Muslim Women and Discrimination

 

Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in our society. They are three times more likely than other British women to be unemployed or looking for work and twice as likely to be economically inactive. Those who have the same educational qualifications and skills as white Christian women are 71% more likely to be unemployed. These bleak findings appear in an MPs report published this Thursday. This is bad news for Muslims, feminists, anti-racists and for the nation. Britain cannot be highly productive, functional, inventive, internationally competitive  or properly meritocratic while so much human potential remains dormant or suppressed. Muslim families and communities with unemployed females cannot be hoisted out of privation and hopelessness. So why is this happening? Why now?

British Muslim women have come a long way since the eighties. Many have then been dragged or tossed back from where they might have been. Forty five percent more of them are in work than were in 2011. That is a remarkable figure. In 1894 a seminal Government study, Black and White Britain, was published by the Policy Studies Institute. The author, Colin Brown, is now my husband. He found that though vastly fewer Asian females than black or white females were in the workforce, among those in employment only 18% were Muslim. Today he has a senior job in financial regulation and his boss is a young, smart Muslim woman. Eight Muslim women are in parliament, several are Peers. More British Muslim women are getting degrees than Muslim men. (Until 1990, such women never got into higher education). I am a part time professor at Middlesex University where many of my students are feisty young Muslim women. One of them, Saira ( not her real name), told me recently: ‘ My mother can’t read or write. They got her married at 12, when she was a child. But she pushed me and my five sisters, stopped my father arranging our marriages. She is like a lioness. He used to hit her’. Sharmin was a young, incredibly bright, Bangladeshi mum in Bethnal Green. I used to teach her English. After her husband left her and married a younger wife. She enrolled at a further education college. She is now a social worker.

Some Muslim leaders have been calling for these transformative developments for a very long time. Back in 1924, our worldwide imam, the Aga Khan, instructed his believers to educate daughters because they would then go on to raise educated children and, in time, prepare congregations for a future they could not even imagine. As a child in the sixties, I remember the first time I saw women doctors in our mosque surgery in Kampala, Uganda and teachers clip-clopping in high heels in our schools. Aid agencies today focus on female education and aspirations for the same reasons given by our imam. Some British working class Muslim families finally got that message and did defy cultural norms to educate their daughters. According to this report, ‘ the impact of Islamaphobia cannot be underestimated’ and there is now a ‘chill factor’ which stops them applying for jobs and promotion. What a blow that must be. All that faith, all that money invested in what turned out to be a false promise, a chimera.

Just when things were getting better, they got worse. Attitudes towards migrants, minorities and refugees have noticeably hardened since Ukip and other hard right wing politicians, moved from the fringes to the heart of British politics. Islamicist terrorist cells are undeniably operating here and some have support from British born Muslims. Muslim self segregation is also an evident and serious issue. So too Pakistani grooming gangs in many small towns whose heinous activities were kept hidden for too long. These behaviours play into the narratives of racists and have also turned fair minded people against Islam and Muslims. The most ‘integrated’ of us are insulted, abused or attacked. You can’t fly, walk, talk, use public transport or use public spaces without fear of being seen as a terrorist. Since the late 1960s when the race relations laws were passed, most native Brits accepted the difference between private prejudices and civic or illegal behaviour. Not anymore.

There is another terrible injustice silently endured by Muslim females. Misogynistic Wahabi values are now embedded across the UK. Malignant literature, well produced and written in English, is found in many of our mosques. The books insist women are congenitally deficient and must be beaten and controlled. Farhat Hashmi, who got her PhD from Glasgow university, is one of the most influential internet female proselytisers ever. She orders middle class women to stay at home and give in men’s demands. They obey.

The report does recognise that discrimination and internal oppression both keep Muslim women in their airless, hopeless places. Governments can tackle the first, but who would dare challenge the second in a liberal society?

Edited version published in The Guardian, August 2016

 

Saudi Arabia

 

Practising Muslims have only five fundamental religious obligations: we must commit to monotheism, pray, give to charity, fast during the month of Ramadhan and go on pilgrimage to Mecca. I try my best to discharge these duties but will not go to Mecca. Our sacred city, unfortunately, is in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a base, cruel, corrupt, absolutist, tyrannical, filthy rich, destructive, ungodly clan. They have even bulldozed precious historical and religious sites. I hope God will forgive me for my small rebellion against this evil empire. Many other Muslims are similarly revolted by the Saudi regime. Yet for successive UK governments as well as our biddable royals, powerful elites in the US, France and other western states, these worst of Muslim rulers are the best of friends. The loyalist nations are complicit in abominable  human rights abuses within the kingdom as well as catastrophic Saudi funded Islamofascism, wars and terrorism the world over. It can’t go on. Our citizens need to hold politicians to account for aiding and abetting these crimes against humanity and political integrity.

