Badamaash

For the last few weeks and months I’ve really been thinking about the way that I, as a woman of colour, view myself and others against the backdrop of the society that I live in.

When it comes to writers of colour expressing themselves and talking about aspects of their life, there’s a tendency to focus on issues that an older generation faced. This includes things like colourism, the struggle between cultural roots and Western society and more.

As a younger generation of Western born and raised children of colour grow up and begin to document their world, it’s safe to say that the issues that affect them today are very different to those which affected an older generation. That’s not to say that things like colourism don’t affect us because it does. What I have noticed is a widening gap between older British Asians and younger British Asians in terms of what matters to us in today’s society.

An example of this is technology. Another is 9/11 which was a massive game changer for every single person of colour regardless of age, background and level of wealth.

I was born and raised in London. I spent the first decade or so of my life in inner city south London before moving out to the suburbs. It was an odd neighbourhood because at the time there were two worlds existing in one area. One was very middle class and the other was working class. I hate to use the class system as an example, but it’s the only way I can describe how different life was for two groups of people who interacted with one another, lived alongside each other, but never really understood how the other half lived.

Memories from my childhood have been on my mind following a Channel 5 documentary I watched last night. It was called Gangland: Turf Wars. I wasn’t exposed to gangs directly, but I do remember the interest a lot of classmates had in it by the time I finished my education.

I spent much of last night, and today, wondering what’s happened to them.

I’d heard stories about the Kray Twins in East London, numerous murders of young men and how they’d been killed but never really thought about what drove them to join a gang or live a life of crime. I hadn’t been exposed to that and, in essence, I’d grown up in that safe bubble where things like youth violence weren’t a part of my direct everyday life. Even though I’d grown up alongside it.

When it comes to gangs, the first image many of us think of are angry, young,  black men, white men and a handful of Asians who are marginalised from society.

Then we subconsciously think of gangs as being like organised criminal groups (such as the Mafia) when the whole idea of a gang has changed. It’s changed from being an organised ‘brotherhood’ to one which is much more fluid; individuals who deal drugs are technically part of a gang but act as their own agent to reduce the risk of violence and competition.

As I grew up, I noticed that there were a lot of British Asian boys who started to adopt mannerisms and behaviour I’d seen local boys in gangs do. But these boys weren’t from council estates; they were mostly from pretty well off Asian families.

It’s a well known fact that in many Western countries, South Asians tend to live in fairly affluent areas and experience high levels of financial success which results in most of us being economically privileged. Despite this, there are Asians who live in deprived areas and end up having to make decisions such as dealing drugs or joining a gang. 

Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) or badamaash (gangster) from Bollywood

Yet this is something I think many British Asians don’t fully visualise. We can see rich South Asian boys pretend to be gangsters by talking and dressing a certain way; we almost accept it. But we don’t seem to realise that this could be reality for a lot of young Asian people in our cities. That tends to sit uncomfortably with us because it’s an aspect of society we don’t want to engage with.

Whenever I think of a South Asian gang member, I tend to visualise the goondhas (thugs) from Bollywood films. Larger than life, sporting massive moustaches, overly muscular and being the epitome of macho men.

Perhaps that’s why many affluent South Asian boys feel the need to behave as though they’re from a deprived area, deal drugs or are part of gang culture: because they believe that is what it means to be a ‘manly man’ or to be cool.

The reality of this couldn’t be further from that image of hyper masculinity. The glamourisation of gang culture, being a man or a woman involved in that or dealing drugs in order to survive is wrong.

I don’t think people become criminals for the thrill of it; for some of the kids I went to school with it was a way out of poverty and social marginalisation. For others, it was a way to gain control over their life and a sense of identity in horrible socio-economic circumstances that most of us will never face but are happy to become armchair critics about it.

We actively distance ourselves from it and stick our heads in the sand because ‘it’s not how Asians behave, we’re not all like that.’ We do this to escape the responsibility of admitting that South Asians can be susceptible to economic hardship, poverty, drug use and/or dealing, human trafficking, gun and gang culture.  It just adds to a long list of things many South Asians are in denial about and tend to dismiss as irrelevant when it actually does matter.

