Is this the end of interfaith marriage?

Closeup of holding hands of stylish wedding couple. Mixed race.

It would be easy to think that the British Asian community is becoming more open to the idea of interfaith and mixed race marriages. We’ve all seen the photos on Facebook of a couple doing the ‘dual ceremony thing': the Indian wedding where one white face is wearing the traditional Indian wedding- getup amongst a sea of Asian family; and conversely, the civil or Church ceremony performed for the English side of the family.

The sad truth though is that young British Asians choosing to marry outside of the community are facing a renewed backlash- and it would seem that the subject is still as taboo as ever amongst Asians. In particular, religious hardliners and religious leaders are taking a stand against interfaith couples who want to have a religious wedding ceremony.

The most notable occurrence of this has been within the British Sikh community. Hardline Sikh groups are vehemently opposing Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) performing the traditional marriage ceremony known as the anand karaj unless the couple are both Sikhs. Protestors have even gone to the lengths of barricading themselves inside Gurdwaras to stop ceremonies taking place, and the homes of inter-faith couples have been attacked. Victims of these attacks have been too afraid to speak to the media for fear of further reprisals.  In response, the Sikh Council UK has just published guidelines for Gurdwaras, reiterating that the anand karaj is strictly reserved for two practising Sikhs.

This new wave of violent persecution amongst British Sikhs is a relatively new phenomenon. But elsewhere in the community British Asians are familiar with the barriers that an inter-faith couple faces: Islam has strict religious laws on marrying outside of the faith, as have some sections of Christianity. Couples who do go down this road face excommunication and often live in isolation of their Asian family.

Certainly in the case of the Sikh community, extremists are arguing that a religious wedding ceremony is null and void unless the faith is shared by the couple. If that’s true, does that mean that the union itself is not legitimate in the eyes of the faith? Would the couple be welcome in the place of worship- or would the ‘believing’ partner be expected to worship there alone? What about when children are born- how would the couple raise them within the faith if religious leaders apparently don’t recognise the marriage in the first place?

Traditionally within our culture, marriage has been a union which preserves wealth, status, where relevant caste, and of course religious identity. With many British Asians now choosing to marry outside of these bounds, extremists are arguing that these elements of our culture are being eroded, even destroyed.  How long will an inter-faith couple persevere with religion if all they get is judgement from the community?

One of two things could happen here: either young British Asians will choose love over faith and move away from religion altogether- which clearly religious leaders don’t want; or they will reject mixed marriages for the sake of their religion and to maintain links within the community and family.

The latter scenario isn’t as unlikely as you might think. Dating sites exclusive to individual religions are swiftly gaining in popularity. Many young Asian daters are becoming more specific in wanting to meet someone from within their own religion.

Sharn Khaira founded the online dating site Indian Connect for this very reason. The site is targeted exclusively at Sikhs and Hindus with an empathy for traditional marriage and culture. It is also carefully monitored to ensure only people living in UK can join. The site clocked up more 30,000 paid subscribers in less than a year. Sharn says: “I’m starting to see young British Asians move away from interfaith marriage because of the heartache and potential damage it can cause to families, not to mention the wider Asian community in their local area. So many now want to keep their culture and heritage in-tact”

I think it will take a generation before we really see the working-out of the issues involved in interfaith marriage. But I do believe where many before used the new found freedom in society at large to marry outside of traditional bounds, others are now holding back as they look at the repercussions.

Or will it be a case of love triumphing over religion and culture? It’s an aspect of our community that is worth watching to find out.

 

You might also like “Are interfaith marriages a mission impossible?”

We have to stop should-ing on ourselves!

lifestyle balance

It’s that time of year when the diary is looking really full- and it’s not even December yet. Deadlines are looming, so are countless parties and social events. Then there are the nativity plays and carol concerts and Christmas school fairs which need time out of your work day. And that’s all before you’ve even thought about presents, shopping and looking your best. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is also the Most Stressful Time of the Year.

