Gina Khan is a British Muslim woman who lives near the men suspected of a plot to kidnap and kill a Muslim soldier. She says that it’s time to stop the radicals, and to stop being afraid of them.
Gina Khan is a very brave woman. Born in Birmingham 38 years ago to Pakistani parents, she has run away from an arranged marriage, dressed herself in jeans and dared to speak out against the increasing radicalisation of her community.
“There are mosques springing up on every street corner,” she says, pointing them out to me as we drive to her tiny house in Birmingham, near the district where nine men were arrested last week on suspicion of plotting to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier. Two suspects have since been released without charge.
We pass the biggest mosque, Birmingham Central, where Dr Mohammad Naseem preached at the weekend that British Muslims were being treated like Jews under the Nazis and that the Government had “invented the perception” of a terrorist threat.
“He is not the voice of Muslims in Birmingham,” says Khan, angrily. “I don’t how he has got himself that position. He does not know what he is talking about, he is 80 years old and needs to retire. If you want someone to be running these establishments, you need a British Asian, modern, liberal man.”
Over the past 15 years, she says, there has been an influx of jihadist thinking into her part of Birmingham. Bookshops sell radical literature and the mosques preach separatism and hatred. The Government and the white Establishment have allowed it to happen. And she is outraged about it. “It’s all happening on your doorstep,” she says, “and Britain is still blind to the real threat that is embedded here now.
“I truly believe that all these mosques here are importing jihad. The radical teaching is filtering through, and these mosques are not regulated. They are supporting everything that is wrong about Islam. We within the community knew this. People are lying. They are in denial. They knew they were bringing in radicals.
“But there are still more English and British people, no matter what, and if they got together and wanted to stamp out this radicalism, they could. I am wasting my time talking to my own people; that is why I am sitting here talking to you, to open your eyes.”
Khan is particularly worried about how mosques are brainwashing children and young people: “To me, it is starting to look like a cult.” And her local community certainly seems to be in denial. “After the raid I went to the corner shop here, and they were all saying it was a conspiracy. I turned round and said, ‘No, it is not. Let us be honest’.
“They say we’re being victimised. We’re not. The truth is coming out at last, but it’s 20 years too late.” The trouble is, says Khan, that many of the Pakistanis who have come to Birmingham are all too easily swayed. “Most of them are ignorant, uneducated, illiterate people from rural areas. It is very easy for them to be brainwashed, very easy. These are people who have been taught from the beginning that our religion is everything, it is the right way. You are going to Hell simply because you were not born a Muslim.” Khan is far too independent-minded to accept these beliefs wholesale. “I would say to my mum, ‘Are you telling me that Mother Teresa is going to Hell?’ and she didn’t have an answer. My mum was not backward, but everyone is being taught that Islam is going to take over, there are going to be mosques everywhere. This is something jihadists have planned for centuries. They were just looking for our weaknesses, which they have found.”
Khan believes that the radicals have coopted concerns about foreign policy to suit their cause. When she began to be worried about what the mosques were teaching her children, she decided instead to ask a female student to instruct them at home. Khanpicks up the story: “She was in the kitchen making the tea and it was after the London bombings. She said, ‘What do you think about what’s happening in Palestine?’ I got angry. I didn’t realise how patriotic I was getting. I turned round and said, ‘I do not care what is happening in Palestine or Israel. I give a damn about what is happening on my doorstep. I have family in London. Look at what is going to happen because of these few people. Look at the people who have died or had limbs amputated. Where were the Muslims then? Why did not anyone care? Because they were mostly white Christians’. And now they’ve turned the bombers’ graves into shrines! They’re just killers.”
Khan says she would be delighted if her son joined the British Army or the police. “I say to him, ‘You have these options, you can go into the army and police. You are British, do not listen to anybody else’. I had too much rubbish fed in me that I would be too Westernised. I was told to keep my distance from you because I am a Muslim. It is still really hard to explain to you how you are conditioned. From a young age those thoughts are put in your head: ‘I am a Muslim. I do not mix with those people’. I would honestly say that we are more racist and more prejudiced than the English.”
