By Dr Ramindar Singh MBE
The issue of post-war immigration into Britain has always been a politically sensitive one, and also controversial in terms of costs and benefits. It has transformed British society in so many ways, especially the experience that Britain shares with most other developed western economies. While the social and religious fabric of Britain has changed, the traditional cultural, religious and social values of the immigrant minorities who have made Britain their new home have also changed in significant ways. The nature and extent of this transformation and the speed at which it has taken place have naturally caused some concern. There is a fear of the unknown. One area of particular public concern is the likely rise in the British population due to the seemingly unstoppable flow of new immigrants, high fertility rates among some ethnic minorities, and people enjoying longer lifespans. Although the latest figures of the April 2011 national census aren't available, the indications are that the UK population has increased beyond all earlier predictions, and its ethnic composition has changed significantly during the last ten years.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the current size of the UK population is 62.3 million, and in 2009 there were over 9 million non-white
British in England and Wales. At this point, it might be helpful to examine three key features of the UK population: a continuous growth of under-16s from ethnic minority backgrounds, who currently form 20 per cent of the population; the increase in the mixed population of England and Wales, which grew 5 per cent annually on average between 2001 and 2009; and the widening of ethnic diversity due to new immigration from the EU and asylum seekers from war zone countries. Although present estimates of different religious minorities aren't available, it is believed that the 2001 census figures depicting 0.6 per cent Sikhs, 1 per cent Hindus and 2.7 per cent Muslims have substantially increased.
The rules and patterns of marriages in white British society, as well as in the minority ethnic communities, have changed dramatically. In Britain, getting married is no longer a prerequisite for sharing a bed or living together. Marriage has become a 'partnership' and living together 'cohabiting'. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2009, 10 per cent of couples were cohabiting, most of whom were believed to be of 'no-religion'. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are unlikely to be cohabiting.
With the UK becoming a mixed race and multi-faith country, the debate about black, white and brown has changed considerably. The word 'coloured', so commonly used in the 60s and 70s, has not become just 'politically incorrect' but profoundly offensive. People's attitudes towards mixed-race marriages have become more liberal. Not long ago intermarriages, whether mixed-race, inter-faith or inter-caste, were frowned upon, viewed with contempt, and stigmatized. The children of these couples were called 'bastards' or 'half-caste' and carried a burden of humiliation, shame and disgrace. But there has been a big growth in intermarriages in the last decade and they are progressing unhindered by the rigidity of religious rightness.
Currently, it is estimated that mixed-race people make up 1.1 per cent of the British population and the proportion of mixed-race children in the UK population is one of its most notable and fastest growing characteristics. Furthermore, this is likely to grow even faster as 3 per cent of under-16s are of mixed-race and 10 per cent of all children live in mixed heritage households.
Professor Lucinda Platt's research report, Ethnicity and Family, provides some extremely interesting figures about the way mixed-race Britain is developing. According to Platt, 48 per cent of black Caribbean men and 38 per cent of women are in mixed-race relationships, while 10 per cent of Indian men and 8 per cent of Indian women are also in inter-ethnic relationships — though the proportion of Bangladeshi and Pakistani men and women in inter-ethnic relationships are lower than Indians. Among the Indian population, one parent being white has increased from 3 per cent to 11 per cent, whereas it has only increased from 1 per cent to 4 per cent for Pakistanis.
The position of British Sikhs compared with other religious minorities in Britain is interesting too. Among Sikhs, 1 in 10 men and 1 in12 women have a partner of another religion, against a figure of 12 per cent of all men and women who have a partner of different religion. The situation among Hindus is almost the same but only 3 per cent of Muslim women have a partner of another religion. Unsurprisingly, one third of Jews (men and women) have partners of other religions. Among UK-born Sikhs, or those who arrived in the UK under the age of 14, 16 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women were found to be coupled in mixed marriages, compared with 23 per cent of Hindu women and 15 per cent Hindu men, and only 7 per cent of Muslim men and 3 per cent of Muslim women. It is clear from these figures that Hindu and Sikh women in particular are more likely to have partnerships outside their own religion and ethnic group compared with Muslim women.
Why is there such a variation in both mixed-race and mixed-religion partnerships between British Sikhs and Muslims, especially among women? In the case of British-born Sikhs, despite the absence so far of hard statistical evidence, certain features of the Sikh faith and some general developments within the British Sikh community can provide reasonable explanations of this variation and the rise of intermarriages.
Traditional marriage arrangements among Sikhs had changed significantly even prior to their immigration to Britain. Long gone is the time when marriages were simply alliances between two families, rather than life partnerships between two individuals. Marriages had formerly been arranged by traditional match-makers such as pundits and nais (mediators), matching the two families by caste, economic and social status, maternal and paternal gotras (ancestry), and the children's horoscopes.
With the gradual decline in the role of traditional marriage brokers, parents, in consultation with friends and relatives, started to arrange marriages for their children, and the children also started featuring in the decisions to some extent. Nevertheless, a marriage was still a union of two families with a view to strengthening each other's economic, political and social status. Yet the system changed in two main respects: the list of gotras to be avoided shortened, and compatibility between the would-be bride and groom became important, although caste and family status still remained a significant issue.
Immigration to Britain since the middle of last century changed the practice of arranged marriages even further. The arranged marriage system in the Sikh diaspora provided new opportunities for prospective relatives to emigrate. In the case of immigration to Canada and America, and more recently to Australia and Italy, marriage alliances are still openly used as a contract to facilitate the emigration of other family members.
