In the Prison of Social Poverty

Pakistanis in Britain

Most of the Pakistanis now living in Britain moved to Britain in the 1950s. Their hopes, unlike those of the Indians, were to be disappointed. They feel shut out and rejected, not just by the white working class, but also by Hindus and Sikhs. Bettina Schulz reports

photo: AP
Up until 7/7 British Pakistanis were oftern disregarded - now they're regarded suspiciously

​​The suspected suicide bombers came from Pakistani families, three of them from Leeds. (Three of the four suspected suicide bombers came from Pakistani families living in Leeds.) They could just as well have come from Bradford, Leicester or Oldham, cities which have long boasted that their immigrants—from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh—lived peacefully with the home born white population.

That was true until 2001. In that year, sudden racial attacks on the children of Pakistani immigrants rocked these towns. The unrest was a warning to Britain that there is a social crisis blazing behind the multicultural facade which could provoke Muslim radicalisation.

The 750,000 people of Pakistani origin who live in Britain make up the second largest ethnic minority in the country after the Indians. Most of the Pakistanis moved to Britain in the fifties. At the time immigration was easy, since, until 1958, their British Commonwealth passports gave them the right of entry. They came mostly from rural areas of Pakistan and were looking for a future in the British textile industry—they planed to stay just as long as it took them to earn enough money for a return home in prosperity.

Disappointed hopes

But many stayed in Britain, and in the sixties and seventies they were joined by their families. Most Pakistani families live now in Humberside, the West Midlands, Glasgow and Yorkshire, including the city of Leeds.

The hopes of the Pakistani immigrants, unlike those of the Indians, were to be disappointed. The British textile industry declined, and many Pakistanis failed to work their way up through society. Indian families managed to make into the middle class, but that road seemed closed to the Pakistanis.

Current statistics show that there are two unemployed people of Pakistani origin for every one from India. Many Pakistani men are taxi-drivers or have small shops or businesses. The father of one of the suspected terrorists owns a fish-and-chip shop.

Pakistani families form the largest households in Britain, with an average of six members, but on average they are worse off than small white families living on state support. At the end of the nineties eighty percent of all Pakistani and Bangladeshi families earned less than the average national wage. That is one reason why Pakistanis have difficulty in integrating.

Shut out and rejected

Many families live in ethnically separated areas in long rows of monotonous terraced housing. They feel shut out and rejected, not just by the white working class, which does not think much of any Asian immigrants, but also by Hindus and Sikhs, who often forbid their children to have anything to do with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims.

A visit to the areas in British cities, like Leeds, where Pakistanis live and work, is like a visit to a Pakistani city. Almost all the women wear the traditional Salwar Kameez, their lives are restricted to their homes and the local Asian shopping streets, they speak the languages of their old home rather than English.

Young people of Pakistani origin, especially young men, find it hard to come to terms with this situation. They find themselves trapped in a society which in many ways offers them fewer freedoms than even young British Indian men enjoy. This is a society in which the British police has to fight against forced marriage and honour killings. At the same time, the parents' generation is extremely apolitical.

The fathers' disgust of extremism

Fathers are happy just to be allowed to live in England and feed their families. They put up with the fact that their living conditions are poor and that they live on the edge of society, and they feel at home in the traditional world of their neighbours. They follow a traditional, pious form of Islam and have only incomprehension and disgust for any kind of extremism.

The fact that Islamist terrorists make their integration into the country more difficult and create mistrust among their non-Muslim British neighbours is another reason why Pakistani patriarchs really cannot understand what is going on in the heads of the terrorists of the next generation.

But the sons see things differently. They see no opportunity in the world of their fathers for them to reach what has been denied their parents: improvement of their status in society and social recognition. Their parents did not have the money to send them to private schools, as many Indian families managed to do. Boys of Pakistani origin are worse educated than boys from other ethnic groups. Only 22 percent manage to get school-leaving qualifications at sixteen. Unemployment in this group is particularly high.

Accusations of the not-so-tolerant working class

Directly after the serious racial unrest in Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds in 2001, many sociological studies were undertaken. One study, by the University of Leeds, warned of a "prison of social poverty," in which young people of Pakistani origin give up hope, and in which they have to live with the resentment of white people.

Their neighbours are not the tolerant British middle class but the working class who accuse Asian immigrants of trying to set up a "mini-Pakistan." Their sense of rejection was intensified by the racial unrest of 2001 and, since British involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the feeling has grown that the West is against the Muslims. No part of the British population has felt more under control by the police and security forces than young Muslim men.

But many young men in this Pakistani parallel society also experience their own home as a kind of prison, in which they suffer from patriarchal rule.

Radicals exploit the youths' disappointment

Towards other family members, relations and neighbours, they pretend to lead a halfway successful immigrant life: the sons are expected to take over their father's business one day and to marry a Pakistani girl from a good family. They are unable to discuss this plan with their fathers.

Young people from a Pakistani background are extremely respectful and subservient towards their parents—and that is part of the facade of their traditional culture. They seek understanding elsewhere, and, in individual cases they may find it among extremists, who exploit the disappointment and lack of perspective of Muslim youth for their own ends.

They lead the sons of Pakistani immigrants to believe that there is only one correct way to break out of the prison of an unjust anti-Islamic society in which they find themselves—even to the extent of obeying the command to blow everything around them to pieces.

Bettina Schulz

© FAZ/Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

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