Current Contents

Past Issues



Qureshi, Karen:

'Respected and Respectable: The Centrality of 'Performance' and 'Audiences' in the (Re)production and Potential Revision of Gendered Ethnicities''

Particip@tions Volume 1, Issue 2 (May 2004)


Respected and Respectable: The Centrality of ‘Performance’ and ‘Audiences’ in the (Re)production and Potential Revision of Gendered Ethnicities



This article reports on a strand of data generated from an ethnographic study, spanning a period of 4 years, which focused on the negotiation of identities among a number of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’. It examines tensions between agency and constraint by selectively drawing upon and developing theoretical conceptualisations relating to discourse, performance, performativity. Young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ are exposed to multiple ‘identity’ discourses and are familiar with different performative scripts, which they draw upon strategically in different contexts. However, their performative engagements with discourses of gendered ethnicity are influenced, and can be constrained, by disciplinary power and the threat of coercion. As such, their performance-shifting is complex. It neither always represents ‘free’ agency or absence of agency. The responses and reactions of others - the approval or rejection of ‘audiences’- are important to the success or failure of their performances and, therefore, to the reproduction or the possible revision of performative scripts and to discourses of gendered ethnic ‘identity’ themselves.

Key Words: ethnicity; gender; performance; performativity; reflexivity; discourse; audience; Pakistani; Edinburgh; ethnography.



My focus in this article is on how young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’[i] performatively negotiate their plural, gendered, ethnic identities across a range of contexts. I indicate the centrality of ‘audiences’ in the performance of their identities in so far as the immediate and/or deferred sanctions or rewards, which particular ‘audiences’ can confer, come to bear on the choices these young people make. The approach that I adopt here extends the concept of ‘audience’ beyond its location within the conventional context of media and formal ‘performances’ to include the significance of ‘audiences’ in social performance and the performative construction of ‘identity’. [ii] In developing sociological and gender theories concerned with performance and performativity the analysis I present posits young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ as variously and, at times, simultaneously as both ‘performers’ and ‘audiences’. However, as I will show, others too can and do comprise the ‘audience’ for these young people’s performances of self and collective identities.

Situated multi-cultural encounters in Edinburgh and ‘diverse mobilities’ (Urry, 2000) expose young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ to various ‘identity’ discourses and provide them with a wide repertoire of reflexive and performative materials. Young people draw upon these resources in thinking and doing selves. However, young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ are also subject to powerful discursive constraints and, to various degrees, threats of coercion, which impact upon their subjectivities and presentation of their gendered, ethnic selves. I describe, here, how a combination of gossip, the ‘South Asian’ cultural concept of izzat (family honour and respect) and surveillance influence these young people’s performances of gendered, ethnic identities, as do hegemonic discourses pertaining to ‘pure, authentic identity’. I also examine the dialogical relationship between ethnicised masculinity and femininity where ‘respected Pakistani masculinity’ is largely dependent upon the performance of ‘respectable Pakistani femininity’. Furthermore, I show, some of the ways in which young people transgress gendered, ethnic and religious performative ‘norms’ by avoiding surveillance, often by recourse to technology such as mobile phones. Finally, while the data analysed below shows how the degree to which consciousness represents free agency is both variable and complex, it also reveals how young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ are frequently aware of their routine context-shifting performances and of the performative ‘nature’ of ‘identity’ itself. I suggest that such consciousness is a significant factor in their discursive and performative revision of gendered, ethnic identities and ‘identity’ scripts.

Research and participants

The research techniques employed in the ethnographic study I refer to here were principally participant observation but also informal interviews and group discussions (involving groups of young people known to each other), as well as examination of other relevant texts. Participant observation and the recording of field-notes spanned the period from summer 1995 through to winter 1999/2000. While this lengthy period allowed for immersion, my participation in the field was intermittent until the most intense phase of fieldwork, beginning at the start of 1997 and lasting until the winter of 1999/2000. Throughout the fieldwork, participant observation took place in family homes with family members including young people aged between 13 years and 30. I visited 17 family homes, ten of these on between two and five occasions and the rest once, making in total 36 separate visits where I spent a minimum of two hours on each visit but frequently longer. In sum I spent approximately 100 hours in participant observation in family homes.

A substantial amount of additional participant observation took place in the context of public and social events held within Edinburgh, such as numerous melas (festivals), some held to celebrate the religious festivals of Eid and on three occasions at the annual Edinburgh Mela [iii]; concerts and fashion shows; Pakistan Day celebrations and several wedding functions. My association with two young women’s groups facilitated a further significant context for my participant observation. One of these two groups – Paynan [iv], who I refer to here, was involved in a photography project and I met with them on a weekly basis over the eight-month period the project ran. In addition to conversation and general discussion that took place in the course of participant observation in the settings I outline above, during the period of my fieldwork I conducted 34 pre-planned and audio-taped informal interviews and group discussions with young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ (involving 59 young people in total) as well as interviewing a number of parents and others significant to my research focus.  It is crucial to note, with regard to my efforts here to ‘quantify’ my empirical work, that the value of the data I present and discuss is derived from sustained contact, involvement and ongoing discussion with several young people (and some of their families) over a prolonged period of time.

According to the 2001 census Edinburgh has a population of 448,624, some 3,928 of whom are categorised as ‘Pakistanis’. This latter figure, however, is lower than the estimation of ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ who participated in my fieldwork (and my own) who believed that there were in the region of 5,000 people of ‘Pakistani’ origin living in and around Edinburgh. For the largest part ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ originate from the Faisalabad area in the Punjab, and most of these from rural areas rather than cities. The overwhelming majority of ‘Scottish Pakistanis’ in Edinburgh are ‘Muslims’ and the largest numbers of these are Sunni, although there are also a small number of Shia ‘Muslims’, and an even smaller number of Ahmadi Muslims (SEMRU, 1987). There are different traditions within the Sunni denomination from Pakistan known as Devbandi and Bravlis. [v] Most, but not all, observant ‘Edinburgh Pakistani Sunni Muslims’ are of the Bravali tradition. Among those who participated in my research, varying degrees of religious observance were apparent. However, almost all young people expressed respect and regard for Islam, and aspirations to practice their faith.

It is noted elsewhere that there are two main areas in Edinburgh where ‘Pakistani’ families live in greater numbers: the south side of the city stretching over towards Gorgie in the west, and the Leith/Broughton area (SEMRU, 1987:42). This assessment is relative, however, because in contrast with most other urban areas with ‘South Asian’ populations in Britain it is apparent that there is not in fact any area in Edinburgh where ‘Scottish Pakistanis’ live in any significant concentration, and that they are spread over the city as a whole. A reasonable standard of living and financial security was enjoyed by the majority of participants in my study and this appears to be reflected in the majority of ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ households. All of the family homes I visited and spent time in were owner occupied and situated in dispersed areas of Edinburgh, several of which are considered affluent areas of the city and none are perceived as underprivileged areas.

Their relative affluence allows for the maintenance of various trans-local and trans-national links and flows between ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ and others elsewhere. Moreover, the relatively small size of both Edinburgh, its ‘Scottish Pakistani’ population and their dispersal throughout the city results in moderately high degrees of interaction and intimacies between young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ and their ‘white Scottish’ peers. As a consequence of their situated experiences and their physical mobilities, technologically mediated communications and consumption of diverse media young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ encounter a range of, sometimes contradictory and juxtaposed, discourses of ‘identity’ and ‘belonging’.

Discourse, performance and reflexivity

In my analysis of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’’ ‘identity’ negotiations I examine tensions between agency and constraint by selectively drawing upon and developing a number of theoretical conceptualisations relating to discourse, performance, performativity and ‘audience/s’ (contexts) (e.g. Butler, 1990; Cameron, 1998; Fortier, 1999; Goffman, 1959; Schieffelin, 1998). In reviewing theoretical discussions surrounding notions of performance and performativity, it is apparent that while a number of academics and intellectuals are relevant to my arguments they do not form a cohesive body of work. Broadly, however, they share certain conceptions in common, which are germane to the thesis I develop. Different theoretical approaches to the concepts of performance and/or performativity agree that, to some extent, all social behaviour is performed. Furthermore, most propose that such ‘performance is based upon some pre-existing model, script, or pattern of action […]’ (Carlson, 1996: 15). It can be understood that embedded within discourses of ‘identity’ are discursive expectations and constraints, which translate into performative scripts. The situated inter-ethnic interactions and ‘diverse mobilities’ (Urry, 2000) that are characteristic of the lives of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ both expose them to multiple discourses of ‘culture’, ‘identity’ and ‘community’ and heighten their reflexivity. As such these young people become familiar with different performative scripts.

