Another country

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
The largest ethnic minority group in British schools are children of Pakistani origin: a community often accused of resisting assimilation and integration. Yet what do we know and understand of Pakistan? Bob Doe explores the country and its people

mprobable though it sounds, most of the 800,000 people of Pakistani origin living in Britain today hail from just two small Kashmiri towns: Mirpur and its smaller neighbour Kutli. They are spread throughout Britain, particularly in the industrial conurbations that provided them with work when they first arrived - the Pennine industrial towns, and Birmingham, Glasgow and Luton. But they originate from just one isolated rural area among the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now northern Pakistan, though many regard themselves as Kashmiris.

How they came to be here is a remarkable story of adaptability, hard work and close family bonds; of the same self-reliance that now contributes to the inward focus of their communities resistant to integration. One result is that though UK-born, many of their children arrive at school barely able to speak English and are frequently absent for long family visits to Pakistan. The history and geography of Mirpur also played a part in this remarkable story, which has been pieced together over many years in the research of Dr Roger Ballard, director of the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies at Manchester University. Mirpur sits just north of the fertile Punjab plain where the river Jhelum emerges from timber-clad hills and becomes navigable. Mirpuris were mostly subsistence farmers though this hilly area has little prime agricultural land. And whereas the Indian Army of the Raj once provided alternative employment for the sons of the Punjab, Mirpur was just within the realm of the Maharaja of Kashmir whose subjects were not generally recruited into the British Punjabi regiments.

So there has long been a tradition of Mirpuri men travelling throughout the Indian sub-continent for paid work. And the combination of a navigable river, wood for boat-building and goods to be shifted across the rich food and cotton-growing plains meant many crewed those boats down the Indus valley to the ports of Karachi and Bombay (now Mumbai).

British-built railways eventually displaced river transport. But by the end of the 19th century, the Mirpuris had adapted by occupying a new economic niche. They became stokers on the British coal-fired steamships plying out of Bombay. Though not many Pakistanis live further from the sea, the clansmen of Mirpur achieved something of a monopoly in the filthy, hot, stokeholds of the British merchant fleet.

This lasted until the Second World War and the switch to oil-fired ships. A number of Mirpuri seamen found themselves on shore in Britain (some having had ships torpedoed from under them). These stranded Kashmiris were soon in demand, first in the labour-starved munitions factories of Birmingham and later, as a post-war boom got under way, in the mills and furnaces of the North. They were the pioneers who laid the foundations for the widespread Pakistani settlement of the UK that was to follow.

Word (and money) soon went back and more of their kinsmen arrived, followed much later by wives and children. So much so that in some parts of the Mirpur district more than 50 per cent of the population are now said to live here. It is estimated that more than pound;500 million a year is sent back from the UK - mostly by unofficial means. At times these remittances have accounted for more than half of Pakistan's foreign currency earnings.

Geo-politics further boosted the process in the 1960s. Post-independence Pakistan badly needed water to irrigate the green revolution on the fertile Punjab. It also required electricity to power its industry. The lower valleys of the Jhelum and Poonch rivers making up the Mirpur district provided the ideal site for the Mangla Dam project. Ideal, that is, unless you lived in old Mirpur which disappeared under the waters of Pakistan's second largest hydro-electric scheme, along with the fertile land and roads the Mirpuris depended on. Remaining parts of the district became inaccessible by road and could only be reached by a perilous journey across the lake. The flooding of their homes gave added impetus to emigration.

The failure by Pakistan to repair the infrastructure disrupted by the dam and disputes over promised compensation, gave rise to much of the bitterness towards the central government that still exists among Mirpuris - some of whom would like to see an independent Kashmir state.

When a wedding party of 50 people drowned crossing the lake there was even a brief uprising. As Dr Ballard points out, the fact that the Pakistani army had to parachute in to put down this revolt rather made the Mirpuri's point and a bridge was quickly erected.

Forty years on, locals still complain that the dam's electricity was connected to far off Lahore long before any Mirpuri power lines were erected and that they are charged more for their own electricity than Punjabis. And little effort has been made to encourage economic development in the area that contributes so much to Pakistan's foreign earnings.

Consequently, much of the money sent back to the area is spent on building grand houses contributing little to the local economy, or remains uninvested for lack of business opportunities. Emigration became the principal "industry" of Mirpur. One Mirpuri told Dr Ballard: "We don't cultivate wheat here any more, we cultivate visas." But they are not usually English-speaking, skilled or well-educated. In contrast to some of the more outward-looking immigrant communities from the sub-continent which have prospered in the UK, the inward-looking and culturally conservative Mirpuris tend to remain concentrated in the poorest housing and lowest-paid jobs. Twice as many Indians in the UK work in professional or managerial occupations compared with Pakistanis.

The indigenous UK population often see such communities as resistant to integration or assimilation, clinging to their own language, customs and religious identity. If anything, emigration and exposure to western culture seems to have made them even more Islamic and devout and to identify even more strongly with their community. It is not hard to see why. Not only do the morals and behaviour in the West conflict with their stricter upbringing, but their own experience tells them it is the support of their own family and community - not education, or politics or officialdom or assimilation with other communities - that has enabled apparently simple, uneducated country folk not simply to achieve economic migration but to live an extraordinary transnational existence spanning the globe and reversing the process of colonisation of the Indian sub-continent.