Yet she feels utterly British herself, and senses no conflict between her race, her religion and her nationality. “I am definitely British. I have a British passport. I love this country. When I went to Pakistan I missed my baked beans. It was as simple as that for me. I went in the 1980s and found that there was more rock music, head-bangers, modern kids there than what was happening here. I came back and said to my mum, ‘What have you been doing to me in this country?’ ” What has been done to her — and so many other Muslim women — is what incenses Khan most, and has emboldened her tospeak out. Muslim society, she says, is based on male domination and the oppression of women. The mosques are run entirely by men, the Sharia councils are run by men, the “voice” of the Muslim community is always male. And it is women who suffer as a result.
Three issues in particular enrage her: forced or arranged marriages for teenage girls, polygamy and the veil. Khan herself was pressurised into marriage at the age of 16 by her father, against her mother’s wish-es. “I was manipulated by my dad’s side of the family into a teen marriage — you know, you are a passport for someone from Pakistan. My mum wanted me to study and make something of my life because she knew what this country had to offer.”
Khan married and became pregnant, but after her baby died she says that she suffered terrible postnatal depression and left the marriage. Her family disowned her, as did the Muslim community. “Where is the support in the community for women?” she asks. “Where is it? It is not here. The best thing you can do is go to the social services.” She is full of praise for the instruments of the British state: social services, the police, job centres. If she were prime minister, she says, the first thing she would do is ban teen marriages. “They are still being pulled out of the local girls school here and taken back home, aged 16 or 17, not allowed to get an education. These girls are so young, they can be manipulated by their family’s culture and religion. They don’t have a chance. To wait until they are 25 or so would make more sense.”
The mosques, she says, collude in these marriages, as they do in the informal polygamy that she claims is rife in Muslim communities. “It is still very, very common here, polygamy. This is Pakistan I have just brought you back into,” she says, gesturing at the streets of terraced and semidetached houses. “I know enough stories from women who have come out from abroad, settled with their husbands in arranged marriages and then their husbands have gone back to Pakistan to marry someone else and work out a legal way to get them in the country. In 21st-century Britain the men in the mosques are saying that polygamy is OK, when it does nothing but increase depression in women. No woman in her right mind can share a man. I defy any woman to say she can.”As a result, the first wives get desperately depressed. “I am not exaggerating this. There is a majority of mothers with depression. Fathers commit polygamy; any child you ask tells you it is an unhappy and sad situation to be in. It is damaging to society. It should not be happening in 21st-century Britain. They need people to stop it happening.”
But the mullahs are implicitly condoning both forced marriages and polygamy. “They do not question or do anything about the fact that there are two people who do not want to get married. They are no good with these issues because their answer will be, ‘Yes, he is a man, he can have two wives. Yes, you should listen to your parents and marry the person they have chosen’.”
So, although polygamy is illegal in Britain, it is still, says, Khan, being practised with a Muslim seal of approval. The “marriages”, after all, are being sanctioned in the mosques. “My mum would turn in her grave if she knew Sharia was here. This is England, how can this be happening, how in this country? People in Pakistan are fighting for it not to happen there.”Khan is also vociferous on the subject of the veil, which is not, she says, a religious requirement: “It’s a 7th-century garment that should not be in this country.” In places like Pakistan, where there is little protection by the police from sexual harassment, she can see the point of it, but not here.
“It hurts me,” she explains. “This was once a nice, mixed area. It hurts me that people are on the streets and women are afraid to walk around. No one is talking to each other, white women on one side, veiled women on the other, walking around. They are ignoring me too. I do not know them and I cannot say hello to them either.”
As for the woman who was recently photographed in a burka, sticking two fingers upto the photographer, “To me, I felt she did that to me. To me it was a sign of the real thing which you don’t see. They are not all pious and vulnerable and dignified under that garment. If she was, she would not have done that.”