But actually, how different is that to the rest of the year? The festivities sort of step up the pace a bit more, but I’ve had periods over this year where I’ve literally had weeks of going from one thing to the next without any break or down time in between. I’ve juggled childcare and domestic life with meetings and deadlines and volunteering work and family commitments.

It’s the unwritten rule of modern life that we all need to pack in as much as we can in order to feel validated. It gives us a sense of purpose. We look at the woman next to us and think we need to maintain the same pace as her, or we simply feel we have to accept lots of responsibilities…because that’s just what you do.

Margaret Sentamu said: “women carry a disproportionate weight of responsibility in society” and how true that is.

Whether it’s the economic or social climate that we live in, we all feel that we ‘should’ have it all. A great career with a clear path of progression, a social media strategy with Brand Me all worked out, a great figure, a thriving relationship, a foot on the property ladder, an active social life, healthy active kids with their homework all done. All perfectly captured on Facebook and Instagram- on which you have hundreds of followers of course. We all know that none of that ever happens at the same time. None of the pieces of the jigsaw ever fit together that well. But somehow we think they should.

Feminism gave women more choices. No longer are we expected to fit into some patriarchal mould of womanhood. But all that choice has brought with it a lot of pressure to perform. We’ve bought into the lie that we can have it all- and should.

Ladies, we’ve got to stop should-ing on ourselves!

We blame society, the media, Instagram- anyone really, for that pressure, but really it comes from within.

work life balance

When my daughter started nursery at the age of three, I felt I ‘should’ fill the few hours while she was away. My other mum-friends all seemed to be going back to work and I felt I ‘should’ re-invest in my career too, and with that came the pressure to succeed. I spent my few spare hours researching writing and pitching stories. I’d be tired and irritable all the while as I never gave my body or my brain time to reload.

Arianna Huffington is someone who knows all too well the cost of not taking time to reload. In her book this year, Thrive, she talks about the breakdown she suffered seven years ago. She attributes this breakdown partly to not sleeping enough, carrying too much responsibility and too many burdens. I love two of her top tips for maintaining a healthy work- life balance: go to sleep half an hour earlier than you already do, and choose to off-load something everyday that isn’t working for you whether it’s emotional or professional. This coming from a tremendously successful woman who’s been there. She knows.

So here’s a radical thought: how about NOT having it all, take on fewer commitments and do them really really well. Work out what’s essential ‘to being you’- and select the top two priorities and give them your all. And above all, schedule in some down time once a week. It might just be blocking out 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon to have a nap, or an hour to finish reading your book.

And if off-loading some of the burden just feels impossible at this point in your life then ponder this advice that I was given last week:

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible, and before you know it, you’re doing the impossible.”

Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

What would you say if I challenged you not to wear any make up to work tomorrow? Or to skip your next visit to the beauticians to get your eyebrows threaded? Would you be able to go completely au natural with your looks and be comfortable with it?

I’m guessing for the majority of women the answer would be no. For most of us, attending to beauty routines are as normal as changing clothes in the morning- you’d obviously not leave the house in your pyjamas so it makes sense that you’d put on makeup, style your hair, have your eyebrows threaded; whatever it might be for you and however simple or extensive your routine might be.

Personally I could probably skip wearing makeup for a day or too, but I couldn’t live without my hair dryer and various hair straightening products. I’ve been straightening my hair for more than 15 years. Over this time, I’ve probably spent hundreds of pounds investing in products and haircuts, and countless hours trying to get the frizz out of my hair. My straight, flattened hair is not my natural hair type believe me! On one very rare occasion that I did let my hair dry naturally- no products, no straightening, someone commented that it made me look ‘more ethnic’.

And that’s the thing isn’t it: I’ve spent all these years getting rid of that ‘ethnic look’ and conforming to a model of beauty that says straight, flat hair is the acceptable image of beauty. Even beach curls have to be silky smooth and styled, rather than the random mop of frizz/waves/curls that my natural hair type displays.

Researcher and policy advisor Debbie Weekes-Barnard identified a “hierarchy of beauty” that women of different ethnicities conform to:

“…..there (are) things at work societally which place all women, but certainly black women, on a hierarchy of beauty.

