Caramelisation: Us v Them? ‘Honour’ Based Violence

Caramelisation: Us v Them? ‘Honour’ Based Violence
By Nazmin Akthar, Associate Editor and Correspondent for Cultural Affairs Memoirs of a very confusing lawyer

Confusion Part 3[1]:
Caramelisation: Us v Them[2]

I am going amateur psychologist in this article and I want to reiterate once more that the views and experiences are my own and it does not mean that I represent the views and experiences of others or of any particular group or community.

Best behaviour

A friend once asked me whether my mum knew every Asian in the city; she doesn’t but I am sure she comes close. My Asian friends in other cities say the same about their mothers but I think they’re exaggerating simply on the basis that Newcastle has less Asians than their cities do therefore it is more likely that my mum knows a higher percentage of Asians in our city than their mothers know in their respective cities. Just saying (I need to do something about this competitive streak of mine!).

Irrespective of how popular our darling mothers are (our fathers popularity is irrelevant for reasons unknown to me) every Asian will have at least one Aunty-Jee in their life. Actually let me correct myself – EVERYONE has an Aunty-Jee in their life.
You know that term “honour” that keeps being thrown about in the media that is so important in ethnic minority communities that it results in forced marriages and honour killings? The actual word is “izzat”[3]. This is where it gets tricky because honour is not a literal translation of “izzat” and neither, I submit, is it restricted to ethnic minority communities.

“Honour (izzat) has multiple connotations and overlapping meanings relating to respect, esteem, dignity, reputation and virtue… the specific acts that are deemed to increase or erode izzat are subject to constant contestation and change…”[4]

I don’t like criticism and forgive me for making an assumption but I bet you don’t. Neither will our parents. Cast your minds back to when you were growing up. Did your parents tell

you to say please and thank you? Did they ask you to brush your hair properly and wear your best dress in front of Aunt Jane? Did they ask you to always try your best at school and get the best grades possible? Now please don’t think I am doubting our parents intentions; of course all such matters were for our benefit. But human psychology also has a part to play. If your parents’ weren’t like this I am sure you will know of someone’s parents that were. You will know of a parent that would brag about their child’s achievements with pride and another who would wish their child would give them something to brag about. And Aunt Jane? Your mum’s dear friend who comes over with fresh cupcakes which she just happened to whip up an hour before, who must compare your fine china to hers, whose husband got a promotion and whose children have the sun shining out of their… errr… yeah, I think you know what I mean.

We all have Aunty Jane in our lives. British Asians like me just happen to add the “Jee” when referring to them[5] – it does nothing more than give respect by formalising the greeting, just as the French have the difference between “tu” and “vous”. We all also have “izzat”. I mean the everyday aspect of “izzat”: Respect. Our parents want to present us in the best possible way to the outside world because they know that the alternative is criticism. Your mum doesn’t want to look like a bad mother in front of Aunty Jane; She wants to be respected. Not so foreign now is it? So what turns it into an honour issue?
Aunty Jees

Some time ago a friend commented on how concerned she was that 16-18 year old British Asian girls today are coming out with archaic and patriarchal views that we had assumed would have disappeared with the last two generations. I responded with “they suffer from caramel nose syndrome” and I am now about to explain what I meant by that.
There are three ways you can deal with Aunty Jees:
1.    Ignorance: Self-explanatory; Ignore them and do your own thing irrespective of how much they will gossip about you.
2.    Pretentious silence: Again quite self-explanatory; Be on best behaviour when they arrive and then go back to your lives once they leave.
3.    Caramelisation: Caramel nose syndrome is the first limb whilst caramel hands syndrome is the second.
Fairness of skin is given a lot of importance in South Asian communities[6] and many will be striving to be as fair as possible. Generally those who give importance to colour in this way tend to be the caramel nose and caramel hand syndrome sufferers. I have chosen caramel for a reason too. You see there are some who are desperate to move themselves away from being dark but who unfortunately (for them) cannot pretend that they are fair. They will therefore call themselves an in-between colour which in Bengali is known as “Shemla” which I equate to caramel. It probably isn’t caramel but the darling Aunty-Jees call me “shemla” out of affection and my foundation says I am caramel so I decided one is the other. Incidentally my cousin says “shemla” is beige because her foundation says so. And incidentally her shade is always too dark for me. Make up is confusing.