Khan often dresses in Western clothes, but not immodestly. Her sleeves are long, and she wears jeans, not a skirt. But she resents being judged by men and more fundamentalist women for choosing to do so. “On one side you have liberal Muslims who do their own thing and on the other, you have the fundamentalists and they are looking down at you. That’s the worst thing, they look down at you because you do not want to be like them. You get grass thrown inyour face, you cannot be a good person unless you are reading the Koran, unless your children are and you are living as an Asian woman should.”
Having banned teen marriages and the veil, cracked down on polygamy and ensured women’s representation in mosques, Khan’s next priority as prime minister would be to get rid of faith schools and teach Britishness more effectively. Although her children are taught well at an excellent Catholic school, she fears that Muslim schools exacerbate separatism. “Britishness should be compulsory in schools, taught by English teachers. And we should let kids know how valuable their British passports are around the world.”
Khan would love to start a movement of like-minded people, who are grateful for what Britain has given them. “I am trying to get together people, whether Christian, white, black, Turkish. Whoever you are, we have one thing in common: we care about Britain, we care about our country. Whoeveryou are, we want this country to be a safe place. We want to live here, we know we have the best place.
“Compared with Third World countries, compared with every Muslim country, we Muslims are a lot safer here, I know that still. I would not want to leave and move to Pakistan or anywhere on my own as a woman with a grown daughter. I know that now, though it may have taken me a lifetime to realise it. I am so lucky to have been born here.
“We are women, we are treated equally here. If I am raped or sexually abused, the cruellest things that can happen to a woman and leave a residue on your life, this is a country that supports you. I do not have to hide. They are going to help me, give me counselling. What are they going to do in a Muslim country? Stone me. I need four witnesses. They are going to ostracise me, as if I am dirty.”
But still, within the British Muslim community, women are not equal. “We are just treated as second-best. It has always been like that. It does not matter whether you are from a village and backward or from a cultured Asian family — the mentality across the board is the same.
“You are fighting this mentality all your life, so it is hard to be who you are. You can either be miserable, as I was for 34 years, or you can say, ‘You know what? I am ahuman being, God gave me a brain equal to the brain he has given you and I am not going to bend over and pray behind you just because you are a man’. Nobody can change that about me because I totally believe that.
“Muslim women aren’t suppose to make waves. I didn’t even hear my own screams and tears for 34 years. I have now stepped back and decided to understand and challenge my religion.”
So Khan wants like-minded women (and men) to join her. “We need to get together. We need mothers getting together. You know what? It is one thing to sit and talk about it and be angry about it; it is another thing if they play psychological games. We can show how mentally strong we are, we women, we can do it, mothers can.
“Let us have a stronger voice. Let us start with the real problems and say, ‘Whether you like it or not, this is what we demand’. We could start with all the things that should have been done a long time ago. I would start by ending the teen marriages.”A whole generation of us have been messed up by these arranged marriages. Women like me lived in depression for 30, 40 years. We do not want to be depressed any more. We want to have a strong voice.”
But it is a very brave course to embark upon. Already Khan has had bricks through her car window for speaking out locally about domestic violence and sexual abuse, issues that are taboo in the Muslim community.
She is determined, though, to stand strong. “It has been a constant mental battle for me all my life until I decided I am who I am, I am not afraid. I have been living in this community, but lots of thing I say people will not like.
“I fear no one. I fear God punishing me for never revealing the truth. Women like me usually jump in front of a running train. I was close once, but I’ll be damned if I let another jerk put the fear back in me again. I have freedom of speech, too.
“I am not going to live in fear. I have been told not to say too much. I have been told to be careful what you say, there are people, men, out there who won’t like it.”
But there are thousands, millions perhaps, who will. They will cheer for Gina Khan, admire her courage and pray that she remains safe. “The bottom line for my agenda is to eradicate the radicals,” she declares. “We need to say, ‘Wake up, you have to understand you are not being taught the right thing’.”
Let’s just hope they listen.