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VARIOUS TEXTS: MUSLIM MARRIAGES AND THE BIRADARI

The combination of radical Islam and conservative leadership means that Bradford's Pakistani community is socially ossified in a way that other Muslim communities in the country, let alone immigrants from other faiths such as Hindus and Sikhs, are not. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the institution of marriage.

Even now, nearly fifty years after the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants arrived in west Yorkshire, marriage represents, above all, an instrument of social engineering rather than one of personal choice. Many betrothals may be successful and most couples may eventually find mutual respect, if not love, but these attributes are not necessarily the primary aim of those who arrange the marriages of their children. Strengthening and nurturing family ties remains the single most important factor governing the choice of partners for marriage. This means that the search for brides and grooms leads inevitably to rural Pakistan. According to the Ousley Report, published after the riots in west Yorkshire in 2001, there were about 1,000 marriages a year in Bradford's Pakistani immigrant community. The majority of these - at least 60 per cent - involved a spouse brought over to Britain from Kashmir. Virtually all of these marriages were to close relatives - probably first cousins, who are considered the perfect match. Across Britain, according to Home Office figures for 2000, over 10,000 Pakistani nationals obtained entry clearance to join partners who are British citizens; that's more than the figures for India and Bangladesh combined.

In a striking piece of research, the Oxford academic Alison Shaw, suggests that the proportion of marriages involving cousins may have recently increased among the children of the pioneer generation. Her own work in Oxford follows several other academic studies that have looked at what specialists call cosanguineous marriages - they too have noted an upward trend. These studies - which looked at second- and even third-generation marriages in Oxford, and to a lesser extent in west Yorkshire - suggest that cousin-marriages may now account for more than half of all marriages.

lf these findings can be extrapolated, they give the lie to one of the most commonly accepted views about what happens to immigrant communities - that they become more integrated with every new generation. What the Shaw study may show is exactly the opposite. Significant parts of the Pakistani community are becoming more and more entrenched in their 'home' culture. With every imam who comes to Britain, with every marriage that is arranged with a cousin in Mirpur, the most culturally introspective aspects of the community are reinvigorated.

The reasons these cousin-marriages are still promoted so assiduously are complex but they have their roots in the ancient but powerful clans - biradaris - that form the social bedrock of rural communities in Pakistan. A biradari is a kinship group that starts with a small cluster of intermarrying relatives and widens out into a theoretically infinite extended family. The level of obligation between two members or families will depend on where exactly they are in the chain of ties that make up the biradari.

For minds schooled in the Western notions of individual needs and nuclear families, the idea of an all-powerful loyalty to a clan is hard to fathom, but it is really the only way to make sense of what has been going on in places like Bradford. While we probably see the union between husband and wife as the most important building block of society, the biradari places far greater value on cooperation within the extended family. Being a member of a clan invokes such concepts as honour and shame which are all but forgotten here. The biradari encompasses a system of reciprocity (lena-dena - literally giving-taking), in which gifts are exchanged. Crucially, a return gift is always worth slightly more than the original offering so that the 'debt' is perpetuated.

Far from being the exercise of individual enterprise and ambition that is normally associated with migration, the movement of Pakistani Mirpuris to Britain in the sixties was driven as much by the desire to enrich the biradari. And so it has continued in a chain of migration that has drawn in more and more members of a particular biradari.

698 words

Source: A Home from Home - From Immigration Boy to English Man by George Alagiah, Abacus Books, London 2007, pp. 182-184


Annotations:
to ossify - verknöchern
Mirpuri - a Kashmir region
betrothal - Verlobung
spouse - Ehegatte/-in
consanguineous - blutsverwandt
to entrench - verschanzen
assiduous - eifrig, gewissenhaft
to fathom - ergründen, verstehen
reciprocity - Gegenseitigkeit



Assignments:
1. What function does the institution of marriage have for Bradford's Muslim community?
2. Compare a Muslim marriage with that of a western one.
3. Why is today's Pakistani population of Bradford even more conservative than Pakistani immigrants of the 1960s?
4. What role do the biradaris play in the Pakistanis' way of life?
5. What is your view of the concept of biradaris?



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