Monday 4 April 2011

Dinosaur Dads

This subject is one that I have been mulling over or a while. I must have started writing and then deleted what I have written half a dozen times, but I still haven't got to the heart of what I want to explore. With a good number of my mum's friends complaining about their children's marriages and quite a few people asking me if I know someone looking to get married, marriage, or getting married feels like a very complicated and uncomfortable subject to me. There is one aspect in particular though, that stands out for me in my community - the old-fashioned dad. I'm not talking about the gruff dad who can't bear to say goodbye to his daughter, but rather the patriarch who has adamantly laid out his children's whole future including who they will marry back home and when.

A few of our family acquaintances and a few of my friends are having problems with this particular type of behaviour. One of my dad's friends wed four of his six daughters to four brothers back home in his village whilst they were still in their teens, one or two of them were not keen, but didn't dare object. One of my uncle's neighbours took his son and five daughters back home and managed to get the whole lot married off in one go (including one who is training to become a Doctor). Another friend is being pestered to marry her cousin in this country who she knows has a history of run-in-'s with the police back home. Another is going through a messy divorce from a cousin she never wanted to marry in the first place and has found her Dad has disowned her and taken her ex-husband's side.

This stuff sounds crazy. It’s just the kind of behaviour that the newspapers lap up when they write about honour killings. The girls are the victims, old Muslim men the monstrous perpetrators. But I have never seen anyone try to get under the skin of these men, to humanise them and try to work out what makes them behave in this way. Of course the papers go for the easy answer - Islam, but there is never any analysis or exploration of what the link between Islam and what I call Dinosaur Dad behaviour is. Nor is there any discussion around the role of racism, immigration, fear of losing one's culture, family ties, parenting styles or the numerous other things which might contribute to the psyche of the Dinosaur Dad, and yes, perhaps Islam, or a lack of understanding of it may be a contributory factor.

Also, funny how people assume the victim is always a young women. No-one talks about the young men who end up in marriages they did not want and there are plenty of these in our community too. I can think of my dad's friend who tried to get his son to marry his cousin whilst he was back home and who married a different girl in the same village to get out of marrying his cousin. After two years of marriage in which the girl never looked anything but sad he divorced her and re-married a colleague at his workplace (it later transpired he had been physically abusing the girl from Pakistan). Another of my dad's friends coerced his son into marrying a distant relative in Pakistan only to find that his son refused to sleep in the same room as her on their wedding night. His family arranged the papers for her to come to the UK, but the son refused to live with her and later married another women. It took years for her to get a divorce, find her feet and re-marry.

The other thing I noticed in the black-and-white world of tabloid journalism is the way that violence, or threat of violence, is always linked to the coercion of young people. It's assumed the person married against their will only because they were terrified of physical harm. Granted in extreme cases this is the case, but this belies the complexity and subtlety of family dynamics in the homes in which Dinosaur Dad's exert their influence. Traditionally in Asian families a good child is an obedient child. We are raised with this philosophy from birth with parental approval or displeasure as a consequence for our every action. Alongside this there are very powerful social norms set out which describe how a good person behaves or does not behave - for instance a good son gets a job and pays off his parents’ mortgage, a good daughter has a successful marriage. Other values that are perpetuated include the idiom that a woman joins her in-laws house in her wedding palanquin (doli) and leaves only on her funeral bier or the one that says a good daughter-in-law is the one that quickly has sons. These values are perpetuated in subtle ways - the way everyone praises someone who has conformed, the way mothers point out examples of behaviour to their children (which Asian child has not heard "Aunty X's child is…why can't you be like that?). We internalise these values so fully that when we try to go against what our parents want for us, there is immense psychological discomfort. Sometimes the silent treatment or the thought of your parents being embarrassed in front of their friends is more powerful then the slap or the kick. Hard to believe? When someone hits you, you know you are the victim. When you assert yourself and hold out to get your way, you are suddenly in the wrong - your parents are the victim of the wilful child who doesn't care about his or her parents standing and honour. Sometimes the price of freedom or making your own choice is immense guilt - misplaced perhaps, but sometimes it doesn't immediately feel that way. That is not to underplay domestic violence and the abuse of young women - but one is the exception, the other affects the majority of young Asians and is so common and pervasive that it has up until now been entirely acceptable.