 

 

 

Cuckoos in the Nest

Image sourced from https://www.theguardian.com

Across the world, there are parts of many major cities, which are affectionately known by particular nicknames and become a part of every day urban life.

There’s Little Venice in London, Little Italy in New York City or various Chinatowns in large cities in many countries who have a large number of Chinese people residing in a particular urban area.

It’s a similar story here too: Leicester/Wembley (Little Gujarat), Southall/Birmingham/Derby (Mini Panjab), Tower Hamlets (Bangla Town) and Bradford, which became known as ‘Bradfordistan’ thanks to a scrawl of graffiti on a motorway road sign.

These are terms, often used by British Asians, and most British people of other ethnic groups,  to describe areas with significantly higher percentages of South Asian residents.

The context behind why such large numbers of South Asians live in these areas, is because it was often the first place where their parents/grandparents settled when they arrived in the UK. Like any other ethnic group, you either end up staying in the same place or you move away.

It’s human nature to want to fit in and belong to a social group, be liked, accepted and regarded; we are social creatures.

Many British Asians often make these tongue-in-cheek comments to each other, because many have grown up visiting relatives in these areas (and others), were born and raised there, or because it’s where we buy all our food, sweets, spices and traditional clothing from.

Growing up, I was never really sure if people used these nicknames with affection, disdain or embarrassment. I remember having cousins who were extremely reluctant – and even disgusted – to visit areas like Ilford, Southall or Wembley because “it was like being in an Indian village.” The irony of this was that they had never even been to a village in the UK, let alone India!

Similarly, for British Asians who are born and raised in such areas, visit parts of London (and the UK) where there are much lower numbers of South Asians and experience culture shock.

My part of London is an example; I was one of a handful of British Asian girls throughout primary and secondary school in the late 90s/early 2000s in an area that was (and still is) very English/Irish and Italian. I wasn’t socially exposed to the British Asian experience in a place like Hounslow or Wembley; I grew up with a stronger emphasis on North Indian culture and where I stand with that.

“A cuckoo in the nest is an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation.”

It wasn’t until I went to university and met British Asians who had never gone beyond their hometowns, didn’t even have friends of other ethnic groups or religions, that I suddenly felt like a cuckoo in the nest – socially speaking.

At first, people viewed me as though I were some sort of strange social experiment (like The Truman Show) and whenever they spoke to me, they were visibly uncomfortable and tense. Then they ended up flat out ignoring me or making snide comments which made me feel very out of place.

They felt like – and had already decided that – I wasn’t a true ‘Indian’ because I didn’t grow up the way that they did, I spoke other languages, had a different spiritual outlook and because my parents weren’t from India.

I remember someone once made a joke in Panjabi, and I bantered back at them in the same language and receiving looks of shock. Then came the comments: “Oh! I thought you were a coconut!” “How did you learn Panjabi while growing up in south London?”

It was bizarre beyond belief and as though they believed that South Asian cultures couldn’t thrive in areas where they’re a minority. This itself is a hypocritical way of thinking: we all know that culture, as a concept, is capable of surviving and thriving in areas where it is not immediately visible.

The core components of what makes a culture thrive is unity, accepting that it will change and adapt with time, understanding that it is multi-faceted and relies on a number of factors which are not dependent on which part of London/the UK you have grown up in and deem to be an ‘authentic British Asian experience.’

 

Jewels and Stones

For many it’s the happiest day of their lives. For many, it’s the time to hang out with their friends in the sun and shake off any school woes. But for some, these are times where they are filled with fear and uncertainty.

I first came across the issue of forced marriage, in my early teens, when I stumbled across a website dedicated to victims of honour-based violence across the world, races, cultures, religions and backgrounds. The link is here, but I must warn you that it is extremely triggering – it’s a website that lingers at the back of your mind. It has certainly stayed in mine for the past seven years. Before I continue, I just want to clarify that a forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage; the latter has the option of declining a proposal and that decision being respected.

