The story of British Pakistani men, told by a native informant

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan 16 Aug 2018
Two nights ago I found myself gripped by BBC Two’s new, “Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men?” presented by Mehreen Baig.

I was initially dubious that a one-hour documentary would be able to dissect the identity “Asian men” with much nuance, or to address them as multifaceted beings. I was also concerned about Mehreen’s positionality as a presenter who gained her name through appearing in the reality show “Muslims Like Us”, rather than for being an investigative journalist. But I was gripped because what I saw was much more disappointing than merely unnuanced or unrigorous, Lost Boys? was a lazy reproduction of racist, culturally essentialist stereotypes approved by an “insider”.

The “Asian men” the documentary focused on were specifically those of the Kashmiri, or “Mirpuri”, diaspora in Bradford. This is a diaspora which has been historically demonised in the British media, as my family, based in Bradford for fifty-five years, well know. From representations of the 1988 “Rushdie affair” which internationally portrayed Bradford’s Pakistani men as militant, fundamentalist and “backwards”, to the 2001 riots blamed on their gang mentality, and post-7/7 narratives around Yorkshire’s so-called “parallel communities” being linked to terrorism, Pakistani men in Bradford are a demographic consistently disparaged and demonised. To my mind, documenting them for TV would require a sensitive approach taking account of the history and context of their lives. However, the production team behind Lost Boys? appear to have thought otherwise.
Indeed, the central problem with the documentary is that throughout an entire hour focused on a racialised, largely working-class, Muslim minority; questions of race, racismor class were never explicitly mentioned or interrogated in a structural way. Instead, a narrative was spun that approached the men as if they lived lives devoid of context. They were derided as “princelings” who were not business-minded enough to get very far in life – as contrasted with one random Gujerati family from Uganda who Mehreen has a pint with (proof they, as compared with the “Mirpuris”, are better assimilated, by the way).
I sat, awestruck that this laughable narrative was framed as an explanation for the challenges in “Asian men’s” lives. There was no comment on the effects of structural disadvantage and racism in the employment market, racism and being “written off” at school, or the deindustrialisation of Bradford which has harmed employment for multiple generations. There was no mention of austerity having removed social services and support from young people’s lives. No hint that intergenerational cycles of poverty may play a role. In fact, there was no appreciation that to compare the Ugandan-Gujerati diaspora with the Mirpuri diaspora is to disingenuously homogenise “Asians” and make a false comparison.
Ugandan-Gujeratis largely migrated from different class backgrounds with more social capital than migrants from Kashmir who came to the UK specifically due to the colonial link and the metropole’s calls for unskilled industrial labourers after the second world war. If this had been a rigorous investigation Swann Productions could have included these factors and further explored the fascinating pattern of resource divestment from young Pakistani boys since 2003 as part of the government’s counterterrorism strategy which instead (bizarrely) funnelled money to Muslim/Asian girls (conflated in policy) on the assumption they were neglected. All of these factors were absent from the documentary in favour of an easy narrative of victim-blaming. In fact, Mehreen’s reflections throughout the show insinuated that the solution to problems facing “Asian men” seemed to lie in making it down to the local pub more often and just thinking as if they had more social capital.
What is perhaps even more frustrating than this absurdly reductive analysis, is that the documentary was evidently made with a hypothesis to be proved, not tested. After I tweeted about my frustrations with the show I received responses from two separate men who informed me that they had been filmed extensively for the production – only to find out recently that they had been dropped because, as the producers told them, their lives reflected “what’s going right”, not “what’s going wrong”.
These experiences reveal the human side of the selective narrative Lost Boys? presented. Far from being rigorous, it was an investigation presenting an argument, not findings. By erasing stories of financial success, educational attainment or defeating the structural odds, participants were disrespected and a selective story was told which is lazy at best, and exploitative at worst – bringing me to my final grievance.
The topic of how Mehreen conducted her investigation was the issue of most frustration to the hundreds who liked and retweeted my critique online. She distances herself as much as possible from other British-Pakistanis, particularly the working-class Mirpuris she finds in Bradford – whose terraced housing she incredulously comments on as “so close together” – positioning herself as someone with less proximity to the community she is investigating, and more to a middle-class, white voyeur.
This explains the often patronising anthropological tone she uses in the documentary which is reminiscent of ethnographers exploring “native” subjects 150 years ago. Crucially though, while occupying this “outsider” position makes her relatable to an audience with no personal experience of being Pakistani in Bradford, Mehreen simultaneously reaps the rewards of being an ethnic “insider”. She gains the trust of participants and viewers because of this, making her findings – which reproduce racist, classist tropes vilifying Pakistani men – appear valid to a wider audience. In colonial times, people positioned in this way were known as “native informants” – used to validate the dehumanising views the coloniser already held. In this case, Mehreen’s positionality helps bolster liberal racism and Islamophobic tropes about Pakistani men as lazy and uniquely misogynistic (she repeatedly asks whether the women in these men’s lives cook for them to the point that one would assume non-Pakistani men in England must never benefit from patriarchal norms and women’s domestic labour).
By the end of the show, it was not the boys who were lost, but me. I cannot fathom what the documentary achieved other than to consolidate racist, victim-blaming accounts of Pakistani men in Yorkshire. Such an outcome is not only disappointing but actually harmful since those very tropes are ones used to justify the maltreatment of Pakistani and Muslim men in the justice system, demonise them in the media, and even inform the “science” behind the government’s radicalisation thesis which rests on culturalist assumptions that have been deemed barely valid by the psychologists who wrote the study themselves. And yet, it is the mass belief in tropes such as this documentary put out that keep the stigma, racism and Islamophobia, going.
This documentary should have been presented as the opinion piece of an uninformed outsider arriving to Bradford with only the knowledge of media tropes as reference. A rigorous insight would actually give the mic to “Asian boys” to speak on their own terms, accept contradictory viewpoints, investigate the context and history, and question the role of masculinity among young men more generally. But unfortunately, yet again, Bradford’s boys have been spoken over, tokenised and disparaged in the name of giving a green light to white liberals that racism, cultural essentialism and stereotyping have been thumbed-up by an “insider”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.