…..the hierarchy of beauty for black women is different from the hierarchy for white women. For white women, it’s about size and shape [thinness] but for black women it’s all of those things, but also the shape of one’s nose and lips, the texture of your hair and all those other things which are bound up within how ‘womanly’ or not you look.”

I’d love to say that that hierarchy doesn’t apply to me, and that I don’t conform to it. But as women we are constantly being judged by the way we look, and because of that we end up conforming to these frankly, Western standards of beauty.

We applaud Bollywood actresses like Aishwaraya Rai Buchchan and Frieda Pinto who have crossed over to mainstream appeal and appeared in Western films and ad campaigns, because we finally see a brown face in the media. But the fact is, they too have been modified to fit a Western mould of beauty before they could get there. Their appearances are very similar to any other white Western celebrity- only they’re a few shades darker.

Colourism in particular- judging others for how dark skinned they are, is ingrained in the Asian culture. We all know an auntiji or two who comments on how dark so and so is and how they will never get married because of it. In India it’s even said to affect your job prospects. Skin whitening and bleaching products are big business globally. Did you know there’s even a vaginal whitening product now available? Last July, Vaseline launched a Facebook app in India that enabled users to make their skin whiter in their profile pictures. The app was to promote their new range of skin-lightening creams for men.

Colourism is abhorrent. The fact that manufacturers promote their products by perpetuating the whole ‘fair is beautiful’ myth is just infuriating. But somewhere along the line, our culture bought into it, too. Whilst some argue that colourism is different to racism- racism being bound up with other factors such as ethnicity as well as skin colour, doesn’t make colourism any better or less damaging. And what’s more, users of skin-lightening products are judged for conforming to the ideal that fair is beautiful and they’re shamed for not accepting their God-given looks.

But then I’ve never accepted my frizzy, wavy hair. I conform to the model that says silky straight hair is beautiful. I also thread my eyebrows, bleach excess facial hair, shave my legs, wear foundation to even out my skin tone, a lightening concealer to eliminate dark circles under my eyes, blusher to contour my cheeks, mascara to thicken my lashes, lipstick to plump my lips…what else….? I do all of these things to alter my appearance and appear more womanly, ultimately trying to rank higher on that hierarchy of beauty. And yet I judge women who want to move themselves up this hierarchy simply because they were born with dark skin and resort to skin-whitening.

I couldn’t put it more simply than this: in 2010 Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel came under fire after apparently lightening his skin. He defended his use of “cake soap”-a skin whitening product, saying:

“I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. It’s tantamount to white people getting a suntan. When black women stop straightening their hair and wearing wigs and weaves, when white women stop getting lip and butt injections and implants … then I’ll stop using the ‘cake soap’ and we’ll all live naturally ever after.”

4 Things British Asians should know about UKIP

Political issues series: 'Euro-sceptic' concept, with EU letteri

It’s fair to say there are not many who would simply dismiss UKIP as just “fruitcakes and loonies” any more as David Cameron once did. They are a serious political threat to the three main established parties. With their anti-immigration stance and perceived dislike of foreigners, their policies are of concern for Black and minority ethnic communities.

Here are some things to consider about the rise and rise of UKIP:

  1. They are going for the popularist vote

An overburdened NHS, more jobs for British people, student grants, even keeping GP surgeries open for longer, UKIP have simply identified the things that get us all riled up- and built a shopping list of policies around them.

Though they are yet to fully form the platform on which they will fight next year’s general election, in the past they were really known for a few key political issues, including seeing Britain withdraw from the EU and an end to “mass uncontrolled immigration.” The rest of their policies now seem to be simply picking up on our discontent over a range of socio-economic issues. This is partly why they have been criticised by the main political parties for having no real policies. And interestingly whilst they position themselves as returning to right wing policies, their stance on student grants is a typical left wing policy, showing that they swing from the political right to left to suit public opinion.

 

  1. Some immigrants support them

It’s completely counter-intuitive for someone who has benefited from the UK’s immigration laws to support a party who seeks to seriously curb immigration. And yet those supporters do exist.