Keeping marriage in the family

Their extended families, hierarchical by both gender and age, are held together by almost unlimited commitments. These form the basis for virtually all relationships, responsibilities and property ownership.

Marriages are invariably arranged and other contact with members of the opposite sex - other than close family - frowned upon or strictly chaperoned. Family members are expected to respect and obey their elders and be responsible for those junior to them. The assets of the family are commonly held. This means they are able to draw on the resources of the family to travel for work but the family shares in the resulting benefits.

Their absence does not diminish their place in the family or in the wider biraderi - their tribal clan or brotherhood - rather their status grows. It is they who provide the means to sustain family and status back home and they who represent the bridgehead of opportunity for other clan members to follow in the process known as "chain migration". This family focus is reinforced by marriage customs which encourage Mirpuris to marry first cousins. Two out of three of marriages in the UK Mirpuri community are thought to be between first cousins. Parents expect to be able to marry their offspring to the children of their own brothers and sisters.

This custom has certain advantages. It ensures bride and groom are from equally respectable families and consolidates ownership of family property.

It also usually means the couple at least know of one another before they are married. That is most unlikely otherwise, given the restrictions of purdah on mixed gatherings. This endogamy - marriage within kinship groups - ensures families and clans can continue to send members to Britain by marrying them to relations already resident here. The right to family life enshrined in human rights legislation makes it difficult for governments to control such family reunions. So UK-based parents continue to make available to their Mirpuri nephews and nieces what Dr Ballard calls the "escalator of opportunity".

The endurance of Mirpuri communities and customs - including the willingness to go on accepting the worst jobs and housing - is being tested, however. These were the young Asians at the centre of the riots in Oldham and Bradford in 2001. And arranged marriages don't always go smoothly.

Those growing up with different expectations in Britain may resist being married to relatives ill-equipped for life in the West. And disaffection can work both ways. Unskilled Mirpuri men coming here to marry can feel humiliated by the superior employment prospects of a UK-educated wife.

Girls who resist arranged marriages can come under intense pressure - even to the point of violence or kidnapping in extreme cases - to preserve what parents and elder brothers regard as family honour. The British Consulate in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, has a special unit to rescue and repatriate British girls who are tricked or forced into marriage.

It is not only wives and husbands brought in from Pakistan that keep communities inward-looking. Mirpuris generally belong to the branch of Islam called Barelwi, a sect disdained by many other British Muslims and somewhat isolated. The patriarchal elders of Barelwi mosques often appoint Urdu-speaking imams from their home villages.

Ann Cryer, the MP for Keighley in West Yorkshire which has many Mirpuri constituents, has complained: "Many of the imams who have been brought in don't speak a word of English and have little knowledge of what life in Britain is all about, particularly for their young members. We have to help our communities to integrate, to live in cohesion. Some of these imams coming in, particularly from Mirpur, where there is very little education, are part of the problem rather than the solution."

There is little chance of Muslim children mixing with their UK schoolmates after school as they are expected to spend two hours at a mosque school or madrassa where they learn the Qu'ran by heart in Arabic. Even some Muslim writers are beginning to ask if what goes on in these establishment should be better regulated.

Some second-generation Barelwis admit their homegrown Urdu-speaking imams make little sense to disaffected young Muslims growing up in a society whose standards and values are anathema to those of Islam, leaving them isolated from their roots and vulnerable to others using the Qu'ran and the oppression of fellow Muslims to justify violent jihad.

Madeleine Bunting wrote about this in The Guardian after the London bombings last July - in an analysis widely quoted on Muslim websites. She cited one Barelwi journalist's claim that unnamed Arab movements have a name for young UK Barelwis let down by their elders.

They call them "orphans of Islam" and target them for recruitment.


* Much of Roger Ballard's research is available online:

* Madeleine Bunting's article:,3604,1530581,00.html

* A good general introduction to Pakistan is the Oxfam Country Profile by Khawar Mumtaz and Yameema Mitha, published by Oxfam

* Pakistan's political, religious and economic challenges are analysed in Pakistan - Eye of the Storm by Owen Bennett Jones, pound;10.99 Yale University Press

Factfile: Pakistan

Land area: four times that of UK

Population: 166 million (UK 60 million)

Population growth 2.1 per cent a year

Languages spoken: Punjabi 58 per cent, Sindhi 12 per cent, Pashtu 8 per cent, Urdu (official) 8 per cent, Balochi 3 per cent, Hindko 2 per cent, Brahui 1 per cent, English (lingua franca of Pakistani elite) probably spoken by less than 1 per cent in everyday life.

Religions: Muslim 97 per cent

Christian 1.5 per cent

Hindu 1.5 per cent

Life expectancy: 64 years

Infant mortality: 70 per 1,000 births (UK 5 per 1,000)

Adult literacy: Male 62 per cent (2002 World Bank); Female 35 per cent (2002 World Bank)

15 to 24-year-olds: Female 54 per cent (2002 World Bank)

Natural hazards: frequent earthquakes, occasionally severe especially in north and west; flooding along the Indus after heavy rains.

