiraidaar’ (tenant) was to be frowned upon. One aspired to becoming a ‘malik makaan’, literally a property owner. I suppose it was only natural that mum would incorporate these ingrained canons into her new life in Britain. That’s why she’d shrewdly taken advantage of the tenancy entitlement on our home, located on Bradford’s Canterbury council estate, preferring to pay a mortgage rather than squandering her earnings on rent.
A ‘malik makaan’ she might have become, but mum’s dreams didn’t stop there. She was determined to offer her three children an environment more suited to the moral markers she’d imported from Pakistan in 1964; which probably explains why she always addressed our neighbour on the estate as Mr Gardener, despite the fear of God his racist abuse put into all of us. And presumably because mum couldn’t bring herself to concede to our impressionable minds that intimate relations, particularly the kind that produce children, could exist outside marriage, the girlfriend of Terry the milkman, who also happened to be the mother of his children, was always referred to – at least in our home – as his ‘wife’.
It was the early 1990s when we became the proud owners of a handsome mid terrace at the top of Barkerend Road, a world away from the strains of the Canterbury estate. We could now look forward to living among our own folk. Safety in numbers, you might say. The few English families yet to take flight from our street were definitely in the minority. The area still boasted more pubs than fabric shops but sightings of women in shalwar kameez were becoming more commonplace. It was such a novelty to have a corner shop that stocked ‘our’ essentials, like halal meat and coriander. Even the ice cream van that roamed the neighbourhood played Dil Dil Pakistan, that unofficial national anthem by the pop band Vital Signs, as its patriotic chime.
This new neighbourhood would surely be a home away from home for my husband of two years. Several months had passed, you see, since my abrupt return from Pakistan. Having spent my teenage years feeling utterly lost in Bradford, I had resolved to make Islamabad my home after marrying a cousin there. Alas, things hadn’t gone too well so I’d returned for respite.
But time and space had clearly mellowed my mood since I was now thinking about persuading my husband to settle with me in Bradford. This is why I was wading through the spousal visa application; a lonely task when your husband is absent and unfamiliar with the requisites; a thankless chore when he’s a Pakistani national, almost instinctively presumed guilty by the authorities. As if collating the paperwork wasn’t time-consuming enough, the visa application for his permanent stay would take months to come through, perhaps even longer.
I’d reached an impasse. My strength was sapped from staving off pressure to return to Pakistan. Perhaps the protracted visa process would buy me more time and my parade of proactivity might shift the stale conversation in our home. That’s why deferring the decision about the future of my marriage, even if only to bureaucrats at the UK Border Agency, seemed somehow liberating. But given the expertise in our new neighbourhood, I was starting to wonder if the process would even take that long. Transnational marriages, you see – the union between a Pakistani national and a British citizen – were two-a-penny in Bradford Moor.
It was a scene I’d witnessed several times, mindful that this might soon be my reality; the entire family setting off for Manchester Airport, Terminal 2, to welcome the new arrival to Britain, with the nervous looking British bride or groom in tow; the visits to Littlewoods in town for jumpers, socks and shoes to suit the British weather; the obligatory round of dinners for the reunited couple followed by the sightseeing day trip to Blackpool en masse.
The custom of transnational marriages was so popular in fact, that it had its own vernacular. Of course we never used the sociological term, transnational or transcontinental marriage. Instead, we talked colloquially about getting married ‘abroad’, even though we all knew that ‘abroad’ could only ever mean Pakistan. It did no harm to exoticise our perpetual holiday-cum-honeymoon destination. And the spouses from ‘abroad’ that we planned to ‘import’ were referred to as ‘mangaytar’. The term comes from the Urdu word for engagement, ‘mangni’, and means literally ‘the betrothed’ when used in Pakistan. In Bradford though, ‘mangaytar’ was reserved specifically for the partner from Pakistan – the immigrant, if you will – while the British citizen was known as ‘the fiance’ even when we spoke in mother tongue. Although the separate terms conveniently indicated your spouse’s birthplace and likely social mores, the distinction effectively inferred a tacit imbalance between the two parties; ‘fiance’ assumed an air of superiority, while ‘mangaytar’ was at best unequal and pejorative at worst.