For Goffman, performance involves what he terms ‘idealisation’, meaning that the presentation of self ‘will tend to incorporate and exemplify the officially accredited values of the society’ (1959: 45). In this way it can be understood that social performance reaffirms and reproduces these values, as well as the ‘acts’ perceived as expressing them. For Butler (1990), gender is performatively brought into embodied being. Rather than gender ‘identity’ producing gendered behaviour, she sees gender behaviour constituting gender ‘identity’. Gender, then, is seen as the effect of acts, practices, behaviour, and mannerisms etc. Its performative ‘nature’, according to Butler, entails the repetitive citing of discursive conventions. Discursive/performative constructions of masculinities and femininities involve processes of ‘othering’ (cf. Whitehead & Barrett; 2001, Kimmel 2001), where principally masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity and vice versa. However, the discursive/performative production of gendered identities is also implicated in the construction of ethnic identities and vice versa. [vi] Indeed, as Fortier (1999: 42) points out ‘gender regulation and ethnic conventions relate to each other in […] simultaneous performance’. It may be understood from various conceptualisations that performance and/or performativity produce what is perceived of as ‘reality’ - whether in terms of a particular social situation, or social, gendered, ethnic, or other personal or collective, ‘identity’ or ‘culture’.

‘Performance’, it is argued, is always for someone (cf. Carlson, 1996; Schieffelin, 1998; Abercrombie & Longhurst, 1998) and further shared ground, implied in theories of performance and/or performativity, pertains to the importance of the relationship between performer and audience (cf. Carlson, 1996). This relationship is highly significant to questions of agency and constraint. Implied in Goffman’s work, for example, both in The presentation of self in everyday life (1959) and in Behavior in public places (1963), and pertinent to the interpretation of empirical data I offer here, is the significance of context (entailing ‘audiences’) for performance. A further point made by Goffman relating to context relevant to what I say here about the management of plural identities by young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ is that of ‘audience segregation’ (1959: 56). According to Goffman, ‘audience segregation’ - keeping observers of different presentations of ‘self’ separate - ‘is a device for protecting impressions’ (ibid). I argue that ‘audience segregation’ is not only a strategy adopted by the young participants in my study to cope with contradictory expectations and constraints, but can also allow them to comfortably express their multiple identities and senses of ‘belonging’. Strategically drawing upon their knowledge of various discourses of ‘identity’, young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ competently navigate the different cultural contexts they move across. This is variously perceived and experienced by these young people as an expression of their different identifications and/or an expression of engagement with a particular cultural value that a particular way of presenting ‘oneself’ is understood to signify (although they may dispute the equation of a particular performative code with a particular value). Moreover, context-specific performances/identities can be perceived as an expression of young people’s mature and knowing management of shifting environments.

Cameron (1998: 272) notes that in spite of the regulatory force of discourse, and I would add the threat of coercion, people are still conscious agents who ‘engage in acts of transgression, subversion and resistance’. ‘Audience segregation’ strategies, and the skilful and purposeful deployment of their familiarity with diverse discourses and performative scripts, together with their tactical use of various communication technologies, as I will outline, are used by young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ in such acts.  Furthermore, while with regard to gender performativity, Butler (1990: 47) argues that agency is severely limited by iteration, she also refers to ‘strategies of subversive repetition’. Such strategies offer some space for subversion, in so far as certain types of performance  [vii] might disclose perfomativity and in turn disrupt all fixed conceptions of gender classification. I argue that the juxtaposition of different discourses of identities and belonging(s) which young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ encounter, together with shifting contexts/’audiences’ and their respective performative expectations (that out of choice and/or necessity they regularly move across), makes them particularly conscious of the performance of ‘identity’. While such consciousness does not necessarily denote agency, indeed it can be understood to be crucial to disciplinary power, it does further promote reflexivity and such reflexivity is significant to rethinking or reworking discourse and discursive/performative codes.

Gendered identities, izzat, gossip and surveillance

One reason ‘the local’ retains significance in relation to cultures and identities despite trans-national influences is because it involves face-to-face relations where, as Hannerz  (1996: 26) explains, ‘(p)eople can have each other under fairly close surveillance’ and ‘(d)eviations can be punished informally but effectively’. A manifestly influential dynamic in the lives of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ is the inter-relationship between gossip, the ‘South Asian’ value of izzat and surveillance. The most common and often bitter criticisms young participants levelled at other ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ was that they gossip excessively. Almost all young participants referred to ‘community gossip’ and the negative impact it had upon their lives. It has long been argued that gossip serves an important role in protecting the cohesion, integrity and continuity of social groups (cf. Gluckman, 1963). It depends upon insider familiarity with group values and ‘norms’ and, because its subject matter frequently relates to non-compliance or transgression of these, it works to continually reinforce them. Gossip also operates as a form of social control, in that those group members wanting to avoid being the subject of gossip will endeavour to observe group ‘norms’. Furthermore, competition for status and prestige between group members is regularly conducted and controlled through gossip (cf. Gluckman, 1963).  This view posits group unity as the purpose of gossip. However, Paine (1967: 280) argues that ‘people gossip and also regulate their gossip to forward and protect individual interests’. So while gossip may assert group values this is done in the process of pursuing individual interests.

Young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ believe their experiences in Edinburgh differs from other young ‘British Asians’ living in British cities where the ‘South Asian’ population is greater. They feel, because both the city and its ‘Scottish Pakistani’ population are relatively small, it is impossible to do anything without everyone else finding out. Young people are discomforted by the fact they are recognised by others of ‘Pakistani’ origin in Edinburgh as ‘so and so’s’ son or daughter’. However, despite their belief that their circumstances are distinct it is clear that anxieties surrounding gossip are shared by young ‘British South Asians’ elsewhere. Gillespie (1993, 1995), for example, indicates how the threat of gossip is pivotal in the lives of young ‘ English Punjabis’ in Southall and how they experience it as an instrument of social control. [viii] Much of my findings in relation to the dynamics of gossip echo her findings in this regard. This is not least because both groups share an engagement with the ‘South Asian’ cultural concept of izzat. Gillespie (1993: 33) explains the importance of izzat to ‘South Asian’ families:

Embedded within the term izzat […] is a cluster of religious, moral, social and symbolic meanings: the sanctity of family life is linked to the associated values of family honour, kinship, duty, and respect. These safeguard a family’s internal, moral integrity; if the sanctity of the family is maintained through the upholding of these values, it will enjoy a good reputation, respect in the community and therefore status and a ‘pure’ reputation.

The centrality and importance of izzat to the ‘identity’ of many ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ makes it something to be upheld and protected and, if possible, enhanced. A desire to augment izzat also motivates rivalry between ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ families. Izzat, too, is the impetus for demonstrations of wealth and prestige, often in the form of conspicuous consumption, and a commonplace publicizing of the educational achievements of children.[ix]

While respect and honour are the property of the family they also relate to the individual and are embroiled in conceptions of gendered ‘identity’. Izzat rests principally on the father and male family members but it is most dependent upon how female family members are perceived, especially unmarried females (cf. Afshar, 1994). Izzat can be understood to compliment conventional patriarchal discourses that construct femininity and masculinity in mutually binding and unequal opposition. Embedded in this cultural value, and articulated in much gossip among ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’, is a discourse pertaining to a particular idea of how ‘respectable Asian/Muslim’ femininity should be manifest based partly on Islamic teaching and partially on patriarchal conventions.[x] This idea incorporates modesty in dress, appearance and manner, respect for, and dependence on, male and elder family members and chastity outside of marriage. It also locates women predominantly within the domestic sphere, positing them as skilled in domestic labour, pious and proficient in ‘cultural tradition’.

Young women have much to lose by failing to performatively demonstrate ‘respectable Pakistani Muslim’ femininity. A woman whose izzat is badly damaged and who is not respected becomes vulnerable and devalued in the eyes of those who engage with these discursive meanings. The following extract from a poem that Zarina [xi], a member of a young woman’s group Paynan, let me read reveals her acute understanding of this way of perceiving feminine ‘identity’:

            Izzat to a girl is like

A piece of white paper

Once ink falls on it

It’s impossible to get it all off.


What makes a girl pure

Is her izzat

What makes her best asset

Is her izzat


Once lost – is irreplaceable.


