Monica Ali

Monica Ali (1967- ), the daughter of English and Bangladeshi parents, came to England aged three years old. She is best known for her debut novel, the controversial Brick Lane (2003), set in Tower Hamlets in the East End of London. Her second novel, Alentejo Blue (2006), is set in Portugal.

Nazneen comes to England as an 18-year-old from Bangladesh. An arranged marriage, forced rape by any other name. Not long after she arrives in England, the daughter of a neighbour, a 16-year-old girl, is shipped out to Bangladesh, another arranged marriage, another forced rape.

Nazneen lives in a tower block in Tower Hamlets, a dismal place, knows only a few words of English, is rarely allowed out. Her husband is not a bad man, at least he does not beat her, but it is not who she would have married by choice.

This is how Bangladeshis treat women. Or if we are honest, how Islam as practiced, treats women.

We learn of the same ill treatment of women in Afghanistan in The Bookseller of Kabul by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad.

Åsne Seierstad is a Westerner, she writes from the outside. Monica Ali is a Bangladeshi, she writes from the inside. But the tale is the same.

No matter from what perspective, from what country, it is a shocking treatment of women.

The role of women is simple: to provide sexual gratification for the men, to produce children but only of the male variety and to act as an unpaid slave and carry out all the menial tasks.

The Bangladeshis complain of discrimination, racism, of only getting the shit jobs, on the other hand they are allocated housing, often at the expense of the indigenous white folk who are being driven out, get free education, receive free state benefits, none of which they would receive back home in Bangladesh.

The tragedy is that few of them are willing to adapt to the Western culture into which they have willingly transported themselves but expect to receive all the benefits.

Monica Ali writes in a very simplistic style, almost childlike or that of an illiterate Bangladeshi with only a basic grasp of English. It is though a style that has its own charm. The style is reminiscent of the style Alexander McCall Smith adopts in The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Brick Lane was published to great controversy, an insider blowing the whistle on the appalling treatment of Bangladeshi women, exposing the bigotry than runs through Bangladeshi society. True to form, there was ritual book burnings, street demonstrations, though not very well supported. When rumour hit the streets there was to be a film of the book and it was to be filmed in Brick Lane, more protests followed.

Women were noticeably absent from the protests. When this was raised with one of the protesters, his response without any hint of irony was:

Muslim women are very conservative and they don't feel comfortable coming here. If there was a protest just for the women then they would come.

Thus giving truth to what Monica Ali had written.

When questioned further, it appeared few, if any, of the protesters had actually read the book!

The irony was the Bangladeshis who protested became the self fulfilling caricatures of the very portrayal they were protesting against!

In Brick Lane there is an amusing section where the local Muslim radicals form an action group the Bengal Tigers. One could be forgiven for believing the protesters on the streets were extras acting out these scenes.

Sadly, because of a few Islamists taking to the streets, Brick Lane was filmed elsewhere in London, not in Brick Lane.

Such was the concern at the crude attempt to censor Monica Ali, that the English branch of PEN, an organisation that defends the right of free speech for writers, issued a statement:

Though legitimate protest and expression of views is just fine, English PEN trusts that this time should there be any concerted physical attempt to stop the production - as in the case of the play Behzti in Birmingham - the police, with the full backing of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, will stand squarely behind the film, its author and the right to free imaginative expression.

The setting for her second novel is her second home in Portugal, the title of which, Alentejo Blue, refers to the paint used locally on woodwork

Monica Ali opposed the British government's attempt to introduce the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, something she writes about in her contribution to Free Expression Is No Offence, a collection of essays published by Penguin (November 2005).

She has been nominated or shortlisted for almost every literary award going and managed to win none.

Copies of Brick Lane have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress tracked through the Internet via a unique Book Crossing ID (BCID).

As children we used to visit Brick Lane and nearby Petticoat Lane. Although it was known to everyone as Petticoat Lane, this was not the real name of the street or the name you'd find on a map. Then it was the Jewish quarter. Loads of clothes shops, which gave the name, though the main interest to us was the street market held on a Sunday. Now there are very few Jews left, the entire area has been taken over by Bangladeshis and the area has become a major tourist attraction for gawking tourists.

Synchronicity: I was part way through reading Brick Lane and finishing this web page, when I turned on the radio to find on 'Front Row' (an abysmal arts programme on BBC Radio 4 where you can hear the bottom of the barrel being scraped to fill its allotted hours), a review of the film of Brick Lane. That is if you can call the presenter Mark Lawson and a so-called reviewer spouting pretentious drivel a review. At the end of the week, Brick Lane was to go on general release.

The film Brick Lane is fairly representative of the book. A very powerful and moving film, very sad. Stunning photography. Lovely Indian music, though I guess strictly speaking Bangladeshi music. Quite why Muslim fundamentalist should take exception to the film, though anything that portrays a Bangladeshi woman as a powerful role model with an independent voice is clearly going to be treated as a grave threat in the same way that Muslim extremists have threatened woman in Bangladeshi who are helped by the Grameen Bank.

Synchronicity: A year on from reading the novel, whilst I was watching the film, I learnt of a doctor was conned into visiting her parents in Bangladesh under the guise that her mother was ill. She was held prisoner by her family for four months in a crude attempt to force her to marry against her will. On her arrival at her family home, she was manhandled and locked in a room with several people standing guard. She was held in a mental hospital and injected with what she believed to be mood stabilisers and anti-psychotic drugs. She was forced to marry a man against her will. It was only the intervention of the Supreme Court that forced her release. Jasvinder Sanghera, of campaign group Karma Nirvana, wants to see lessons on forced marriage legislation taught in schools and a national campaign launched on a similar scale to that used against drink driving and wants the practice of forcing someone to marry to be made a specific criminal offence. [see Captive doctor to return to UK, Freed doctor forced into marriage, Court supports forced marriage GP and The fight against forced marriage]

(c) Keith Parkins 2007-2008 -- December 2008 rev 3