Transnational marriages were tied up with the links that much of our neighbourhood had with Mirpur, a region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. So strong were these bonds that it sometimes felt like the same society existed in both places. The people of Mirpur famously practice an intensified system of clan alliance. Biraderi they call it – a scheme of tribal networks or extended brotherhood. Biraderi determines identity and personal codes of behaviour. Protecting its status against other clans is a matter of honour, even if it means favouring allegiance over merit, to the extent that mobilising the biraderi has been known to influence wholesale vote-gathering, not only in Mirpur but also in British politics.
Cousin marriages are intrinsic to the biraderi system because they reinforce ties of obligation, which is a source of pride in itself. No wonder Mr Hussain, now in his fifties, bearded, shalwar kameez clad, walking stick in hand, commanded such respect in our street. To his credit, he had ‘acquired’ the daughters of his own siblings from the ancestral village in Mirpur for his British born sons. He’d also installed his three sons in separate houses on our street, having the foresight many years earlier to buy each house as it came on the market. So Mr Hussain was now the brides’ father-in-law as well as their uncle. And the three brides, all of them cousins who had grown up together in Mirpur, were now neighbours in Bradford, and related to each other in new ways through marriage. This sort of union had many benefits. It permitted property to be retained within the clan. The transnational nature of the match made better opportunities available not only to the three brides, but also to their families in Mirpur. It was also understood that the handpicked daughter-in-laws would readily attend to Mr Hussain and his wife in old age.
There’s also the custom of watta satta, literally ‘give and take’, which establishes a web of familial connections that’s even more mindboggling. Watta satta involves the simultaneous marriage of brother-sister pairs from two households, where the heads of the two households may also be siblings. Crucially, this sort of marriage creates an inner circle of liability. So for instance, if a husband mistreats his wife, then the perpetrator’s sister might be the one to face the repercussions. It’s probably to make allowances for these convoluted family relations that Urdu and Punjabi languages contain extended vocabulary, to help us distinguish between cousins, aunts and uncles on different sides of the family.
The intensely bound networks in our neighbourhood inevitably made for a lot of coming and going, especially since house visiting was the main pastime. And since it was customary for guests to arrive unannounced, it was little wonder that our row of terraces with two reception rooms was so popular; enabling the multi-unit, multi-generational families to use the rear room as a lounge whilst keeping the front for best. Impromptu guests could be accommodated without disrupting family life, but more importantly, separate spaces could be appropriated for men and women. We’re talking about a rigidly patriarchal society here, so this was essentially an extension of purdah to seclude women from men they didn’t know. Akin to the Victorian parlour I suppose, with inner sections of the house reserved for women, while men outside the immediate family had access to only the outer parts.
With the front of the house reserved for men and formal visitors, women preferred to use the back alley as their main thoroughfare, entering one another’s houses by the back door, which led straight into the ‘zenana’, the women’s parlour. Mum did the same on her neighbourly visits, although she was irked to always be the last to hear about a birth, marriage or death. How poignant that we’d sought comfort in living among our own folk after the racism we’d endured on the Canterbury estate, only to find that our new neighbours also considered us to be outsiders. We weren’t one of them, you see, so there was no need for them to mix with us beyond the superficial. With bonds of biraderi in full force, being Pakistani wasn’t enough, it seemed. In order to be truly accepted, you had to belong to the same clan from Mirpur; and we weren’t even from the same region.
But then, quite unexpectedly one morning, Masi Shamim from across the street rang the doorbell as mum was about to leave for work. Clutching an unopened envelope bearing familiar Pakistani postage markings, she insisted she couldn’t go all day without knowing what sort of news it contained. Mum knew this yearning all too well, so without even removing her coat, she sat down and read the letter aloud before handing it back. The grateful listener moulded the piece of paper back into its folds before tucking it protectively inside the envelope. When could she return to dictate her response, she wanted to know.
With no formal school experience, Masi Shamim wasn’t literate in English or her mother tongue and therefore unable to independently read and write her own letters. Enlisting one of her British born children was pointless because they wrote only in English while relatives in Mirpur corresponded only in mother tongue. Many of the women in Masi Shamim’s circle were frustratingly in the same situation. She was loathe to rely on her husband since this would necessitate revealing to him the matters she discussed with her parents. Approaching another man was of course unthinkable. In desperation, Masi Shamim had sought mum’s help.
