Saturday, 14 November 2009

Pakistanis in Britain: Leadership and Political Mobilisation

More from Alison Shaw, A Pakistani Community in Britain (Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, 1988). Previous posts here and here.

My emphases in bold:

I once had to interpret in court for Mohammed Anees who had been charged with shoplifting. He had been in England for over fifteen years but his knowledge of English was poor. Under cross-examination he had to answer one main question. Was there some sort of commotion going on in the street outside the shop, and if so what? Anees replied that he thought something might have been happening in the street outside the shop but he could not remember what. At this point the court adjourned, and Anees, his solicitor and I withdrew to a private room. The solicitor then explained, with unmasked irritation, that Anees had just contradicted his written statement given to the court the day before. This statement said that some youths fighting in the street outside the shop had distracted Anees’ attention just as he was going to pay for his goods. The solicitor then asked Anees why he had just contradicted in court the previous day’s statement. It emerged that Anees had relied upon a Pakistani community representative from a local welfare association to give the original statement, the details of which Anees did not know. In view of Anees’ contradictory evidence, the solicitor’s advice now was that Anees should change his plea to guilty. Anees accepted this. The court reconvened and Anees was fined.

Afterwards, I felt that I had somehow let Anees down, that had I known more about the case beforehand I might have helped him steer his way through the proceedings. However, Anees said, in a somewhat condescending tone, that I was worrying unnecessarily because things did not happen that way. He had already done all that he could by approaching a community representative who was a ‘big man’ (bara admi), capable of getting him let off. He seemed to have assumed that this patron would ensure charges were dropped by providing a story, of which the details did not really matter, and, more importantly, by negotiating with the solicitor and other members of the court. This had obviously not happened. Even


though Anees had been let down by his patron, who, by not furnishing Anees with the details of the story, had allowed him to contradict himself and thus worsen his case, Anees bore his patron no grudge. Anees felt that he had been unlucky this time, but this did not cause him to question the procedure he had followed. For him, the case had already been decided by the ability of his patron to negotiate with the solicitor. He felt that this had been unsuccessful because of his choice of a patron, not because of the procedure he had adopted. If his patron had had sufficient influence and if the court had liked him, he would have been let off anyway and it would not have mattered that he had contradicted himself. He protested his innocence in the eyes of God and seemed quite unconcerned about how the English court viewed him, as if he did not believe in justice on earth.

This incident, contradictory and confusing to the lawyer and the court, only makes sense when Anees is seen to be drawing on his own tradition and experience of law and justice.

Patronage in Pakistan

To understand Anees’ case, and many like it, we need to consider the significance of authority and leadership in Pakistan; the following picture is drawn from incidents and conversations with villagers there. Villagers frequently spoke of police corruption. In particular, they described how the rich bribe the police when someone has to be charged for a crime, and induce them or compel them to charge an innocent party who cannot afford to bribe. One bank-clerk reported that police had arrested a colleague of his while he was travelling on a train and had imprisoned him for a crime someone else had committed. For such people, survival lies in strengthening their biradaris, extending the network of people bound to each other by mutual obligations and doing favours for people with authority to ensure the return of a favour when necessary; the biradari network is trusted rather than the system of police or the law. An individual will not go to court until he has found someone, such as a barrister, ideally from within his own biradari, who has some obligation to him and would be sure to win the case or get it withdrawn.


[…] Influential biradari contacts may also mean that people can escape punishment for a crime that biradari members may themselves have set up.

Thus, many villagers regard the wealthy owners of land, villages, or factories, government officials or army officers as being in a position to dispense patronage; as a result they are treated with deference and respect. One landlord, who had recently returned to Faisalabad district after spending twenty years in Glasgow where his sons still run businesses, had bought a large farm, with a large pakka house (built of kiln-baked bricks and mortar), a tube-well and tractors with money earned in Britain. He had also purchased an ice factory in town and given his brother the task of running it. He now employed landless labourers from a nearby kacha settlement (built of mud bricks) who treated him with respect and subservience; on one occasion an employee knelt at his feet to ask a favour. As the landlord himself proudly pointed out, they now also call him chaudhri, a title or respectful form of address which literally means ‘head man’.

