The New Woman

‘On the New Woman’ Photo from https://www.ivetajusova.com

 

Last week I had the immense privilege of meeting Leslee Udwin, the film maker behind the documentary “India’s Daughter” which went on to be banned in India and receive extensive media coverage. Udwin was part of a panel discussion at Kings College London, “Gender-based Violence Forum 2015: Shock and Social Change,” alongside panelists from the university, Southall Black Sisters and human rights activist Mandy Sanghera.

The discussion ranged from talking about child sex exploitation, grooming, honour based crime and domestic violence to rape being used as a weapon in conflict. It is easy for many of us to pay less attention to, and even mock, male victims of abuse and sexual violence as we believe that it only happens to women or to those of a certain ethnic group. While, women are more likely to abused than men, it is extremely important to listen to men and young boys who have also experienced abuse and sexual violence.

Film maker Leslee Udwin and Chayya Syal (Avid Scribbler) (c) Photo by Avid Scribbler

Film maker Leslee Udwin and Chayya Syal (Avid Scribbler)
(c) Photo by Avid Scribbler

One point which stuck with me, throughout, was this idea of ‘The New, Empowered and Aspiring’ modern Indian Woman. The term itself makes me want to laugh, because I’ve grown up listening to stories of Punjabi women who fought in wars, were queens, died for their country and protected their kingdoms. In my eyes, and perhaps naively, I’ve never considered my fellow Indian women to be anything but dis-empowered. On one hand, it’s too simple to brand all Indian women as shy, timid and victims based on what we read in the media and online. However, that’s certainly not to say that all Indian women are exempt from ever experiencing abuse or violence.

Who is ‘The New Indian Woman?’ Is she a fiercely independent, highly educated Anglophile who can make a round roti and a decent cup of chai? Does she look like a Bollywood actress or does she pay more attention to her inner beauty? Is ‘The New Indian Woman’ an idea or something that all Indian and South Asian women are able to realistically embody in our own, unique way?

‘The New Woman’ was an ideal used to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the USA. Despite the surge in financial, economic, sexual and educational freedoms, many social commentators and writers believed that such freedoms came at a cost – often a woman’s happiness and livelihood. This cost is most famously referred to in Henrik Ibsen’s ‘The Doll’s House.’

I studied a great deal of Feminist literature throughout school and university – as I read and discussed the phenomenon of ‘The New Woman’ with my peers, I remember wondering if such a social shift had ever occurred in South Asian communities. Or if we had simply been swept along in the turbulent tides of history, modern life and ejected into a world expected to uphold the same ideals as our Western counterparts – regardless of if and when we were ready for such a shift.

If we are not on the same side as our South Asian peers, how else are we expected to grow?

 

It wasn’t until I appeared on the radio, this morning (listen 32:00 onwards), to discuss the rise of South Asian women in Britain drinking more alcohol that I started looking at context. It led me back to the idea of ‘The New Indian Woman’ and I started to wonder if this trend was present in the UK as well as the sub-continent.

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to live a particular lifestyle – it’s their choice at the end of the day and we must start respecting this. Secondly, South Asian women living in Britain lead very different lives in comparison to our mothers and grandmothers – here we see two or three very different generations of women and their own ideals which vastly influence their outlook on culture and tradition. For example, my grandmother’s generation grew up in a very Orthodox social framework, compared to the liberal framework that most women of my generation are growing up in.

Last week, I blogged about Priti Patel receiving a senior position in the Cabinet and why this was so important for South Asian men and women everywhere – regardless of their political allegiance. There are more and more South Asian women achieving economic, educational, financial and social freedoms in differing industries. Yet these are the same women who regularly come under fire and are blamed for being a ‘bad influence’ on other South Asian women who then begin to realise that they too can achieve similar modes of success. And why shouldn’t they be able to?

