One of my fiercest critics is a Pakistani woman. Zainab has the most extraordinary mind, a wicked sense of humour and takes no prisoners. She inspires me and makes me feel that together we can change the world. And she asks the most difficult questions.
When the Cabinet Office "Race Disparity Audit" hit the news I heard about it from her first. We have circled and parried, we have unpicked identity, belonging, integration, assimilation and women's empowerment over the years. We have hypothesised, provided evidence and disagreed about the best way to empower migrant women in the UK. And together we have shared our sadness that so many women from Pakistan do not seem to have the same voice and opportunities as other women in the UK.
Every discussion with Zainab has been fruitful although so often we have left each other with more questions rather than solutions. I am so grateful to have her as a friend. Friendship means that we see each other as equals (although I think I am more in awe of her mind than she is of mine!) and that we have enough respect and love for each other that we can disagree strongly, knowing that we share the same end goal: a more welcoming and compassionate society.
Facts and figures like those in the Audit are a useful tool for action to address inequality. But in the UK we have known for decades that there is inequality between different ethnic groups. The downside of focussing on statistics is that they encourage us to see people as monolithic groups rather than as individuals. The report first broke by saying that Pakistani women are shown not to integrate. Call me naïve, but what efforts have been made by policy makers and by us as citizens to see Pakistani women not as a problem, but as Faiza, Fatima or Amira?
What are we all doing to help British Pakistani women to thrive in the UK? Britain's favourite food is Chicken Tikka Masala, which has its roots in the Punjab, from where ¾ of British Pakistanis trace their ancestry. It is a dish that takes time to prepare, but most would argue that it is worth it.
Bringing communities together also takes time and effort. One of the greatest challenges that Pakistani women face to integrating, clearly identified in the Audit, is low levels of English proficiency - the gateway to the conversations that lead to understanding, cooperation and friendships. And how are they meant to learn English when there are not sufficient classes for them to attend, or classes which accommodate their responsibilities as mothers, in a culture that greatly values family? Wonder Foundation's research with women, including Pakistani women, who wanted to learn English but were struggling to do so found that there weren't enough classes, waiting lists were long and they couldn't afford childcare whilst they were in class. If we want Pakistani women to speak English, we can't accuse them of laziness if they simply cannot access classes.
Another finding in our research was that migrant women simply weren't meeting British people in their daily lives, so couldn't practise English or make friends. There are around 66 million people in the UK, of whom over one million are British Pakistani. The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar made a study of how many people a typical person knows. He found that on average we are each connected to 148 others. That suggests that a perfectly integrated white British person should have 2 ½ Pakistani friends in their circles. But do we? Have we deliberately avoided the places where Pakistanis live or socialise? Have we chosen not to send our kids to schools where there are high numbers of Asian children? Have we chosen to live in places that we feel are 'safe' not because of low crime figures but because our neighbours look like us?
What are we doing that says, "Don't be scared! Welcome to the UK" rather than, "Go Home"? Pakistan has a long and rich history. How much is our approach one of trying to appreciate this beauty in our midst, how much about duplicating our behaviour as expats and colonialists, entirely unintegrated ourselves, simply shouting, 'DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH'? Creating a society where we all have opportunities and feel welcome is a responsibility for us all.
On 4 November Wonder Foundation will be welcoming young people from both migrant and established communities to a conference called "Who Belongs" so that they can explore the questions that I have wrangled with so many times with Zainab. We all have prejudices - how can we become more self-aware so that we can overcome them? How can we create opportunities for the open and equal sharing of ideas? What is the relationship between integration and assimilation? What can policy makers do to facilitate this? If you want to explore answers to these pressing questions, we'd love to have you on board.
There are no simple solutions to building integrated communities in the UK, but engaging ethnic minorities such as Pakistani women in looking for solutions is essential. I will leave the final words to the Pakistani poet Zehra Nigah:
The journey of togetherness
has its price,
unlike the simple, divergent paths.
Photo Credit: Franz & P