On Monday, Oxfam issued a stark statement about the hidden war in the Yemen where the Sunni leadership is fighting Shia rebels. We sold the arms to Saudi Arabia now being used against the Yemenis. We are violating the Arms Trade Treaty we backed and signed up to. Yes, that old, shameless British hypocrisy again. ( This trade has brought in 6 billion pounds!!!)  Indiscriminate bombing has killed over 8000 people. 82% of Yemenis are now dependent on international aid. Our government remains intensely relaxed about this military adventure. The US too, has unconditionally backed the Saudi rulers. But, unlike here, influential Americans are getting uneasy, more wary and outspokenly critical of this diplomatic love-in.

Toby Jones is associate history professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. In February this year, he wrote a grim paper for the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank: ‘The kingdom has become increasingly violent, beholden to dangerous pathologies and unpredictable.’ The US government knows all this.  In 2009,  Hillary Clinton wrote in a leaked email: ‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups’. Yes, and Isis since then. Key parts of an official report on Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 killers have been redacted. Not one of them was an Iraqi, but Americans were directed to blame Iraq. Soon after the attacks, 144 Saudis living in the USA were flown home before they could be interrogated. US activist Medea Benjamin in her new book,  (Kingdom of the Unjust Behind the US-Saudi Connection) tells it how it is , how it has been for too long:’ It is not hard to connect the dots between the spread of Saudi intolerant ideology of Wahabism, the creation of Al Qaeda and Islamic State and the attacks in New York, Paris, Brussels and San Bernadino. You can also connect the dots between Saudi Arabia and the failure of some of the historic democratic uprisings associated with the Arab spring, since the Saudi monarchy did not want calls for democracy to threaten its own grip on power’. ( Did you know that Harry St John Philby, father of spy Kim Philby, was a colonial operator and Wahabi convert who helped to create Saudi Arabia?  I have written about him in my book, Exotic England )

Oil and arms trade and business interests explain the tolerance of Saudi Arabia in the west. But now that Islamicists are here among us, causing mayhem, public opinion will shift, is shifting. Saudi Arabia is not only sponsoring violence in the east and south, it is fomenting extremism in Europe, the US and UK. Two British Muslim men are currently being tried for the murder of Jalal Uddin, an elderly imam in Rochdale. Allegedly, they were Isis groupies who, according to the prosecution, hated Uddin’s ‘un-Islamic’ beliefs. Clerics sponsored by Saudi Arabia tacitly back the new unholy holy war against outside and inside ‘infidels’.

Our country is full of angry young Muslim men and women. I have talked to a few reformed Jihadis and can see how intelligence, religiosity, identity clashes and duplicitous  geopolitical games can lead to a nihilist mind set, set off furies. A good number turn to Wahabism  because, like Bin Laden, they want the west to get out of their holy lands. But the majority cannot endure the lies, deceit and western support for dictators. Some fantasize about savage acts while others carry them out and end up in prisons. Now the government wants to separate extreme Jihadis from those who are not that hardened. Again the government prefers to act rather than think. If ministers did stop to consider the factors that produced violent Islamicists, they would have to accept that they are the bastard children of Saudi Arabia and British ‘diplomacy’. How could they bear that responsibility?

Published in the International Business Times August 2016

The New Sex War

 

A new sex war rages around the world. Men feel they are losing control within homes, communities and nations. They are the unloved, unwanted, sad underclass. None of this is true- except perhaps the sad bit. Countless western males are indeed suffering from internal traumas which remain in-articulated. Tragically, too many become drink or drug addicts or commit suicide. But many more seem to be avenging themselves on females.

Tory Philip Davies MP for Shipley, recently attacked ‘ feminist zealots’ and claimed the courts favoured women at an international conference organised by the hideously sexist Justice for Men and Boys (J4MB) . Evidence seems to contradict his views. He has consistently voted against equalities legislation and wants to repeal the Sex Discrimination Act of 2002. Poor Mr Davies.  He must look back enviously at the Stone Age when real, hairy, hunter-gatherer men  were well served by submissive females and the natural order prevailed..  ( I have tweeted Mr Davies and asked him to have tea with me so I can hear these views from his own sweet mouth).

In the real world meanwhile, trolls relentlessly punish women and girls who are seen and heard in the public space. In the last decade violent crime has fallen, yet violence against women has risen. This, according to professor Sylvia Walby of Lancaster University who analysed and challenged the official figures earlier this year. Women’s organisations warn there is a resurgence of sexism including hard and violent porn, harassment, discrimination, rape, assault  and murder. Up to two women per week in the UK are killed by a partner or ex-partner. These deaths are barely reported. Ava Freebody from Sussex, who stayed with her cruel husband for 27 years before finally escaping, thinks we should calls the abuse ‘domestic terrorism’ which is exactly what it is. Add to this the benefits cuts which disproportionately affect female, and the closure of refuges and women’s centres and you get the grim picture.

It gets grimmer when you turn your gaze on many Asian, African and Arab countries and some minority communities in the west.  In the sixties, leaders of post-colonial nations pushed women’s rights, banned backward practices such as child marriages, female genital mutilation and veiling. They have all returned with a vengeance. Go read a  The War on Women, by BBC reporter Sue Lloyd. And weep. The late Lloyd Roberts, a dear friend, was fearless and morally driven. She wrote the book while in hospital undergoing treatment for cancer.

