When I was 22 years old, I decided in my infinite wisdom that I needed to get to ‘know my own’. Because apart from the immediate family of parents and siblings plus 2/3 uncles on the fringes of my life, all my schooling, college and university life, most of the time, I’d been the sole brown face in a sea of pink.
Never one to do things by half measures, I decided I would live in Batley, West Yorkshire and attend a teacher training course nearby. I arranged my accommodation but that fell through unexpectedly, so I found myself in a B&B, paying for one night what I thought I’d pay for a week. I needed to find somewhere to rent quite quickly. But I found again and again, that when I telephoned, the person said, yes come and take a look. But when I arrived at the doorstep, suddenly, the place was not available. When this happened the fourth time, I realised I was experiencing something I’d read about happening to people of colour and Irish people, in the 1950’s. But there were no signs in any windows, actually declaring, ‘ No Blacks, Pakis or Irish’. Confused and upset, I walked into a Pakistani shop, paid for some chewing gum and explained to the man behind the counter, what was going on. Nothing like this had happened to me in Hull, after I left my parent’s home and stayed in various rooms in Hull, over the course of three years. Could I rely on ‘my own’, for some help and guidance, in Batley?
The Pakistani man serving behind the counter was sympathetic. Ithay goray sanuu nehee pasanth karr thay. “The Whites around here don’t like us”, he explained. . Then he told me there was a flat above the shop and I should return at 6.00pm when his three partners would be able to sort something out for me.
At the appointed hour, I duly returned from the B&B which was a couple of miles up the road. This happened around 1986 by the way, long before mobile phones and the internet! The guy at the counter gestured towards three Asian men clustered together at the back of the shop. Two of three guys had long beards, and were dressed in the Pakistani national dress, of loose trousers called shalwar and the long knee-length shirt, called kameez, with a woollen waistcoat on top. One of them, with a hennaed red beard, was wearing the Afghani type hat. The third guy, younger than the others was in his forties and wearing dirty old jeans and a jumper. He remained quiet mostly, while the other two began their interrogation of me.
‘Are you a runaway’, said the guy with the reddish beard. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?” Asked Mr Straggly Whitebeard. . Back to Mr Thick Redbeard: “Do your parents know you are here? What have you come to Batley for? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you one of these runaway girls?”
Their questions, were spoken with aggression and I became defensive. I explained I was starting a teacher training course… No, I didn’t have a boyfriend, Yes my mother knew where I was, Yes, I was here with her permission…. eventually almost in tears, I gave them my parent’s home telephone number and Mr Thick Redbeard dialled the number from the call box on the wall in the middle of the shop.
“Salaam Aleikum… do you have a daughter called, Yasmeen, and do you know she is looking for a flat in Batley”, he began, speaking in Urdu.
My mother also replied in Urdu. She assured the man I was there with her knowledge and permission. After the conversation, Mr Redbeard said I could take the flat.
By this time, I was feeling both humiliated and furious.
“You can keep your stupid flat”, I answered, through angry tears. “First I’m under atttack from White people, and then ‘apnah’ (my people) are treating me like a criminal! No, I don’t want your flat! You can keep it!”
I walked out of the shop. Mr Soiled Jeans followed me out.
“Oh, don’t be upset, with me, I didn’t say anything did I? I am your Muslim brother… They shouldn’t have talked to you like that. I’m very sorry. Let me make it up to you by… giving you a lift to your B&B”.
On and on he went about being my ‘Muslim brother’. He was old enough to be my father so finally I agreed to get a lift from him. There were quite a lot of kids around and the idea of sort of belonging or … do I mean, a yearning for belonging, for being accepted took over me?
“Really it’s not far, I can walk”… But he opened the back door of the car. I smiled and waved to a couple of Asian kids playing by the shop and I got in the car.
Two minutes later, I pointed out the B&B on the other side of the road and Mr Solied Jeans stopped the car. I’d half opened the door when he turned and put his hand out to shake my hand. Ok, fair enough. He had behaved decently, I rhought. With my one leg already out of the car, I turned and took his hand to shake it and he suddenly pulled me forward and kissed me on my cheek.
Shocked and disgusted, I pulled away and ran across the road. I tore straight upstairs to the bathroom and turning on the taps, I scrubbed my cheek with the green sponge, for cleaning god knows what… the side of my face was red, and my tears were not stopping.
I stayed in my room for half an hour alternately crying and raging. What th eheck was I doing in this God-forsaken place? I decided to go out to the phone booth around the corner from the B&B and call my oldest sister, Nazneen, who lived in Manchester. In floods of tears, I explained to her what had happened. “Just come here”, she said. I wished she would come for me, but she didn’t offer to do that. Fine. I would pack my stuff, pay what I owed and leave immediately. When I got back to the B&B, the landlady told me ‘Your uncle called and said he would come back later”.
It was starting to get dark. I felt like Little Red Riding Hood, pursued by a demon. Throwing my clothes and books into my rucksack, I went down, paid what I owed and left for the train station in Batley. Thus ended my first foray into ‘getting to know my own’.
My sister picked me up from the train station in Manchester. As we entered her home, I felt huge relief to be back on familiar ground. Over tea and biscuits, my brother-in law, said, ” Your brother and I, we should go to Batley and insult their daughter in some way”.
Why would we want to do that? I said, scowling at him. I wanted to throw hot tar over that Mr Filthy jeans and then a bag of feathers, and tie him to a car and drag him through the streets of Bloody Batley. I wanted to get a whip and beat him to a bloody pulp. Or put him in the stocks and everyone throw rooten stuff at him… these were scenes from a film I’d watched years before:- punishments in 19th century Ireland, done to a woman who’d committed adultery. What I wanted to do, was publicly expose and humiliate that shit of a hypocrite. Not harm his daughter.
Looking back over the years of my dealings with ‘my own,’ ‘apnay’, this is what I never understood really, this tribal/clan type of feeling and response, where the women and girls are seen as belongings of the men of their family. You harm one of their girls, so they, will harm one of yours.
Tit for tat. One object substituted for another. It was a mentality that my second oldest sister, Paveen, was even at that time, starting to absorb. She had got married to our first cousin, son of our mum’s brother the year I left for University. Now, some four years later, she was well along the path of evading responsibility for her decisions, and embarking on a pattern of scapegoating me: holding me responsible for events I neither initiated nor foresaw. So, what can I say, to the youth of today Dear young girls and boys, being brainwashed in a Muslim family… may I warn you? Along with hypocritical Muslim males, you have the compliant Muslim wives, endlessly taking the men’s crap, and then finding targets to unleash their frustrations upon. I never imagined I’d become such a target. Targeted, scapegoated, for over thirty years. It all began with one word. Chalark.