Today I was lucky enough to attend a meeting held by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) in London to discuss the issue of forced marriage with organisations from across the UK. It was an eye opening afternoon where I learned so much and felt very privileged to be a part of.

73% of victims were under the age of 21 ~ FMU 2013

During the meeting, a lady from one of the organisations talked about the complexity and multi-faceted nature of forced marriage – it is not a simple problem which comes with a simple solution. It made me think of the way that issues such as forced marriage, FGM, acid attacks and honour-based violence are often assigned to particular ethnic groups or religions. Whenever someone mentions the words ‘forced marriage’ most people think of a helpless, young South Asian woman being carted off to Pakistan or India to be wed against her will to a stranger in a bid to uphold her family’s izzat (honour).

Despite what statistics say (given that many victims do not come forward) it is commonly mistaken as a ‘brown people problem’ which results in local authorities tip-toeing around in fear of being branded as racist. In June 2014, The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act came into legislation – this now makes forced marriage a criminal offence which means that anyone caught breaching this law can be incarcerated for up to seven years. But does criminalising something like forced marriage guarantee that it will protect victims?

I regularly go into schools and colleges across the capital to talk about entrepreneurship, tech, careers and Higher Education. While it’s generally uplifting and positive work, I remember a young girl saying to me: “I liked your talk and you, but I won’t ever be able to do those things. I’ll do my GCSEs and then get married.” It’s something that has stayed with me – I cried when I got home because it affected me that badly – and has made me painfully conscious of whenever I do visit a school.

Does the criminalisation of forced marriage guarantee protection for victims?

After I heard a 14 year-old schoolgirl say that to me, I felt like someone had punched me into oblivion. As an entrepreneur, I regularly have to be quite thick-skinned to deal with the influx of rejection and constantly work with uncertainty, but nothing could have prepared me for what I had heard that day. I wanted to help her or do something, but I didn’t know what to do (and I still don’t know). However, it did make me question the very essence of forced marriage and why it is something that is so difficult to dispel.

As a British Asian woman, I can only speak from my own experiences and the community that I ethnically belong to. I know from personal experience that various South Asian cultures either embed ideas of purity, honour and pride in women or view them as a burden because of the responsibilities that come with raising a girl into a woman. Such families discard or commit femicide because they simply can not afford the economic drain of having a daughter.

I vividly remember the sense of outrage I felt, as a teenager, whenever I couldn’t go out and have the same freedoms as my brothers. I remember the time-old phrase of: “Daughters are like jewels; we keep them close to home so that they don’t get ruined or stolen. Boys are stone; they won’t get tarnished.”

It infuriated me – firstly because of the blatant objectification and secondly because it was supposed to come from a place of love with good intention that still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I believe that phrases like this form the backbone of an older generation’s psyche, which has unfortunately been passed down through the ages – often unquestioned –  until it has become steeped in various South Asian cultures and regarded as the norm.

“Daughters are like jewels; we keep them close to home so that they don’t get ruined or stolen.”

From the moment that they are born, many South Asian women have the importance of family, community and their culture ingrained into them. We grow up watching our mothers and grandmothers repeatedly prioritise others over their own health and well being with the resigned reply of: “It’s just the way it is.” Naturally, when one has a family, there are certain responsibilities and honouring certain family bonds that we undertake and respect – but at what cost?

When one combines all of this, many (including myself) grow up believing that it is more important to be part of a large family/community and be unhappy, than to stand up for ourselves and be isolated. It is a difficult, and often toxic, mindset to shake off or even address because it is so deeply imprinted in pockets of the South Asian Diaspora. So when a man or woman is forced into marriage and evidence is found that could incarcerate their parents/family members, given this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that they drop the case.

When I think about ways that I could try and help people who are forced into marriage, I have found myself facing a brick wall. I genuinely don’t know of powerful solutions that could have a significant impact. Forced marriage is a reality for some, that I will never experience or be able to fully understand. But what I can do is work with the right organisations and people to ensure that we continue to address and shift society’s gaze onto an issue that has been shrouded for far too long.