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Birmingham and the emergence of inter-marriage

The last of four excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’: on the emergence of live and let live.

lead Hands. Psychology Today. All rights reserved.In the forthcoming book, ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’, crowdfunded by Unbound, Jon Bloomfield has interviewed fifty migrants to Birmingham from all walks of life: a mix of first and second generation; men and women; from Ireland to India, Pakistan to Poland, the Caribbean to Somalia who talk frankly and with humour about their experiences both at work and in society more generally. In this last of four extracts, from the chapter onSex, Love and Marriage’: he searches for the life beyond peaceful co-existence in the shift towards inter-marriage.

There has been a live and let live ambience in the city for several decades. People have not necessarily been getting on like a house on fire but they have got by and learned to accept and at times respect one and other. To draw a Cold War analogy, for most of the time there has been peaceful co-existence, with various efforts to create a more harmonious and equal city, interrupted by the odd flare up.

Inter-marriage and mixed relationships crossing ethnic and religious boundaries are one key indication of the extent of more far-reaching integration. It is a powerful sign at the grass roots of moving beyond passive co-existence, since nobody is forcing these relationships. Indeed, the reverse, the strength of passion, feeling and commitment outweighs the strong community, religious and family resistance that mixed couples often have to confront. Survey data reveals that part of the break from traditional conservatism on social and sexual mores has been a notable shift in attitudes towards inter-marriage.

Survey data reveals that part of the break from traditional conservatism on social and sexual mores has been a notable shift in attitudes towards inter-marriage. In the mid 1980s, a British Social Attitudes survey showed 50% of the public were against marriage across ethnic lines. The figure dropped to 40% in the 1990s and now stands at 15%. One in four of the over-65s still say that they would be uncomfortable about a child or grandchild marrying somebody from a different race, but that falls to one in twenty of those under 25. 

This is not just a bland answer given to opinion pollsters. These trends are evident on the streets and in the households of Birmingham.  The 2011 Census records nearly 25,000 households composed of whites and black Caribbeans; over 3,000 households of whites and black Africans; over 11,000 white and Asian households and 8,500 of other mixed backgrounds.  In total, around 5% of the city’s households are of mixed heritage. This trend is directly affecting the lives of many migrants and their families in the city.

The grip of religion and race on Irish and West Indian migrants appears to have weakened most. Peggy says that it was not important to her, whether her children married Catholics or not. Two of them have, two of them haven’t. Her eldest married a girl who didn’t have any religion.

“People from all parts of the world have married into my family. I have my grandson who has married a girl who already had a black child. He calls me granny. He loves me; I love him. I don’t treat him any different from anyone else in the family. To me everybody is the same. If you’re a black fella and you bleed, what colour is your blood?”

Chris was brought up as a Catholic, baptised and went to Communion but is no longer practising. His parents were aware that bringing up children in a different country meant there would be different influences on them and that they had to respect the choices that could be made by a younger generation. This was especially the case with regards to relationships. On the question of marrying a Catholic, he is adamant.

“No, no no. It was never on the cards. There was no overt pressure whatsoever. Whoever you become friends with there was always a welcome… my parents would rather see and meet who me and my brother were socialising with rather than us hiding from them.” 

It is happening among the new Polish migrants too. Mila tells me that her husband’s sister, where they lodged when they first arrived in England, is married to an Indian Christian who works at the Deutsche Bank. ”I have got no problem with that.”

Sam was brought up in a strict Pentecostal household with eight brothers and sisters. He recalls his first white girl friend, Sarah, a wonderful woman with whom he was smitten. He remembers being terrified to tell his father that he had a white girlfriend.  His Dad – a minister in the church – surprised him by asking ‘do you love her?’  Sam said, he didn’t know and his Dad said, ‘well, you need to figure it out. That is what is most important, son.’

In his varied life Sam has gone out with black, white and Asian women. Mo is similar. While brought up as a Methodist and attending Sunday school in his youth, Mo is not religious at all. Unmarried, he emphasises that going out with people from the same background or religion is not important to him at all. 

“I’m a committed heterosexual and let’s face it at the end of the day I have always been brought up on the idea that if you are over 18 and consenting, you can do whatever you want - inside the law. People can settle with anybody that they want to settle with. I am not too worried about what anybody thinks. My parents are from a different generation.”