Most Asians are subject to the norms and expectations of their culture, but not all succumb to the kind of behaviour outlined above, there are plenty of examples of parents who happily supported their children's choice of partner or were not interested in relatives back home. So what sets the Dinosaur Dad's apart? I believe there are a number of factors. Most of these men are of a similar age and background and have certain experiences in common. They immigrated to this country in the 60's and 70's. They wanted to benefit economically from Britain but did not want to let go of their Pakistani identity - the clothes, food, family structures and behaviours. So for instance I wore only shalwar kameez from the age of about six because my dad decided they were about the only appropriate clothes for me (unless you count dresses with pants!). This was until the age of sixteen when I started college and there was no longer a uniform and I started wearing my odd variations on English clothes (a whooooole ‘nother post). I recall as a very small child, my grandfather saying that only bad girls went to college. I asked about boys and he said it was okay for them to go to college but not university - children who studied too much didn't do what they were told anymore, especially girls. It was felt that anything outside of the norm in dress, custom, marriage etc would lead to disaster as children started thinking for themselves, making their own choices, and generally wreaking havoc on the established order of what was deemed right. I believe our elders and parents did this with the best of intentions. They felt they were doing this for our good and because they didn’t believe that we would be able to make as good choices for ourselves as they would be able to.

Alhamdulillah those attitudes changed as we grew and I and my sisters went to university, worked, earned out own money and as the only married sister, I chose who I wanted to marry. It didn’t come easy though. As a teenager I saw my friends and their sisters and there seemed to be a pattern. The oldest sister left school at sixteen, went back home and married, wore shalwar kameez, stayed at home with kids. The next sister left school at eighteen, married back home, wore shalwar kameez, got a job. The next sister went to university, wore jean and eventually married back home before getting a job. The youngest sister went to university, wore what she wanted, married who she wanted and then got a job if she wanted (as her husband was from this country and generally more employable, she could afford to stay at home if she wanted to). As an oldest sibling I didn't like this pattern. I decided I was not going to live like this. At the very least I would go to university (and my mum was 100% behind me on this one as she had suffered the difficulties of being illiterate). So one choice at a time I wheedled, begged, cajoled and sneaked my way to doing things how I wanted to. It was a skill though - one that benefitted from my ability to carefully watch people's reactions and behave according to them and my very strong relationship with my dad.

Often I find young people in the position I was, decide they don't want to do what their parents want them to do and all hell breaks loose, or they do what they want secretly. The parents feel unappreciated and disrespected and the young person feels unsupported and unloved.

As I married my husband who was from Pakistan (and not my parents choice, but certainly the best choice I have ever made), my dad decided what works for me would work for everyone. My dad had to be gently and repeatedly reminded that his girls (or his son) were not going to go back home to provide visa's for all of his relations. It helped that my sisters were strong, independent and knowledgeable of the rights their faith endowed on them. So, there was the whinging, the "but my friends daughters…" and a bit of sulking, but he came round eventually - particularly when I reminded him of his own experience.

I think that's what nailed it in the end. He was raised the same way as he had tried to raise us. I adored my grandfather no end, but I know that as loving as he was towards us, he ruled his children with an iron fist. He decided how long they went to school, who they married, what work they did, which country they ended up in. There was no discussion, no negotiation, no choice at all. His children prided themselves on their obedience and expected the same from their children. Anything different pointed to their failure as parents.

This perhaps throws some further light onto why Dinosaur Dads behave the way they do. On the one hand there is saving face in front of their friends - my dad kept thinking of his friend (the one who married off four of his daughters into one family). On the other hand there is the feeling of personal failure as the man of the house and a father.

It's amazing how far some Dinosaur Dad's go on the basis of trying to save face and assert their will. I have seen fathers disown their children, threatening to throw them out, I have seen fathers who threaten to divorce their wives unless they get what they want (and in one case follow the threat through). I have seen the father leave home when the children and their mother stand up to him. More common is the silent treatment and the horrendous atmosphere in the house. Less common, but more severe is the last resort of taking teenagers back home and leaving them there until they comply.

Dinosaur Dads know though that there is only so much they can do. The law is on their children’s side as is mainstream opinion. Young people know the law; they know that even in Pakistan they can get help from the UK authorities. This being the case, more and more of our parent’s generation are having to back down in their crusade to use their kids to get the rest of Pakistan/India/Bangladesh over into this country.

