The secrets and lies of Britain's Asians
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, United Kingdom
July 15, 2002
Elders, they are the keepers of our secrets, Asian men and women with withered and merciless faces who have walked the hard journey of life without revealing pain or complaining, burying tragedies along the way. They were taught from childhood that the only things which matter are conformity and izzat (public reputation). And they have enforced respect for these with ever more vigour, afraid that they had ended up living in a society where such values had long gone and where racism was always on the prowl, looking to wound and maim them.
To get yourself a bad name is worse than death, which is why suicide is a common form of exit in many Asian families. As Mr Kotecha, who knew my clever but wayward father, once told me: "Beti, remember never to talk about your family or friends, never tell the truth, because your duty is to protect your loved ones. Better to jump into the sea than speak about your beloved father. Don't even ask the questions, just put on a happy face and say only nice things." Some parents pretend their children are dead or weave long, elaborate stories and updates to conceal that their sons or daughters have married out. Others refuse to talk to young people who come out as gay.
Some traditional values do still serve us well. I, for example, would never want to acquire the so-called freedoms of modernism and post-modernism, which create distorted, hedonistic, never-satisfied individuals. Respect, obligations, an understanding of consequences and mutuality are central to a fulfilled life. However, the stifling of all personal aspiration, and often the truth, is cruel and wrong.
Behind all the jolly good shows of Asian family life lie thousands of people whose lives are trapped by excessive caution, by lies, secrets, deceptions, whispers, threats, dissimulation and inhumane oppression. And the pressure not to talk is becoming stronger.
Reports this weekend revealed frightening details of drug addiction and trafficking among young Asian men and the devastating effect this is having on neighbourhoods. Not supposed to talk about that. Alcoholism is a serious problem, not only in Hindu and Sikh families but in a substantial number of Muslim families where, of course, nobody drinks. Domestic violence? What, washing your blood in public now? Incest? Child abuse? Rubbish, such things never happen in our families. Homosexuality? Another Western bloody disease. And so they go on, the custodians of virtual virtue.
They hated the film Monsoon Wedding because it touched on child abuse within an outwardly and enviously happy extended family. They also wanted to lynch Ayub Khan Din for his "dirty" story, East is East, and Hanif Kureishi after My Beautiful Laundrette. And from the threats and curses I get, and will get again today, they would like to staple my lips together too.
Meanwhile, the problems simply grow to devour everything. Indeed this may well be happening in some of the northern towns and in the East End of London which the local MP, Oona King, has described as the "heroin capital" of the country. God help her for simply saying what has been obvious for years. Nine years ago when I used to teach young adults in Tower Hamlets, east London, I saw the problem with my own eyes. My baby's childminder lived on the fifth floor in a block of flats. On five occasions I saw young Bangladeshi boys and men comatose on the stairwell, with syringes around them. Once, one had passed out in the small lift and was lying there smelling of urine as the lift went up and down. It was frightening but when I mentioned it to local Bangladeshi luminaries, I was told it was something "the community" was dealing with.
I have also met Asian women who did many years in prison (some middle-aged) because they were forced by their husbands or brothers to operate as mules carrying drugs to and from the subcontinent. In one case, heroin in small plastic pockets was sewn into a quilt that was wrapped around a six-month-old baby. Most of the women have since been divorced because the family did not want a woman with a "bad name". This April a 13-year-old girl from Bradford was found carrying heroin worth more than £1m. Last week, the Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a campaign group fighting for better treatment of women within families, challenged a coroner's decision not to hold an inquest into the death in Bradford of Nazia Bi and her two-year-old daughter, Sana Majid Ali, who were burned to death in a locked bedroom. The SBS claims "the family and wider Asian community closed ranks and did not want a public hearing".
Drugs, criminality and violence are obliterating the already fragile bonds of black British families, too. Where were the community power brokers when street crime increases were causing such anxiety last week?
You can also see the same demand for silence among British Jews. Jewish people who are prepared to speak out and act against the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, are attacked both by Zionist fundamentalists and by moderates who agree with them but feel that to be openly critical awakens anti-Semitism, always a light sleeper.
I understand the dynamics of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. Problems within communities are relished and used by white racists. But what is worse: racist gloating or the collapse of families, hope, principles and entire localities? People who proclaim that they are protecting the communities through discretion know well how much young blood is haemorrhaging away from the hearts of those communities.
But expose these issues and the reactions are louder and more threatening than ever. I have watched with incredulity as groups and individuals, passionate anti-Islamaphobes and anti-racists have tried to discredit the painstaking reports on the northern towns by Sir Herman Ouseley, Ted Cantle and the Keighley MP, Ann Cryer. The last is much admired for her honesty by young Asian women who no longer feel able to sit tight and bear it all.
The objectors would rather point accusing fingers at white people than their own. Poverty, social exclusion and discrimination create conditions for crime and a drug culture. But these problems are only going to get worse if they are forcibly concealed. And racism cannot excuse domestic violence, sexism, child abuse, forced marriages or black and Asian pimps who think it is OK to ensnare vulnerable white women to work as prostitutes.
At last, it appears, more people are taking up these challenges. Projects have begun in Southall, Rotherham, Birmingham and elsewhere to get families to deal openly with issues that previously were locked up. Idealistic young Muslims are getting together and influencing peers with self-destructive lifestyles. Better funding for women's groups is making them stronger. And government ministers are becoming less afraid of causing offence to black, Asian, Muslim and Jewish Britons.
The 1990 Trust, an umbrella organisation bringing together voluntary black and Asian groups, recently said some black and Asian communities were "imploding". I agree. If we don't stop this, if we still pretend and lie, racists will be the only winners.
An Asian Briton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a regular columnist for the Independent newspaper.
From the Independent (London), July 15, 2002. © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.