The British courts recently asked me to prepare a report on a young Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, and to do so I had to visit her at home. I spoke to her in a room in which a television screen as large as a cinema vied for predominance with embroidered pictures of Mecca and framed quotations from the Koran.
She told me a story with which I was only too familiar. One of eight brothers and sisters, she soon discovered that, while her brothers could do anything they pleased, including crime, she and her sisters were expected to lead spotless lives of infinite tedium and absolutely no choice. At 16, without her consent, she was betrothed to be married to a first cousin in Pakistan, whom she had never met and did not wish to meet. She ran away to avoid being taken back “home” and married off under duress; but in need of companionship and protection (having been until then a virtual prisoner in her parental home), she soon married a young man of Pakistani descent who turned out to be neither a companion nor protective, but criminal and violent. Eventually, she returned to her parents, who gave a less than warm welcome to the prodigal daughter.
She begged to be allowed to go to work, but at first her family said that this would heighten the shame she had brought on them by running away and refusing to marry her cousin. Her brothers in particular accused her of thinking that she was a Western woman, than which (in their eyes) there could be no worse insult. Eventually, however, they gave way; the money might be useful. She had been working ever since, for about ten years.
When she described her work, her manner changed. She became animated, almost passionate, having been subdued before. Though her work was only in a clerical capacity (she had been promoted once or twice), she spoke of it with love. It was her daily release from prison, the only time she was allowed out; it was her window on the world; it was the entirety of her social life; it was air after suffocation.
It occurred to me that if I were an employer, I would want otherwise oppressed Muslim women to work for me. An attitude toward work such as theirs is not common, at least not in Britain. For them, work represents freedom and happiness, not drudgery and exploitation.
But the attitude of her brothers—born, after all, in Britain—stuck in my mind. They were integrated enough to want Westernized lives for themselves but not integrated enough to want such lives for their sisters. It is not difficult to see the reasons for this. But where are our feminists, fearlessly fighting for speech codes and the use of the impersonal she in academic books, when women such as this suffer such severe oppression? Hardly a peep is heard from them.
First published in City Journal.