This is often reaches a point where such women become too ‘Westernised’ and are considered to be in danger of destroying their family’s izzat (honour) and are either punished, or even killed, for daring to aspire even though they have been born and brought up in a society which allows and encourages it. All too often individuals, including second and third generation, cling to outdated traditions – which they mistakenly believe ties them closer to their culture – when in reality, it sends us on a downward spiral of cultural isolation, regression and stagnation which makes it very difficult for future generations to thrive and be proud of their roots. If we are not on the same side as our South Asian peers, how else are we expected to grow?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Personal is Political

The world’s most famous front door. Image sourced from https://www.bbc.co.uk

It’s been a big year for the United Kingdom, as we faced one of the biggest and longest General Elections. On Friday 8th May, Britain emerged with a Conservative majority in Government with David Cameron as our Prime Minister for the next five years.

As Cameron announced his Cabinet, we saw a number of familar and new faces surface. Out of 26 names, eight Cabinet members are women and two prominent Ministers are of South Asian descent. While I’m not a Tory voter and/or supporter, one name has particularly caught my attention and given many British Indian women and girls a new found sense of hope. So much so, that I’m putting aside my personal views on the state of British politics and writing tonight’s blog post with a detached perspective.

When I was a child, I would proudly proclaim to my entire family that I wanted to become Prime Minister when I grew up. This was before I briefly changed my career ambitions to become a frog (yes, I know!) and then set my sights on working in creative industries. At the time, everyone supported me and saw it as a childhood folly to indulge me with. However, it wasn’t until I declared my ambitions to my classmates (met with much laughter and bullying), that I realised it was near impossible for someone like me to reach the dizzying heights of Number 10.

Whenever I see a South Asian actively taking part and showing an interest in British politics, I feel a sense of: “Yeah!” regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Even if you take race and ethnicity out of the sentence, it’s an honour to see/hear young people dispel stereotypes and engage in politics.

In the audience for ‘The Big Asian Election Debate’ hosted by Nihal. Image sourced: AvidScribbler

Recently, I had the privilege of going to Birmingham, and being part of the audience for BBC Asian Network’s ‘The Big Asian Election Debate’ alongside people from various Asian communities from different parts of the UK. I also had the opportunity to see a panel made up of South Asian politicians from across politics. This was the first time that I had experienced this – even though I was born, brought up and live in one of the UK’s most diverse cities. This was where I saw and heard Priti Patel (now Minister of State for Employment) speak for the first time. I remember listening to what she said, even though I didn’t agree with any of it, with deep respect and interest. I am happy that Patel has secured an important Government position, and I wish her well in this, but I wait with baited breath to see what policies and changes she makes during her tenure.

Although we live in the 21st century and in a nation that is often deemed as ‘multi-cultural’ with opportunities open for all, it is still notoriously difficult for South Asians to break through, succeed and establish themselves in certain fields. It’s a well known fact – and a point to celebrate – that Asians have truly succeeded in careers such as Law, Finance, Medicine, Dentistry, Enterprise and teaching, yet we are still to establish ourselves in more industries. Already there are many names coming up in the creative industries, who I am sure, will one day be recognised for their talent and work.

Many do not recognise the importance of having South Asians in notable political positions, nor do they understand the struggles many face to get the same positions available to candidates of Caucasian descent. There have been many comments from people who don’t understand why Patel’s ethnicity is being highlighted. Some of these include: “How is she Indian?” and “Stop putting holes where there aren’t any” to the gleefully ignorant “This is stupid, anyone from anywhere can succeed in Britain today.” These comments, unfortunately, come from Caucasians who still do not understand why this is a big deal for Asians and the British public in general.

All smiles: Priti Patel, Minister of State for Employment, outside Number 10. Image sourced: https://www.cityam.com

I’d like to take the latter to task: while it certainly is ‘easier’ for my generation to shatter more glass ceilings, in comparison to my dad’s and grandmother’s generations, we still face new challenges from both our own communities and the country that we live in.

