PAKISTANI immigrants to Europe tend to get a bad press. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised by my brief encounter in Stockholm three weeks ago with a dozen or so well-settled, ordinary working-class Pakistanis. Some had migrated from Mirpur (AJK), others from KP and Sindh. Their attitudes and lifestyles challenge the common negative stereotypes of Pakistani migrants in Europe.
Do you speak and read Swedish reasonably well? Are local laws fair and non-discriminatory? Do your children go to Swedish schools and do they have Swedish friends? Can you feel this to be your own country? Receiving positive responses, I slowly moved on to the most sensitive of questions and held my breath: Would you be okay if your daughter were to date a Swedish guy? Marry him? And, finally, is Sweden where someday you might choose to die and be buried?
Except for the very last question (where some wavered) all other answers were again affirmative. Significantly, these were not well-heeled upper-class folks who readily form a globalised community. Instead, they were bus drivers, hospital staff, and other blue-collar workers in love with their adopted country. They were trying hard to deal with the us-versus-them binary.
Were such attitudes more common the sickeningly familiar caricature of the backward, anti-freedom, unassimilable Pakistani migrant would vanish. But this wasn’t so clear once I probed further: could you kindly guess how many other Pak-Swedes are also largely positive about their new country?
Opinions varied but the consensus was clear — only a minority of first-generation Pak-Swedes, like this particular group, is fully at ease. Since they acknowledge getting a fair deal in their new country, what alienates the majority? Answer: discomfort with the bay hayaee (sexual laxity) of locals and their deen say doori (non-adherence to religion — any religion). As with other Pakistani immigrants in Europe, some stridently reject the core values of their host country and condemn the ‘immoral’ lifestyles of the majority.
Why do Pakistanis enjoying the West’s pluralism stay silent about pluralism within Pakistan?
This unctuous piety is sometimes dubious — it stands against a pioneering research study putting sexuality as a key motivation for young Pakistani men to emigrate. In his book: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Immigration – Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe, Ali Nobil Ahmad, a fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, finds the pull of deep-seated psychological forces no less important than the push of economic forces.
After interviewing dozens of young immigrant men from lower-middle-class backgrounds, Ahmad concludes that lure of adventure and libidinal frustration drives even relatively economically secure migrants. Risking life and limb, they hope to escape a conservative society where every form of contact with women is forbidden — other than a family-arranged marriage — into a world where pleasures of the flesh are tauntingly visible through advertising and the global media. Parents often marry them off before they depart but the problem doesn’t end there.
The sweet fruits of the Promised Land are enjoyed for a while but long term adaptation to the metropolises of Europe is difficult for many. Most perplexing is the freedom enjoyed by Western women, with whom liaisons are short term. To shut out their ‘corrupting influence’, families arrange for cousin marriages or import brides. These are routine in Britain’s poorest areas where immigrants have ghettoised.
Growing conservatism and poor schooling in the homeland has made Pakistani immigrants less absorbable globally. As Pakistan steadily becomes less liberal and goes the Al Huda way, the changes are visible in habits and dress. The burqa issue resounds throughout Europe. That welcome for unassimilable immigrants has dried out is unsurprising.
A highly visible trend among Pakistanis is greater immersion in one’s own religious community. Even in North America where Pakistanis are generally wealthier than whites, the social life of most expatriates — the richest ones excepted — organises itself around mosques and Islamic centres. Toronto, for example, is a city divided among Deobandis, Barelvis, Shias, Bohras, and Ismailis who have built their own places of worship and largely interact only among themselves. Ahmadis have a worship-cum-housing complex spread over 35 acres.
Isolation from the mainstream has extracted a price in the general well-being of immigrants, particularly for Pakistan-origin Brits. Muslim school students — of which a full 40 per cent are Pakistanis — have been documented as underachievers. Muhammad Anwar, a social scientist and author of British Muslims and State Policies argues that Pakistani-Brits generally have education achievement levels lying at the low end of all ethnic minorities in Britain.
On the other hand, immigrants who share values with the host country can rise high. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and home secretary, Sajid Javid, are obvious examples. Expectedly, wealthier, upper-class Pakistanis are familiar with Western cultural mores. Educated in top-notch schools, they find the West hospitable. This year, as every year, thousands will make their way to universities across North America, Europe, and Australia. Others will rely on immigration sponsorship by family members who are already citizens.
Most, whether wealthy or poor, will try their hardest to never return home and many will succeed in becoming first-generation immigrants. Some dream of wealth, others of personal fulfilment. Still others want to escape a suffocating social and physical environment. Most will be preoccupied in making a new life for themselves.
But exceptions aside — such as the few I met in Stockholm — Pakistani immigrants to the West don’t insist on changing things back in the homeland. That Pakistan needs to end discrimination against its ethnic minorities, women, and non-Muslims is heard but rarely, and that too only from Baloch, Sindhi and Kashmiri nationalist groups. One could have expected broader participation because immigrants benefit from open pluralist societies that, by law, must treat all citizens equally. This, of course, is why Pakistanis choose to immigrate.
If first-generation immigrants lack activism, perhaps the second generation will compensate some day. When such voices for justice are heard loud and clear — and if they are joined by immigrant communities from other countries in demanding changes back home — multiple noxious xenophobic movements in the West will collapse like a pricked balloon. Let’s hope.
The author teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2018