Abu-Odeh (1996), regarding the performance of ‘Arab Muslim’ gendered ‘identity’, argues that the social space women are allowed to occupy, together with a certain learned ‘bodily style’, symbolises and publicises virginity. Furthermore, she contends that because ‘Arab’ men’s honour depends upon their female relatives’ chastity and that the performance of masculinity inevitably involves the control of female relatives. Afshar (1994: 129) notes that ‘Muslim’ women have conventionally been positioned as ‘both guardians and guarded’ because they are seen as ‘the site of familial honour and shame’. While, to a lesser extent, the behaviour and appearance of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men can impact negatively upon family and personal izzat, both perceived family izzat and ‘respected Pakistani Muslim’ masculinity are largely reliant upon the performance of ‘Pakistani Muslim’ femininity and its control.  

Although a way women themselves can collude in this control is through gossip, it is among young women concern about gossip is most acute. Young men also commonly complain about gossip’s damaging potential but they are often clearly less concerned viewing it instead with cynical amusement, as the following comments made by a young man, Shabir, indicate:

It’s incredible I mean like you could spit on the street in Portobello and Aziz would know in Juniper Green in a minute. It’s that good! [xii]

Tied-up with the threat of gossip and the potential harm it can cause to reputation and izzat is the issue of surveillance. This inter-relationship represents a form of ‘disciplinary power’ (Foucault, 1977), particularly in the lives of young women. Typically, this type of governance works by applying surveillance and observation and power and knowledge in a way that individualises its subjects (cf. Hall, 1992). It entails a process whereby the expectation of surveillance becomes internalised by individuals and they police their own behaviour (cf. Sarrup, 1993). Awareness that they may be observed and talked about contributes to a heightened consciousness, particularly among young women, of their appearance, behaviour and actions. They develop an acute sensibility as a result of the ever-present potential of being observed in public spaces. Young women’s remarks relating to their reaction on suddenly becoming aware they were the focus of other ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’’ gaze are suggestive of disciplinary power. For example Ruby, a young female student, explained how she ran through a mental checklist of - ‘am I dressed appropriately’ and ‘do my parents know where I’m going’. While another young woman, Roshin explained:

Whatever you do before you do it, you have to think well what if someone else was to see me, or you have to think about a lot of other considerations even though I’m not trying to say that you want to do something wrong.

A related but more immediate sanction young people complained about was being ‘stared at’ by older ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’. [xiii] Goffman (1963: 88) notes that, because it causes unease, staring is an effective form of social control of ‘improper’ public behaviour. Young people frequently alluded to being stared at, particularly at functions, by older people, often women. Nousheen, for example, explained:

They want you to know exactly what they really think. If they’re looking at you and you turn round and catch their eye they don’t look away. They make it more a point of staring at you.

The combination of surveillance and gossip, which derive their controlling power from values embedded in izzat, may also occasionally work coercively. One young man, Javed, for example, when talking about his relationship with a young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ women, related:

Somebody must have seen me and stuff and it really got out of order. I suppose all these Asians got together and started following me about in different cars and stuff and trying to find out who she was and trying to get her parents - tell them to get her sent back to Pakistan.

A few other young people also alluded to this threat of being sent to Pakistan and/or of being ‘married-off’ quickly without choice. A further possible negative sanction young people referred to, was the possibility of being disowned by family and ostracized by other ‘Scottish Pakistanis’. [xiv] Young people are resentful about pressure other ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ can exert on families and how some parents appear more concerned about what others will say than for the happiness of their children. They disapprove of what they see as an expectation on the part of others for parents to disown their child should he or she do something gravely harmful to their family’s reputation. Notably, however, while I heard of this occurring in Edinburgh, among the families I know of where a child transgressed expectations parents either successfully kept it secret from others outside immediate family and trusted friends or, when this was impossible, managed to come to terms with the situation.

Particularly for young women, failure to uphold family and personal izzat can undermine their chances of making a ‘good’ marriage match. Parents, out of concern for their daughter’s future well being, investigate the reputation of a prospective son-in-law. However, young men’s parents are also seeking to enhance their family’s izzat and look for a daughter-in-law with an untarnished, respectable reputation. The following quote from Roshin, made during a meeting with Paynan, is illustrative of young women’s awareness of these factors:

You’ve got to be respectable, dignified - all of these things. Never go out after ten o’clock you know - you have to have a good reputation. And it’s all so if a proposal was to come and they were to enquire about me, in a way they would – ‘oh yeah she’s a good girl, she does all these good things, she’s got all these good skills’.

Without minimising the persuasive force of potential negative sanctions, a prevalent concern among young men and women participants to protect their parents’ izzat out of love and respect was apparent. The following quotes are indicative of the ambivalence young people can experience regarding their parents’ izzat and of the impact that they can have upon it:


Zubeda: You don’t go out at night because people will talk. It would bring shame to your house, and your parents. Parents would be insulted. People don’t have respect. Izzat is such a big factor. I understand the concept of izzat and I believe it but I find it frustrating. […] I appreciate it but I find it annoying and frustrating as well. 


Shabir: You don’t disrespect your parents by having someone say something about me, which would reflect bad on my parents. But it’s also a case of - the double side of that is - that it is a bit of a restriction in terms of like how you lead your life.

Shabir’s change in pronoun here is suggestive of a collective recognition of, and a complex subjective engagement with, the concept of family izzat I found among participants.

‘Pure identity’ pressure:

A further potentially constraining discursive influence young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ have to negotiate within the cognitive and performative processes they are engaged in relates to persistent absolutist discourses pertaining to ‘ethnic culture’ and ‘identity’. These circulate in, sometimes over-lapping, dominant and ‘South Asian diasporic’ communicative spaces.[xv] The conception of binary opposing ‘South Asian’ and ‘western values’, embedded in Orientalist and ‘pernicious Occidentalist’ (Turner, 1994) discourses, which continue to have currency in ‘Scottish’/’British society’ and among ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ (and other ‘British South Asians’) respectively, fosters this conception of pure, bounded and singular ethnic identities.

One way that many young people’s engagement with these notions is manifest is in their perception of ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ and other ‘British Asians’ who are considered as not conforming to ‘Pakistani’ or ‘South Asian culture’. Those known to distance themselves in some way from ‘Asian culture’ are commonly suspected by their peers of lacking pride in or being ashamed of their ‘culture’ or of their ‘Asianess’. Not being proud of being ‘Asian’ or ‘Pakistani’, or of ‘your culture’ is viewed as not knowing who you are - of being mixed-up, both in terms of being confused and impure. Being perceived in this way earns the label ‘coconut’, which is defined variously by young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ as:


Shafi: Being ashamed of your culture and not taking part in things because of what white people will think.   


Ashfaq: An Asian who is brown in the outside and white inside.


            Salma: Somebody who doesn’t have a clue, or doesn’t want to know about our culture. Basically if you put Hindi music on or Pakistani music on they go ‘What’s that? That’s crap’.

To be perceived as being ashamed of ‘your culture’ or confused about who you are, is viewed derisively. While revealing multiple identifications, young participants frequently asserted a desire not to be seen in this way. In conversational terms this was apparent in their qualifying any criticism they made about ‘Asians’, ‘Pakistanis’ or ‘Asian/Pakistani culture’ with declarations of their ‘pride’ in these concepts. However, as will become apparent, it can be the idea of ‘impure identity’ rather than the actual experience of it that promotes discomfort. Indeed, some young people are explicitly less daunted by hegemonic discourses that equate plurality of ‘identity’ with uncertainty and contamination. The following quote from a young female participant, Zubeda, talking about her reflexive consideration of different meaning systems she encountered over her teenage years, suggests such negative definitions can be revised:

I always discussed a lot and learnt from other people’s experience and other people’s thoughts and you think about things and throughout my teens at school. I know firmly that I am British Pakistani Muslim Asian - whatever you want to say. But my roots is here. My history, my parents history is from back wherever […]. It’s very mixed. I appreciate both cultures. I don’t want to separate myself and just identify myself with just Asians and Pakistanis, and I don’t want to become too westernised and not respect my roots and everything. I know I’m just me and I’m part of this third culture which is evolved here and I can’t say I’m one or the other and I’m not equal parts of each either. I wouldn’t say I’m confused now. I know firmly that’s what I am and I’m very comfortable with it.

The ‘third culture’ Zubeda refers to was the title of a school essay she had written a number of years earlier that she sent me to read, and in which she discusses her experience of negotiating ‘British’ and ‘South Asian cultures’. [xvi] It represents another example of the reflexive sensibility regarding ‘identity’ evident among young participants. Difficulty arises, however, for many young people out of the fact that their experiences of ‘identity’ exceed the dominant discourses available to them.