David is married to a white woman and has three children. He too had been brought up as a Methodist and went to Sunday school until he was fourteen. He has been married twice, both times to white women and experienced no resistance of any kind from either his parents or relatives. He thinks the prevalence of more mixed relationships among people from the Caribbean compared to other migrant groups is historical.

“My perception is that the Caribbean upbringing, the way I behave and believe comes more from Europe. Just the whole idea of choice… There is not a tradition that you just do what your parents want you to do. Not doing what your parents want you to do, does not carry a Caribbean stigma. Because you have a free choice.  There is far less of an African tradition to shape the structure of the family. This distinction between some African communities and the Caribbean helps to explain why there has been less resistance to inter-marriage.”

Certainly, this chimes with Ben’s experience, for it is the pressure of this African tradition that was a key factor in his decision to stay in Birmingham after completing his PhD rather than return to Nigeria. He feels that background or religion should not be decisive regarding  who becomes his life partner. He goes out with people from a range of backgrounds. However, he has to carry the expectations of his family. They are more conservative. They feel they should know very well the background of the person Ben marries, which basically means Ibos. That is their take on life.

“I don’t agree with limiting people’s choice of association based on religion or ethnicity. I will not do that. I don’t approve of that. My parents know that.  We had had lots of discussions on this topic which is why I know they are so conservative. So I will just have to deal with that. If I met a soul mate here right now, then I would go ahead and marry her. It is an issue that would have to be confronted. This is real life. It is one of those difficult issues.”

The issue of ‘marrying out’ arouses far greater passions, fears and traumas within Asian communities. For some it is a cultural preference; for others it is a religious diktat.

While there is a widening acceptance of the inevitable decline of the arranged marriage tradition, the issue of ‘marrying out’ arouses far greater passions, fears and traumas within Asian communities. For some it is a cultural preference; for others it is a religious diktat.

Two second generation mothers of Sikh background clearly see it as a cultural preference. Who Sukki’s daughters go out with, she says, is up to them. Within families, the children of the next generation have started to get married and generally it tends to be within the same cultural background. The kids are aware that ideally their parents would prefer this, purely because then the families have more in common. That is not to say that there are not interracial marriages. Her relaxed tone comes through when she says,

“Some of the children have had mixed marriages. You know, you only live once so it is whatever works out really.”

Mandeep has talked it over with her oldest daughter.

“We would prefer it if she goes out with boys from her own background. You are more likely to get on with people from a similar background but if she fell in love with someone from a different background then I’ll have to accept it.”

Pam, the shopkeeper, believes in the universal values of Sikhism. His outlook is clear.

“My children are humans, they can marry any human that they choose. They will not be forced. That is an issue for them to decide, not for you to arrange.”

For the accountant Raj, it is still important that the kids his children marry are at least Asian/Indian. Being an Indian is important, whether they are Hindu or Sikh.

“Me and my wife, we were brought up that we should be marrying within our caste. I am definitely relaxed about the caste business but definitely not on marrying Muslim, English or black people…our preference is definitely that it should be Indian.”

They accept that there are more mixed relationships happening and amongst people he knows. He gives the example of his wife’s sister in law, where her two sisters are both married to white guys. In his relaxed, laid-back style Raj just says, ‘look, this is our preference. We would be very disappointed but we would not disown them or anything.’

Amongst Muslims, whilst the picture is differentiated, the inhibitions and resistance are definitely stronger. There may be growing acceptance of change with regard to arranged marriage but for many, inter-marriage is a step too far. As Kalsoom expresses it,

“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t be very happy about it. I would like them to marry Muslims. Mingling or friendships OK, but ladies don’t do that. I know it is happening but religiously it is wrong. That is where the religion comes in. It is haram. Islam is a total way of life.  If you study properly you will find answers to all the issues in life. So mingling with different people as a friend – that is fine but when it comes to men and women, boys and girls mixing with each other for that purpose or as boy-friend and girl-friend then that is where I am still very old fashioned. I don’t agree with that because I think for one woman and one man you don’t have to go through all these experiences with the different people.”

It is hard to explain she says, as she chuckles and gives herself a rueful smile. She then admits that her eldest son is married to a non-Muslim, a Spanish Catholic whom she gets on well with. She would have preferred that he marry a Muslim girl who is more aware of his culture but if he chooses her as his life partner and he gets on with her, then she is prepared to go along with it.