It wasn’t long before mum was spending Saturday mornings as letter scribe to the women from our neighbourhood, who’d arrive at our house carrying freshly purchased aerograms from the post office. Mum was sage, literate and possessed an unassuming demeanour. But more importantly, she stood firmly outside the biraderi so she didn’t pose a threat to the women’s secrets. I would be charged with fetching tea before I could join the women in the rear lounge. Mum would sit attentively, with one eye on the decorative clock on our mantelpiece, aerogram resting on a thick book on her knee, pen in hand, impatiently awaiting direction. I observed that despite their lack of literacy, the women dictated their letters with a particular formality, in anticipation of the buzz their letters would generate upon receipt. On one occasion, mum began to object when the concluding greetings to various clan members exceeded a page. The woman explained that the letter would be read out in a circle of women, all of whom would expect to be remembered in the communication from Bradford. Even if one woman was missing from the circle, she would come to hear whether or not she’d been mentioned. So, despite mum’s frustration, the etiquette of citing the various members of the biraderi had to be maintained.
You can see why it was impossible to ignore the bonds of biraderi in a neighbourhood like ours, even as a bystander. I thought of my extended family and understood, probably for the first time, that just like a small cog in a large wheel, I too was playing my part in strengthening our clan connections. I was also starting to realise that the only way to endure this pact was to learn to think beyond yourself.
Observing the comings and goings of Bradford Moor also made me wonder what the Border Agency officers made of the networks that were, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to the visa application. I had the list of supporting documents down to a tee: the original marriage certificate as well as a certified English translation; photographic evidence of the ceremony; proof of accommodation; a housing inspection report to demonstrate that an additional person wouldn’t lead to overcrowding in the family home; evidence of savings; pay slips and bank statements showing my ability to support us both. The authorities even wanted proof that we had met, which is presumably why they asked for at least one photo of the happy couple sitting or standing together.
There were no obvious eligibility issues with any of these formalities, although I sensed we’d need artistic license to embellish our demonstration of emotional attachment. Love, you see, would have been nice to have, but it had somehow evaded me. But then, our marriage was always more of a family alliance than the union of two individuals. I just wasn’t sure how to substantiate this on the visa paperwork.
That’s not to say I wasn’t happy about the match from the outset. I completely understood that mum could make no wiser choice, than to give my hand in marriage to her brother’s son. I knew that marrying my cousin would grant me more security than any outsider ever would. I believed that sharing the same background and values were important virtues for building a life together.
Lately though, I’d begun to realise that my husband and I actually belonged to two different worlds, and dragging him out of his world to transplant him into mine, now seemed as senseless as trying to save this marriage. I couldn’t see myself waiting to receive him at Manchester Airport, and nor did I want the responsibility of settling him in. More than anything else, I was perturbed to be struggling to find proof of emotional attachment in my marriage and it jarred me that something so critical to one community could be so inconsequential to another.
PREVIOUS INSTALMENT: CONFINEMENT
A relic of a childhood spent in Pakistan was that obedience became my way of showing respect to elders. In seeking mum’s guidance, I was showing deference to her continuing role in my life, even if my flourishing free spirit sometimes compelled me to defy her choices. Hindsight tells me that independence and obedience aren’t perhaps compatible after all. But old habits die hard, and so it was that well into adulthood, I simply couldn’t blurt out my garbled plans for a night out as I slammed the door behind me. Ever the dutiful daughter, I would stand soberly waiting for mum to sanction my plans, knowing full well that I was also giving her the power to refuse.
It was my best mate Josie who put me up to going on holiday with her, just as I was preparing to leave Bradford for married life in Islamabad. And before I could back out, she’d booked us a week in a three-star, self-catering apartment in Crete. This would be my first holiday independent of family, and the first one where I would need a beach towel and suntan lotion, instead of a suitcase large enough to carry presents for relatives I hadn’t seen for a decade. But first, there was a hurdle to overcome. I might have been 23 years old and on the cusp of marriage, but I still needed my mum’s permission!
I first met Josie around the time I started producing a quarterly fanzine for confused British Asians like myself. I got the idea after mum puckered her brow when I brought home a photo story magazine which featured among its pages a teenage boy and girl sharing a proper kiss. If this wasn’t the sort of material I should be reading then there was little else that young women like myself could identify with. So I decided to set up a fanzine of my own. Its Asian focus also meant that my attention now shifted from the likes of New Model Army to artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, much to my mum’s relief, although even an outing to something as honourable as a qawwali concert was subject to her approval.