Both young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men and women can be subject to pressure to engage exclusively with ‘South Asian culture’ and, as I will go on to explain, the former appear to be especially vulnerable to peer pressure to conform to a particular ethnic masculinity. However, young women experience most pressure from their families to conform to a notion of an exclusive singular ‘ethnic identity’. Afshar (1994: 130-1) explains that ‘(w)omen are the perceived transmitters of cultural values and identities […]’ (cf. also Yuval-Davis, 1992). The following extract from a discussion with two members of Paynan reveals their explicit awareness of this:

Roshin: There is more pressure on the girls to behave more cultured, you know Asian, than it is for guys. My brother probably has never worn Asian clothes before and he’s not expected to either. But if we were to go to a wedding - even at home we’re supposed to be wearing Asian clothes. It’s really important for a girl to be very cultured […]

Sultana: It’s ‘cause it’s the girls that are continuing on the generation so therefore the girls have to be shown as to be proper all the way through.

            Karen: The girls continue on the?

Sultana: Well it’s the girls who will get married and have children of their own and bring up their children.

            Karen: So it’s their responsibility?

            Roshin: Yeah.

Sultana: To keep the culture going […]. Because if you become western you’ve lost all that so you won’t have it for your children.   

Engagement with a discourse of ‘culture’ where it is seen as a possession that can be at risk and needs protecting is clearly apparent here. The fear of ‘loss’ works to perpetuate conceptions of absolutist ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. It appears that ‘tradition’ is, indeed,  ‘coded as feminine’ (Morley: 2000: 65). Here young woman are centrally positioned in the preservation and continuity of ‘ethnic culture’. 

Young male peers and respect

Varying degrees of exhibitionism, along with mutual approval and recognition, appear to be key factors in the performative construction of youthful ethnic masculinity among many young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men. The respect and recognition [xvii] young men strive for and confer upon each other appears to be the product of what is commonly recognised as (sometimes exaggerated) performance. It seems that respect and recognition ensues from knowing what and how to perform. This form of youthful ethnic masculinity involves a process of reverse othering where it is defined in relations of distinction from ‘white’ youth ethnic masculinities.  Simultaneously, it involves identification with a particular ‘black’ youth masculinity. Such distinctions, in addition to being implicit in the conception of coconut, can be explicitly referred to, as Javed does here:

            Like rave music, we’re not into that. Like when we’re out we’re dressed up

[...] they’ll (‘white Scottish’ youth) just wear anything sort of thing. They’re not into jewellery and everything, designer gear we’re different in that sense.         

Identification with ‘black youth culture’ is evident in many young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’’ taste in film and music. It is further enacted in the fashion and style several young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men adopt and in public displays of affability, involving gestures such as hand slapping, and in the common use of certain phrases such as ‘yo’, ‘my man’ and ‘kick it to the kerb’. [xviii] Young men revealed the importance they accord to fashion, style and image. Javed and his friend Manzoor, for example, described the type of clothes and jewellery they and others like to wear:

            Javed: I think most Asians like they’ve kind of got their own style.

            Karen: Tell me about it?

            Manzoor: We are always wearing baggy kind of stuff.

            Javed: Like say you wouldn’t catch many Asians wearing tight jeans and

            trainers and things. That’s not like their sort of style we’re more

            like kind of Afro-American style. […] See with Asians I think it is just probably the way they’ve been brought up sort of they don’t really

            like to be scruffy.  That (points to a gold neck chain he is wearing)

            every Asian has got that from Pakistan, like rings […] everyone does

            have a chain, a nice watch, things like that.

However, older young male participants viewed this conscious identification with ‘black youth culture’ critically. Their criticism, again, reflected concerns about ‘loss’ of some essential ‘ethnic identity’ and the imitation of another ethnicity. The following remarks, made by Ashfaq, a man of 28, in conversation with two friends, where he is relating comments he made to some younger men, are indicative of this concern:

I goes ‘you’re talking black, you’re trying to be black, dress black, and would you ever see a black guy trying to talk Pakistani? Would you ever see like a white guy trying to talk Pakistani?’ I goes ‘why are you trying to lose your identity?’ I goes ‘what you have you should keep it rather than losing it to some other people who are not going to copy you’.

His friends, Shabir and Iqbal, went on to offer their explanation for younger men’s identification with ‘black youth culture’:


Shabir: They don’t feel their identity is strong enough so they copy someone else’s […]. They look at themselves and it’s all a case of having attitude, you know being a man.

Iqbal: The only reason they act black is because of attitude that’s what all this rap music, everything is - attitude.

The projection of ‘attitude’ and an apparent desire to maintain respect and be perceived as ‘hard’ sometimes results in groups of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men fighting with each other or occasionally with young ‘Scottish Pakistani’ men from Glasgow. For example, on the evening of a small mela, held in the grounds of Drummond Community school in Edinburgh in 1998, a fight broke out between ‘Scottish Pakistani’ youths leading to minor injuries, arrests and the cancellation of the scheduled concert. I had attended this event but left before the fighting began and had to rely on a number of differing versions of what had transpired conveyed to me by others. Common elements from these accounts indicated that hostilities involved young men from Glasgow and Edinburgh, and related to the latter’s response to the behaviour of the former towards some young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ women. Salma, a young woman who had witnessed these events, told me:

Some Glasgow guys were pestering Edinburgh girls and some Edinburgh guy went to assist them. The thing is Edinburgh guys do that as well - they tease girls but if a Glasgow guy does it suddenly all Edinburgh girls are their sisters!

An important facet of masculine ‘identity’, for young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men incorporates the notion of personal izzat - or respect in two related ways, which can be understood to parallel their fathers’ engagement with this concept. Firstly, recognition and respect are exchanged between peers - they are given to and received from each other. Secondly, they are seen to accrue from the presentation of ‘self’, not only in terms of fashion and style but in the projection of a macho attitude and from the conspicuous possession of particular commodities such as gold jewellery, mobile phones and prestigious cars. The symbolic value of these possessions are widely recognised and acknowledged by young men who identify their self-presentation as ‘posing’. Javed, for example, explained that this was the purpose of having a mobile phone [xix]:

The main thing is it’s posing [...] it’s like a clip on their belt but they have got it on incoming calls only, sort of thing, so they don’t get a bill.

I asked Javed whom the boys were posing for and he told me:

            Mostly girls, it is each other as well like you’ll get recognised by your car -

            It’s like pride, respect, what they call izzit. It’s like keeping your respect up sort of thing. Like people kind of look up to you.


Young men reported that what they refer to, as cruising - driving around without the purpose of reaching a particular destination - is something they enjoy. Iqbal, Ashfaq and Shabir talked about the meaning of owning or driving a prestigious car:

Ashfaq: You kind of get respect with the car you drive.

            Iqbal: I think image equals respect actually […]

Shabir: A friend of mine has got a BMW, he bought the basic car and he did it up to look like the top of the range one. And for him this is his respect because he drives around in this car and he gets looks from - I mean Asian girls give him looks, Asian guys go up to him and go ‘great car’. Like even like the British people check his car when he goes past a light and he knows this. And you can see it, you sit in the car and people look.

Shabir went on to explain how his friend cleaned and cared for his car and, using a telling simile, the value he invested in it:

            It’s his pride and joy. It’s his woman - to an extent it’s like his honour.

On several occasions I overheard young men in conversation with each other refer to their own or others cars as ‘a babe’ and as ‘being hot’.  

Linguistic ‘code-switching’ (Rampton, 1995) is a feature of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men’s talk with each other where they change from English to Punjabi and Urdu and it is expressive of their hybrid cultures and plural identities. Several young men and women told me that groups of ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ students, principally young men, who attend different institutions of higher and further education in the city regularly converge on one or other of these institutions - often Napier or Herriot Watt Universities, where they sit together in noisy exclusive groups in the refectory. ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ women students described how they found this embarrassing because they felt young men drew attention to themselves by their boisterous behaviour and by talking loudly in Punjabi. Whereas a young male student, Zaman, explained:

We all get together and we’ll have a laugh about something or other, as in you’ll have a conversation and you’ll say things, which only means something to an Asian. As like a joke, someone says something in Punjabi or Urdu which obviously if you said the same thing in English it would fall totally flat.

These young students’ behaviour might be an assertive display of their collective presence and ‘difference’ for the benefit of other students. However, boisterousness and reverting to Punjabi within youthful male peer interaction is part of a camaraderie that is both performative of ‘Scottish Pakistani’ youthful masculinity and fun. 

