Thursday, 20 September 2007

Grandmother is a wolf

One of the great obstacles to social progress has often been the resistance of those who ought to be on its side. Forelock-tugging serfs. Self-hating gays. But the worst offenders are probably misogynistic women. A hundred years ago, there were plenty of intelligent, sophisticated ladies who thought it shameful that women should go out to work, or even consider asking for the vote. Today, the plight of victims of domestic violence compounded by the prevailing attitude of many that "standing by your man", even when he's a violent drunk, is something of a virtue.

Add culture into the mix, and you often have a recipe for disaster. From teenage girls demanding their "human right" to wear a burqa or happily submitting to arranged marriage to a forty-year
old first cousin they haven't actually met, to African mothers holding down their screaming five-year-old daughters while the local wise-woman saws off their genitalia with a rusty knife, women are often complicit in demeaning themselves or others. All too often, the pillars of the "patriarchy" have been the matriarchs. In societies that give women little power outside the home, those who gain power within it compensate by becoming tyrants.

Take seventy year old
Bachan Athwal, who yesterday was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in jail for ordering the murder of her daughter-in-law Surjit. (Her son, Sukhdave, 43, Surjit's husband, was also jailed for life with a minimum term of 27 years.) The judge had no doubt that Mrs Athwal was the prime mover in the case. Her authority over her (Sikh) family was absolute, and she used it in the persecution of a young woman who had "besmirched family honour" by leaving an abusive relationship and falling in love with another man. Clearly, Athwal is a nasty woman, but equally clearly her nastiness was encouraged and supported by her understanding of morality.

The authorities were notably useless in the case, too. It took fully nine years for the offenders to be brought to justice. According to Sujit's brother Jagdeesh, "We battled with the incompetence and disinterest of the Indian police, the apathy of the Foreign Office and slow initial movement of the Metropolitan Police. It was a lonely and tortuous experience for us. The Athwals had managed to murder my sister and it appeared with their manipulation and planning they were going to get way with it."

Abused women within these communities have a doubly hard time. They're often up against a stunning lack of sympathy and understanding by their families and neighbours. And they have to battle against a system that would rather not know, thank you very much, about practices which disrupt the cosy liberal assumption that because something is cultural or "ethnic" it is somehow good. And in the current climate being loyal to one's ethnic and religious identity seems more important than being loyal to oneself. Or other women. Zohra Moosa lays it all bare here.