UKIP wants all immigrants trying to enter the UK to be able to speak English, have NHS approved, private healthcare in place, and must have a job already in place. It would seem that they are looking to put as many restrictions in place as possible for foreigners to enter the UK. So why would ethnic minorities support their immigration policies?

One theory put forward is that new immigrants entering the UK would threaten the employment prospects of the existing migrant community. Another is the ‘little islander’ mentality: once you’re in, you want to keep others out who would tarnish the reputation of all immigrant communities as well as take jobs and housing and so on. Whatever the reason, don’t be fooled into thinking that UKIP supporters are all Tory, BNP and EDL defectors or any other right wing British people. It seems that UKIP supporters do come in all colours.

 

  1. They could usher in a whole new language

Do you remember in the 80’s when it was acceptable to call disabled people ‘spastics’? There were playground jokes about them, there was even a bona fide charity called the Spastics Society. (They have since changed their name to Scope). The term was discarded in the late 90’s as it was seen as unkind and not politically correct.

UKIP don’t believe in political correctness, arguing that it hinders freedom of speech. They are appealing to those who feel political correctness has gone mad. What does this mean for race relations? What language and terminology around Black and Asian people, women, the disabled, the gay community to name just a few minority groups will once again be acceptable under a UKIP government?

 

  1. The bigger threat is the growing number of UKIP supporters

While their policies are worrying, infuriating, perhaps even offensive to some, the bigger worry I believe is the growing amount of support that UKIP has garnered. I find it hard to believe that there are people I come into contact with every day that would support UKIP. But there are. The party’s appeal is growing, and aside from their grassroots supporters, many of these people are those who have either been swept up by their popularist approach to politics or a dissatisfaction with the main political parties. Whatever we might say about their shopping list of policies there’s no doubt that they’ve tapped into public feeling in our midst- and that worries me more than UKIP itself.

The 5 People You Need to Know  

5 people

 

Do you remember at high school when you had one group of friends that you hung out with- constantly? You did everything together, went everywhere together, dressed the same, used the same lingo. They were your whole world and defined so much about who you were.

Much as I love those friends (who are still in my life) my horizons have broadened since those days! We all pick up friends along the way don’t we? Former work colleagues, school mums, neighbours, gym buddies, friends of our other halves…

But one thing I’ve found with these different friends and even different groups, is that lately they each seem to meet a different need in my life. Whether its professional support or girly chats, here are the five women that we should all have in our lives to help us become well-rounded individuals:

1. The Mum- Figure

This might actually be your mum, or someone else who fills a maternal role in your life. She’s the person who you go to when life is all a bit too much.  She gets your world view and most importantly knows you really well. She’ll make you a cup of tea, bring you tissues and helps you re-focus and see the bigger picture once again. Yes sometimes her advice might cut to the bone, but…..in the end she’s usually right!

2. The Career Mentor

I’m a big believer in mentors both having one and being one.  She will usually be someone from your industry who gets your vision and sees your potential to achieve it. Her industry knowledge and experience are ahead of yours so she can steer you in the right direction when making career decisions. She won’t be a shoulder to cry on- this is a purely professional relationship, but she will be sympathetic to your life challenges and how they hinder you reaching your professional goals. Think of her as the sixth form careers advisor but for real life!

3. The Intellectual Equal

Different from your career mentor, this is a friend who is on an intellectual and academic par with you, and usually shares the same interests and passions. Your coffee dates are made up of sharing new ideas, perhaps specific to your sector or area of interest and you bounce ideas off of each other. The phrase “iron sharpens iron” comes to mind here as she is the one who challenges you on your new ideas and gets you to refine them.

4. The Listener

The next time you’re in a public place, just observe (discreetly!) how effectively people listen to each other, even in a one- on- one scenario. You’ll notice that they don’t. We interrupt each other constantly: to state our opinion or our response, or come in with another line of thinking. In short, we’re talking but not being heard. We all need someone who will not only listen, but hear where we’re coming from-without interrupting you and crucially, without making it about them. This is where the old adage “ a problem shared is a problem halved “ comes into its own here, as The Listener allows you to unburden yourself. She does share some crossover with The Mum-Figure and perhaps will give you some advice too, but really she is someone who will listen to you without judgement.