I think also parents are starting to see the numerous cases where marriage back home resulted in disaster – cultural differences, marriage breakdown, economic disadvantage, divorce and worse. Perhaps the possibility of an even greater loss of face than your children marrying someone they have chosen? Even more, there is the fact that if you are having problems with your children, then so is almost everyone else in your community, who exactly is there left to lose face to? On the flip side, there is such a rate of marriage breakdown in the Muslim community right now that perhaps many in my parent’s generation are starting to realise it might be better to let their children have a say, or like my mum, let their children choose for themselves.

I could have written ten more blog posts on this (and probably will!) but I hope people will read this and understand that this issue is more complex than it looks. It’s not just about young girls rejecting the shackles of a barbaric Islam and their oppressive, brutal Muslim fathers. It is about complex family dynamics borne of a number of factors which need to be addressed sensitively, thoughtfully and by looking at the root cause rather than sensationalising the consequences.


  1. The title of your post does not do justice to the complex emotional and social issues you touch on in this post. I was never raised with any of the social pressures of most Asian girls because my mother went through the trauma of all that in her own life and tried very hard to raise us by the sunnah and avoid that drama.

    I did, however, experience it in my marriage to my husband, by way of his family, who are of Kashimiri British heritage. Reading over your article brings up such strong emotions for me that I am still battling with. Thanks for talking about this subject, I will definitely share this with others.

  2. I can't agree more with what you wrote about this very important issue. Please do write more on this issue insha-Allah as I strongly believe we need to deal with this issue with an open mind insha-Allah. Unfortunately most of the Muslims of previous generation don't even want to accept the fact that this problem exists. But I am hopefull that our generation will do better insha-Allah given we are following the real teaching of islam insha-Allah. May Allah swt make it easy for us, ameen.

  3. Like sister Asiya, this post brings up a lot of emotion for me too. Even though my parents aren't Muslim, they are from Pakistan and the cultural problems are the same.

    These are not Islamic problems, but cultural and many people in the media don't understand that, and make Islam out to be the cause of such things.

    I am proud to say that I find more and more people following and trying to follow Islam properly the way the prophet (pbuh) taught us, the way the Qu'ran teaches us.

    May Allah continue to bless us with His mercy and guidance and help us be the best Muslims we can be. Ameen.

  4. Thank you so much for this post Sis...I found myself hanging onto every word from start to finish. I am sure many many sisters out there can benefit from reading this post. You did more than just debunk some mysteries of Asian-immigrants attitudes but really highlighted how much of it is cultural. I imagine that just writing about it would have been paradoxical for you...easy to write about but also hard to put in words? Here in Cape Town we have our own cultural 'demons' when it comes to marriage, fathers and choosing partners but it warms my heart that the younger generation of sisters are now arming themselves with Islamic knowledge and asserting their rights. Alhamdulillah for all that...

  5. I think what you have said describes and explains very well in detail the situations mentioned.

    I think when people are educated and then it's realised that the importance of things should be focused on Islamic rights rather than cultural norms.

  6. Mashallah this is gonna steal this!!!!!!

  7. Assalamu 'alaykum:

    Thank you for sharing this insightful piece Umm Salihah!

    Whenever I come across reports in the media about issues of marriage related to religion and culture, I always remember that there are more sides to an issue which in many cases, were probably left out in the reporting. So it's wonderful to read your eye-opening explanation of what goes on in your community.

    I find it difficult, as a Muslim woman of Muslim parents, to understand the motivation behind these 'dinosaur dads' (by the way, a unique title that seems apt based on your descriptions). It's scary and I empathise with young people in situations like these.

    I hope you do continue writing on this topic exploring each layer and ways in which the community is changing, good and bad.


    P.S. I posted here one or two times last year after discovering your blog through a link at the Old Muslim Woman in a Shoe's blog. I haven't been back until now. Will try to visit more often inshaAllah.

  8. Going to keep this short and sweet, cos the post is long as are some of the comments...
    ...Well done sis. A long but worthwhile read.
    Big thumbs up from Haych.

  9. Well done...this is so true.But also there is that fact this has become an 'Islamic' problem because of the media, when it actually is an 'Asian' problem because it also happens with Sikhs' as well, my friend is Sikh and this has happened in her immediate and extended family in the UK and in Canada. I think its just that cultural norms override religion, not vice versa in our region of the world. I have friends who are from Saudi and Jordan, and they're religiously orthodox, but culturally liberal. What I've noticed with us Pakistanis' is that we are culturally orthodox and religiously unorthodox.


  10. Please write some more on this issue. It was such an interesting blog post and I really like your well-informed opinions.