But hey, we have a female PM don’t we? And so many women in cabinet? And Hillary may become the first president of the USA. In business more women are at the top than ever before. Girls are doing brilliantly in higher education. Aid agencies now focus on mothers and their children and that is leading to societal shifts. But look closely. our cabinet still has a majority of men; Labour has not selected a single women to stand for mayor, Donald Trump is a hero to millions. Successful women endure misogyny every day, from colleagues, constituents, the press and, at times, their own male partners. Five such women I know from the arts, science and business have divorced their husbands because living with them became unbearable. One of them, Sara ( not her real name) described what was happening; ‘ When I was just a small time academic, he loved me. Then I became a professor, had books published, got on to the media. He was also an academic, but was not promoted. He stopped talking to me, badmouthed me to the kids and forced himself on me. The night before I threw him out, he raped me. We were best friends, he was a feminist until words turned to action.’

She encapsulates all the complexities of where we are now. There is no point in denying that globally, women and girls are more confident and ambitious. They are breaking through various barriers. Discrimination continues to block them but is more often overcome. Men of all classes, in contrast, are going through various crises of manhood and relationships and experiencing feelings of disempowerment. (The last is surely premature. They are still in charge, still unfairly advantaged). Millions of them blame feminism for their pain and want to hurt females. One chap used to send me abusive racist and sexist emails every single day. So I met him, to take him on. But he was so pathetic and hopeless that I pitied him. He is maddened by the fear that white men are doomed. Feminists are faced with an unprecedented challenge. This sex war is different from previous ones. While we fight for female rights we must attend to the wounds and rage of the losers. We need a mindful new feminism and creative feminist leadership. Without that neither gender can flourish in this tumultuous age.

Published in International Business Times, 25/8/2016

A Plague On Those Who Brought Us Here

Brexit Win

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

 

On Wednesday morning a talented young, black musician was beaten up in a park in South London and told to ‘get back on the boat’. He was born here, so too his parents, my friends, both of whom worked for many years in the NHS. On Tuesday an email arrived from Albert Persaud, director of a prestigious psychiatry research centre. Doctors in his team are concerned about the breakout of racial hostility and it effect on black and Asian patients. In another email, Sheila Melzak, a consultant child psychotherapist who works with young asylum seekers and refugees, claimed the children have been severely bullied in the last four months. I was recently spat at and abused on a bus in High Street Kensington by a woman in her fifties: ‘ Fuck back off Paki. This is my country’. This squalid referendum campaign has released the stench of chauvinism, the germs of infectious bigotry.  Prejudice is irrational and intoxicating, emotive and powerful. Throw in introverted nationalism, nostalgia and reassuring lies and you get a seriously potent narcotic. Farage et al cynically doped millions of voters and here we are, a small, mean, nasty, divided, vicious, boorish and also deluded Britain.  

In 1963, In Smethwick, Tory Peter Griffiths overturned a massive Labour majority by repeatedly using one simple slogan: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.  Lamentably, we have returned to those dark old days. The unspoken Brexit slogan was ‘If you want a migrant for a neighbour, vote remain’. Those trapped in austerity poverty, many working class grouches, middle class jingoists and  anti-elite, anti-intellectual populists all ganged up against the hapless, hard working EU worker. I doubt they really believe that once this lot has been seen off, jobs will go ( or be taken up) by the true-born, hearts of oak men and women. But realism has no place in this fantasy land.  

They say they want their country back. Which country would that be? Not the one that was reflected in the upbeat, optimistic Olympics. As A.A Gill observed in a magnificent tirade: ‘ We all know what they mean. Back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future…’ Even though it smelt like, looked like and sounded like racism, Brexiters insist that the vile anti- immigration rhetoric reflected genuine, nativist anguish. On Friday night, even Ukip’s Douglas Carswell expressed his dismay at the way refugees and migrants were demonised by his party.  I share his dismay. Worse still, many of those who turned paranoid and xenophobia had once themselves been refugees and economic migrants. I am an exile, forced out by Idi from my homeland Uganda. Thousands of my people voted for Brexit, some because they are obnoxiously selfish, others because they pathetically think this gives them brownie points for patriotism.

On Friday morning my working class English husband and I said we both felt sorrow, terror and shame. Is this what we have become? Has Nigel Farage replaced Jessica Ennis as the face of Britain? Yes. A plague on those who brought us here.

 Published GQ magazine 25th June 2016

 

 

Brexit, White, Black, Shades of Brown

 

The EU referendum has ruptured political parties, families and communities, lacerated national cohesion. Black and Asian Britons have gone through the same upheavals and anguish, and more. And worse. The vote was a test of our integrity and identity, political fidelity and pragmatism, personal concerns and wider loyalties. We made choices that will forever mark us CUT HERE.

survey carried out by Lord Ashcroft found that around 70% of  non-white Britons and 46% of white Britons voted to remain. The majority of Brexiters are native whites and a third of them are of  various other backgrounds.