Caramel nose syndrome is akin to brown-nosing but with a twist: imitation. In a bid to acquire approval from these Aunty-Jees who essentially measure and decide upon our “izzat”, whether this is respect, esteem or honour or whatever else, caramel nose syndrome sufferers imitate them. Dr Gill states it as such: “Consent to the patriarchal norms of religion, culture and class is strongly encouraged, and the degree to which each woman conforms to the value systems embedded in these institutions is reflected in the way she is perceived by her marital and blood families”[7]. I am taking this one step further and stating that in a bid to gain approval from Aunty-Jees many are incorporating the values of the previous generation and making it their own. Again this isn’t as foreign a concept as you think. It is how society works; a majority decide on the good and bad and measure accordingly. For some, Aunty-Jees are the majority. Caramel hands syndrome is where in a similar bid to gain approval a distancing exercise is undertaken whereby you push away and disassociate yourself from anything that could lead to you losing face in front of others. This isn’t a foreign concept either. What could be better examples of the Us v Them phenomenon, of the distancing exercise, than the headlines surrounding the Rochdale case?[8] The media went into overdrive highlighting the race and religion of the perpetrators. It is “them” doing this, not “us”. And then there is Shafilea Ahmed who highlights the imitation exercise[9]. She would normally be one of “them” but she became one of “us” and was therefore killed by “them”.

Us v Them

Has anyone ever thought to wonder what this Us v Them approach does? Whilst you become “us”, they form their own “us” and you become their “them”. The Rochdale gang disgusted me but so have those who have turned it into a race and religion matter instead of concentrating on the victims. Instead of everyone working together we have finger pointing and distancing. The Bangladeshis point fingers at the Pakistanis stating it is them not us. The Hindus point fingers at the Muslims saying it is them not us. The “English”, for want of a better description, point fingers at them all because, well, irrespective of whether you think you’re caramel, ultimately you’re all brown.
And no one looks at the plight of poor Shafilea.

Prosecution described her as a “thoroughly westernised”[10] girl. I have to admit I do not actually know what westernised means especially as I do not believe in labels, to me people are just people, but I am about to tell you what westernised can mean to some people. Note: ‘some’ people. I have to make it clear however that I have not met these people; the definition I am about to discuss is something I came across on Facebook and Twitter and more importantly I accept that I am putting forward my own interpretation and even then a very minimalistic version of my interpretation. In other words, I am putting forward my interpretation in its most simplified form and it may in fact be the case that the authors of such views did not mean what I am about to say they mean.
There is a view, according to my interpretation, that the term “westernised” is another way of saying “whore”. Before you get offended it is not race specific. In other words you can have Asian westernised women, and English not-westernised women. My English best friend who does not drink was once told she might as well be Asian. You may wish to read Dr Rita Pal’s account as an Indian westernised woman for further commentary on this[11]. For ease of reference, even though I have never heard this term before I will call not-being- westernised as “easternised”.

In anticipation of misinterpretation, I would like to make it clear that I do not think “westernised” women, if that is how you label yourself, are whores. In fact, I do not think there is any such thing as a whore. I absolutely abhor the term. I feel it is redundant in this day and age just as the term bastard is. No one has a right to judge an individual. Yet look at the plight of prostitute women in UK; they are treated like second class citizens who should be punished because they deviate from the so-called norms of society. (My LLM dissertation focused on this so if you do not believe me have a read). Look at this week’s “Silk” programme. A character assassination occurred because the woman was wearing a short skirt and the top three buttons of her blouse were undone. There is an obsession with conjuring up “good” and “bad” women; the way the Yorkshire Ripper’s case was handled is an example of that. It’s another Us v Them phenomenon. Sexism in this way is not culture- specific; it’s universal. Yet again, not so foreign now is it?
Why do I say the term “westernised” can be referenced to behaving like a “whore”? People in glass houses do not throw stones: it is a popular hindi saying. There has been an obsession with painting the “other” culture in a barbaric way; ethnic minority and Muslim women are shown as vulnerable, oppressed and repressed. Incorrect of course but then you should understand why incorrect “stones” are thrown back. If you are going to look at the extreme cases of “easternised” women being completely oppressed then someone else is going to look at the extreme case of “westernised” women being completely free. This is where my interpretation has kicked in; I submit that being completely free is another way of saying whore. And apparently, according to both the West and the East, it is not ok to be a whore.