Ethnicised contexts for the performance of youthful masculinity:

Some young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men do not conform to this form of ethnic masculinity - they do not engage with the style and consumption practices, which signify these identifications. Others, while they enjoy the collective expression of this distinct ethnic masculinity in particular contexts, perform different identifications in other contexts. For example, one young man, Bashir, attended his school leaving Prom with his predominantly ‘white Scottish’ classmates wearing Scottish Highland dress. This being said, however, large social gatherings of ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’, particularly those featuring concerts, are contexts in which many young men exhibit the youthful masculine ethnic identities I discuss above. ‘Pleasure (in) being watched’ (cf. Hebdige, 1988) is evident among young men in these settings, which allow for mutual observation between peers. At these gatherings groups of young men dressed in pristine smart-casual designer label clothes [xx], many wearing tan coloured Timberland boots; with styled and gelled hair, intricately shaped side-burns and sometimes beards and moustaches; some with baseball caps, some with bandannas tied around their heads; most with mobile phones visible on their person and often in use, can be observed walking around or standing together. They can, too, be seen to engage in displays of fraternity where they greet each other with handshakes and embraces and, in addition to gestures such as hand slapping, they occasionally ‘play box’.

The Edinburgh Mela fashion show was popular with young people during the period of my fieldwork and a number normally took part as models. Groups of young men would sit together in the audience and whistle and clap at female models but their most enthusiastic response wass reserved for the young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men who often model clothes with visibly more confidence than their female peers. These young men, dressed variously in ‘western’ youth fashion, shalwar kameez, smart suites and Scottish Highland dress, strutted and danced on stage, exuding self-esteem to the rapturous applause and calls from their male friends in the audience. In the 1998 Edinburgh Mela fashion show five young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men participated in a dance routine to a James Bond theme tune, dressed in dark suits, wearing dark glasses and carrying ‘hand-guns’ - reminiscent of characters in the Hollywood film Men in Black. Their enjoyment in performing and the appreciation of their male peers in the audience was clearly apparent.

Several young men also publicly express their ethnic masculinity, in these contexts, at concerts by dancing in groups in front of the stage where the band is playing. Their dancing usually incorporates elements of bhangra - at which some are very skilled - is also exhibitionist (the movements having both a sexual and aggressive quality). Most participants in my study identified with Islam and consider religion important. Some strict interpretations of Islam do not allow dancing or, indeed, permit music. While a few ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ families would avoid these gatherings because of this, most would attend. It is my experience, nevertheless, that several of the parental generation criticise young men for dancing at these gatherings and for their public behaviour more generally. However, because young men’s behaviour is less threatening to family izzat it is largely viewed more indulgently than that of their female peers, and so these factors tend to present limited constraints to young men within this context.

Undoubtedly young men’s performance at these gatherings is partly for the benefit of the young women who are present but the pivotal ‘audience’ for the performance of this particular ethnic masculinity are other young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ men. Masculinity here is clearly a ‘homosocial enactment’ (Kimmel, 2001) because it is other young men’s evaluation that is crucial to the success of this performance. It is their expectations that matter most in this context because it is their respect that is sought. It is the sanctions of ridicule and insult which peers can confer that can act as incentives to conform.

Negotiating contradictory ethnic femininities

The set of discursive expectations denoting ‘respectable Pakistani Muslim’ femininity I refer to above are complicated by a further set of discursive expectations relating to physically attractiveness. Young ‘Scottish Pakistani’ women are subjected to a continual bombardment of messages about supposed ideals of physical appearance from various forms of media (as, indeed, all women are), including ‘Hindi’ films. These incorporate certain physical characteristics seen to signify ‘beauty’. Principally these are fairer, rather than darker, skin [xxi] and the absence of obvious facial down. Physical attractiveness, although less so than respectability, can also be a consideration in seeking rishtas (marriage matches). Parents, as well as young men, take account of the physical appearance of prospective brides. Large social gatherings, in particular weddings, are increasingly seen as settings where potential brides may be discovered, perhaps by or among visiting relatives and friends of the wedding party. The following extract from a group discussion with members of Paynan indicates one way these two sets of expectations are negotiated in public settings.

Roshin: It makes you feel so uncomfortable if you go to a wedding, that’s the worst. We went to this wedding in London and at the end of the wedding, you know, you end up with like six different people interested. You know it sounds really horrible (Sultana: Yeah) it’s just like you’re sort of like a showpiece and everyone is looking at you with the intention of – ‘she’d do’ or ‘she’d do’. I have even noticed – my mum doesn’t do this thank God! But I know other women they do it to their girls, they’ll sort of decorate them in a way when they take them to the wedding. You know make them more attractive.

Karen: What do you mean decorate?

Roshin: Will make sure that they look really really good.

Sultana: That they are dressed well, they’re looking pretty and they’re acting right within the wedding setting.

Roshin: Yeah so people might be interested in them.

Sultana: So if anyone is looking they will see someone who will maybe stand out a bit more as being prettier, as being quieter you know just sort of sitting in the corner not doing anything.

On another occasion, Roshin, remarking on the incongruity of the presentation of young women in these types of setting, said: ‘they need to be hidden but it isn’t really hidden – it’s sort of coy – hidden and being seen’. It seems that young women can be expected to attract attention by appearing not to!

Young women, however, are just as likely to want to present themselves attractively within these settings for the pleasure of ‘dressing-up’ and the enjoyment of expressing their youthful femininity. A balance between respectability and attractiveness depends upon an understanding of subtle distinctions in clothes, jewellery and make-up and the meanings invested in these. For example, it is considered inappropriate for young unmarried women to dress too conspicuously or to wear a lot of jewellery and make-up, as Zubeda explained, when I was visiting her and her mother:

People talk if you get dressed up and you’re not married. There are unwritten rules and older women criticise young women if a young women wears make-up and jewels – and an over the top glittery suit. It’s not right for an unmarried girl to be dressed up. An unmarried girl should be simpler. […] A girl who’s unmarried and dresses up-to-the-nines – people wouldn’t give her respect.

Most young women participants expressed and/or revealed an interest in both ‘South Asian’ and ‘western’ fashion. Wearing shalwar kameez is common for most young women in social gatherings of ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ and is often expected at home. Young unmarried women are most likely to be expected by parents to dress in shalwar kameez in particular contexts. The idea that young women will be allowed more freedom in what they wear, whether they have their hair cut and, indeed, in going out when they are married is one that mothers often attempt to encourage their daughters with. Many married young women I know do enjoy more independence of choice than single women.

Jeans, trousers, long skirts and tops are typical for most young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ women at school, college and university or at work, and when out with friends. All young women, who talked to me about their taste in ‘western’ clothes, indicated ‘modesty’ was an equal consideration to style. This means legs and arms covered and garments that are not too fitting. Young women mentioned the difficulty they found in trying to find long skirts without deep slits in the back - a style fashionable during a period of my fieldwork. This idea of modesty in appearance also includes wearing hair long and in a controlled fashion. Wearing hijab (head garment covering the hair, prescribed for women within Islamic teaching) or a scarf was very uncommon in Edinburgh at the beginning of my fieldwork, particularly among younger women. It became slightly more common later in my research. At wedding celebrations women guests tend to pull their dupatas (long scarves) over their heads when the imman (man who leads prayer) recites the prayer and remove it again when he is finished.

Most young women who attend large social gatherings and concerts, such as I describe above, will stand or sit together in groups with sisters, cousins and/or friends. Although many appreciate and identify with the music that feature in many such gatherings and some would like to dance, very few do. They tend to confine themselves to clapping while sitting. The likely consequences of them dancing would be damage to their own and their families reputation. Whether or not their parents witnessed their behaviour they would soon hear about it and the majority of young women would get into serious trouble as result. Some young women feel frustrated at this restriction and resentful that their male peers are free to dance. They do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with dancing. However, their restraint is often partly motivated by a desire to respect their parents and/or to be seen to respect them. Other young women see dancing in this context (i.e. in the company of men) as wrong and not something decent young women would do. In both cases young women’s presentation of ‘self’ can be understood to reflect their conscious, and at least partial, identification with the notion of respectability.

Indeed, the majority of young women strive to present themselves as respectable in contexts involving mixed gender and generational ‘audiences’. Although this can principally be because of the likely consequences if they do not, it is also just as likely to be because they engage with an element of ‘South Asian/Muslim culture’ that centres on respect for parents and equates this with adherence to parental wishes and concern for parents’ izzat.  They do this by complying with established codes of dress and behaviour conventionally understood to signal these characteristics. Displaying respect for parents in public performances of ‘self’ both communicates identification, and protects and potentially enhances their parents’ and their own izzat.  As I have suggested, too, some young women choose to express themselves in a particular way because they subjectively engage more comprehensively with a series of ‘religious’ and ‘cultural meanings’ invested in the dress, deportment, demeanour and actions of young women.