5. The Girlfriend

This is the friend, or group who you really laugh with. I mean belly laugh, gonna- be- sick, might- wet- yourself laugh with.  What’s most important about them is that they help you connect with a part of yourself that is completely outside of your day to day roles of responsibility. With these women you’re no longer a mum, a wife, a teacher, a recruitment officer….you’re just you. They allow you to let your hair down and just be who you are- without having to play a role or meet any expectations. They’re you’re best friends, sisters, shopping buddy, partners in crime. Enjoy them, hang on to them and invest in them as they’re the friends who will be with you when a relationship ends or someone in the family is diagnosed with cancer. They are your bridesmaids and the first ones to visit you in hospital when you gave birth.They’re the ones who knew you when you had bad eyebrows and bad hair but love you anyway!

***

 Don’t make the mistake of confusing these friends. You can’t go to your Intellectual Equal and expect to let your hair down. Chances are they’re not going to make you laugh or get your sense of fun the way your girlfriends do. Likewise, your Girlfriend isn’t necessarily going to give you the best professional advice in the world, but she’ll meet your need to kick back and have fun.

Of course friendships are not passive- you can’t simply be on the receiving end of these qualities all the time- it’s vital to give back and play these roles yourself.

Have I forgotten anyone in this list? Who are the women that shape your life? 

 

 

When did you realise you were Asian?

 

When did you realise you were Asian?

What do you think of when you hear the word “gorah”? Or “chav”? All labels, however crude or unkind have been defined by society. We all eventually accept our personal label: Asian; British Asian; Black Person; White Person and so on-and all the baggage it comes with. Being Asian isn’t just a case of circumstances: the family you were born into, your country of origin; and we aren’t born with an awareness of it. At some point in our lives we come to a realisation of our racial difference.

I was 7 when it hit me. We had recently moved to an all- white neighbourhood. I started school mid-way through the year so everyone else knew each other and had little friendship groups. If that wasn’t bad enough, after a couple of days of my being there some of the boys started to call me “chocolate face”. At that young age I realised they were saying this because I looked different to everyone else. They singled me out for my race because I was different to anyone they had seen before and they didn’t know what to do with that. I was mortified. And I never forgot it. I went home and realised too that my mum was different- she dressed differently to all the other mums at pick-up time. Over that year I gradually started seeing that I was different. We ate different food. My parents spoke another language. And so it began: all the ways that you see and experience racial difference.

It’s heart breaking and confusing and disappointing. You realise that inequality is all around you. And it’s not just defined by skin colour but cultural practices. Not eating a roast dinner on a Sunday. Not being allowed to go to sleepovers or the school disco or have a boyfriend.

Being different is not easy.

But then as an adult, I learnt another word to describe all this: diversity. And that’s a good word!

It’s also a buzzword that people like to band around to sound inclusive and fair minded. There are diversity awards, diversity programmes, diversity initiatives, diversity policies….

You know when you say a word over and over it loses all meaning? That.

We need to reclaim diversity so it has some meaning to us, as individuals- where it’s more than just a programme or initiative of some HR manager. Growing up, I was acutely, painfully aware that I was different to everyone else and I tried desperately to hide my racial difference- I would make up stories to sound the same as the other kids, like what we had for our Christmas dinner- as if! I know all kids just want to fit in, but I wish someone had told me it was ok to have brown skin and have parents from a different country. Because difference can be exciting and fun; and what’s more, being different is what makes us individuals rather than a herd of sheep.

And FYI, if you have a child or teenager that denies their racial heritage or identity, like I did, give them time. There will come a point when hopefully they will stop wanting to just blend in but understand a bit more about their background and their heritage. Cue you, the parent, to answer their questions and share your experiences.