I voted to remain, as did both my children and most of my most trusted colleagues and friends.  In my circle of fervent pro-EU activists are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Africans, Arabs, South Asians and East African Asians. We cherish the European human rights laws and admire the idealism of the EU post war dream. We empathise with maligned EU immigrants because most of us walked through the same fires of rancour and animosity, sometimes still feel the burn on our skins. More importantly, we feel European and cosmopolitan, part of a connected world. Most of us lived circumscribed lives before moving to Britain. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where I was born and raised was CUT HERE a stifling TOWN. Our British children, in contrast, have grown up to be  global citizens. Some of them will try to leave and go to more open societies in Europe. Several successful Asian and black entrepreneurs have expanded into Europe. There is an indisputable business case for staying in this vast marketplace. High flying investment manager, Miss Renu Singh, is contemptuous of Brexiters: ‘They are like a village farmer in the Punjab, scared of the outside, without any courage or imagination. I will move to Frankfurt. They can go, but they won’t take me out of Europe’     

The EU gave us equality, real equality. After the empire ended, British passports were handed out to previous subjects to create a virtual overseas kingdom. My father wrapped these precious documents in velvet and kept them in a bank vault. They turned out to be worthless.  After Uganda became independent, Asians, a defenceless minority, were persecuted by black politicians. They tried to move to their Motherland. In 1968, the Labour government passed the jus sanguinis law, which affirmed bloodline citizenship.  Colonial subjects who had a UK born parent or grandparent – Australians, New Zealanders, white South Africans etc-  could come and go freely. Darkies like me needed visas even though we were British. Our blue passports had the letter D stamped on it. I went through decades of humiliation at British airports until I got my red passport, identifying me as a British and EU citizen. The EU has been good to us, good for us.

Clearly a good many voters who share our life experiences and cultures were unmoved by these arguments.

Hundreds of thousands of them backed Brexit. Some because they are savvy and self interested, others because they are selfish, scared, or sadly simple minded. I can understand the first type, hard core Thatcherite operators who detest regulations, fear new tougher EU tax regimes, and want a completely laissez- faire economy. Mr Ram, ( not his real name), for example, imports clothes from India for the lucrative bridal market. He started with a market stall in west London and now has a turnover of millions: ‘Listen, Yasminji ( a respectful address) you have never run a business, don’t understand these things. This EU just wants to hold us back, tie our hands. Look at India- no stupid rules, see how far up it is going. We want to be like India and China. They don’t have unions and very (sic) interfering bureaucrats. We must be free.’  What about Eastern Europeans who work hard for low wages?  ‘Yes, of course. My cousin has restaurants and all the waiters are Polish. But they cannot be really be British like you and me. Better to get our own people from India’ I went to see the cousin, also a millionaire Brexiter. ‘Yes it will be difficult to get the staff, the English are bloody lazy and our young people don’t want to work in the business. But these East European people must be sent back home. Maybe I will have to close the restaurants. ’ So not that savvy or smart then, these Asian masters of the universe.    

The selfish ethnic Brexiter wants to pull up the drawbridge, is dead against admitting any more enterprising or desperate humans who want a chance to make or remake their lives. They have no conscience, no empathy with those who are exactly like they once were. Tough right winger Priti Patel, of Ugandan Asian heritage, is their poster girl. She will now go places. So too expedient immigrant politicians such as Gisela Stuart and Kwasi Kwarteng.

Many immigrants and their families voted for exit because they want to be seen as established Brits, as one of ‘us’ and not ‘them’. With the national mood so hostile, they seek to distance themselves from the story of migration. I do feel for them. They don’t yet realise that xenophobes do not distinguish between Poles and Pakistanis. I come finally to the most pitiable Britons of colour, those who fell for big fat Brexit lies. They really do believe that if we end the EU free movement of labour, their uncle from Trinidad, or in laws from Kashmir will sail in and claim their place. As Trevor, a plasterer, puts it: ‘My girlfriend, she in Jamaica. Mr Farage promised black people will get visas if we stop them Europeans. Brexit is good for us’   

The EU political quake has opened up new schisms between races and ethnicities, and also within races and ethnicities. I have fallen out with a  dear childhood friend and also a distant cousin over this. They voted Brexit and I will not forgive them. Things can only get worse after the effects of Brexit are felt in households and communities. These cuts and wounds may never heal. The nation is broken into many parts.    

Blog 25th Jne 2016

 

 

 

Remain – why are we stuck with such duds?

We may, probably will, leave the EU thanks to jingoists,  xenophobes, clueless millions who think their country was great when it way grey and mingy and the most dishonest, self serving, cynical pack of anti-EU politicians we have ever had to suffer. Though it hurts to admit so, the brash, confident, persuasive Brexiteers are good at selling their pernicious promises and falsities- as good as those who sold us PPI. Only if they take us out of the EU, there will be no investigation, no compensation for the citizens who were mightily duped.

