LAST October, ‘holy man’ Syed Shah was hired by a 28-year-old lecturer seeking to resolve lingering marital issues. He extorted thousands from her, supplied dubious remedies and convinced her to have sex with him for quasi-religious reasons. Twice. When her marriage improved, for other reasons, he demanded more money and sex. He was eventually jailed for sexual harassment. Something isn’t right here.
Was this October 2015? A well-educated woman sought out a ‘holy man’ rather than a marriage counsellor or psychiatrist. She engaged in sexual acts she would (rightly) reject if asked to by anyone else, implying almost trance-like behaviour, and perhaps even mental health issues.
This case brings to light two aspects of the modern Asian ‘holy man’ and, I would argue, the ‘holy man’ as a metaphor for many other imported institutions. First, he almost always exploits, exhibits ignorance in regards to genuine religious beliefs and manipulates cultural-religious authority for personal gain. He lives off of the reputation of a historically legitimate counterpart who once distilled religion into dos and don’ts for a largely illiterate Asian flock.
Second, he appears innocuous in public but lures victims in the darkness, away from critical assessment. Shah was recommended by ‘a friend of a friend’ and his ‘prescriptions’ created feelings of shame in his victim and a fear of seeking legitimate solutions. The frequency of such events rejects dismissing these as examples of naivety. It suggests deeper causes and ones that, from my experience, appear to disproportionately impact women who continue, it seems, to have less access to alternative cultural ideas and are more likely to default to inherited norms. Perhaps the central cause is the resilience of patriarchal cultural interpretations of Asian identity, formed for and by the mindset of a rural Asian, not an urban Briton.
Such cultural interpretations often ignores British social resources or rejects them. Clinging to these notions has a stronger negative impact on second and thirdgeneration communities, who are distanced from the lived reality of the migrating generation, but are still confined within their structures.
As a trustee for two charities focused on Asian women, I’ve seen how the fear of cultural stigma has led to very real negative consequences. This is, perhaps, one example of the ‘failed multiculturalism’ that David Cameron pointed out, failures which have allowed isolationalist cultural relics to survive.
In moving forward, we must acknowledge that the circumstances that once made many of our inherited tools useful are no longer our lived realities, such as the ‘holy man’, stigmas around mental health, skin ‘darkness’ and ‘lightness’, ‘clan’ marriages, baradari and caste systems, saint worshipping and limiting women’s participation.
We must continue to create new tools to address the everyday realities of our now fully British generation of Asians which synergise the best of our Asian traditions and the best of modern British social structures.
*Asad Khan, an accountant by profession, is a trustee of the Asian Women’s Lone Parents Association and the Ghousia Yugana Foundation. He is also a member of Conservative Future.