'We are a Muslim, Please' by Zaiba Malik

Frontline Bradistan
Raised in Bradford, Zaiba Malik yearned to fit in but was told by her family she was a Muslim and Pakistani first. She now finally feels British

I've only ever worn the niqab, the veil, once in my life and that was as an experiment to see how people reacted to this controversial garment. It provoked everything from amusement to verbal abuse from the shopkeepers, passers-by and taxi drivers who I encountered that day. But what shocked me the most was my own response as I looked at myself in a full-length mirror once I had put on the square of material that covers the face. I was horrified. Within an instant I had disappeared and somebody I did not recognise was staring back. All I could see was a pair of dark brown eyes buried within a column of funereal black.

Who is this shrouded person? I have seen her on television and in newspapers — in the mountains of Afghanistan and the cities of Saudi Arabia — but she doesn't look right, here in my bedroom in a terraced house in west London. This person is not me. I am a British Muslim and I have never needed, or indeed chosen, to dress in this way. Why would I want to stand out when all my life pretty much all I've wanted to do is fit in?

After a week in which relations between the leaders of Britain and Pakistan became fraught following David Cameron's comments that the country of my parents' birth was not doing enough to curb terrorism, an accusation that angered many Pakistanis living here, I feel as if I'm being asked to take the Tebbit test all over again and this time the question is: "Which side do you cheer for? Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?" It's a question I've been asked so many times.

I was born in Yorkshire in 1969, the third child of Pakistani immigrants. I was named after a famous Asian actress called Zeba, a superstar who played the heroine in scores of black and white films, most of them tragic love stories with controversial plots. My family name, Malik, is Arabic and means "Master". In the Koran, Malik is the angel appointed by God to guard the gates to hell. As it turned out, my parents named me well. It's almost as though they anticipated the tension I would endure throughout my life — the tension between the profane and the pious.

My father was a devout man who wouldn't let anything get in the way of his five-a-day prayers even if bowing down to God meant having his head perilously close to the wool machines he operated at the mill, or having to park up on the motorway to roll out his mat on the hard shoulder. God always came first.

Dad taught me about the rules of my faith from an early age, so I knew that I could eat fish and chips as long as they weren't deep-fried in dripping; I could read my Mandy annuals as long as I knew that the Koran was the holiest book; I could watch that great British institution, the Queen, on the telly as she celebrated her silver jubilee but not that other national treasure, Barbara Windsor, in Carry On Camping as she did her chest exercises so forcefully that her top pinged off; and I could wear a skirt to school as long as I put trousers on underneath. "It's not allowed as a Muslim to show your legs," Dad would resolutely and regularly state.

I knew I was Muslim long before I knew I was British. And I knew I was Pakistani long before I knew I was English. It's hardly surprising. There was the blatant declaration that my mother, Umejee, used to make once every couple of months or whenever she felt the need. "We are a Muslim," she would state - mainly at times when she thought there had been too much western intrusion into the house. For example, on a Sunday evening when Songs of Praise was on the telly or when there was an ad for sizzling Danish bacon. “We are a Muslim.”

It was a phrase Umejee would also use in the outside world in front of strangers who, quite frankly, didn’t give a damn.

“What’s your name, please?” asked the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery.

“Mrs Malik. Malik. Yes. We are a Muslim, please.”

“You look very colourful in your clothes,” observed the old lady at the bus stop. “Are you from Pakistan?”

“Oh yes. You know, we are a Muslim, please.”
I would smile apologetically at the perplexed third party. Umejee put so much enthusiasm and pride into one of the few sentences she could speak in English that I didn’t have the heart to explain to her that these white people really didn’t care what religion she was. But to her, her faith was everything. It was who she was, not just what she was. There were the odd occasions when Dad and Umejee pleasantly surprised me with signs of assimilation.

My mother was such a staunch supporter of the monarchy that she used to get me to write letters to Her Majesty the Queen asking if she could go and work for her at Buckingham Palace. “I am a very clean lady,” I wrote as Mum dictated.

“My own house in Bradford is very clean. You are very decent people. You are like my family. I will do what you need, cook, clean, iron.”

Umejee, like so many other Pakistani women, held the royal family in great esteem. To her, this institution, headed by a matriarch and based on duty, respect, loyalty and honour, epitomised everything a family should be. Needless to say, we never heard back from Her Majesty.

However, such pro-integration incidents were rare. For the vast majority of the time I knew exactly what I was. A Pakistani, a Muslim. And I never challenged or doubted this. There was no need. I knew that if I was a good Muslim, then God would hear my prayers and I would go to heaven where I would be dressed in fine silk and rich brocade. Where I could feast on the flesh of fowls and fruit and milk and honey. Where I could recline on jewelled couches and be waited on by immortal youths in a climate that is neither too hot nor too cold. That was my purpose and goal in life — infinity in paradise.