These political merchants who will say anything to win, are also enthusiastically helped by right wing newspapers and journalists. The wind fills their sails and  they are puffed up, ready to go. And then there is the pathetic, weedy, inconsistent, ineffective, lazy and inept opposition, the Remain lot, who do nothing while our nation heads for the wild seas of economic ruin, racist discourse, and isolationism. Few trust or like David Cameron, who now comes across as a tired conjurer with his heart in the wrong place. Jeremy Corbyn is treasonably indifferent and is showing up on mindless Friday night TV shows as if he has all the time in the world. Tim Farron? Nice guy, No presence. Eddie Izzard? It’s all flashy pink lipstick and verbal incontinence . On Question Time, at times, he  sounded madder than Noel Edmunds. The ITV debate with all women MPs and Boris did have its moments. On the Remain side, Amber Rudd was passionate and strong. Nicola Sturgeon was, as ever, the perfectly dressed assassin, but the focus was Boris ( how he loved all that female attention) and will not have changed many minds.

What’s wrong with the Remain bunch? Can they not see how they are failing to win the arguments and look credible and inspiring? Have they no courage, no imagination, no basic political skills? On Newsnight last week, Anne McKelvoy said- and she was right- that the big names and performances are on the Brexit side.  Labour party grandees spoke up this weekend and asked their smartest MPs to step up. Of course too many of those are still in a big sulk about the Labour leader election. Get Chukka out, give Alan Johnson a big role, Theresa May has been in purdah, bring her out, Andrew Mitchell would be far better than John Major, yesterday’s man. Then there is Sadiq Khan of course, newly elected, internationally respected now, youngish and impressive. He could take the role on and carry it off, if only Cameron didn’t show up on platforms with him. Finally lock up and muzzle Tony Blair. He took us to an illegal war, fabricated reasons, has no moral or political capital.  Every time he speaks for the EU, hundreds probably go to the other side.

If the Remain team don’t shape up, all is lost. And as ever it will be the poorest and most powerless who will suffer for the next fifty years.

Last year Kareem was alive, but in a wheelchair. As he had been since the 2006 attacks by Israel on Gaza. He was from Gaza.  Medical Aid for Palestine asked me to tell his story as part of their campaign for injured and sick Palestinians. I had a picture taken of me, holding a poignant picture of Kareem. He looked quiet, resigned to his fate. He could not seek the medical help he needed because the Al Wafa hospital where he was being treated was bombed in 2014. Medics and paramedics there patiently tried to rehabilitate injured men, women and children. During this assault, 17 hospitals and 42 primary health care centres were destroyed. 18,000 houses were flattened and 110,000 people displaced. Kareem could not seek treatment elsewhere because movement is restricted and controlled. Now I hear Kareem died of untreated kidney failure. Try to imagine how he felt before his life was taken, his rage and incomprehension. Hatred too, I imagine. In this single story you understand the tragedy of Palestinians and also of increasingly intransigent Israel, which seems to have lost its heart and soul. History is betrayed and co-opted; the oppressed becomes the oppressor. there can be no winners.

Blog, 4th of June 2016

Child Sexual Abuse, The Whole Truth

Child Sexual Abuse: The Whole Truth

Once upon a time, Peter Ball was the seemingly unimpeachable bishop of Lewes and Gloucester. In the eighties and early nineties he was much admired for his theological insights and stirring sermons. Insiders described him as ‘ one of the most godly and wisest men in the Christian church’. This ‘godly’ man was a sexual predator who abused boys and young men throughout his glittering career. New disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act show just how much blind support this man had from the most powerful people in this land, even after his other, sordid life was revealed.  George Carey, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, some Tory ministers and other establishment figures wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions to defend the priestly paedophile. Before he was convicted in October 2015, Ball was revered by Prince Charles and other royals too. This is the recurrent Grimms tale of our times: little children lured to dark forests and despoiled by famous, invincible charismatic men. As bad as the crimes is the cover up by those in high places.

A letter I received from a woman in 2012, led eventually to the trial and conviction of the TV celeb Stuart Hall, who was realised from prison just before Christmas. There was no name, no address. Her story was meant to be a secret between us. I couldn’t keep such a secret. What I read- the detail and enduring hurt – was so shocking I took the letter to the police and they began investigating. Hall, they said, had not been on their radar. But people in his circle must have known what was going on. They did nothing to stop him. Perpetrators who come from the higher echelons of society, can still get away with it. The girl claimed she was sometimes raped in the home of a Labour MP, now a peer. Since Hall’s conviction, I have heard from other victims of abusers. These high profile prosecutions have given them courage to reveal their own stories.

 Earlier this year I wrote a long feature in the Sunday Times Magazine about my postbag, misery missives from those who have read my newspaper columns or seen me on TV. After publication, more mail arrived than ever before.  One chap, an alcoholic, had lost everything and everyone; ‘ I read this article. You seem like a kind lady. I need kindness. Consider this a marriage proposal. I will write again and send you my number. Is your hair long?’. I never heard again from the mystery suitor. Two Asian men, who had also read the piece, separately got in touch because their hearts were breaking. One was a Sikh, the other a Muslim. They were born here, went to university, fell in love, got married. Their wives are Asian and from within the faith but the parents have never accepted them or the marriage. The men, both high earning, middle class professionals who miss their families and are tormented by guilt. The marriages are falling slowly apart. As the Sikh gentleman put it: ‘I don’t know who I am without my parents, my community. I feel adrift and a nobody. I still love my wife but that is not enough anymore. Love was a trap I fell into. I wish I had just married the girl they chose. Now there is no way back and I have no one to talk to who would understand’.  

