The Press Saturday, October 17th 1998
It's not often I get to see anything that really deserves unstinted praise, but Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's second front in Monday's Independent is the best piece of journalism on a religious subject that I have read for years. She travelled to Bradford to talk to the young Muslim men who hunt down independent women and return them to their families for punishment. The subject has been covered before, on a television program she had also watched: "One man, handsome like Al Pacino, wanted to reclaim his abused wife after she left him. His father spoke with moving dignity about how marriage was central to the Pathan way. He advised the hothead son not to fly into a rage but to be kind. And then, without changing his voice, added 'Get her back. Then we can do what we want. You can set light to her'."
That program had focussed on a pair of bounty hunters, one of whom, she says, was beaten up after it had aired by the local Muslim women, all fully veiled. Both received death threats for shaming the community by bragging on television — not for what they had been bragging about.
The focus of Alibhai-Brown's piece was a younger man, Rehman, who she spent months negotiating to meet. When she finally does so, he tells her "I don't shake hands with women. Are you a Muslim anyway? Did your parents teach you nothing, like?" She told him his mother would be horrified to hear him speak like that to an older woman. Later he shows her a rusty knife, which he used, he said, to slash off the hair of a cousin who came home with a perm. And so the piece begins, perfectly balanced between close observation, sympathetic intelligence, bravery and simple human outrage..
"There is something about Rehman which redeems him, even as you feel the urge the throw him to the ground and place a stiletto heel over his neck until he apologises to womanhood. But merely to despise such men would be easy. We need to know them and learn why it is that they have made the control of young women in the community the focus of all their passions."
Her answer is really that they have nothing else to do. "Like the young black men who give life meaning by becoming flash hoodlums, these men have created a role for themselves Spectacularly failed by the education system and their parents who could not equip them for the world, they have fallen upon this dangerous option. The other is driving cabs. The two are intimately related. I spend three expensive hours cruising with Mahzer, a singing cabbie. He cannot read or write, but can tell you exactly everything about every female pedestrian."
She has spoken to the police; she has statistics — 202 women so far this year in West Yorkshire have run from their families to the police for shelter. "I spoke to 20 of them. They were not craving the freedom of their white peers. Only two had boyfriends Most of all, they just wanted to be trusted and to have some choices. They wanted not to be wat5ched for 24 hours — even when asleep."
She explains almost everything except why the men should be so spectacularly vile. It is very well and liberal to point out that Rehman and his brother have two GCSEs between them: but if the school was so awful, how come their sister Samira has seven? She was sent back to Pakistan to marry, and Rehman let Alibhai-Brown phone her "to see how girls learn to be happy."
" 'I'm OK', she says. 'Nobody spits on me here or calls me Paki. My cousin's husband is a really nice person'." She doesn't — at least in the story — mention her own. " 'But most of the other UK girls are so sad. Some have died, you know. They get beaten because they are too independent.' The call has to be terminated because Rehman has no more money and as a man he cannot let me pay."
A couple of years back, I shared a small prize with Paul Vallely for a series we wrote about Muslims in Britain. If Yasmin Alibhai-Brown does not win something really worthwhile for this, there's no justice in journalism at all.
There was nothing nearly as good as this in the other papers, of course. The Guardian's IF comic strip turned its attention to the Alpha campaign: I shall watch this with interest. The Sunday Telegraph had a wonderful story about Hindu deities being put on the Internet. "Wherever they are in the world, Indians in need of spiritual guidance can now receive the darshan or audience of their favourite god, goddess, or guru at the click of a mouse." Apparently, an image on the screen is quite as effective as one graven, which is an unusually sophisticated idea to find associated with the Internet.
Finally, a cautionary tale of youth work, from the Daily Telegraph's foreign desk: Melvyn Nurse, a pastor at the Livingway Christian Fellowship in Jacksonville, Florida, was a man with a gift for showmanship and ready access to firearms. When he wanted to dramatise the idea that the wages of sin are death, he decided to bring a revolver into the pulpit with him, and illustrate the seven deadly sins by playing Russian roulette. Clint Eastwood fans, especially those capable of simple arithmetic, will have got ahead of the story here — there are seven deadly sins, but only six chambers in a revolver: statistically speaking, he would have been better off illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity. Sure enough, on the fourth sin, or spin, the loaded chamber came up. He had only put a blank in it, under the impression that the charge could do him no harm. So when the blank fired, and the wadding shot through his brain, all the watchers, including his wife and four daughters, thought it was part of the act as he fell from the pulpit and died. There must be someone in Florida who has drawn the obvious moral from this: that preachers need better training in the use of firearms.