This is the first in a series of posts from Dr Noreen Mirza, sharing stories from her research into the experiences of middle class British-Pakistani women in Manchester. First, how her own formative experiences underpin her research.
Being a second-generation British-Pakistani and Muslim woman growing up in 1980s Manchester, in a predominantly white neighbourhood, I remember the deep desire to be the same as the other children I played with in my neighbourhood and at school. I was aware of the difference in my skin colour, heritage and religious background, as all the children I played with were white British Christians. The yearning to be the same stayed with me into my teenage years and later influenced the subject of my PhD thesis, on middle class British Pakistani women in Manchester.
As I embarked on my research, I felt that the image of British-Pakistanis in the media was a misrepresentation and not a true reflection of a lot of British-Pakistanis like myself. I wanted to explore class identity and show the diversity among British-Pakistanis. We are not a homogenous group and our experiences and upbringing has a profound impact in shaping who we are.
My own experiences of being a British-Pakistani were different from others I met because of two fundamental things: where I grew up and the influence of my parents. Growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, I was aware of the differences between my family and others. However, sharing similar interests with other children, playing games with them and being part of the neighbourhood enabled me to create a feeling of belonging in spite of these.
Later, as an undergraduate at university, the experience of meeting people from diverse cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds made me realise how much we had in common, such as our interests, aspirations and shared experiences of university life. These experiences taught me that religious, cultural and national identities were not cast in stone, but were different ways of being which people negotiated throughout their daily lives.
My parents had always shown an interest in different faiths and cultures and their experiences of leaving home for Britain had a huge influence in shaping my identity and sense of belonging.
Growing up in what was known then as British India, before Partition in 1947, living side by side with people of different faiths enabled my parents to be open minded, yet devout. Instead of focusing on differences, they sought out similarities across religious and cultural divides. To me, these are very important attributes which I value and would like to pass down to my own children.
My parents were amongst the many South Asians who had to cope with significant changes. Firstly, they witnessed the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan, where multitudes of people had to abandon their homes and communities to make the perilous journey to a new homeland. Secondly, they migrated to Britain to establish a better life for themselves. Many faced discrimination while adapting to a life that was deeply unfamiliar. These challenging experiences were a test of their resilience and fighting spirit.
According to my parents, there were not many South Asians near them when they arrived in the 1950s. So, they forged friendships with others who shared a similar cultural background and language, and who could relate to their daunting experience of leaving home and moving to a country that was alien to them. Therefore, friendships between South Asians, across class, region of origin and religious divide, became common. They shared the common goal of retaining their values and recreating aspects of the culture of their homeland in Britain.
Eventually, with the influx of more South Asians in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my parents established friendship groups with those who shared the same religion as well as culture. This familiarity offered them a sense of belonging, helping them to establish roots in the host country. It gave them the confidence to step out of their comfort zone- to get to know their English neighbours, the shopkeepers and people in the local area who made them feel they were part of an inclusive local community. Their efforts to integrate in this way enabled them to become more fluent in English and accustomed to the British way of life, and familiar with British culture, humour and food.
It fed my parent’s curiosity about different cultures and backgrounds. More importantly, it allowed them to recognise how much they had in common. They realised that many of their concerns, aspirations and values were almost universal, shared across the religious and cultural divides.
Related reading in our library
Desh pardesh: the South Asian presence in Britain, Roger Ballard
Kinship and continuity: Pakistani families in Britain, Alison Shaw
A Pakistani community in Britain, Alison Shaw
Imagined diasporas among Manchester Muslims: the public performance of Pakistani transnational identity politics, Pnina Werbner
The migration process: capital, gifts and offerings among British Pakistanis, Pnina Werbner