Saturday, 31 October 2009

Pakistanis in Britain

Alison Shaw is a social anthropologist who turned her Ph.D thesis into a book, A Pakistani Community in Britain (1988). Her four years of research into the Oxford Pakistani community was funded by the Social Science Research Council and included a seven month stay in Pakistan with the relatives of her Oxford subjects. Her book is a sympathetic study of that community but does not avoid revealing some troubling - for us - aspects of Pakistani culture and conduct. I shall be posting some excerpts from the book over the next week or so.

These extracts from the introduction echo a previous post about the biraderi/biradari - extended family networks offering mutual support - that went some way to explaining why Pakistanis turned up here in large numbers buying our land and property so soon after driving us from their country: a social solidarity that is largely absent among the English.

From Alison Shaw, A Pakistani Community in Britain (Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, 1988):

It is commonly assumed that the Pakistani minority will inevitably ‘assimilate’ western values (however these may be defined), and for many English people ‘assimilation’ carries a positive value, while ‘non-assimilation’ carries a negative one. Rather than entering into the debate on whether ‘assimilation’ is a good or bad thing, I am concerned to portray the Pakistani community as far as possible on its own terms rather than from a western perspective and to show how there is much more continuity of tradition than is generally recognized. The reasons for this lie in the migrants’ historical background and in the social organization of their communities.

Pakistanis come from a society with a history of previous migrations within the Indian subcontinent, both within Pakistan and to Pakistan from India. These previous migrations have not made a dramatic impact on cultural values and social organization; rather, the migrants have carried their cultural values with them and have generally regarded their migrations as a means of enhancing their status and bettering their existing position. It is therefore not surprising that their culture and social organization should be capable of adapting to migration to Britain.

The biradari, or extended kinship group, continues to have a major influence over individuals’ activities and over their expectations of life in Britain. […] The biradari perpetuates itself through the institution of arranged marriage, crucial to its persistence and stability. Traditionally marriage is with first cousins, and this has the effect of maintaining the biradari as a kinship group. When a family’s immediate relatives have remained in Pakistan, marriages may be arranged with relatives there or new links may be formed across the boundaries of kinship and even caste with other Pakistani settlers in Britain. For example, two men in Oxford became close friends of a man from a different caste to whom they eventually arranged for their sister to be married. This arrangement, apparently going against the traditional ideal of cousin marriage, was nevertheless accepted by the families concerned, and was justified by reference to Islamic ideology which denies caste differences. It cemented a friendship and forged new links which proved crucial to a joint business venture. The biradari is therefore not static but flexible; it can even, as in one or two cases, accept English women into it through marriage, providing they fulfil the expectations made of them.

One important way in which the biradari ensures this flexibility is through the principle of giving and taking, called lena-dena (taking-giving) which underlies many social relationships within the community. The ties created through lena-dena maintain old relationships and permit new ones with non-kin to develop. These ties, backed up by ideologies of community and


religion, enable the biradari to adapt to a new environment and at the same time have a cohesive and conservative influence.


From a western point of view, an individual who fulfils her or his role within the family, biradari and community, does so at the cost of individual freedom. However, most Pakistanis themselves, including the younger generation, do not see the matter in this way. They do not prize ‘individuality’ as highly as westerners do, and for most of them the sacrifice of ‘individuality’ that the culture requires is more than offset by the advantages of fulfilling one’s role within the family, biradari and community. Occasionally, of course, there is conflict between an individual’s inclinations or convictions and the expectations made of him or her by the family and community; hence the elopements and other incidents that reach the press. But such incidents are not as common as the media’s sensational reporting suggests; the conflicts are usually short-lived and rarely pose a fundamental threat to the community’s social structure. They may involve questioning and challenging and gradual change in particular aspects of the culture, but, as in any culture, such development is in part a result of the culture’s own internal dynamics as well as a response to external environmental changes. As young Pakistanis themselves point out, many of the events and changes occurring within the Pakistani community in Britain, such as questioning the importance of aspects of the arranged marriage, are also taking place within Pakistan. While such changes may be motivated at least in part by western values, the justification for them is generally made in terms of Islamic values. Some of the second generation even claim that such change is taking place more quickly among sections of Pakistan’s society than among Pakistanis in Britain, citing examples from among their own relatives in Pakistan. The fact that the Pakistani population in Britain is a minority has tended to make it more conservative.