Regardless of the motivation behind performances of respectable feminine ethnicity, young women are critically reflexive about, and often contest, what signifies respectability. What constitutes ‘respectable Scottish Pakistani Muslim’ femininity and how this can be expressed is being reflexively reworked by young ‘Scottish Pakistani Muslim’ women. In terms of dress for instance, early on in my research it was rare to see any young women at social gatherings of ‘British Pakistanis’ dressed in anything other than shalwar kameez, however, as my fieldwork progressed this became less rare. For example, at an evening function in the summer of 1999 held at Meadowbank Stadium a number of young women were dressed in long skirt suites or long skirts with contrasting long-line jackets and chiffon duppatas draped over their shoulders.

Also, in the summer of 1998 short-sleeved kameez became fashionable in Pakistan and in some other parts of Britain but few young women wore these in Edinburgh at gatherings such as weddings where men were present and those who did were subject of criticism. However, by the summer of 1999 I observed several young women wearing this style of kameez at weddings including one young woman, Ruby, who had told me the previous year:

If I go to a wedding and I see – like I really don’t think it’s right when you go to a wedding and you see girls wearing short sleeves.

The ‘identity’ performative codes young women challenge, however, are not only those that some of their parents engage with. They, also, include those reflecting ethnocentric and exclusive notions of ‘Scottish’/’British’ national belonging. During the course of general conversation, group discussion and interviews some young women indicated they felt, or had felt in the past, discomfort wearing ‘traditional’ clothes in the company of their ‘white British’ peers. Salma, for instance, told me on two different occasions (indicating how much it had affected her) that when she was younger she would change into shalwar kammez on returning from school. One evening after school she went to a local shop wearing these clothes and met a classmate who subsequently ridiculed her. She recalled how hurt she felt at the time but explained that latter when studying at college she defiantly wore shalwar kammez to lectures and classes. In a similar vein, another young woman, Aziza, asserted that even in a setting where no-one else was wearing shalwar kameez she would do so, saying: ‘a thousand people there and nobody wearing traditional clothes I could walk in and I would wear it’.

Evading surveillance

One way some young people attempt to transgress discursive and coercive constraints on their performance of gendered selves is by avoiding contexts where they are likely to be seen by other ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’, particularly those of the parental generation. Many young women, for instance, articulate discomfort about being in public places where there is a concentration of ‘South Asians’. For example, Zubeda described how she felt about Leith Walk: [xxii]

There’s Leith Walk and there’s a lot of Asian community there and I don’t really want to go there […]. I don’t like going anywhere where there is too many Asians. They just look at you. All Asians when they see another Asian they all just stare. 

Young women’s efforts to steer clear of public settings where they may be seen by other ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ are often motivated by a desire to evade any possibility of becoming the subject of gossip. Other young people do so because they wish to express aspects of themselves that would be intolerable and dangerous if witnessed by older ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’. For example, I heard of, and occasionally observed for myself, young ‘Edinburgh Pakistani’ women who breach performative expectations to dress in a manner viewed as ‘modest’. Such young women dressed in fashionable ‘western’ style clothes that would be considered revealing. A few young women who attended one of the city’s universities were ‘notorious’ for dressing in this way. They were known to change, after leaving home, from clothing their parents found acceptable. However, while their activities appeared to evade their parents’ knowledge these young women were criticised several times in my company by other young people. For example, Zubeda who attended the same institution, during a conversation, complained:

They leave home wearing one thing and then change and put their slap on at university. In the middle of winter they wear a semi-boob tube or something, or tight skirt. Which even British people look at and think ‘oh my God’. I saw a group of Asian girls dressed up-to-the-nines and this group of white British men were calling them slappers and tarts.


Also, at certain types of gatherings in Edinburgh, such as Edinburgh Mela concerts, a few young women can be seen joining young men in front of the stage and dancing. However, most of these will have travelled through from Glasgow for the occasion. Their relative anonymity in Edinburgh freeing them from constraints that other young women are subject to.

Young men, too, endeavour to avoid being seen by older ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ when they are participating in activities prohibited within the discursive expectations their parents subscribe to, such as ‘clubbing’, drinking and dating. One young man, Akbar, for instance, related the reasons why his friends prefer to frequent a cinema complex on the outskirts of the city instead of one in the city centre:

UCI is a popular cinema with Asians. If they go to the cinema some of them might want to take their girlfriends. If you go to the Odeon you might get seen if you go to Toll Cross you might get seen so they go to UCI. [xxiii]

Despite discursive proscriptions, which dictate that respectable single young women should not express (or even experience!) interest in the opposite sex, various functions and gatherings are widely understood by young people to present opportunities for both sexes ‘to check out the talent’ - as a number of young people put it. Occasionally at such gatherings a few young women noticeably present themselves in such a way as to attract attention by continually walking to and fro in front of groups of youths or sitting close to them, chatting to them and exhibiting flirtatious body language. However, exhibiting anything more than restrained looks at young men in these contexts exposes young women to ridicule among their peers and the parental generation, and potentially to the consequences I outlined earlier.

Nevertheless covert interaction at such occasions and introductions in other contexts can lead to the initiation of ‘illicit’ relationships between young men and women. For example, Javed described how young men might instigate relationships of this kind:

Guys usually meet girls at the Mela or university or in town. They don’t want their parents to see them. Say at the Mela they would call them over somewhere no one could see them and speak to them and ask them out or whatever and then leave a number with them so they could phone them. The girl wouldn’t leave a number unless she had a mobile.

In the light of discursive and coercive prohibitions pertaining to relationships between the sexes outside of marriage, the viability of such relationships is disproportionately dependent upon communication technology. Indeed, I was told on several different occasions that ‘phone relationships’ were commonplace. Here the mobile phone, in particular, can be seen to potentially facilitate a surveillance free environment for conducting and arranging romantic interactions that transgress proscriptions on gender performance. The possession of this technology is extensive among young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ and in some cases parents were unaware their offspring owned these phones. Even when parents knew their children had access to this technology young people found it useful to receive and make calls without their parents’ knowledge. For example, during a visit to a family home, one of the daughters intimated she had just bought a mobile phone. I asked her why she wanted a mobile phone and she explained that it was so people could phone her without her parents’ knowledge and so she could phone others without these calls appearing on the family’s itemised phone bill.

Actually meeting up and spending time with boyfriends or girlfriends is a difficult and risky enterprise. However, it is clear that such relationships can and do exceed the boundaries of technologically mediated contexts. This is evidenced not least by the growing number among young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ of what are described by participants as love marriages, which differ from ‘traditionally arranged marriages’. Ideally the latter entails parents or other relatives seeking out a suitable partner and introducing the prospective couple. If they agree to marriage, the couple then have limited contact with one another prior to their wedding. Romantic love may develop after the marriage ceremony. Such arrangements were acceptable to many young participants. They see them as a practical means of meeting a compatible life partner and strenuously distinguish ‘arranged marriages’ from ‘forced marriages’, which they see as wrong and an unfair fixation of ‘British’ media. Interestingly, even those participants who told me they themselves had love marriages asserted that they did not object to ‘traditionally arranged marriages’ in principle.

In order to subvert constraints on meeting up and spending time together young people are obliged to go to some lengths to avoid being seen. One young married women participant, for example, told me how she and her boyfriend (now husband) would skip lectures at university to spend a couple of hours together by driving to one of the small coastal towns south of Edinburgh. Zubeda explained how her friends managed to ‘date’:

What they do is – if they are at university together that’s fine - they sit in the canteen together or they go for drives. (T) used meet him (T’s boyfriend) in like a hospital café or sit in the park.

As we heard, however, from Javed’s experience related above, it is difficult to avoid being seen in Edinburgh and gossip spreads quickly among ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’. Young people, particularly women, have much at stake in avoiding observation.

Performance consciousness

Young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ frequently recognise their own and others’ performances of ‘identity’ as performances. For example, young men and women largely perceive young men’s behaviour and appearance in the types of context I outline above as affected and exaggerated. One way that recognition of performance is evident is in young people’s self-directed racist use of the term Typical Paki or TP. Young ‘British Pakistanis’ attribute the label TP to various types of behaviour, appearances and tastes, and to people who enact, present, and engage with these. Like other ‘identity’ concepts there is some difference and debate about its meaning. Sometimes young participants use it to describe someone who is perceived of as lacking fashion sense or savvy. [xxiv] Young people also use TP humorously when alluding to ways of doing things they mutually view as idiosyncratic of their parents’ generation or of ‘South Asian culture’. The following extract, from a conversation between young men and women students where they recall childhood family outings, is suggestive of the enjoyment young people get from this kind of shared recognition:

Najma: We used to have about three cars and there used to be about five families and we all used to crush in together (laugh).

