Divide and rule: the hidden discrimination in the South Asian communities

By Iram Ramzan

I absolutely hate walking home from the bus station, because it is a mile away. I confess: I am a wee-bit lazy.

But also, gangs of teenage boys loiter on street corners, thinking it is hilarious to shout profanities at any girl who walks past.

On one occasion, I was on a busy road when someone shouted ‘paki’ at me.

It was not the word that really shocked me, despite not being called one since I was 11 years old.

What surprised me was that it was not a white person of the skinhead variety or even a black person.

It was another Asian person, a young Bangladeshi boy, who had used this offensive word towards me.

Living in a predominantly ‘Bengali area’ of Oldham, I am used to receiving stares and probing questions about my ethnic origins. This may sound strange to non-Asians, but believe me we can differentiate between one another.

We hear of prejudices between Whites and Asians (2001 riots anyone?), but what about within the Asian communities?

The one area where segregation is evident is in housing. Even the 2009-2012 Oldham Housing Strategy recognises that housing is a key priority for addressing these tensions and aims to rectify this issue, but they have not outlined exactly how.

The Asian communities do not see themselves as one, collective group, despite the fact that the majority of them are Muslims.

Dr Burjor Avari, Manchester Metropolitan University’s multiculturalism lecturer, said the differences between Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are rooted in history, in part due to the war between West Pakistan (modern-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Dr Avari said: “There’s no point blaming the English, this is a problem of the people themselves.”

West Pakistanis were seen to be imposing their culture and language on the East Pakistanis, who became resentful. Consequently war broke out between the two states and in 1971 East Pakistan declared independence.

A child of Bangladeshi or Pakistani parents can be born and brought up in England, and still continue the prejudices of their elders.

This view is echoed by Waseem Altaf Khawaja. An ex-immigration consultant, 60, he has lived in Oldham for many years, and is a respected member of the community, even occasionally arbitrating on delicate community issues.

He believes many immigrants in Oldham did not change or ‘advance’ their lifestyles in order to blend in with their new surroundings.

“It is a hidden segregation, a hidden discrimination,” said Mr Khawaja.

It is all about their attitudes and mindsets towards each other.

Oldham has a large Pakistani population of expatriate Azad Kashmiris and Punjabis. Both are extremely similar with only slight linguistic differences, but both also view the other as inferior to them. Why? Partly because of the caste system.

The caste system of the sub-continent is a hereditary system, describing someone’s occupational background or social status.

Although this concept is absent in Islam, Dr Avari said that it is still a practice that continued among the Muslims.

He said: “Muslims normally tell you ‘we’re Muslims, we believe in equality, we don’t practice that’, but history tells us a different story.

“Out of the lower group you have the Muslims groups who were converted. They thought it was better to become a Muslim than suffer from the Hindu elite but all these castes continued.”

He added that sectarianism further fuels the tensions. He said: “Islam could not isolate itself from Hinduism; every community in India has been influenced by Hinduism.”

This can be reflected all too well in Oldham, where there are currently 34 mosques.

In Glodwick, two of the mosques are just a stone’s throw from each other- I won’t mention the names. They are both of the ’Sufi Barelvi’ denomination. So why are there two mosques? Quite simply, the former is managed by Pakistanis and the latter by Bangladeshis.

So in this instance, it is not necessarily sectarianism (as they both of the same sect), but ethnic and linguistic prejudices that prevent the two communities from sharing facilities.

Mrs Nessa, who has been a Bangla interpreter at the Royal Oldham Hospital for nine years, finds no problems with community relations, but she agreed that in the Coppice area people usually got to their ‘own’ mosques, but things are changing slightly.  

She said: “Bengalis will go to Bengali mosques, and Pakistani people will not go to Bengali mosques. The majority go to their own mosques. Recently, some mosques are mixed. We’re overcoming that now.”

Mr Khawaja believes the mosques play a vital role in the community, but they are not promoting social cohesion.

He said: “Their motives are to create their own parties and affiliations. They should educate their youths.”

He went on further to say: “I am against government funding to mosques. Instead of these mosques, they should provide sports activities for kids to play so they’re not becoming victims to drugs.”

But not everyone has an un-favouring view.

Councillor M. Afzal Khan, a Labour politician who was the first Asian, and Muslim, Lord Mayor of Manchester, has a more positive outlook to community relations, and life in general.  

He said: “On the whole, my experience is very pleasant. I believe an overwhelming majority are decent people; it’s always a small minority.”

While admitting that there is history, and differences, he said that at the end of the day we all share the same values.

He said: “The key point to remember is we cannot live in the history, we have to live in the now.”

Indeed. We are all the same underneath, despite exterior differences. There is more that unites, rather than divides, us.

And there is much promise for the future. A new academy school opened in Oldham last September with the stated ambition of promoting integration. The academics hope the Oldham Academy North may help overcome the town’s segregation.

As for the boy that called me a ‘paki’, I hold no grudges against him. His parents, however, have a lot to answer for.

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