I didn’t realise it at the time but my parents were pioneers of multiculturalism, meaning the right of every community “to maintain its own identity, language, religion and customs”, as defined in Bradford’s race relations plan, and I was the prototype of this new policy. The things the city’s Muslims wanted, such as to withdraw their children from religious assemblies and to wear more modest uniforms, were precisely the things that I’d already been doing for years.

As I entered my teens I realised there was a price to pay for this trailblazing, for being the model citizen of Bradistan — the nickname given to the Bradford of the mid-1980s which by now had a settled and vocal Pakistani community.

Compared with the street where I lived, where I was among scores of my own kind, at school I was the only Muslim in my year. I struggled to make friends. It wasn’t difficult to see why. I was surrounded by glamorous students who looked like figures from a Tamara de Lempicka painting with their beautiful dresses and bare legs. Why on earth would they want to be seen with me, a girl who wore flared trousers underneath a tent skirt, who wasn’t allowed to go into school assembly, never mind go nightclubbing, and whose parents didn’t speak very good English?

Every morning and every afternoon I couldn’t help but stare with envy at the fathers of these girls as they sat in their flash new company cars and at the mothers in their twinsets, with their perfectly coiffed hair and perfect elocution. Me, I had a dad whose idea of a fun holiday was going on pilgrimage to Mecca every year and a mum who pronounced England as “Ingerlernd” and Tom Jones as “Thumb Jone”.

I knew I should probably be telling my fellow students that, with all their talk of boys and all their bare flesh, they should fear what would happen to them on the Day of Judgment. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want to condemn them — I wanted to be like them.

A more severe consequence of standing out was being subjected to racist taunts such as the time Umejee and I went on a day trip to Bridlington. As we walked onto the beach dressed in brightly coloured sparkling traditional shalwar kameez, clutching our bags of kebabs and samosas and chattering away in Punjabi, we were greeted with a torrent of “F*** off, you Pakis” and “Get out of here, you wogs” by a group of white bathers.

My mother has always adopted a strategy of “smile and ignore” to ugly incidents such as these. Even now, when she goes to the fruit and veg market and she knows the sellers are being racist by ignoring her or throwing her change at her, she grins and calls them “dahling” or “love”: “Dahling, how much these grape? ... Yes, love. I need apple, please.”

This tactic of turning the other cheek has never worked for me. I have to respond to abuse with abuse. Such as the time I was sat in a National Express bus at Bradford Interchange, waiting to depart, and the two old women in front of me were looking out at the station forecourt.

“Oh, just look at all those Pakis,” one of them remarked. “They breed like rats, don’t they?”

“Oh, I know,” replied the other. “It’s disgusting, isn’t it? They’re disgusting, aren’t they?”

I had to interject: “It’s better being a rat than bloody dead old cows like you two.”

That shut them up.

Then there was the time when a middle-aged man accused me of jumping the queue in a supermarket and told me: “F*** off home back to your zoo, you Paki c***. What are you doing over here anyway, you monkey?” As he was taken away by security, the only way I could think of letting him know how full of rage I felt was by spitting in his face.

Incidents such as these made me shake with anger. But they also made me not want to stick out any more. I no longer wanted to be an exemplar of multiculturalism.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one in Bradford who wasn’t a fan of the new multiculturalism concept. Ray Honeyford, the head of a mainly Asian school in the city, Drummond Middle, had written a number of articles for various publications, including the Times Educational Supplement and the obscure right-wing periodical The Salisbury Review.

He argued against Bradford council’s policy of a multicultural, multiracial education, stating that such an approach would be harmful to Asian pupils by preventing their integration into British society, and would disadvantage those white children who constituted the ethnic minority in inner-city schools. He also objected to the lengthy periods for which some parents took their kids out of school during term-time so they could go back to Pakistan.

In many ways Honeyford’s argument made sense. Surely the priority of a British education should be to teach all its pupils how to read and write in English and surely it was more important for kids to be in classrooms in Bradford than in khotis in Pakistan?

The problem with what he said was how he said it. For example, he described Pakistan as “religiously, unimaginably intolerant, barbaric and arbitrary in its dispensation of justice”, as “the heroin capital of the world”, where there is “corruption at every level” and “which cannot cope with democracy”. He also described one Asian parent as “a figure straight out of Kipling ... His English sounds like that of Peter Sellers’s Indian doctor on a day off”. And he used offensive terms such as “negroes”.

Demonstrations were held at Honeyford’s school gates. He was branded a “Ray-cist” and there were calls for him to be sacked. The national press picked up on what was happening; for the right wing, Honeyford became a cause celebre, an advocate of free speech and Britishness; for the liberal left he was a liability, a throwback to colonial times.

Assimilation versus multiculturalism. This had become a major debate in Bradford and around the country. Then five years later the debate resurfaced — this time its reach was global and its tone much more extreme. On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Iran’s spiritual leader announced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. He declared that it was the duty of all Muslims around the world to execute this enemy of Islam.

