Bones get broken in a clash of cultures

September 9, 2005

Fear of a corrupting campus culture can lead some Asian parents to be overprotective. Matt Baker reports

Lecturer Usha Sood shudders when she recalls the worst example of a clash of cultures on her campus. A female Sikh student had come back to her room from a late night out and found her family waiting for her.

"They were furious at what they believed was a failure on her part to uphold the family values," Sood recounts. "Her father and mother held her down while her brothers broke her leg."

The incident illustrates how the new-found freedoms of this year's student intake may come at a high price for a few. For some young British Asian women, particularly those from a strongly religious background, pressure from family to maintain their values in the face of a campus culture that offers endless social possibilities can have devastating consequences.

Sood, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University for more than 30 years and a barrister for a human rights chambers, points out that the extremity of the incident she describes is rare (the student refused to see her family again). But she says the cultural fears that underpin such conflicts are still rife.

"There is a deep-rooted fear in some Asian communities that their daughters will be exposed to forces of moral corruption at university and that they'll be led astray into a promiscuous life," she says. "I've been asked on many occasions by parents if I could arrange for their daughter to attend female-only tutorial groups and live in a women-only student block.

There is a real fear that once their children are released from their strict family regime, they'll go off the rails."

In some cases, these fears are realised. Sood says many female students from strict religious families find their first few months of independence a heady and liberating experience. She has seen some arrive on campus from home in hijab and head swiftly for the toilets to apply make-up and change into Western clothing.

"Some students can go quite dizzy with their new-found freedom," she says.

"They'll start smoking, drinking and, according to my colleagues at the university health service, many will head straight to the nurse for contraceptive advice. There's a lot of obvious rebellion going on and often the parents don't know half of what their daughters are getting up to."

Another cause of breakdowns in relations between Asian women and their families is the pressure to enter into arranged marriages against their will. Annette Rimmer, an associate head in the faculty of health and social care at Salford University, says: "No major faith or culture condones forced marriages, but we know that they do still occur and this can be a problem, particularly for young women.

"From my experience, if a Muslim or Sikh woman is being coerced into marriage, it can lead to serious mental distress. Often she is not allowed to see a doctor on her own and is unable to obtain medical evidence to support her personal mitigating circumstance (PMC) form."

PMC forms are submitted if students foresee problems in keeping to deadlines or their study has been adversely affected by personal circumstances. To ensure a fair system for all students, PMC forms without evidence - usually a medical note - are rejected, which can mean the difference between a pass and a fail.

"These cultural differences need to be taken into account," Rimmer argues.

"University systems need to change and acknowledge that treating students equally does not always mean treating them the same."

However, many of the tensions between young Asian undergraduates and their families exist precisely because of inequalities.

Tahir Abbas, a senior lecturer in sociology at Birmingham University, says:

"There is a greater hold on women from Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Punjabi cultures, where there's a strong patriarchal system that still tends to subjugate women, in the main.

"Because of this, women are expected to carry out a lot of family obligations, such as looking after relatives, and of course this interferes with their studies. Some of them deal with this cultural baggage better than others but for many it can leave them in an isolated and distressed position because their families see their studies as secondary to their duties as a woman."

It is unknown exactly how many young Asian women drop out of university because of family pressures, but there are increasing calls to address their parents' fears about university life.

"Not all Asian students choose to go wild at university and many focus on their religion, but some are not helped by their parents and this needs to be addressed," Dr Abbas says. "There needs to be more outreach work to assure parents that their daughters are not going to be culturally imperialised or morally corrupted - so they don't need to place so many restrictions on their daughters' behaviour."

One of the main groups he believes is in need of most reassurance is that of families who lived in rural areas in places such as Pakistan and Kashmir before arriving in Britain. "Coming from subsistence economies into complex urban metropolises is bound to present cultural problems," he says.

Having guided two daughters herself through university, Sood says she can sympathise with some parents but says her decision to not enforce tight restrictions on her daughters has paid off. Now in their mid-twenties, they have both come round to her traditional views and were never in danger of going off the rails, she says.

"I don't drink myself but I didn't tell them not to drink," she says. "It's something they had to decide for themselves. After all, it would be strange for any British youngster never to go to the pub or for a night out clubbing these days - and some parents need to realise that."

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