So how do we reclaim diversity? Well can I suggest that ‘owning’ your racial identity is one way- rather than trying to hide it like I did. Be an individual! It’s ok to be different from the culture that surrounds you, it’s ok to even be different from other Asians.

And wear your difference with pride. Look at Pardeep Bahra Singh, founder of the fashion blog Singh Street Style- who does that quite literally. He celebrates the fact that he wears a turban through his photography. By doing so, he normalises his sense of style which is different to mainstream fashion. He makes his culture accessible to others by saying: “this is who I am and how I dress and I’m not ashamed of it.”

People of colour spend a lot of time talking about the negatives of racial difference. We focus on our negative experiences too much. It is good to share these types of stories because there’s a sense of unity that comes from that. But we must also talk about our racial differences with pride. It’s the racists and the ignorant who want us to just curl up and go away. Their vision is for a country with no multiculturalism, no diversity, they want to deny that racial difference is a reality of 21st century life. It’s up to us to reclaim it, not just to silence the bigots but to silence that inner voice that screams “you’re different, you don’t fit in, you don’t belong….”

 Share your stories of when you first realised you were Asian- and then a positive one on what you love about being Asian.

It’s time to stop being suspicious of all British Muslims

Islamophobia

This weekend, Muslim families around the world will be celebrating Eid Al Adha. There’ll be prayers, celebratory meals, presents, visiting of friends and family. Sounds pretty normal doesn’t it?

Newsflash: the Muslim community is pretty normal. Despite the talk of extremism, ISIS and air strikes, amidst the climate of suspicion and fear around them, Muslim life goes on. People go to work, raise children, go to the gym, send texts messages, check Facebook- all the things that everyone else does. Isn’t time we start remembering that? Every discussion, every headline around the Muslim community has the word “extremism” in it. Every US cop show from 24 to Blue Bloods has at one time included a story line on Al Queda and Islamic extremists. There are many who would say “there’s a reason for that”, the whole no fire without smoke thing. But all the while, Muslims all over the place are screaming at the top of their lungs “we are not all terrorists”.

The backlash to this from the Muslim community has of course been seen on Twitter and elsewhere. The #notinmyname hashtag sought to disassociate the Muslim community from terrorism and extremism, while #makingastand saw British Muslim mums doing just that against “bedroom radicalisation” of sons and daughters and “jihadi wives”. Many British Muslim teenage girls are upset over their ‘Muslim sisters’ being sucked into extremism saying they’re “sick to death of it”. Moreover, according to an article in the Telegraph, there are those who even question the mindset behind their actions: why give up the freedoms and opportunities of the West to live as an appendage to a Jihadist, they ask.

And it’s that mindset that is exactly the point. Many in the Muslim community don’t even identify with the desire to become radicalised, let alone wanting to follow in their footsteps.

Isn’t it time we start seeing British Muslims without all the suspicion? Clearly no one denies the existence of radical and militant Islamist groups like ISIS, Al Quaeda and Boko Haram. We can’t be naiive about them and simply say they are just a select minority, because they do seem to be having an impact on the wider community, with girls as young as 15 and 16 being drawn into become jihadi brides, and countless young Muslim men and boys signing up.

But for all those who are travelling to Syria and Pakistan and elsewhere to join the extremist movement, there are tens of thousands of other Muslims who live everyday normal lives like you and I.

And truth be told, it’s not just the West who view Muslims with suspicion and even contempt. There’s inter-racism within the South Asian community too. I’m not talking just about historic conflicts. Post 9/11 has been a difficult time for all Asians, with various sections of our community at one time or another being targets for ignorant racists- those idiots who think any brown skinned person carrying a backpack or wearing a long coat must be concealing a bomb. But we have to get over our prejudice and stand united as a community, as far as we can, because otherwise are simply isolating the Muslim community even further.

So this weekend, greet your Muslim neighbour, colleague, friend and say Eid Mubarak to them. Shake their hands, accept their gifts and remember that we live in a volatile world, in difficult times. It would be refreshing for just one day to forget our differences and remember that we are all human.