“I was hoping that as she sees the culture and studies it, she would become a Muslim but I don’t think that she should change her religion just for the sake of marriage. That would have been just for show. Now they have two sons and I am not sure what religion they will have as they grow up. Deep inside, no matter how I try to be broad-minded, I wish that his family grow up as a Muslim, as a faith. And believing in one God.” 

There is anguish and pain etched across her face as she explains the dilemma that she feels. Yet, at the same time she has the humanity to acknowledge that her daughter-in-law is a very good mother and wife and that she couldn’t hope for anyone better from the Muslim religion.

Zahida takes a harder line. Like Kalsoom, she went on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s and returned much more devout. On inter-marriage, she has explained to her children that they shouldn’t be doing it but if they do, she then asks whether the partner is happy enough to become a Muslim. This is what happened with her own daughter. The person she married was a Sikh. He converted as Zahida wanted but she feels it was for the sake of getting married, not for the religion.

“It really hurts a lot. I do meet her but the way she has rebelled against my religion, it just hurts me. He is a good person, she is very happy with him. They have a three year old son. But it hasn’t been done for the right reasons. The actual practice is not there.”

Yet she is quite clear what would have happened if he had not converted.

“Then I wouldn’t be meeting my children. They have to separate from me. I am such a person that if I can give up everything for the religion, then why can’t I leave my children behind as well?”

The contrast with Rashda, who hasn’t gone on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, is quite stark. To her, the question of inter-marriage is not that important. Originally, when her eldest son asked her she said she would love him to marry a Muslim because there would be no complications for the children. He said ‘OK, he would marry an Egyptian.’ She said no, she wanted them to be Pakistani, and he said, ‘so the culture is important too.’ Rashda realised from this and later conversations that she would have to change.

“I have grown up as well now. To me what is important is that they are happy, that the person is nice. It doesn’t matter who the person is. He had an Indian girlfriend and he now has two children with a Chinese woman. He doesn’t believe in marriage.“

Her three sons get on well with the Chinese daughter in law and Rashda does too. She sees the happiness of her children as the most important.

Many migrant households are grappling with these issues of tradition, religion and modernity. Ashraf’s family come from rural Mirpur. He lives across the road from his mother; two brothers live in the same street; and all eight of his siblings still live locally.  Yet his family’s horizons are gradually widening. His sister recently got married to a Muslim from Morocco. They have moved beyond the thinking of their parents. He is very clear about the tensions between his heritage and the realities of the modern world.

“We are trying to juggle our Pakistani traditions and religion - two different things – and also trying to be part of a society where our children are happy. We have moved the acceptance level threshold so far but there are boundaries…  I am a bit more open-minded and secular than my wife. She, as a strong believer, would like to see our children marry other Muslims, preferably Pakistanis but there is no real rule. The key focus for us is that as long as they are happy.” 

It has now become most important for her to find the right person, irrespective of their religion, if any, or skin colour, to marry someone who has the same values as well.

For other Muslims, these boundaries are more fluid and the rigidities of orthodox religion more open to question.  Zubeda comes from a Muslim household where five of her siblings have chosen to marry people from a similar background. She is not married herself and has changed her mind on the question. It has now become most important for her to find the right person, irrespective of their religion, if any, or skin colour, to marry someone who has the same values as well. She gets on well with her mum and dad and respects them but this is sensitive territory. When asked whether she has discussed this with her parents, she lowers her eyes, hesitates and says, ‘Er, no.’

Ozlem had to tell her parents back in Turkey that she was going to marry an English guy. She sees herself as more of a spiritual Muslim who met her husband while working in Birmingham. Her parents were not happy when she first told them. It seemed like an alien idea to them. Her four sisters were OK with the idea. They were liberal like Ozlem but her mum was worried, especially about what her dad would say and what others in the community would think. They were shocked first of all but once they met her husband and realised there was no other way, then they accepted it and have got on well with him. Ozlem is very content in her mixed marriage. She is a non-practising Muslim. She feels that the religion is a part of her at a spiritual level helping her to believe in Allah and the goodness of humanity. Her husband is an atheist; they talk to their son about their different outlooks but make sure that they impose nothing on him. 

Then there are those brought up within the Muslim faith and the Pakistani heritage community who reject the impositions of this traditional world. Samera likes the freedom that being brought up in the UK offers and she makes full use of it.  A single woman in her late 30s, she enjoys her work in the Bull Ring, lives at home and is happy to be part of a family, as she says ‘a bit like the Greeks and Italians do it.’ She is pragmatic enough to acknowledge that it helps with her living costs. She doesn’t have or want any children. She doesn’t wear a headscarf in the day, only putting one on when she goes to the mosque, as a sign of respect. She likes to wear jeans and T shirts but doesn’t wear short skirts. But on men, she is clear: who she goes out with is her business and no-one else’s.

