counter culture

This blog contains much long-winded and possibly even tedious moaning about the heavy chains of obligation; usually in terms of having to earn money by doing boring things or working for idiots. A conversation this week provided a powerful dose of perspective.


“Are all pubs like the pub in Eastenders?” She asked.

“In the whole of Britain you mean? Erm.. no.”

“Do you have to have an alcoholic drink in them?”

“No, they do soft drinks. Coke, lemonade.”

“Do they?”

“Yep, even hot drinks if you want, most of them. Tea or coffee.”

“Really?! Wow. I’ve never been in one.”

She was 23, Islamic, had lived in the UK all her life; pretty, bright and alert yet nervously dizzy.  Also heartbreakingly repressed.

She swiped through the photographs on my tablet device, was surprised and complimentary about my work, then truly amazed by the beautifully artistic Vatican Museum ceilings in Rome.

“Are churches here like that?”

“Er, no. That’s quite special.”

Like her two younger sisters, she was answerable a 15 year old brother. ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? Who with?’ This is because her father and mother did it and always had – a father and mother who had apparently never extended any physical affection, a hug or a kiss.  Girls have it considerably worse: the duty and obligation to serve.

She had never travelled; holidays were such stress, they nearly went to places but it never happened. Cinema was banned, although her and her sisters disobeyed on this one, taking occasional trips, most recently to see The Hobbit, which bored her.

Earlier that week she received around 20 photographs of potential husbands, sent by her auntie.  The next day she had taken them into university and individually shredded each one.  As well as working in a supermarket, she studied for full degrees and dropped out to prolong her education: from English Literature to medical sciences.  She’d done so once or twice anyway, and she wasn’t getting along with the course.  Now at 23 she was getting old, marriage couldn’t be put off for much longer, especially as the eldest of 4 children.  Being educated had value not for getting a job or building a career – things not available to her, but to boost her profile as a bride.  An educated woman is more likely to be matched with a good man.

She didn’t have friends of the same religion and never had, even before moving across the country from Kent.  “But it’s not the religion,” she was clear to point out.  “It’s the culture.”  She had a degree of faith and considered that not everything in her religion was necessarily correct, but it’s the culture it breeds which is wrong, the levels of honour and pride.  Not the religion itself.  Mine wasn’t to question the hand of religion in creating the culture, whether those levels of honour and pride were the produce of fear.

It felt to me as if she didn’t speak this fluently or freely very often.  There was an air of the illicit about it, which I sense she enjoyed.  We’d known each other for over a year but had never spoken one-to-one in such depth.

What always struck me about her was her calm acceptance of everything.  That, in spite knowing these opportunities, this other world she was an active part of, there was no burning hunger.  There was no resentment or anger because, she said, she had never known different.  Those were things she simply could not have; that would be the way of her life; and that was that.

Such acceptance, borderline docility reminded me of the novel and later film, Never Let Me Go, and its dreamy, stifled world originally conjured by Kazuo Ishiguro.  In this place humans are bred with the primary purpose of donating their major organs aged 25 – 30.  They are told this as young children and never question that this is the way it must be.  They have relative freedom and readers and viewers wonder why they don’t simply run away, why they accept it.  They just do.

For her though, the threat of punishment for any dissent might have been greater and provide adequate disincentive.  So it is never questioned to argue, rebel, run away. The result of that it seems could never be good.  As well as ruining her younger sister’s lives and their prospects of good marriage, the stain on her family’s honour would mean she would always be looking over her shoulder, fearful of being found and having acid thrown in her face.

Today, 2013, a modern UK city. This happens.  You wonder about how such intense cultures can affect mental health.  There was a national news story just a few weeks ago which came from this same city about how a mother beat her child to death for failing to learn passages from the Qur’an.

Ethnic diversity is good and like most things it’s the questionable, difficult element which probably gets all the attention.  But hearing first-hand about ferociously strict cultures like this still surprised and shocked.  To me it sounded backwards and profoundly sad.