[…] The result is an attitude towards institutions that differs from traditional British expectations of their function and operation. In Pakistan, one cannot appeal to the justice of the system, to the rules and principles embedded in the bureaucracy, to deal with a problem. Each official is seen first as a member of someone’s biradari and only second as an official.


Business will be attended to if an official is a biradari member; if he is not, he may have to be bribed, or some other biradari member may have to exert his influence.

Britain: local politics and patronage

In Pakistan, for those without influence or biradari members in positions of authority, legal and government institutions are to be avoided. For those with influential contacts, things are different. As one young man boasted to me: ‘If a policeman tells me to come to prison but I refuse, what can he do? His superiors are my father’s friends. He can do nothing.’ Consequently it is not surprising to find that first generation migrants from poor village backgrounds assume that their first recourse, in dealing with British authorities, must be to enlist the aid of a patron.

It might be thought that such attitudes would disappear after a few years in England, but there are two main reasons why they have persisted. The first is that in the early years of settlement a patron’s aid was required to cope with life in England. The second reason, discussed below, has to do with defending the Islamic values believed to be essential for the maintenance of the community once settled in England.

When Pakistani men first came to Britain, the majority of them had a very poor knowledge of English and had great difficulty in finding accommodation and employment, in handling the D.H.S.S. and so on. The British economy needed labour in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the government, while encouraging immigration, made no concessions to accommodating and meeting the needs of the immigrants once they were here. Migrants therefore turned to biradari members and fellow villagers for help. In this situation, it was relatively easy for a fellow migrant who appeared to be educated, to have good English, and to be able to cope with British institutions and make contacts in departments of the local council or the Pakistan Embassy, to achieve a position of influence among his fellow Pakistanis. Migrants themselves tended to put into a position of influence and authority someone who appeared to be educated and able to offer them the help they needed. Such a person, having attained this status, generally confined his welfare activities to members of his own biradari and this led to biradaris competing with each other for such positions and for the resources which they provided.

Welfare associations arose from the genuine need for welfare in the 1960s. Although the associations are in theory open to all and have elections to each post, the presidents can be seen to operate as patrons do in Pakistan. The first Pakistan welfare association in Oxford, founded in 1961, provided a free and popular welfare service, which included


negotiating with the Home Office and the Pakistan Embassy and filling in tax forms. […]

The threat to Islamic values

As the majority of families can now manage reasonably well in dealing with British institutions, it might be supposed that the need for patrons would diminish and that attitudes to authority would change. However, a new need is perceived, the need for protection from the threat of western values. By appealing to fears of the erosion of Islamic culture certain individuals have come to acquire in the eyes of many Pakistanis the same status as patrons in Pakistan. This ideological element is a second aspect of the persistence in Britain of traditional attitudes to authority.

The force of the ideological influence of these new patrons lies in the complex views Pakistanis hold of English society. In Pakistan, Britain is admired for its wealth, education and health services. Comparing Britain with Pakistan, people would often comment on the apparent absence of nepotism and bribery in political and administrative circles, and spoke with admiration of the health and social services. ‘England’ one man said ‘is the most civilized country in the world.’ In Pakistan, people spoke with pride of the role of the British administration in organizing the building of the canals, irrigation and settlement of the canal colonies. The president of the Pakistan Welfare Association who arranged for improvements to be made


to his village in Pakistan had been impressed by the fact that British cities have community centres and British cemeteries have walls around them. Goods made in England are much sought after in Pakistan, and in general anything man-made is highly valued. Locally produced cotton is considered inferior to silky man-made colour-fast fabrics. In Pakistan, English is compulsory in higher education and considerable status is attached to schools where English is the medium of instruction and which are to some extent modelled on English private schools. Pakistanis praise the British education system and first generation migrants hope that the second generation will obtain professional qualifications in Britain; qualifications obtained abroad, especially from Britain, are respected and coveted in Pakistan.