I hope you will now understand my annoyance at Shafilea being described as “thoroughly westernised”. I know why she was; it will help the Jury relate to her. In other words, it will allow them to morph into Aunty-Jees and adopt her as one of “us”, akin to the imitation exercise, but you are also turning her into “them”.

Shafilea was an individual who wanted to live her life her way. There is nothing wrong with that. But you are making it sound wrong by turning it into an Us v Them issue. I am not saying that someone will condone her parents’ actions but they may condemn with a qualifier; for example, the killing was wrong but the frustration her parents’ experienced when faced with a westernised daughter is understandable.

That “but” has a very powerful effect especially given how broadly westernised can be interpreted, as I have clearly already shown, as well as how different views can be regarding “preventative measures”; because God forbid your child turn into one of “them”(note the sarcasm). And then if you take into account caramel nose syndrome, then you have young people adopting such views. This latter issue also has the further disadvantage of creating a further Us v Them, that of “good” children who acquire the approval of Aunty-jees and “bad” children who deserve reproach; if they can do it then why can’t you. It is these “bad” children that then become victims like

Shafilea. In other words, instead of stamping out the problem this Us v Them approach is fuelling it.

People have asked me why Elliot Turner’s case was not considered an honour killing. According to reports, Elliot Turner was a possessive boyfriend who became “furious when he met Emily and saw she was dressed in very short shorts, a leopard print bra and small waistcoat. He told her she was dressed like a whore”[12]. Emily and Shafilea were both victims of controlling perpetrators and to some Elliot’s fury could be equated to Emily being too westernised. This is what I mean by the fact that being westernised is not race-specific and moreover why I do not really understand what westernised means. Shafilea was killed because she could not live up to cultural expectations set by her parents but Emily similarly was killed because she allegedly breached the cultural expectations of her boyfriend. Was an element of honour not involved in Elliot Turner feeling as if his girlfriend was not behaving as she should? It is not my intention to state that Emily and Shafilea were both honour killing victims or that neither were. I am trying to say that they are both examples of violence against women. I am also blaming this on universal sexism, and I include sexist racism and racist sexism in its midst. I am also trying to say that this Us v Them approach that is revered by the media is not helping but rather, it is making it worse.

“In vulnerable and racialised communities there are tensions between protecting men from the racism of state agencies and negative media representation on the one hand, and the need to raise the issue of gendered violence and protect women’s rights in these communities on the other… there is a fear amongst some that putting honour crimes on the public agenda might cause a dangerous backlash in the immigration debate and heighten xenophobic sentiments…”[13]

If you do not want a repeat of the Rochdale case or that of Shafilea Ahmed then please take note.

© Nazmin Akthar, 2012
[1] I was supposed to be writing about being British and trying to understand multi- culturalism but it turns out that I opened Pandora’s Box in asking such questions; as a result it will require a lot more time and effort as well as much more writing space to do so. Thus I will be dedicating subsequent articles to the subject which will be available on StretLaw in the foreseeable future.
[2] Many thanks to Miss Aisha Aslam, Mr Sehb Hundal & Miss M. Chowdhury for their input and support. It is greatly appreciated.
[3] This is used in Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities.
[4]Aisha Gill, “Reconfiguring honour based violence as a form of gendered violence”; Mohammad Mazher Idriss & Tahir Abbas (Edited), Honour, Violence, Women & Islam, Routledge: Oxford; 2011; Page 229
[5] I must clarify however that I do not in fact add the “Jee” at the end; I think it is family specific.
[6] I have only come across this phenomenon in Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities so I cannot comment on others. This is not to be taken as an indication that this is not prevalent in other communities as well.
[7] Aisha Gill, “Reconfiguring honour based violence as a form of gendered violence”; Mohammad Mazher Idriss & Tahir Abbas (Edited), Honour, Violence, Women & Islam, Routledge: Oxford; 2011; Page 221
[8] Rochdale-child-sex-trial-Police-hunt-40-suspects-promise-arrests.html
[12] girlfriend?cat=uk&type=article
[13] Veena Meetoo & Heidi Safia Mirza, “There is nothing honourable in honour killings”; Mohammad Mazher Idriss & Tahir Abbas (Edited), Honour, Violence, Women & Islam, Routledge: Oxford; 2011


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