Religion, Gender and Identity Construction amongst Pakistanis in Australia

Nadeem Malik, “Religion, Gender and Identity Construction amongst Pakistanis in Australia” in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

Australia – Pakistan: Historical Links

According to the other view forwarded by Syed Atiq ul Hassan, the history of Pakistani migrants can be divided into three phases. The first phase (1860-1930) is the one in which the British (and later the newly ‘federated’ Australia) brought cameleers from areas (Sindh, North West Frontier Province, Balochistan), that became Pakistan after 1947. The second phase started after the Second World War. In this phase, it was mostly students and professionals who came to Australia under the Commonwealth Scholarships and the Colombo plan. And the third phase started from 1973 when the White Australia Policy was abandoned and professionals were able to migrate under a points scheme (Syed 2003). (p.167)

… The cameleers that came in the first phase are represented in most written records, according to Syed, as Afghans (Syed 2003). The reason for this, he argues, may be because the majority of them came from the Northern Frontier, close to what is now the Pakistan/Afghan border. Amongst them were also those Afghans who were settled in the areas, which are now part of Pakistan. According to Syed, around three thousand people came to Australia from the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent between 1860 and 1930, the majority from present-day Pakistan. (p. 167-168)

… if we follow Syed’s argument, that most cameleers who are popularly known as Afghans in Australia, were from the areas that became Pakistan after the partition of [the] Indian subcontinent, the question arises whether we should consider a number of Australian born Afghans as Pakistanis as well. (p. 169)

The Afghan Cameleers have always fascinated me since a friend first introduced me to them. I have been to Australia numerous times, and what’s nice is that they are indeed recognised for their contributions to Australia. The above-mentioned Syed describes them as ‘pioneers in the development of the Australian infrastructure.’ They were also responsible (to an extent) for bringing Islam to Australia.

One of the themes discussed in this chapter is the construction of identity. And something we must bear in mind is that identity is constructed with different reference points. What do I mean by this? Take for example, if someone migrated from Pakistan to Singapore in the late 1990s, he will easily identify as Pakistani because the national identity of Pakistan had been around for over five decades. But if someone migrated from the Punjab – specifically the part of that became Indian Punjab – in 1940, and his family had to move west to Lahore, what does that make him? Similarly, I have had people refer to themselves as Afghans or as having Afghan ancestry when their forefathers came from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. So really, in that sense, identity is fluid and it is constructed with different reference points.

Identity Construction

There are many sites of identity construction for the Pakistani diaspora in Australia. However, three stand out as the most important to both external sources of differencing and internal self-identifying: Islamic religion, patriarchal family traditions, and the gender relations that are so often implicated in religious and family matters. (p. 169)

What about the sites of identity construction for the Pakistani diaspora in Singapore? In my research thus far, the three that stand out are: (1) ancestry and heritage (2) language (3) culture. I will be discussing them in my thesis.

Family Traditions and Identity

…based on Berry’s formulation of a two pronged strategy of ‘cultural maintenance’ and ‘contact participation’ of diasporic communities, it is observed that Pakistani women are mostly supposed to adopt the former strategy and men the latter. Women are usually expected to maintain the cultural traditions within the family and men to establish contact with the wider society. (p. 173)

From interviews, I find that what happened in Singapore is somewhat the reverse. Migrant mend tend to socialise within their male migrant communities – with some interaction with locals at the mosque or as colleagues. It is their wives who interact with the wider society – primarily the neighbours. This is true for both Pakistani and non-Pakistani wives.

With regards to religion,

As mentioned elsewhere, most Pakistanis are not orthodox Muslims and do not engage in the ritual practices of Islam. In most cases, this is even true for those women who accept the traditional gender roles. Religion is usually rediscovered by men as part of a diasporic revanchism [revanchism = a policy of seeking to retaliate, especially to recover lost territory] that involves maintenance of patriarchal family values and gender hierarchy. It is commonly observed that Pakistanis at times become more religious abroad than they were in their own country. Men advocate religion within their families to justify gender roles. While this might be true in their country of origin as well, advocating religion and justifying patriarchal family traditions through religion becomes even more important in a western society. (p. 174)

The unique thing about Singapore and Malaya (as compared to the UK and other parts of the western world) is that there are Muslims in the host society. The pressure to be in an endogamous marriage is lesser, as long as there is a potential spouse from the same religion. The effects of such mixed marriages will be explored in my thesis as well.

On the whole, it can be argued that the process of identity formation lies in-between the needs to relate to the new culture whilst maintaining the actual or newly perceived patriarchal family traditions… the families in which both men and women have integrated well into the wider society have to face community pressure. They are seen as westernized and away from their own culture… Such families are therefore at times isolated from their own community. They have more interactions and relations with Australians than Pakistanis. Community pressure, therefore, also impacts upon the integration process of identity formation of individual immigrant families… (p. 176)




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