Backpacking our way through the streets of Peshawar in the early 1970s, my girlfriend and I were politely accosted by a well-dressed, middle-aged businessman who asked if we’d like a cup of tea in a nearby café. So we gratefully took a seat; after the tea had been brought he produced a bundle of rupees and asked me in effect how much I wanted for passing my girlfriend over to him for sex. I declined, obviously, and shortly afterwards we set off again, never to see him again.

The incident however stayed in my mind; thinking it over and trying to work out his mind-set, he obviously had assumed that she was at my disposal, available, and would presumably do as I ordered with no say in the matter. Very strange.

A decade later I came across a book by the French sociologist Juliette Minces, ‘The House of Obedience: Women in Arab Society’. I made some notes on it, thought it relevant to the Peshawar incident, but then thought no more of it. Recently however, in the wake of the numerous grooming incidents around Britain, including those in my home city of Oxford, the sexual assaults in Cologne, the incidents in swimming pools on the Continent involving migrant men harassing women, I got my own copy and read it right through. At a time when our society is struggling to come to terms with such events, caught between the desire not to blame whole communities, but also not to ignore what is happening, the book is like a clear light on the issue, which lays out the difficulties we face, but also seems to suggest informed, compassionate and creative ways forward.

Minces, whose book is based on ‘observations in the field, during more than four years spent in the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Turkey, Black Africa etc., including two years in the Maghreb and Arab Near East’, states that her research resulted in her being ‘able to see the sort of lives women led there’; her opening remarks outline the type of upbringing girls usually receive.

‘From early childhood, girls are taught obedience. This amounts to thorough-going conditioning and is justified by Koranic law which lays down that women should be respected but also stipulates that their position is inferior to men’s.’

In the domestic sphere, she notes, the ‘father, her elder brother, her uncle, even her cousins exercise absolute authority over a woman or girl of their family; later, her husband and his family will take over this role’.

In an analysis which accords absolutely with the plight of Muslim women here who reject such subservience, and invariably have to break with their families, she explains that ‘Should a particularly courageous woman refuse this tutelage, she will be shunned or physically forced to submit. A woman who has been cast out by her family faces a very hard and isolated life … The isolation of rebellious women is reinforced by the whole community, to whom such behaviour is quite unacceptable There are no institutions geared to help women in this situation: the family has always been considered to be the only possible institution….’

This is the first point at which Minces’s observations suggest a positive course of action to be adopted: we must consciously strengthen and support the women’s groups and networks that offer support – so there are institutions that can help.

As I write I’m occasionally toggling over to a newspaper article from Aug. 2017, which is headed by yet another mass mugshot of convicted ‘mainly British-born Muslim men’ - yet another grooming gang, who this time have hailed from Newcastle Upon Tyne. Minces lays out the origins of the types of mentalities that have led to such grooming incidents:

‘The birth of a boy’ she reports, ’is an occasion for great festivities, even among the poor; God has blessed the family’s house. A baby boy will be suckled longer, his mothers and sisters will carry him until a later age, he will be pampered, spoilt, given everything. His caprices will be forgiven and interpreted as signs of future virility’.

Furthermore, as he grows, ‘A boy may respect the women of his family but he will despise any woman who does not belong to his family group unless she is a potential bride. As far as he is concerned, an unveiled woman has deliberately put herself on offer’.

Later, the young man embarks on a troubled youth: ‘Adolescence starts very early on the sexual level: it is followed by at least ten years of frantic and almost total frustration … This frustration, born of the specific structures of the society and of this long sexually frustrated adolescence, will stay with him for the rest of his life…’

‘This psychological frustration is compounded by what one could call a ‘psycho-visual’ frustration resulting from women’s incarceration. Women are rarely seen without a veil. The veil, which protects them when they leave their homes, only accentuates the obsession of adolescents and adult males alike. ….’

Does that not amount to a compelling explanation for the Cologne attacks, for example? If my memory serves me right it was a crowd of mainly young Afghan men, clearly not well educated, recently arrived from their country, and steeped in traditional attitudes to women, who perpetrated the assaults. In a way you feel sorry for them, being unable to achieve meaningful relationships with women. As Minces puts it: ‘Women remain as strangers, and are so much part of another world that men feel really happy only among themselves….’

Yet you can also see why local authorities in Stavanger, Norway, alarmed by the number of sexually-motivated attacks perpetrated by some of the migrants they were hosting in their community, initiated a mandatory (and widely reported) programme through which migrants were led through the cultural and social aspects of relating to women in the western world. If a woman smiled at you for example, that did not mean that she was begging for sex.