“I like it in this country that I am free to do what I want. I go out with Italian men. That’s who I like. I went out for quite some time with an Italian guy. He was a Catholic. My friend, she goes out with black men. You should be able to go out with who you like.”

She only takes boys home when it is serious as she did with her Italian ex-partner. Otherwise, she goes round to their place. She is clear that there is a problem with many men in her community.  "They tell me if I don’t marry I’ll go to hell and I say, if you don’t marry, will you go to hell too?”

“You’ll get a different view from Muslim men. Too many of them want to keep women in their place. They tell me if I don’t marry I’ll go to hell and I say, if you don’t marry, will you go to hell too?”

The sexual and relationship kaleidoscope within the city is shifting, affecting all migrant communities.  There aren’t too many like Sam or Samera, but they are not alone. Some want to hold back these tides of change but the forces making for a more open society and wider choices are winning out. A Saturday visit to the humming, mixed crowds at the Bull Ring shopping centre or the Star City cinema complex bears witness to the transitions underway. Wing Yip, the global businessman, sees the inevitability of mixing and inter-cultural relationships.  He has got one daughter who has married an Englishman, who comes from a Warwickshire farming family; he also has two nieces who married locally.

“That is inevitable. Put it this way. In America they are called ‘banana’ – outside yellow, inside white. It is not an abusive term. Born here they have more in common with local people as they are. In a globalising world this is just a matter of time.”

How long, is a question of politics, culture and religion. This will not be a smooth linear process, an upward curve of gradual, molecular integration as the power of sexual attraction overcomes the fear of ‘the other’ and the pull of tradition and religion.

The growing social split with regard to religion will be a key factor. In the three decades until 2012 the proportion of those surveyed in the general population claiming no religion had risen from less than one-third to almost a half.  Regular religious attendance continues to fall. The influence of religion is declining in a number of migrant communities such as the Catholic Irish and Afro Caribbean but, in stark contrast, its hold is growing amongst Muslims, for reasons explained in the previous chapter. This linkage of the Muslim faith, with personal identity and world politics is a powerful combination, which the government and religious organisations within Saudi Arabia actively promote within Sunni Muslim communities in Europe. The mass pilgrimages to Mecca serve as a strong reinforcement of the most fundamentalist sentiments within Islam, as a number of the interviewees have shown. The stricter the religious interpretation of Islam, the harder it is to inter-marry. The injunction that in a mixed marriage the non-Muslim has to convert is a particular barrier which cuts across a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and helps to explain why white Britons have much stronger concerns about intermarriage with Muslims than with other blacks or Asians. This is a touchy topic for others too. Pam, as a Sikh, recalls that he explained to his daughter that if she wanted to marry a Muslim and that he wanted to marry her for what she is, that is fine. But if he wants to marry in order to convert her, it means he doesn’t love her for what she is.  Forcing you to change your religion is what he sees as dangerous. The cross-section of views outlined here shows the diversity of opinion that exists on the ground in Birmingham between fundamentalist and more liberal strands of opinion. That tension exists within all religions.

This is an on-going tussle within Islam. The cross-section of views outlined here shows the diversity of opinion that exists on the ground in Birmingham between fundamentalist and more liberal strands of opinion. That tension exists within all religions, as illustrated by the experiences of the Catholic church over the last three decades. The extent to which those strands of opinion most prepared to accommodate to the realities of a twenty first century world – above all in respect of recognising other faiths, women’s rights and sexuality – come to predominate within all religions will be crucial in determining the pace of integration within our societies. Here, the big cities are the harbingers of the future. In Birmingham, the dominant temperament remains one of live and let live. There are those of a fundamentalist disposition on social and religious as well as political issues but Raj captures the prevailing mood with his cryptic observation,

“Of course, inter-marriage is happening. Like I said our preference is for our kids to marry Indians. But where inter-marriage does happen, we are not going to be Taliban about it.”

About the author

Jon Bloomfield is an honorary research fellow at Birmingham University and co-author with Robin Wilson of Building The Good Society: A New Form of Progressive Politics (Compass)


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