There are also racial connotations in the ways in which English people, or what might be regarded as ‘Englishness’, are admired. In Pakistan, fairness of skin is coveted; it is desired in a bride and associated with the high castes who traditionally keep their women in purdah. Magazines abound with pictures of pink, round-faced babies in advertisements for dried milk, and with pale-faced women in advertisements for cream to lighten skin colour. Relatives of families in Oxford would ask about the skin colour of their relatives in England, for they expected it to lighten in Britain, and mine to darken in Pakistan. Pakistanis refer to themselves as kale log (black people) inferior on the grounds of skin colour to the gore log (white people). Within the kale category though, there are gradations of colour: dark skins are associated with low caste status and inferior racial origins. One man described people of kami status as black and of a different ‘race’, (using the English word). On the same grounds, east Oxford Pakistanis consider Bangladeshis inferior to them, while people of Afro-Caribbean origins rank lowest. The word habshi, usually translated as negro, is used as an insult.

Among Pakistanis in Britain, however, English people are regarded with considerable ambivalence. While the aspects of English society and western civilization mentioned above are admired and whiteness itself is still coveted, at the same time the British administrative and political system is one which hunts down immigrants, has betrayed their rights as British subjects by successive changes in immigration and nationality laws, and treats them as inferior. While only some of the first generation speak openly of racial discrimination, many of the second generation born here speak bitterly of it. Thus the term gora is an ambivalent one, and the phrase gore log can be used insultingly, to separate Pakistanis and outsiders. But what is usually perceived to lie at the heart of this ambivalence towards English people is the fact that their social and sexual mores contrast starkly with the Islamic values of purdah and sexual segregation.

Many Pakistanis hold a low opinion of western social and sexual mores and particularly of the position of women in western society. English


women are seen to break all the rules governing sexual morality. The western system, it is thought, permits free sexual relations and allows, even encourages, women to dress revealingly and to provoke men. One Pakistani man who had recently arrived in England, commented on seeing a number of female University students sunbathing that the male undergraduates who were passing by could not be real men or else they would have thrown themselves on the women. Pakistani women often cite Britain’s high divorce rate and the increasing proportion of illegitimate births as evidence of the low moral standards of the west. Furthermore, their views are often coloured by the fact that some Pakistani women had to cope with husbands who have, or had, English girlfriends and even wives. Not surprisingly, many Pakistani women are suspicious of English women who visit them and it has sometimes taken many years for me to be accepted in their homes. Knowing me has not changed their beliefs. For my close women friends, who have always been curious about my views on the position of women and on Islam, which I have not concealed from them, it is a matter of great concern that I will ‘burn in hell’ for the sin of not believing in God and for other sins such as preventing pregnancy.

Manipulation of ideology

Because of these feelings about western society, Pakistanis’ support will be easily mobilized if the need for it is expressed within the framework of Islamic values. When there was a proposal to close the only all-girls secondary school in Oxford, attended by many, though not all, of the Pakistani Muslim girls in east Oxford, a Community Relations Council survey was carried out which showed that while some parents sent their daughters to that school because it was single sex, there were also those who sent their daughters to a mixed secondary school because they thought the education there was better. For them, the religious question at that stage was not as important as the quality of the education that their daughters were receiving. However, once the issue had been presented in terms of a threat to Islamic values, many of these parents sided with those campaigning to maintain the all-girls’ school.


[…] Similarly, the emotive issue of protecting the community’s young women and girls from western influences figured prominently in establishing the role of the president of the All Pakistan Women’s Association in the community. At an Eid celebration which she organized, she spoke to the assembled women of their duty to ensure that their daughters keep their hair tied up and covered with a scarf, wear the shalwar, or at least trousers, rather than skirts, and do not wear make-up. At another gathering, she referred to someone’s daughter as a desi gori (a ‘home-made English girl’), and warned mothers to take care that their daughters do not become desi goris too. This phrase is used as a term of abuse for a girl who wears jeans, make-up, cuts her hair short and may work or go to college.