When such attitudes of repressed sexuality, that the Stavanger classes were confronting, are imported into a Western setting the dangers are obvious. Minces has more to say about the issue. ‘The Western woman is not a member of the clan, so everything is permissible, there are no restrictions whatsoever. She is seen as not only approachable but available, since her behaviour is the opposite of what is expected of a ‘decent’ woman – only the behaviour of a traditional Muslim woman is considered ‘decent’. Even more than an Arab woman, a Western woman is seen as potential prey. Any refusal on her part is greeted with astonishment, sometimes with anger, always with aggressiveness. Does her attitude and dress not proclaim that she is on offer to the first bidder? Does she not have the reputation of being ‘free’ and thus at the disposition of every man?’

‘This is part of the reason for the number of verbal or even physical acts of aggression endured by women on her streets. What would an honest woman be doing on the street anyway?'

These last observations have been borne out by reports from young women in Germany, who when resisting sexual attacks have been greeted with absolute fury and even greater violence. ‘This naïve cynicism’, says Minces, is only explicable in terms of the spoilt child’s upbringing which little boys receive….’

Addressing such attitudes should form part of the rehabilitation of convicted members of grooming gangs. And awareness of the need to address such attitudes should also be high on educationalists’ agendas, in particular trying to ensure that Islamic schools are challenging rather than perpetuating them.

There is also a need to find opportunities to bring new thinking into the type of self-isolating communities that continue to produce men who see western women as fair game. One of the recently convicted group of Newcastle groomers, for example, during a rant at a female ticket inspector who found him travelling on public transport without a ticket in 2014, had shouted “All white women are only good for one thing, for men like me to f*** and use like trash. That’s all women like you are worth.”

And the Muslim commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has reported on depressing conversations with Muslim women in northern towns where she found a mirror-image of such attitudes towards the local victims of the gangs; the Muslim activist Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation has also spoken of an incident where the parents of girls who were being groomed went to seek help from a local Pakistani women’s group and found that ‘the door was literally slammed in their faces’.

So the tacit involvement of women also has to be a matter of concern.   ‘By their own behaviour’ writes Minces, ‘by their tenderness and indulgence, mothers create the despots who will eventually rule over their daughters and daughters-in-law, and thereby reproduce the same male traits they themselves have often suffered from’.

Such attitudes are reinforced by what the Casey Report called the ‘first generation in every generation’ phenomenon, by which ‘each generation grows up with a foreign-born parent’. This clearly reinforces rather than challenges traditionalist attitudes, and is an area where host communities can, and should, take action.

One way of clarifying the attitude that Minces identifies is to give it a name, and the term ‘Oriental Patriarchy’ is potentially helpful in identifying the processes at work. Sadly, Oriental Patriarchy (OP) is increasingly asserting itself in contemporary Britain, examples including the attack on young girls attending a concert at the Manchester Arena, segregation of the sexes in some Islamic schools, attacks on the critics of such practices - such as the labelling of Ofsted as ‘racist’, the separation of sexes at political meetings held by the Labour Party in constituencies with a high Muslim population, and, let’s not forget, the murder of Shafilea Ahmed by her parents, whose ‘crime’ was to want to train as a barrister rather than be used as a pawn in a land deal which was being set up back in Pakistan.

Sadly, too, there is widespread confusion about the rights and wrongs of challenging OP, with those who rightly fought the reprehensible racism of the 1970s and 1980s seeing criticism of this imported strain of misogyny as continuing the racist narrative of before. It should however, be possible to keep two things in mind – an attitude of goodwill and possibility, combined with a determination to counter and oppose those whose cultural backgrounds can incline them to deny women agency and work for a world where they are kept as subordinates.

Such a world would be antithetical to the values that our society has struggled to build over the past two centuries and more, and the problem for those who want to create it here is that they face opposition – from those within their own communities who regard their mindsets as backward and retrogressive, from the effects of education (as Mary Wollstonecraft put it – ‘Enlarge the female mind, and there will be an end to blind obedience’), from clear-sighted women’s groups, from the enforcement of equal rights legislation.

But perhaps what those who would live by the codes of OP fear most is the awareness of those in their communities who know perfectly well that there is a bigger life out there for them and their families when they grasp the opportunities western societies can provide.

John Webster


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