The secret violence that challenges Britain’s Asians

This conspiracy of silence over immigrant brides must end
Sunny Hundal.

Last week a young bride was living in fear of her
life after managing to escape from a violent
husband and his family in Manchester. She had
suffered six months of domestic violence and
verbal abuse. She said that “family honour” made
it difficult for women in similar circumstances
to admit to domestic problems and feared that her
escape would bring shame on her own family.

"This is happening to many other Asian girls -
our lives are being destroyed. Something needs to
be done," she told the Manchester Evening News.

It is indeed happening to many other Asians girls
around the country. Today I will present a
documentary for the BBC Asian Network radio
station highlighting domestic violence against
women. It focuses on brides who have come over
from South Asia and their particularly difficult
position.

In 2005 the Government recorded just over 10,000
women coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh
as part of a marriage. There is a discussion to
be had on why so many British Asian men feel the
need to marry someone from where their parents
were born. Being fairly libertarian in my
outlook, I’m not all that concerned about who
people choose to marry or from where. I don’t
have anything against such transnational
marriages. After all, my brother found his bride
while travelling around India and I happily
attended his wedding in New Delhi.

But I am concerned about the attitudes that
underpin some of these marriages and the
consequences for the brides. The view of most
British Asian women we interviewed was that these
men simply wanted someone who was submissive and
willing to do their bidding. We even found men
who openly admitted such attitudes.

The more pressing problem is that women who come
here as brides are very vulnerable to the whims
of their husbands. What happens if the marriage
fails? What if she is beaten by her husband or
in-laws? One in four British women is a victim of
domestic violence within her lifetime but at
least most of them will have someone to turn to.
Overseas brides face problems unique to their
circumstances that make them more vulnerable.

First, there are legal issues. These women are
usually unsure of their nationality because they
have to rely on their husbands to apply for
citizenship. They frequently don’t run away
because they fear deportation. They may even be
unwilling to contact the authorities, believing
the police may be as unsympathetic to their
plight as those in South Asia.

Then there are communication problems.
Transnational brides usually have nobody to turn
to for support; many don’t speak English or know
much about British society; some are even
prevented by their husbands from meeting
outsiders.

One campaigner at a leading ethnic minority
women’s group admitted that brides from South
Asia were overrepresented in cases referred to
them. This doesn’t take into account those women
who are too afraid to run away. Unfortunately not
enough is said or done about gender-related
violence, while terrorism or racism continue to
dominate the news.

In many cases where ethnic minorities are
involved, social ills such as forced marriage,
so-called honour killings, domestic violence and
even rape are framed by self-appointed "community
leaders" and even by the Government as problems
of culture or religion. But the problem here
isn’t culture or religion - it is the sexist
attitudes towards women that some people hold.

This Government, instead of making small noises
about deploring violence against women and not
tolerating so-called honour killings, needs to
take firm steps in fully supporting such women if
they face domestic abuse. At present most victims
face not only difficulty getting access to social
support but also have to go to extraordinary
lengths to prove they are genuine victims.

The legislation also needs to change to put the
naturalisation process into women’s hands, rather
than that of their partners. One activist
described the Government’s attitude as racist
because it discriminated against these victims on
the basis of their nationality.

Labour has also failed to take meaningful action
against forced marriages, which is part of the
broader problem.

There is also a need to ensure these women become
active British citizens. Last week the Commission
for Integration and Cohesion said that new
entrants to the UK should learn English. But
teaching English is not just about integration.
More important is that it is empowering.

Most campaigners I spoke to agreed that language
was a key barrier in learning more about British
society and getting help. Translation services
are part of this problem - taking away the
woman’s incentive to learn English, whether or
not her husband lets her. Rather than funding
these services the Government should phase them
out while expanding ESOL (English for speakers of
foreign languages) classes, which have miserably
failed to keep up with demand.

In addition, we need greater self-reflection of
the attitudes of many Asians who not only use
culture or religion as a cover for controlling
women, but also invoke “family honour” as a means
to hide abuse underneath their very noses.

Activists who challenge these attitudes usually
invite howls of protest from some
government-appointed community leader or
accusations of being “a traitor” for airing dirty
laundry in public.

But highlighting such social problems is not
about tarring everyone with the same brush. It is
about highlighting misogynistic attitudes that
lead to many vulnerable women being abused or
abandoned every year.

Progressive voices from within the British Asian
community and outside need to help and empower
these brides as women, not simply ignore them as
unfortunate victims of cultural attitudes.

P.S.

* The Times, February 26, 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | March 8, 2007 | Dispatch No. 2373 - Year 9.