Community leaders as patrons

Taking a public stance as defender of the community’s values does not of itself make a person into a patron as they exist in Pakistan. This comes about because some people, once elevated into prominence by their position as the community’s protector, are keen to impress on their fellows that they are indeed such patrons. The individuals who champion the cause of Islamic virtue belong to a group sometimes referred to as ‘community leaders’ or ‘community representatives’. As other commentators have noted, this is a heterogeneous category. Writers agree that most leaders are in many ways on the periphery of the community. Some leaders have been described as ‘integrationist’ in that they are self-appointed, atypical, committed to western values and are regarded with suspicion by the ‘mass of rural uneducated Pakistanis’, even though they may have official status in the eyes of the British authorities. On the other hand, there are also the ‘accommodationists’ drawn from the educated but poor middle classes who are ‘culturally aligned with the uneducated peasantry’. Of the ‘Asian immigrant brokers’ who organize the welfare societies in Manchester, ‘the majority tended to be less religious and to have certain exceptional attributes (of regional or denominational affiliation) which set them apart from the Punjabi Sunni majority. In other respects, however, they were very much of the “centre” ’. Writers have also noted that there is frequently considerable competition between leaders for positions as representatives of their community on, for instance, community relations councils. In Oxford, this has involved, for example, accusations and counter accusations of elections being rigged.

Once elected or appointed, successful candidates generally do very little work for their councils and rarely attend meetings; much of their role is, as has also been noted for Manchester, ‘validatory and symbolic’. Given this situation, observers find it difficult to understand why such positions are so sought after. The fact that some of these leaders act after the fashion of the Pakistani patron has not been so widely discussed. However, this explains


many aspects of the way in which Pakistani community leaders in prominent positions behave. For instance, one community representative would drop the names of Pakistan Embassy officials or local white councillors in order to impress fellow Pakistanis with his apparent power and influence. Another such leader claimed to be from one of Pakistan’s twelve largest business families, with influential contacts in Pakistan’s government. In conversations with fellow Pakistanis from rural backgrounds, he would talk of recent visits to the Pakistan Embassy in London and of personal telephone calls from the Pakistan Ambassador and even from the President of Pakistan himself. This name-dropping, and the ambition to hold office in the welfare associations, is, as one Pakistani put it, ‘for status, so that when he (a community representative) walks into a meeting, everyone will treat him with respect, even the elders who are his seniors’. Some Pakistanis are impressed by such individuals, and, assuming that they do have influence, give them their allegiance, invite them to dinner and give presents and money at Eid.

[...] The willingness of local council authorities to accept the role such community leaders adopt, assuming that ‘community representative’ means for most Pakistanis what it means for most whites, tends to encourage the patronage system. Council staff or councillors may be aware that existing provision within the statutory agencies frequently fails to meet the community’s needs. They know, for example, that there is a lack of interpreters, and so are prepared to accept at face value people who present themselves as representatives working for the benefit of the community; what they may fail to see is that such links are also being cultivated so that the representatives can extend their patronage within the community.


There are sometimes attempts to forge links with local council officials in much the same way as they are established within the community through lena-dena (taking-giving). A few weeks before one Christmas, one patron was apparently in such financial difficulty that the people he patronized brought him sums of £20 or £30 once a week, or gave money when he visited them. The money was spent on china, cut glass and other goods which were sent as Christmas gifts to local City councillors, the Lord Mayor, barristers, head teachers, and other locally influential figures.

Representation on the local community relations council, the Oxfordshire Council for Community Relations (OCCR), is another way of attempting to build up links with the statutory agencies and local councillors and provides access to committees of other bodies where ethnic minority representation is required, such as on the police liaison committee or on the City Council’s housing committee. These patrons may then use their positions to demonstrate within the community their apparent power and authority, making it appear that others are beholden to them for appointments. Moreover, through such positions patrons may promote themselves or their relatives as applicants for posts in community relations. This aspect of their role in relation to the Asian community is generally hidden from the English, Afro-Caribbean and other representatives on the OCCR executive or other committees.

[…] All I am emphasizing here is that Pakistani perceptions of how the local system operates derive more from Pakistan than from knowledge of British politics and institutions, and their resort to patronage has its roots in a Pakistan where bureaucracies can never be relied upon.

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