Letters keep on coming, Most are anonymous and almost all are unrestrained, red raw and unmediated. The writers are not seeking practical help, but calling out to a stranger to discharge pain, shame and anger, some to verbalise mental and emotional chaos. It is a bit like an imaginary confessional booth where Catholics admit their sins to an unseen cleric and seek forgiveness. Only these penfriends are sinned against ( or claim they are).  The public mistrusts the media, yet, paradoxically, Britons of all ages and backgrounds send their deepest secrets and unresolved agonies to some of us who work for the media.  

I learn more about family and social injustices from these unsolicited letters than I ever can from assiduous research and planned interviews.

The themes and writers change over time. Until the Savile case, I did not hear from readers about  child sexual abuse. Since then and other celeb convictions, several alleged victims have sent in terrible tales of violation during childhood. Some may be fabrications and fantasies, but many ring true.

But it was the Sunday Times article that prompted a fresh batch of letters from victims of British Pakistani grooming gangs.The depraved group abuse has been found to be going on in Oxford, Luton, and elsewhere too. I have no doubt these crimes against children are still going on in other areas.

 Andrew Norfolk, an assiduous investigative journalist working for The Times, first uncovered the organised exploitation way back in 2011. Hundreds of girls were befriended, gang raped, beaten and passed around as if they were sex toys. Communities, social workers and care workers did not protect them. The reasons for this conspiracy of silence remain unfathomable.

When Norfolk started publishing his pieces, it was as if a series of bombs blew up locked vaults hiding dirty truths. Child abusers and gang rapists do not come from any one race or religion. But, within too many Asian families, white females are disrespected and despised and the intolerable is tolerated. This form of cultural supremacy excuses and validates appalling offences against ‘outsiders’. 

So back to the letters. A young woman calling herself Pippa alleged she had been abused by such a gang from when she was only eleven and living with her mum: ‘ I hate them, I hate you, I hate all you Pakis. I bet your son is like them. You stink. His body stinked ( sic) when he hit me and did me again and again. Tear this letter now. Burn it. I hope you all go to hell.’

Three other victims sent a joint letter. Again, there were no names or addresses. . :’ The Paki blokes did us. Police didn’t stop them. We were in care and they didn’t care. But at least the Pakis were nice when they were in a good mood. Why don’t you ask why we were taken into care? The abuse in our families? Nobody stopped them. Now they want compensation from the government.’   A list of allegations followed, including  rape by the dad of a young girl and her brother from the time they were five and an uncle, a gambler who sold his niece and nephew to abusers.  

Another young woman claimed she was the moll of a Pakistani British leader of a grooming gang. He got her when she was eleven and in care. At sixteen she had a baby girl after refusing to have an abortion. She went to live with her aunt and he found another prey. : ‘My girl has light brown skin and green eyes. My dad won’t see her. But he raped my mum all the time when I was little. We kids heard it all. She died when she was only fifty. I felt safer on the streets than at home.’ 

Just before Christmas, a young Asian girl handed me a letter at an event to raise money for refugees. It said: ‘ My Pakistani father is in prison because he raped white girls. But he raped me too when I was young. Why the police not talking to the families of these men? Nobody cares about us’.  

In all the media coverage of child abuse by groomers, euphemisms cover up the gruesome back stories: The girls were from ‘troubled families’. Or had ‘unstable home lives’, or were ‘in and out of care’. Why this coyness? Partly because there is still this romantic idea that all families protect and love their kids. They do not. I am not trying to divert blame. The men who get together to rape vulnerable children are monstrous and should have nowhere to hide. But too many of the victims were also failed and used by their nearest and dearest before the outside predators got to them.

In November came a letter from a social worker from an unnamed town. She gave up her job after the first tranche of sexual abuse was made public: ‘ I left because I couldn’t bear the hypocrisy. You people in the media  accused us of not caring, the police of not doing their jobs. But did you look at the families these girls came from? Wild animals take better care of their young than some of these people I had to deal with. If we take their kids away we are evil witches. If we try to help them become better parents, we are hated. I knew one of the girls who testified in court. She told me but never told the police that her mum was a prostitute and gave her to someone who wanted a young virgin. You think these things happen only in Thailand and Africa. They happen here in our back yards.’.

Reports on in-house abuse are written by experts and neatly shelved, conveniently forgotten. A recent YouGov /4Children study, for example, found that nearly 950,000 children in Britain were living in violent homes, were often terrorised and neglected. Fear and loyalty tie the tongues of the victims. Sexual attacks on very young children remain buried and inarticulated. Some of the victims do speak out when they get older and understand what happened to them. By then they are irreversibly damaged. 

The government has identified 120,000 troubled families which need acute and constant interventions. An NSPCC report found a link between delinquency and maltreatment in the home. We know those who were abused are more likely to become perpetrators. These problems are interconnected.