Environment issues: water pollution from raw sewage, industrial wastes, and agricultural runoff; limited natural fresh water; a majority of the population does not have access to potable water; deforestation; soil erosion; desertification

North West Frontier:Its 16m people largely live in tribal groups in this mountainous province which straddles the famous Khyber Pass, the historic gateway to India. The Pashtun - the world's largest autonomous tribal society - live both in NWFT and Afghanistan as well as making up the largest group in Baluchistan. In both provinces the Pakistan government frequently deploys the army to control local warlords or terrorists crossing from Afghanistan.

Balochistan:Largest but most sparsely populated province on Iran border.

Mostly desert or rough pasture but with important mineral, oil and gas deposits. A largely tribal society, many of the 6m inhabitants are nomadic herdsmen. The Balochi independence movement and conflicts between Baloch and Pashtun tribes makes travel here dangerous.

"Azad" Jammu and Kashmir (AJK): The fragments of these disputed mountainous provinces Pakistan controls following wars with India. In effect these provinces are partitioned along the "line of control". Most Kashmiri territory, including Srinagar and the Vale of Kashmir is ruled by India. "Azad" is contentious: it means free and Pakistanis refer to the rest of the province as "occupied".


This enigmatic country was the site of the world's earliest known civilisation, in the Indus valley around 2500bc. It has a rich heritage of Greek, Buddhist, Mughal, Sikh, Hindu and British rulers. But now it is almost a by-word for fanatical violence, corrupt governments and regular military coups. Its people are renowned for their hospitality and dignity; yet their hadood laws can imprison raped women as adulteresses. It is a country passionate about cricket; yet the country in which last year's July 7 London bombers are said to have received their training.

Pakistan is poised between tradition and change - or on the verge of disaster, according to the pessimists. As a political entity, it came into existence only in 1947 to provide a separate homeland for the Muslims of India when British rule ended. Before 1947 it was part of India - the wild North West Frontier that Kipling (who grew up in Lahore) wrote about and the setting for Paul Scott's Raj quartet of novels, The Jewel in the Crown.

Yet in spite of a unifying religion, the raison d'etre of this Islamic republic, Pakistan has struggled to achieve a national identity.

Its artificial borders split ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its provinces vary between baking desert, freezing glaciers and some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. Half of it is composed of mountains, including some of the highest peaks in the world along with fragments of Kashmir, whose Muslim majority, the pioneers of Pakistan thought, should form part of their new country.

India thought otherwise and 60 years on this beautiful province remains a source of bitterness and sporadic warfare.

Pakistan also stands in the front line of wars waged by others and is involved with Britain and the US in the struggle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In addition, Pakistan's own ethnically diverse provinces harbour sectarian movements and feudal rulers.

Bad news travels. But far less is heard about the prosperous Punjab or the urbane capital, Islamabad; or of the industrialists, financiers and diplomats seeking to modernise both the economy and international perception of a country whose growth rate of 8 per cent a year ranks it among the fastest developing in the world. From President Pervez Mushareff down, its leaders voice their opposition to terrorism in the name of Islam and emphasise the tolerant nature of their religion.

Some of the extremists shelter in the UK. But the majority of 800,000 people of Pakistani origin settled here are poor, hard-working economic migrants. They make up about half of Britain's 1.6 million Muslim population. They are fewer in number than those originating from India. But their ages and fertility rates mean in schools they outnumber any other ethnic group.


Arranged marriages between first cousins in many UK Pakistani families may indirectly depress educational attainments, particular of boys. One in five places in British medical schools may now be filled by the children of British Asians. But almost all are of Indian origin. Some 67 per cent of children of Indian descent in England achieve five good grades compared with 52 per cent of white British pupils. Those of Pakistani origin lag behind both at 47 per cent.

For South Asian ethnic groups such as Sikhs and Hindus, exogamy - marriage outside the kinship group - is more usual. This allows parents to look for suitable matches within their ethnic group already in the UK. Family obligations limit such options for many Pakistanis in the UK. Half the rising generation are thought to marry boys or girls from Pakistan. The children of such unions may be born here but they often enter school speaking little English because Punjabi or Urdu - the languages both parents may be comfortable in - is spoken at home. Qualifications are important when negotiating matches in exogamous marriages, but they play little part in arrangements between cousins. This can affect the expectations of parents and pupils, particularly if boys are also expected to work the family takeaway or taxi firm. As the ethnographer Dr Roger Ballard put it, "while young Sikh and Hindu men are expected to devote themselves to acquiring skills, those who belong to families in which marriage with cousins is the norm find themselves under much less pressure to excel: their educational and professional achievements will have much less impact on their marriageability. Hence if young men from such families spend some time as lifunga, 'lay-abouts', they are often treated with considerable indulgence by their parents on 'boys will be boys' grounds."

On the other hand, education can enable Muslim girls in the UK to defer marriage until after they have completed college or university. Superior qualifications may even deter some unwelcome grooms and increase girls'

bargaining power when it comes to having a husband arranged for them.

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