Asad: It wasn’t like three people in the car it was like ten in the car - hundreds of us. […]

Salma: We went to Inverness, Fort William with about three families, and we made like rice and curries.

Asad: TP TP TP.

            All: (Laugh)

            Salma: How worse is that.

Asad: No that’s not TP at all (sarcastic tone)

            All: (Laugh)

            Salma: TP - typical Paki sorry.

Another significant use of the term TP by participants was to refer to young ‘British Pakistanis’ and other ‘British South Asians’ who engage with specific gendered, ethnic identities and to the fashions, tastes, display of communicative technologies and public performances that are understood to manifest this engagement. These include the presentation of ethnic masculinity outlined above. This label is also applied to the way some young women present themselves. The following extract, from a conversation with Roshin and Zarina, offers a summary of what is seen by young people to warrant this classification.

            Roshin: I got this email once and it says ‘the ten typical Pakistani things’.

            Zarina: Bleached hair (Roshin: bleached hair) streaks of bleached hair, contact lenses.

Roshin: There was this list of ten things - you have to have a mobile or a pager, for a girl you have to have dyed hair and you have (Zarina: permed hair or something) permed hair and it’s got to be dyed and em (Zarina: red lipstick) red lipstick always and contact lenses.

            Zarian: You have to dress up for uni like you’re going to a party (laugh)

Roshin: Yeah you always have to be over dressed. For a guy you’ve got to have a mobile, a pager, wear lots of gel in your hair.

            Zarina: Yeah. You have to swear in Asian.

Roshin: You have to swear in your own language and you wear lots of gold (Zarian: and rings or something) chains and stuff. You hang around with like ten other Asian guys. You don’t go on your own anywhere sort of. Some of it is quite true.

            Zarina: It is actually true it is.

            Karen: Who sent that to you?

            Roshin: It was an Asian person it was a guy who sent it to me.

Young people who want to distance themselves from others sometimes use the classification TP but those who consciously and intentionally conform to the criteria perceived of as being TP can also use it. Zarina, for example, on another occasion, told me: ‘I’m a bit TP’. She often wore blue contact lenses and, when I was in her company, she continually checked her mobile phone. Partly, in their construction of stereotypical notions of themselves and their self-referential humour (not dissimilar in character to the television satire Goodness Gracious Me) young ‘British Pakistanis’ are defusing the capacity of others to ascribe racist definitions to them while demonstrating the self-confidence to laugh at themselves. However, I would argue that they are also revealing a reflexive recognition of ‘identity’ as performed.

It is argued elsewhere that contextual shifting can be unconscious (cf. Vertovec & Rogers 1998). While code switching is frequently taken for granted among young participants in my study, they are regularly aware of altering their presentation of selves. The ability of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ to respond to disparate contexts appropriately is itself a factor generating consciousness of the performance of ‘identity’. Young women particularly appear to be sensitive to contextual shifts in their ‘self’ presentation. The juxtaposition of often contradictory versions of femininity that young women contend with in their everyday lives, and the burden of responsibility for their family’s, their male relatives and their own reputation, makes their performance of identities more conscious than it appears to be for their male peers. Young women participants frequently alluded to, not only their purposeful alternation of dress between ‘traditional’ and ‘western’ style clothes depending upon their environment, but also to accompanying changes in their manner and behaviour. These different performances can also entail distinctions in speech and language, as Roshin reflexively identifies here:

I think there is a role change as soon as you walk inside home […].  I think it’s probably you’re speaking a different language so you start playing that thing and when you get home you start speaking Punjabi or whatever. I know with some of my friends they do that as well – they’re speaking to their friends and they’ve got this very strong Scottish accent and as soon as they come home they start speaking Punjabi you know and it’s almost as if their character completely changes. I’ve noticed some of them the way they’re talking to me they’re ‘ye all right’ (assertive/aggressive tone) this and that and then they call their mum’s and it’s very subdued and humble and ‘I’m a really good girl’ kind of thing. It’s quite funny most people we play two different roles one’s for outside and the other’s for you know their family.

Young women, particularly, become highly proficient at adapting appropriately to the divergent environments they find themselves in. However, for the reasons discussed, the extent to which their performances and, indeed, those of their male peers represent free agency to engage with different forms of femininity and masculinity varies according to context/’audience’.

Segregated ‘audiences’ for managing different identities

This being said, it is erroneous to interpret the shifting, and even exaggerated, character of ‘identity’ performances among these young people as either always compelled or as principally representing an inauthentic ‘act’. Intentionally presenting themselves in particular ways in particular contexts often represents their complex, subjective engagement with at least some aspect of ‘ethnic identity’ or ‘culture’ that a particular way of ‘acting’ is understood to signify. For example, masculine respect in the case of young men or respect for parents in case of young women. Also, conscious context shifting performances articulate young people’s sensitivity, knowingness and skills relating to ‘situational propriety’ (Goffman, 1963).

Significantly these conscious shifts are also a means whereby young people can comfortably express different facets of their plural identities. Webner (1996: 56. cf. also 2002) notes that ‘British Pakistanis are, simultaneously, Muslims, South Asians, mostly Punjabis, more or less Westernized’, and that ‘(t)hey manage these identities by creating different domains of activity and keeping these domains separate’. In the following quote Nousheen alludes to this type of identity management:

I see myself as a British female with Pakistani origins and Pakistani family and traditions. So […] I have my British life and I have my Pakistani life - the two of them. If I was to start saying I don’t want anything to do with culture and tradition, I probably wouldn’t get anywhere but the way my life is it works quite well. I have one side of it and the other side. […] Our work life is mainly non-Asian and our family life is Asian and our social life is a mix of both. It works quite well for us.

However, keeping ‘audiences’ separate is not always possible, particularly given the modest dimensions of Edinburgh and its ‘Scottish Pakistani’ population. Haleema, recalling an experience when she was younger, illustrated this fact:

I remember going to Craiglochart [xxv], I don’t know who was playing tennis, but we went up to see it and I was wearing a shalwar kameez at the time and I bumped into some girls from school and I was mortified.

Difficulties associated with successful ‘audience segregation’ (Goffman, 1959) are one factor in the lives of young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ that can serve as an incentive to re-work deterministic, bounded and opposing gendered ethnic ‘identity’ discourses.


It can be seen that young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’’ performances of gendered ethnicity can re-affirm, but also, oppose established or conventional discursive and performative scripts. Disciplinary power resulting from a combination of izzat, gossip and surveillance, and the threat of coercion, together with prevalent discursive meanings associated with ‘authenticity’ and ‘purity’ comes to bear upon their ‘identity’ performances within certain contexts. The relationship between ‘performers’ and ‘audience/s’ is of critical importance to the freedom these young people have to choose how they present their identities within particular settings. However, their performative engagement with various discursive and cultural codes is not straightforward. Often young ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ attempt to subvert scrutiny, sometimes by means of telephony and other communication technologies, and so transgress gender, ethnic and religious performative codes. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of different performative codes, coupled with alternating ‘self’ presentations, frequently make young people conscious of their own and other performances of ‘identity’ as performances. This does not necessarily signify artificiality or insincerity but rather can denote partial engagements, ‘cultural navigational skills’ (Ballard 1994), acute sensitivity to context and plural identifications. Their reflexivity is also significant to rethinking or reworking discourses of gendered ethnicity and discursive/performative codes. As I hope to demonstrate further in detail elsewhere, the inter-relationship between reflexivity and performance - between reflexive cognition and embodiment - among the young participants in my study promotes cognitive review and performative revision. In turn, this can have a (re)formative influence on established discourses of ‘identity’ and ‘belonging’ themselves, and on their performative scripts.


Contact (by e-mail): Karen Quershi



[i] While, for the most part, I refer to participants in my study as ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ no singular label can incorporate all the identities of an individual or group of people. It should be noted, therefore, that my use of this term is pragmatic and is not meant to signify a consistent emphasis on local and/or national identifications. With a view to signalling the contingency of identifications, and the essentialising and homogenising tendency inherent in ‘identity’ labels such as ‘Edinburgh Pakistani/s’, I place these within inverted commas.

[ii] In recognition of the plurality (and the constructed, dynamic character) disguised by terms such as ‘identity’ this term and others of a problematic nature are placed in inverted commas.

[iii] The Edinburgh Mela is an annual festival held in the city principally involving the city’s ‘Pakistani’ population.

[iv] Payan is a pseudonym for this group.