In November the Children’s Commissioner looked into thi problem. A report based on data analysis in England concluded that : ‘ Up to two thirds of all sexual abuse happens in and around families. The focus has been on child sexual abuse which occurs in institutions and communities…Child sexual abuse which occurs in families has largely been absent from the national conversation’. Our society can, it seems, deal with stranger danger but kith and kin danger is too disorientating and unsettling. It challenges fundamental assumptions about what it is to be human.

The independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse ( IICSA) led by New Zealand judge Hon Lowell Goddard is investigating institutions which failed sexually abused kids. But there is no such investigation into the bigger and more intractable problem of children violated by their nearest and dearest. We are in denial about familial sexual abuse, which often precedes exploitation by manipulative outsiders. The silence needs to be broken for the sake and safety of these poor kids.

 Edited Version in the Sunday Times, 3/1/2016

 

 

Racism, Unspoken And Getting Worse

 

Sorry if this column makes some of you miserable or cross on the first Monday after the Christmas break. I feel weary and dejected too as I turn once more to think and write about racism in Britain. The subject divides people and these days, is seen as insolence or treachery. Tweets will fly, blogs will burn with indignation, online comments will get nastier and more menacing. I am only the messenger. Blame the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin, for setting off the latest furore.

The National Archives released papers from 1985. Among them was a note by Letwin to Margaret Thatcher, penned after the Broadwater Farm and other inner city riots. The government was alarmed by scale and fury of the uprisings; some ministers and civil servants argued that policies were needed to reduce poverty and improve opportunities for embittered, excluded black Britons. Not so Mr Letwin, who has long been considered a caring and wise Tory. Investment in black businesses, he opined,  would inevitably go to the ‘disco and drug trade’.  Furthermore, ‘riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes. So long as bad moral attitudes remain, all efforts to improve inner city life will founder’. He has now apologised and has found many apologists who have jumped up to confirm that Letwin is a fine man, who would never say anything so crass today. I am sure he would not say ITALS PREVIOUS WD anything so crassly racist today, even in a private memo.

Society has got more civilized and does not tolerate expressions of bigotry. Public discourse on race is far less vicious and malevolent than it once was. Nobody admits to being racist, presumably because the word is stained with shame. And from time to time, politicians of all parties make emotive speeches on equal opportunities for all. The prize for the best of these goes to David Cameron, who at his party conference orated thus: ‘ In our country today, even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names …that, in the 21st Century Britain, is disgraceful.’ It is progress of sorts.

Does this mean the country has wiped out racism, except in small, extremist circles? That we are now living in a post-racial paradise, where all of us can pick fruit off the trees without fear or favour? Of course not. Online, racism, prejudices, sexism, bigotry and group hatreds spread multiple infections, immune to all remedies. In real life too, many of us people of colour are entering an age of pessimism. It suppresses aspirations, hope and the imagination. In all institutionS, every profession, almost all workplaces, race discrimination has returned with a vengeance.

In the sixties and seventies, Roy Jenkins, Lord Lester and other influential, fair minded men and women pushed through the first race relations legislation. The laws were weak, but gave a strong message: migrants were equal citizens who would be protected by the state. But discrimination carried on. In 1981, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, trusted confidante of Margaret Thatcher,  appointed Lord Scarman to look into the causes of the Brixton riots. Scarman concluded that racial disadvantage, inner city decline and unaccountable, racist policing  were to blame for the ‘disposition towards violent protest’. Many of his recommendations were implemented by Thatcher’s government. You would not get such a constructive response from Cameron, who is more to the right and more of a charmer than the iron lady.

Labour in its last years in office also turned away from race equality. 9/11 made them all paranoid and focussed on Islamicist terrorism- a real and deadly threat, which has only got more deadly and real. The LibDems remain a white party. One LibDem funder told me recently: ‘ The party never reached out to the minorities. Nick Clegg and co never cared about the white poor either. I do not know a single coloured ( sic) person. No wonder we were wiped out.’

The truth is none of the parties care. Highly qualified, talented black and Asian doctors, teachers, lecturers, lawyers, journalists and artists are denied their big breaks through fortified glass ceilings. Ironically this is happening when we have more men and women of colour in the Commons and Lords than ever before. The BBC, Channel4 and most other media outlets think they have done more than enough for racial minorities and that we should be grateful. A producer before Christmas informed me that I was ‘on too much’ on BBC News. Were Polly Toynbee, Peter Hitchins, Steve Richards told off too for being ‘ on too much’?

Opportunities are better for low paid black and Asian workers and recent migrants, partly because most white Britons decline to take up these jobs. Employment rights are no longer protected and taking cases to tribunals is prohibitively expensive. Western lives are deemed much more valuable than the lives of those from the east or south. Students who strongly object to the Rhodes statue in Oxford are daily vilified for challenging white-washed imperial history. Attacks on Muslims and migrants are increasing and sympathy for the victims is waning. We, who question white male power or fight for equality and justice, are branded ‘racist and sexist’. And when riots break out, our PM denies they are about race or austerity: The protestors have a ‘twisted moral code’. Just what Letwin observed way back then.

