“Together you are more united and feel a lot more powerful than if you were on own. This is what makes you stronger in situations like these. We are so blessed to have them (parents) with us when so many people are unable to see their parents…My mum says she would have gone crazy if you I was not here and I say same here!” (Saba from Slough; all names are changed)
Growing up in an overbearing Pakistani extended family system where privacy is non-existent and deference to elders an unquestioned rule, I was deliriously excited about moving to England to study. I enjoyed my newfound independence but every time I felt overwhelmed by a stressful situation, I only longed to be reunited with my family. In a country where the role of the state in providing social support is negligible, kin automatically become your default support system. If you put that in the context of strong culturally and religiously ingrained notions of fulfilling your duty towards your family, it is not surprising why the extended family structure has survived even in the British-Pakistani community.
Over the past three weeks in lockdown, I started talking (via WhatsApp) to some British-Pakistani women I met in an online Arabic course and I became interested in learning about their experience of lockdown with two, or, at times, three generations of family in the same household. Living with extended family is a double-edged sword as I knew from my past experience, especially, in the case of married women with in-laws.
However, in these extraordinary times of distress and social isolation, the extended family system played a critical role in providing much needed social and psychological support to many of these women. I formally interviewed eight of these women who belonged to different cities, economic backgrounds and age groups but shared common British-Pakistani ethnicity.
I must confess that prior to the interviews my main source of information on how the Pakistani community was dealing with the lockdown was derived from anecdotal material on social media which most often pointed towards frustration with annoying family members. There was the stereotypical desi father who dismissed coronavirus as a foreign conspiracy or the overprotective desi mother who resorts to boiling black seeds to ward off the evil eye and a confused/irritated child trying to knock sense into his or her parents.
We have all encountered these stories in our community and they might have some truth, but what we are witnessing today are unprecedented times of crisis and people are realising the need to stay together. Nadia, a student at Birmingham University, currently in lockdown with her family in London captured this feeling very well:
I have to be more patient with my family because we are in each other’s faces all the time! You know even if you have the best relationship, it can get a bit too much but we all understand the gravity of the situation so there is no drama. We know that we would be much more anxious if we were on our own. You have an extra support system even if it is unspoken; there’s that sense of security that brings us all together. At least we know what everyone is up to. We are spending more time talking to each other, doing more activities together because when I was in university I couldn’t spend time with my parents doing gardening or cooking. It has provided a good opportunity to know what matters in life: your relationships.
While Nadia’s words made a lot of sense, I was still unsure about the situation of married women living with their in-laws in a lockdown where tensions might run high.
Mariam, a mother of three in Berkshire, admitted that the most difficult aspect of lockdown was that she couldn’t get “time-out or a breather from everything in the house”. Also, she was unable to meet her own parents, but technology played a vital role helping her to cope with the situation. Mariam had pain in her voice when she told me it was her mum’s birthday today and she just left her present in the garden. I certainly sensed pain, but also less anxiety regarding her parents due to the fact that her parents were living with her brother’s family.
This was in sharp contrast to Mahvish, a key worker in Watford, whose parents were in a separate house on their own:
“I am always on the edge when I am at work because of my mum and dad who are currently in total isolation as they are vulnerable due to underlying health conditions. Their life has completely changed, my dad is suffering from depression and anxiety and I am worried that we might have isolated him at a huge cost and after this is over he might have a mental breakdown. This is making me so anxious and guilty because if it wasn’t for my job, I could have brought them to my house and taken care of them and then I wouldn’t be so disturbed because I would know where they are and what they need.”
Mahvish’s reference to guilt, of not being able to take care of your parents, resonated with a lot of young Muslims that Mufti Liaquat Zaman, an Islamic scholar at Birmingham’s As-Suffa institute, was dealing with. I spoke with him on the subject of responsibility of Islamic scholars in the coronavirus pandemic as there are important community issues such as cancellation of mosque prayers, changes to Islamic funeral procedures and the role of faith in coping with mental stress. I was surprised when he told me that he was inundated with questions from young Muslims who felt enormous guilt of failure in fulfilling their Islamic duty of taking care of their parents as they were not in the same household. As an immigrant, I precisely understand how this feeling weighs heavily on your conscience when you are too far to help your family in emergencies back home.
I have, of course, only considered a handful of accounts and it would be simplistic to draw any conclusions regarding the role of the extended family in lockdown, especially, when evidence of a sharp rise in domestic abuse is coming to the fore. I have not considered the perspective of the older generation who are impacted in the most fundamental way during this crisis. My aim was to explore an important and unique aspect of British-Pakistani community’s life style which needs to be studied further as any research on repercussions of COVID-19 on British society would be incomplete without it.
Aisha Rahim has a PhD in sociology from the University of Nottingham where she is an honorary research fellow in the School of Sociology and Social Policy.