Josie quickly became my confidante and mentor. I often wondered if she was such an understanding friend because, with an Asian husband of her own as well as two small children, she also had a limit to the number of nights out she was permitted per week. So we were perfectly matched as chaperones – both bound in our own ways to family obligations, and always mindful of the curfew waiting to drag us both off the bhangra dance floor at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall.
Now, with the holiday looming, I braced myself. I’d work through the objections I imagined mum would fire at me and rehearse my answers. Then I’d panic and phone Josie once more: “Remind me again why we’re going. Why did you say the trip is important? How should I frame my argument?” When the emotional ordeal made me doubt our upcoming plans, Josie would patiently go over the details again. I had nightmares about breaking the news of our trip with Josie’s husband and children outside, waiting to drive us to the airport. At other times I’d think it was surely only a matter of time before mum found out from someone else, since I’d discussed my dilemma with almost everyone I knew. After months of worry and with just a fortnight to go before the trip, I finally found the courage to speak to mum.
I framed my argument just as I’d rehearsed with Josie. It was probably my last chance to take a holiday like this with a friend, and it would be the perfect way to say goodbye to my old life and reflect on what lay ahead. Josie and I were asking for a few days’ grace to devote to friendship. And besides, if Josie’s husband was willing to look after the children for a week to enable her to accompany me on a trip of a lifetime, the least mum could do was to accept their gesture by letting me go. There was also plenty I didn’t say; that the holiday was a breathing space where I could steal myself, a week where I didn’t have to be someone’s wife or daughter. It was a chance to enjoy one final fling with freedom, a week where we wouldn’t have to observe curfews or explain ourselves, where our movements would not be curtailed. It was our Thelma and Louise moment.
A few months later, mum transferred me from her guardianship to that of her older brother, since he was also my father-in-law. I was now in my uncle’s care since my husband had returned to his job in the Middle East just a fortnight after our wedding. Yes, I could have insisted that he take me with him, but this would have involved trading his male quarters for accommodation that was wife-friendly, probably at considerable expense. The truth is that I wanted to show him what a supportive wife he’d selected. Also, I didn’t want to seem needy, nor did I wish to be viewed as chattel, to be transported with my husband from one location to another. Besides, I’d had enough of feeling out of place in Bradford, and the idea of being suspended in liminality in the Middle East just didn’t attract me. So I remained in Islamabad, where I had my father-in-law for company.
My uncle became the father I never had. A respected senior engineer at Radio Pakistan, I had watched him leaving for work in a suit and tie as a little girl, before Zia-ul-Haq implemented an Islamic system in Pakistan in 1978. Now, I handed over his tiffin box and watched him ride away on his Vespa every morning, with his crisp, cotton shalwar kameez flapping away in the breeze. A deeply spiritual man, my uncle was also open-minded with a cracking sense of humour. I loved his refreshingly healthy attitude towards Islam, advocating a balanced approach to life. His unwavering routine of walking to the mosque five times every day for congregational prayers, went hand in hand with an appreciation for music and dance. Prayer was an individual act and if I chose to waive the virtues of regular prayer, then it was up to me. But I had to be respectful by turning off the music and covering my head, whenever the call to prayer from the mosque loudspeaker permeated our home. One evening, he asked if I was planning to stay up to watch a James Bond film that was being televised. Before I could warn him about the risqué nature of 007’s dalliances, my uncle added enthusiastically, “I’m looking forward to seeing Ursula Andress. I’ve heard she was quite a beauty!”
During an initial spring clean, I came across a forgotten video tape labelled ‘Mujra Songs’ which featured Bollywood sequences in the style traditionally performed by dancing girls or courtesans in the courts of the Mughal kings. We frequently watched the tape together, with my uncle sharing his knowledge of the classic films that had spawned these performances. The tape featured a couple of songs from Sharafat (Asit Sen, 1970) which I found particularly captivating. I was entranced by the quick footedness of the dazzling dancing girl, fluttering around the dance floor like a brightly coloured butterfly. Whilst she had the same playful eyes, she wasn’t as voluptuous as the Hema Malini I remembered from the cabaret song in Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981). It was my uncle who confirmed that the nimble dancer was indeed Hema Malini and the squirming hero was her real life husband, Dharmendre.
