Being different is different here in the UK
I've known Western multiculturalism mostly through its Canadian version. For me, being Canadian means to have graduated from a Canadian secondary school, to have studied at McGill, a Canadian university, to have worked on Bay Street, a Canadian financial centre - it means to be part of the Canadian 'system.' These shared experiences create powerful collective identity, such that they replace lines of race and ethnicity between identity divisions. The integration of immigrants, one generation on, is greatly facilitated by these mechanisms. As a result, Canadian multicultural identity takes on a jovial and celebrated acceptance of differences - my Pakistani heritage included.
In the UK, immigrants from Pakistan often live in bubbles with much of their existences isolated from the rest of the UK. A trip to Bradford provides a striking example. You enter an environment that appears a degenerated version of 1950s Pakistan upheld by fierce and often illogical identity protectionism - a speaker at the local mosque is condemning toothpaste in favour of miswak! Contributing to the existence of such bubbles is the relative prevalence of independent and state-funded faith schools in the UK. British courtesy to keep distance and not interfere also play their part. In this British context, I am much more attuned to the Pakistani and Muslim aspects of my identity.
The news media dominates the perception of identity and indeed impacts its formulation. Muslims, in international news coverage, are usually depicted as terrorists, misogynists or dogmatic zealots. Domestic news reports attribute negative activity involving British Pakistani population to their identity - an isolated local community facilitates this attribution, the occurrence of 7/7 encourages this attribution. Dark shadows of negative perceptions exist here in the UK on Pakistani and Muslim identity.
Such shadows exist in Canada as well. A very dear friend of mine once remarked with great surprise "Omg T, your dad is so funny and nice!" after meeting my Pakistani father. I responded, timidly, "What did you think he would be like...?" In the UK, I feel, the negative perceptions are much, much stronger.
But, there is a silver lining in the UK model of multiculturalism that is best understood when contrasted against the limitations of the Canadian model. An Indian-Canadian friend described integration as "an Indian face that thinks, talks and walks Canadian - no real differences, no real diversity, no real Indianess." This entails a great loss for society - a loss of talent, intelligence and creativity. At the same time, it is well documented that too many differences reduce prevailing trust and generosity. Does this mean that the only way to host multicultural society is to eliminate all but superficial differences? I surely hope not, the corollary would be a pretty grim prediction for the world at large. And it's limiting for individuals. You cannot reach your highest potential if you are unable to reconcile in your identity, your history with your current existence.
The UK gives immigrants the opportunity to do just that. It is, effectively, more free. And greater differences can co-exist when understanding is increased to offset loss of trust. Understanding, however, has to include critical examination that emanates from within the immigrant community.
That is the reason for my work.
Being shortlisted for the Women of the Future Awards in association with Shell, I have had many interviews where I was asked "And why will you stay in the UK to do this work?" I answered, "Because this is where it all began for me, I'm inextricably tied to this land - you see I was born here, in post-colonial context, a Pakistani."
Tahreem Arshad has been shortlisted for the 2013 Women of the Future Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 13 November and is hosted by Real Business in association with Shell.