[v] Branches of Islam include Sunni - following the leadership of the first caliph and Shia - distinguishing Ali, the descendent of Muhammad. Ahmadi is a form of Islam based on the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad that developed in the Subcontinent. Bravlii and Devbandi are religious schools, within the Sunni branch, which also developed in the Subcontinent and take their names from different towns in India. The latter emphasises scholarship and the accessibility of the religious understanding contained in the Qur’an. The former refers to the esoteric Sufi tradition (cf. Werbner, 1990).

[vi] The construction of gendered identities is also caught up with the construction of class (cf. Skeggs, 1997) and sexual identities (cf. Kimmel, 2001).

[vii]  Butler refers to drag performances.

[viii] Cf. also Vertovec (1998) regarding gossip and social control.

[ix]  Baumann (1996) argues the cultural value if izzat is as much about giving respect to others as receiving it.

[x] Significantly, in terms of binary oppositions that are commonly perceived to define ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ conceptions of identities, Skeggs (1997: 115) points out the centrality of ‘respectability’ in relation to the construction of class and gender in England, where ‘to claim respectability, disavowal of the sexual is necessary and constructions, displays and performance of feminine conduct are seen as necessary’.

[xi]  All participants’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.

[xii] Portobello is southeast of the city some distance apart from Juniper Green, which is in the southwest of the city.

[xiii] The notion of ‘nazar-e-bad’ (evil eye) may be relevant here but participants did not make this explicit.

[xiv] Afshar (1994: 33) notes that ‘(s)hame amongst Muslim minorities is an almost unforgivable crime: the group is merciless and unforgiving to those who transgress’.

[xv] I use the term communicative spaces to refer to figurative spaces (including those constructed by ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’’ exposure to ‘diverse mobilities’ that I call ‘trans-boundary communicative spaces’) where the meanings of identities are exchanged and reflexively debated and played with in a participatory manner.

[xvi] Interestingly, Zubeda’s conceptualisation here resonates with Bhaba’s (1990) ‘Third Space’

[xvii] Cf. Taylor, (1994) for discussion regarding the relevance of recognition and respect for the recovery of valued ‘self-identity’ of excluded groups.

[xviii] The selective appropriation of black youth styles’ among ‘Southall Punjabis’ is also recorded by Gillespie (1998:178, cf. also 1995).

[xix] It has been noted elsewhere that mobile phones are a significant element of the ‘social and cultural practices’ of minority ethnic youth (Poole, 2001).

[xx] Gillespie (1998) argues that the importance of ‘designer label’ clothing to ‘Southall Punjabis’ is caught up with desire for ‘authenticity’. She notes that ‘(t)he conspicuous consumption of clothes involves not only the public display of self, but also of rank and prestige’ (159).

[xxi] Shaw (1988) notes that fair skin is seen as desirable in Pakistan because it has been historically associated with high castes.

[xxii] The densest concentration of ‘South Asian’ owned shops in Edinburgh is on Leith Walk, a busy, lengthy thoroughfare running from the city centre down to Leith - which is also where many of the city’s small population of ‘Sikhs’ live. Many families shop on Leith Walk for halal meat, and there are also several other small retail businesses owned by ‘British South Asians’, including fabric shops, jewellers and travel agents.

[xxiii] The Odeon cinema is situated close to Nicolson Street and at the time of my fieldwork there was a cinema in the Toll Cross area of Edinburgh. A number of retail businesses owned by  ‘Edinburgh Pakistanis’ are situated in both of these areas.

[xxiv] This particular use of the term TP is similar to the use of the term ‘Pendu’, meaning ‘peasant’, noted by Gillespie (1995, 1998).

[xxv] Some participants reported playing tennis in the Craiglochart area of the city.




Abercrombie, N. & Longhurst, B. (1998). Audiences: a sociological theory of performance and imagination. London: Sage.

Abu-Odeh, L. (1996). Crimes of honour and the construction of gender and Arab societies. Pp. 141-94 in M. Yamani (ed), Feminism and Islam: legal & literary perspectives. Reading: Ithaca.

Afshar, H. (1994). Muslim women in West Yorkshire: growing up with real and imaginary values amidst conflicting views of self and society. Pp 127-47. in H. Afshar & M. Maynard (eds), The dynamics or ‘race’ and gender: some feminist interventions. London: Taylor and Francis.

Ballard, R. (1994). Introduction: the emergence of Desh Pardesh. Pp 1-35 in R. Ballard (ed), Desh Pardesh: the South Asian presence in Britain. London: C. Hurst.

Bhabha, H. (1990). The third space, Pp. 207 – 221, in J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity: community culture difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Baumann, G. (1996). Contesting culture: discourses of identity in multi-ethnic London. London: Sage.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1998). Performing gender identity: young men’s talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity. Pp. 270-84, in J. Coates (ed), Language and gender: a reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Carlson, Marvin. (1996). Performance: a critical introduction. London: Routledge.

Fortier, A. (1999). Re-membering places and the performance of belonging(s). Theory, Culture and Society. 16 (2): 41-64.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Harmonsworth: Penguin.

Gillespie, M. (1993). Soap viewing, gossip and rumour amongst Punjabi youth in Southall. Pp 25-42 in P. Drummond, R. Patterson & J. Willis (eds), National identity and Europe. London: B. F. I.

Gillespie, M. (1995). Ethnicity and cultural change. London: Routledge.

Gillespie, M. (1998). ‘Being cool and classy’: style hierarchies in London Punjabi peer culture. International Journal of Punjabi Studies. 5 (2): 159-78.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goffman, E. (1963). Behaviour in public places: notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York: The Free Press.

Gluchkman, M. (1963). Gossip and scandal. Current Anthropology. 4: 307-16.

Hall, S. (1992). The question of cultural identity. Pp 274-324 in S. Hall, D. Held & T. McGrew (eds), Modernity and its futures. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with the O. U.

Hannerz, U. (1996). Transnational connections: culture, people, places. London: Routledge.

Hebdige, D. (1988). Hiding in the light. London: Routledge.

Kimmel, M. S. (2001). Masculinity as homophobia: fear, shame and silence in the construction of gender identity. Pp. 266-87, in S. M. Whitehead & F. J. Barret (eds,. The masculinities reader. Cambridge: Polity.

Morley, D. (2000). Home territories: media, mobility and identity. Routledge: London.

Paine, R. (1967). What gossip is about: an alternative hypothesis. Man 2: 278-85.

Poole, E. (2001). Networking Islam: reassessing debates regarding the democratising potential of new technologies in relation to Muslim communities. Paper presented  at Diasporic communications colloquium, September 5th –7th. University of Westminster.

Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: language and ethnicity among adolescents. Harlow: Longman.

Sarrup, M. (1993). An introductory guide to post-structuralism and post modernism. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Schieffelin, E. L. (1998). Problematizing performance. Pp. 194 –207, F. Hughes-Freeland (ed), Ritual performance media. London: Routledge.

S.E.M.R.U. (Scottish Ethnic Minorities Research Unit). (1987). Ethnic minorities profile: a study of needs and services in Lothian region and Edinburgh district. Report-Edinburgh College of Art/Herriot Watt University, Department of town and country planning.

Shaw, A. (1988). A Pakistani community in Britain. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender. London: Sage.

Taylor, C. (1994). Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Turner, B. S. (1994). Orientalism, postmodernism and globalism. London: Routledge.

Urry J. (2000). Sociology beyond societies: mobilities for the 21st century. London: Routledge.

Vertovec, S. (1998). Young Muslims in Keighley, West Yorkshire: cultural identity, context and ‘community’. Pp 87-102 in S. Vertovec & A. Rodgers (eds), Muslim European youth: reproducing ethnicity, religion, culture. Aldershot: Ashagate.

Vertovec, S. & Rodgers, A. (1998). Introduction. Pp 11-24 in S. Vertovec & A. Rodgers (eds), Muslim European youth: reproducing ethnicity, religion, culture. Aldershot: Ashagate.

Werbner, P. (1990). Manchester Pakistanis: division and unity. Pp 331-47 in C. Clarke, C. Peach & S. Vertovec. (eds), South Asians overseas: migration and ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Werbner, P. (1996). Fun spaces: on identity and social empowerment among British Pakistanis. Theory, Culture and Society. 13 (4): 53-79.

Werbner, P. (2002). Imagined diasporas: among Manchester Muslims. Oxford: James Currey.

Whitehead, S. M. & Barrett, F.  J. (2001). The sociology of masculinity. Pp. 1-26 in S. M. Whitehead & F. J. Barret (eds), The masculinities reader. Cambridge: Polity.

Yuval-Davis, N. (1992). Fundamentalism, multiculturalism and women in Britain. Pp 278-91 in J. Donald & A Rattansi (eds), ‘Race’ culture and difference. London: Sage in association with O.U.