Shaw identifies something here that was not widely recognised in the eighties but which would become politically significant in the nineties and in this decade: the Pakistani community in Britain is more Pakistani, more conservatively so, than that in Pakistan.

This point stands out, too, and a future post will go into this subject in more detail:

The biradari is therefore not static but flexible; it can even, as in one or two cases, accept English women into it through marriage, providing they fulfil the expectations made of them.

But only English women, of course, Pakistani men do not allow their women to marry Englishmen. According to Pierre L. van den Berghe,

The sociobiological paradigm provides a [simple] explanation. In nearly all species, the female is the scarce reproductive resource for the male rather than vice-versa. […]

[T]he ethny is a corporation of related men seeking to enhance each others’ fitness by retaining a monopoly of sexual access to the women of their own group. This, however, does not preclude men from further enhancing their reproductive success by making the most of every opportunity to inseminate women from other groups. In fact, the whole history of ethnic relations powerfully confirms this interpretation. Men jealously ‘protect’ ‘their’ women from men of other groups, deeply resenting ethnic exogamy on the part of women, while at the same time seeking access to women from other groups. […]

Between ethnies, men use power and violence to secure access to women from other groups, and this reduces the level of inbreeding. When the ethnies in presence are equally matched, male competition for foreign women takes the form of interethnic raids. After an ethnic hierarchy has been established, subordinate-group men loose all or part of their control of ‘their’ women and their reproductive success is curtailed, while upper-group men are polygynous and incorporate subordinate-group women. An ethnic hierarchy, therefore, generally results in a reduced fitness for subordinate-group males. The classical scenario for conquest is to rape the women and kill, castrate or enslave the men. [p.26]

He elaborates on that point later in his book:

Even when conquest is relatively mild and not openly genocidal, the subordinate group in an ethnic hierarchy almost invariably ‘loses’ more women to males of the dominant group than vice versa. Hypergamy (mating upward for women) is a fitness-enhancing strategy for women, and, therefore, subordinate-group women do not always resist being ‘taken over’ by dominant-group men. But subordinate-group men lose fitness by losing potential mates from their group without any hope of access to dominant-group females. It is not accidental that the most explosive aspect of interethnic relations is sexual contact across ethnic (or racial) lines; nor is the asymmetry of the resentment surprising. No group is concerned about gaining women; every group resents losing women.

Conquest and domination mean, in the first instance, a fitness loss. The loss is felt both at the individual and at the collective level. Collectively, since the offspring of subordinate-group women who mate with dominant. group men are generally ‘lost’ to their maternal group, the subordinate group suffers a decrement of reproductive power. Over several generations, this loss can be reflected in serious demographic changes in ethnic group ratios. Dominant groups tend to grow disproportionately. Individually, there is only a fitness reduction if the circulation of women between groups is asymmetrical, as it almost invariably is. Through the suction of women into the upper group (without getting women in return), the pool of mates for lower-group males is correspondingly reduced and, therefore, so is their fitness. Females of the subordinate group also indirectly lose fitness through the lowered fitness of their male relatives. Individual females who choose the hypergamous strategy, however, can gain fitness if their children become assimilated to the ruling group and gain access to upper-group privileges (including polygyny). This sex asymmetry in fitness strategies in ethnically stratified societies often creates tension between the sexes, within subordinate groups. The female option of fitness maximization through hypergamy is deeply resented by subordinate-group males. [p.75-76]

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