Racism today is more invidious than it was even in the days of Thatcher, and it is harder to get any redress. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is scandalously silent on the matter. Poor blacks and whites are pitted against each other and there is no collective movement for a fairer nation. I feel things will only get bleaker.

   The Independent, 4/1/2016

Our Poor Wretched Strivers

 

The Tory MP, Lucy Allan, has been tied to the stake and burnt by online flamethrowers after some of her aides accused her of being a bully and making them ‘feel inadequate’. When one of them wanted time off to see her terminally ill granddad, Allan allegedly admonished her: ‘I don’t give a shit about your dying grandfather’.  At the weekend more such grievances were aired by named and unnamed sources. This month Mike Ashley, millionaire bossman of Sports Direct also found himself in the hot spotlight after an undercover investigation found that exhausted workers were underpaid and terrorised by the company. A BBC investigation in October found ill employees who were too scared to take time out. At one depot, paramedics had been called out 76 times over a two year period. The media, union members, web vigilantes and MPs have damned the abrasive Ashley, who denied the charges and is now heading a review of agency worker terms and conditions.  

 These two just got unlucky. Some celestial forces led collective ire to them. Throughout history and across the world, people have found and vented their furies on chosen individuals- witches, adulterers, sinners, paedophiles, deserters and so on. Tribes and societies feel cleansed after these punitive, diverting, intoxicating dramas, but the bad stuff goes on, sometimes gets worse, after the orgy of rage has come and gone. Does anyone really believe that no other MPs treat their teams as badly as Allan allegedly does? Or that Ashley is a particularly hideous capitalist? That these two are bad fairies in a world full of lovely, charming, caring politicians, royals, journos and businessmen? The truth is that Allan ( if her accusers are telling the truth) and Ashley are archetypes, representatives of contemporary Britain . More people are becoming selfish, greedy, hard, demanding and anti-social. Admittedly some still hold on to good values such as mutuality, kindness and generosity. But they are an endangered species in the fast changing habitat.

The gods of consumerism have vanquished Jesus, painted adverts and mean graffiti over his messages. Christianity has fallen before these forces. Too many of us on the left have rolled over, stopped fighting back, no longer think too deeply about the massive social and economic shifts and implications. Instead we go shop. This may be the most irreversible change of all.

I was ill for several weeks and then felt low and tired through most of December, so am now rushing around buying, buying, buying for Christmas. Like most migrants, I have learnt to love the festival but hate how it is now almost all about presents. But in the name of integration, I join in with the rest of the madding crowds. In a vast mall  on Friday at 8.30 pm, in a reputable high end shoe shop, a sweet, exhausted looking Italian assistant was helping me. She would be there till 11, she said, back again the next day and then working till midnight till Christmas eve. Back again at 8 on Boxing Day. Will they get overtime? I asked. She didn’t know what the word meant. Turns out they get no extra money at all, but their shifts are adjusted, though over this hectic, festive period , staff are also expected to generously give extra time for no cash. Her manager came up because he recognised me and said:  ‘You should write about this new cheap labour. But please don’t name the shop or the place. I agree, we are really suffering and nobody cares. All I want for Christmas is sleep’.

At another shop we heard one assistant consoling another who was in tears: ‘ Look, it is not about you. Managers come and shout at all of us because they want us to be scared so we work harder.’ In the toilets some customers were shouting at the young Rumanian cleaner, because she was, well, cleaning while women and children rushed in and out. I thanked her and apologised on behalf of the ignoramuses who were making a tough job unbearable. Do these workers not celebrate Christmas? Are they just worker bees without rights, joy, family life or dreams?

Supermarkets this week will stay open till midnight in some places, just to squeeze more out of their workers and our purses. The most successful cheapo outlets must pay suppliers and workers abysmally. There have, for example been many complaints made about working conditions at Lidl. One manager told a newspaper he had had to work 75 hours a week and to sign away his rights under European law. The company denies any wrong doing. The stories keep on coming, but the company gets bigger and more popular. Why even the middle and even upper classes turn up now seeking out low priced lobsters and Prosecco.

Remember the Tories and their slogans on the ‘skivers’ and the ‘strivers’? Well look what is happening to the wretched, exploited strivers working in retail. The same is happening to agency workers in the care sector, to farm and factory workers, the those toiling away in the service sector. Unions have been castrated and can only yell impotently. So yes, Mr Osborne, employment is rising fast, but men and women are doing the sort of jobs that make them feel subhuman. This is why productivity is so low in GB.

Many right wing politicians and business people want us to get out of Europe because the EU gives workers protection, a fair deal, respect and entitlements. This government is determined not only to slash all state safety nets, but to become a mini US, where workers get few holidays or basic employment rights and citizens pay for healthcare or die. That is the big Tory idea. They don’t put the details in their manifesto, but by stealth and non-intervention, European social democracy is being pushed out by American social Darwinism.  Is that what you want? Think about that while you shop till the sales people drop.

The Independent, 21/12/2015