The fatwa came just weeks after hundreds of Muslims had gathered in Bradford’s city centre to set light to the controversial novel and demand that it be banned. Now the book-burners advocated violence. “Rushdie is a mad dog! He must die! Rushdie, you are dead!” they shouted in support of the call to kill. What had previously been a fairly academic discussion around freedom of speech and expression developed into hard questions about the compatibility of being Muslim and British: after all, British people believe in democracy, civilisation, the rule of law; and Muslims, well they believe in suppression, the rule of religion and death.

It wasn’t just my father’s generation who marched in support of the Rushdie fatwa; there were also many youngsters in those crowds who openly stated that “until this devil is dead, we won’t leave him”. These were second generation British-born Muslims, like me, who were creating their own identity, one that was distinct from that of their first-generation parents, whom they often chastised for being far more interested in idle gossip than the words of the prophet Muhammad.

My peers joined organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the controversial radical Islamic party which has since been banned in some countries, although not in Britain. The goal of this movement is to establish an independent state, the caliphate, which will be governed by Islamic law.

These youngsters were well educated, articulate and confident. They had seen anti-racist movements, left-leaning liberal policies, multiculturalism and integrationism come and go; none of these secular approaches had worked.

“We’re still treated and regarded as second-rate citizens. Look, we’re not even protected under British law when our faith is attacked. Time for a change. Time for our own laws,” they would rant.

They argued that the most important rules they had to obey were those laid down in the Koran. They started to follow a more literal, more fundamental interpretation of the holy book, one that hadn’t been diluted by the man-made traditions and customs of their parents.

These people had their own language with words such as jihad, khilafah, kuffir, intifada; they had their own concepts — they talked about oppression, martyrdom, Palestine and Afghanistan. They were sure of who they were and what they wanted. They had no hesitation in providing an answer to the vital choice that Rushdie himself put forward in 1989: “The battle lines are being drawn up ... Secular versus religious, the light versus the dark. Better you choose which side you are on.” Now it was Them against Us.

In the summer of 1989 I couldn’t help but ask myself why are these Islamic demonstrators in Bradford making us stand out even more than we already do? Aren’t things difficult enough for us without the world classifying us as fundamentalists and fanatics?

“I’m not a barbarian!” I wanted to shout. “Look, I’m reading a book by Alan Bennett. How more British do you want me to be?”

But I didn’t. Instead I just kept quiet. I silenced myself and I placed a gag over my religion. And I left Bradford.

I didn’t go that far. Just 70 miles or so down the M1 to Nottingham University to study law and politics. But for me it really was like entering another world. It’s no wonder that Umejee wept uncontrollably the day that she and Dad dropped me off at my hall of residence. She knew what was coming; that the copy of the Koran that she had packed in my suitcase would be placed in a drawer that was to remain closed over the coming years. I didn’t need it where I was going — into the secular world where there are no rules, no strictures.

For me, going to university wasn’t so much a learning curve as a sheer cliff drop. I came across students who were atheists, who injected drugs, who were borderline alcoholics, cross-dressers, rent boys and manic depressives.

If I was to survive in this godlessness, then I had to accept that this was how things were in the real world — people didn’t say things such as Inshallah, God willing, as they did on an almost hourly basis in Bradford. In the real world, people never mentioned God and I was pretty certain they didn’t think about Him. Many of them didn’t even believe in Him.

So I kept quiet and left my Koran in its drawer. It stayed there even once I’d left university to become a journalist. It was easier that way. I could still hear my father reading the Koran to me, but whereas before Dad’s voice had been clearly audible, now it was muffled. It was as though somebody had stuffed cotton wool into my ears. There were the odd times when this constant muted noise felt a bit uncomfortable, a bit unbalancing, but on the whole I learnt to ignore it. And by doing so I could get on with my life pretty much as I had done in the past as a neither-here-nor-there person, a person born with British citizenship, Pakistani values and a Muslim soul.

I had a job working in television, plenty of friends and nobody to judge me. Or at least that was what I thought until 9/11 and 7/7 happened. Then I found myself being asked, or rather forced, to evaluate who I was again and again. British or Muslim — which one are you? Because you can’t be both.

Actually, yes I can. It is only recently, as I head into my forties, that I can happily, proudly and comfortably state that I can be both, that I am in fact both British and Muslim. It has taken some time and a lot of thought to get here but at last I no longer feel as if I am being pulled in opposite directions or being pushed to make an impossible choice.

And that is because I have realised there is no choice to make. There is nothing in the Koran that says my faith should conflict or compete with my nationality.

There is nothing in my religion that says I must wear a veil over my face, that I must obey the command of a bearded man in Iran to kill, that I must strive to set up a caliphate, that I must murder non-Muslims and, in so doing, also take my own life. There are no such instructions in the Koran.

In fact, the holy book tells me that I must respect those people of other faiths, including Christians and Jews, that I have an obligation to the country where I live, a contract as a citizen to obey its laws and respect its government and to participate in its systems, to promote justice and fairness and to maintain peace and stability. And, most importantly for me, the Koran tells me that I don’t need to justify who I am, British or Muslim, to anybody — only God.

Excerpt taken from The Sunday Times of August 08, 2010

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Zaiba Malik

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