If my uncle was liberal, regrettably he was also set in his ways, especially when it came to gender roles. Being the only son, I’d heard tales of grandma doting on him until her final days. Whilst rotis (chapatties) made for the rest of the household could be relegated to the plastic hotpot to keep warm for an hour or so, my uncle’s rotis had to be made from scratch for maximum freshness, the moment he was ready to eat. And with no daughters of his own, I’d heard whispers among the extended family that he had little understanding of women’s whims. As my new guardian, my uncle had very clear ideas about the division of labour. While he sped off to work each morning, I took my place in the kitchen.
Among the tedium I abruptly inherited was the daily provision of freshly cooked curry and rotis. Perhaps I’d imagined whimsically baking coconut macaroons on a Saturday afternoon, but the idea of putting dinner on the table every night had somehow escaped me! I had also managed to resist mum’s extensive efforts to introduce me to the rigours of roti making, which was now my greatest ordeal. As I kneaded the dough with all my might, I would hear the mocking tone of a great aunt from our ancestral village in my ear, “She who can’t make a roti is not a real woman,” knowing only too well that the shape, size, texture and lightness of my efforts were a measure of my merits as a daughter-in-law. Dry and brittle as they were, my rotis resembled poppadum and were woefully unfit for purpose. They should have been pliable enough to scoop up a dollop of curry, not dependent on a soaking in the sauce to make them edible. Out of principle and adamant that all I needed was patience and practice, my uncle refused to buy them from the roti house more than once a week. When I discovered the local international supermarket stocked pasta and noodles, I started serving them several times a week as roti replacements, until my uncle mischievously mocked me with a newspaper article about a man who’d stabbed his mother for serving noodles over and over again!
To make matters worse, housework needed to be planned around load shedding, the intentionally-engineered electrical outages during peak times due to under capacity. This meant there was no electricity between eight and ten o’clock, nor at lunchtime and again in the evening. I didn’t dare step into a room in the summer months without switching on the ceiling fan first. Load shedding made it utterly unbearable to function in the muggy kitchen. The best remedy was to douse yourself in cold water and keep still for an hour or so until the artificial breeze returned.
The wildlife colonising our kitchen also kept me occupied. I didn’t mind the ants walking in single file along the window sill, and picking them out one by one from the sugar bowl became oddly therapeutic. It was the house lizards and cockroaches scaling our walls that took some getting used to. I didn’t dare leave anything uncovered after locating a lizard perched on a freshly washed bowl when I turned on the kitchen light one evening. If ever I felt inclined to ease my hygiene standards, I remembered how my cousin had unintentionally cooked a lizard after it had fallen into a pot of lamb and spinach curry. My poor grandfather had already been served his dinner when my cousin returned to the kitchen for a refill, and only became suspicious after spotting the now tender meat falling off the skeleton! Yet, a few days after the horror of confronting a black snake in the hallway, I nonchalantly flicked a plump lizard off my pillow before crawling into bed.
Within a matter of months, I’d rearranged the furniture to my heart’s content, labelled all the spice jars and mastered a routine in the kitchen. I’d stitched new curtains for my uncle’s bedroom and even learnt to make tea with the lemongrass growing in our garden. I was ready for a fresh challenge. I thought about improving my O-Level French by taking some classes at the Alliance Francaise, located just a couple of miles from our house. It would get me out of the house and it was high time I made some friends. I put this to my uncle one night as he prepared for his fifth and final visit to the mosque for the day. “How will French help you?” he pondered out loud, much to my unease. “I could understand if it was a cookery course because that would benefit us all,” he continued.
The response was stifling but my uncle was a man of his word. I was also mindful of his seniority in the family which meant that nobody ever stood up to him, not even mum who held her older brother in the utmost regard. So I only dared to challenge his old-fashioned views light-heartedly but it was clear his decision was made. Under the circumstances, it seemed indelicate to involve my husband by pitting him against his father, nor could I ask mum to intervene. With my husband absent, my uncle had evidently forgotten that my primary reason for entering the household was as his son’s wife. So there I was, six months married and stranded in Islamabad, destined for daily drudge as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
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