Some fundamental beliefs of Sikhism — for example, parity of all religions, denunciation of the caste system, emphasis on gender equality and overall liberal social attitudes — help children to justify intermarriages.
In the Sikh diaspora, the position of women has also changed dramatically. They have become emancipated, and feel socially, economically, sexually and legally much freer than they do in the Punjab. Although expectations placed on men and women are typically still different, the gaps between them have narrowed. In terms of university education, professional qualifications and career aspirations, Sikh women are, if not above, at least on a par with men. As a consequence, the average age at which women seriously seek a marriage partner has moved upwards to the mid-20s. In choosing prospective marriage partners, they give priority to education, professional standing, attitudes to life, and other interests over traditional restrictions surrounding gotras, caste, religion and ethnicity. In the case of British-born and educated young people, parental influence on their marriages has greatly weakened. Now it is the children who almost dictate their decisions to the parents, who in turn tend to go along with them, albeit grudgingly. Children use the media, social websites, university friendships and marriage bureaux, among other means, to find suitable partners. Under such circumstances, intermarriages are unavoidable and are likely to grow.
Religious and ethnic identity, and the associated cultural traditions, are easy to maintain when people live in ethnically concentrated groups. However, as Sikhs are economically more prosperous and spatially more widespread than Muslims, their religious and ethnic commitments have quite naturally become weaker and their desire for integration stronger. Both Sikh men and women are more exposed to other religions and ethnic groups through a high degree of participation in employment and higher education. This changes their marital aspirations. They look for compatibility in prospective partners, and are therefore less inclined to go for an intercontinental marriage, which is still one of the norms among Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims.
As women assert more religious and cultural influence over children during their early socialisation, commonality of religious faith is considered particularly salient for women. In this respect, Muslim women show stronger religious commitment than Sikh and Hindu women. As religious affiliation declines, ethnic importance in marriage declines too, hence the likelihood of more inter-ethnic marriages in the future.
Inter-caste marriages are a momentous issue for the British Sikh community. Caste is hereditary, hierarchical and cannot be changed — but it can be ignored. It is part of the baggage brought by first-generation immigrants, which is being passed on to new generations. At present, caste-consciousness is common and caste affiliations are thriving, enforced by certain developments within the British Sikh community. Regular interaction with relatives here and in the Punjab continues to reinforce this concept. Caste-named gurdwaras, bhavans, community centres and associations are a constant reminder of caste, which is sometimes employed as a rational strategy to gain clients in business, and to obtain votes in the spheres of politics and community leadership. Such developments have consolidated the caste system, and they keep it booming.
But in reality, caste need have no particular relevance in Britain outside one's immediate family and the community. It should not hinder interaction with other communities. Unlike in India, there are no quotas based on caste for admissions to higher education or employment, and no caste-based reservations of political seats or welfare benefit entitlements. In 2010, Hilary Metcalf and Heather Rolfe conducted a study on behalf of the Government Equalities Office and found little hard evidence of caste prejudice, discrimination, bullying or harassment in public life; they are only anecdotal and perceived. Such awareness encourages most young Sikhs to ignore caste in their social relations.
As the pool of potential compatible partners within their own caste group narrows, young Sikh men and women who are highly educated, professionally qualified and career-minded will begin to marry less accomplished partners, or will decide to remain single, or will seek an inter-ethnic or inter-caste marriage. Successful Sikh men will still look for a pretty wife with a respectable family background, but they are now generally more liberal about choosing someone outside their own ethnic, religious or caste group. The inevitable consequence will be for Sikh women to do the same, which could result in the erosion of Sikh identity.
Inter-caste marriages are not only happening in the Punjab but are on the increase elsewhere in the region, particularly in cities. Available intermarriage statistics in the UK do not provide a breakdown of inter-caste relationships; however, anecdotal information suggests that inter-caste and across-faith marriages are happening within the British Sikh community, and are no longer seen as scandalous or the subject of serious gossip within the Sikh community, even if they initially meet with some parental resistance and disapproval.
In order to slow down the trend in inter-ethnic marriages among young Sikhs, there are only a few options available to Sikh parents and the community. Realising the present reality of the situation, most parents are adopting a pragmatic approach towards intermarriages, though with certain provisos: no blacks or Muslims, if possible.
The theoretical position of Sikhism being an inclusive, casteless, classless and egalitarian faith implies an acceptance of inter-caste marriages. Therefore, it would be hypocritical for Sikhs to adopt a less than positive view of such marriages. Inter-caste marriages are grudgingly accepted and solemnised in some gurdwaras, but not welcomed outright. If Gurdwaras put hurdles in the way of solemnising such marriages, for example, insisting on the presence of the words 'Singh' and 'Kaur' in the names of the bridegroom and bride, or deny such couples open access to Gurdwaras-based religious services and community centres associated with Gurdwaras, the consequences for the future of the British Sikh community are likely to be desperate.
Here, the British Jewish community's experience may offer some valuable lessons. The practice of Orthodox synagogues in denying access to religious services to those who marry outside the Jewish faith has resulted in the alienation of many young people from their faith, and in the gradual dwindling of the British Jewish community.
The unanswered question for the Sikhs is: what should gurdwaras and the Sikh leadership do in relation to this emerging trend of inter-ethnic and inter-caste marriages? Should they support such marriages? For the already sharply divided British Sikh community, a cool response to inter-caste marriages could become a further latent encouragement to mixed-race and inter-faith marriages. A positive attitude towards inter-caste marriages is likely to prove a great deal better for the survival, enlargement and prosperity of the British Sikh community.