It’s not about defending how Priti Patel is still classed as an ‘Indian woman’, when she was clearly brought up in the UK. It’s not about how ‘un-Asian’ we are when we succeed in unusual professions. Nor is it about making Caucasian people ‘feel uncomfortable’ every time an Asian speaks up about feeling misrepresented in a country they were born in. This is about giving thousands of Asians, particularly our women and girls, hope and a visible sign that it is possible to succeed – regardless of their political and social stance.

To those, who are wearing blinkers, and naively state that: “Anyone can make it here” need to have a reality check. There are still numerous barriers that women of colour continue to face – Saida Grundy and Michelle Obama are just two names out of millions. Some of the obstacles we face range from being compared to gorillas, hyper-sexualisation and attacks on our physical appearances to being silenced for having opinions.

Despite having made significant progress in the last 50 years or so, we still have a long way to go before we begin to see politics, the media and the arts become a true reflection of how diverse modern Britain is. Priti Patel joins a list of other British Asian female politicians who are beginning to challenge our social narrative and show many that – in time – politics will no longer be an exclusive game for middle-class, privileged white men and women.

Mind Your Language!

 

Earlier this year, exam boards AQA and OCR announced plans to scrap a number of community languages from the British curriculum. The list of languages, including modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Polish, Gujarati and more, planned to be scrapped by exam board AQA can be found here.

It has sent shock waves through different communities, with many members of the public, teachers, community leaders and several politicians condemning the action. The decision to scrap the vast majority of community languages follows claims that there are not enough examiners in these languages, a low number of pupil uptake and an overall declining interest in learning foreign languages. Both exam boards also stated that they are making the cuts by 2017 in response to changes in the way that exams are assessed. The shake-up of A-levels and GCSEs comes after a study found that 43% of subjects, including Environmental Sciences, Applied Science, Human Biology and more, are not in ‘ overall demand.’

“They are important qualifications, both for speakers in the community but also for the outward-looking trade in the multicultural country that Britain needs to be in the 21st century.” Tristram Hunt

This comes following statistics showing that, in 2014, 625 students sat a GCSE exam in Gujarati and 19 studied it as an A-level. In the same year, a total of 167 students gained an A-level in Panjabi and 42 students sat an A-level exam in Bengali. In addition, the latest statistics from the English Baccelaurate (EBac) has shown that the numbers of pupils taking up Portuguese has increased by 19%, Arabic by 18% and Polish by 18%. Despite the data, these are the very same community languages that OCR and AQA plan to scrap.

I’m not too sure how I feel about this. A part of me is deeply saddened and angry by these exam boards’ decision, while another part of me feels quite hopeless and hurt. As someone who is of Panjabi descent, was born, grew up and received formal education in the UK, this piece of news has felt like a slap in my face. I also find it ironic that the languages being scrapped are also the ones which represent the largest ethnic minority groups in the UK.

We live in a world that is increasingly shrinking, becoming more and more globalised, the proposed plans to scrap community languages has baffled me. On one hand, there’s the argument that “loads of people speak English, what’s the point of languages” and “well English is pretty much India’s second language” to “It’s a waste of time learning those sorts of languages; we can’t even use them.” Firstly, not everyone in India speaks perfect English despite there being a large middle-class. Secondly, languages are a hugely important part of our lives – it’s basic communication. Thirdly, there is so much competition for jobs and people are constantly jostling to have the edge over other candidates; what better skill to have than a language? Fourthly, it is a talent to be able to learn another language – it has been proven that being bilingual keeps your brain sharp and agile.

Since taking up languages at GCSE level were made optional in 2004, numbers have plummeted.

However, on the other hand, many have dismissed any anxieties and said that this shouldn’t dismay those who wish to learn community languages. Some people have suggested that individuals turn to the Internet, local community centres and places of worship should rise to the challenge and start running after-school classes which will teach these languages. This itself is not a bad idea, but the only setback (that I can think of) is that many employers will want to see an officially recognised qualification to back up fluency in a language.

It is a shame to see the importance of languages, outside of Europe, have been cut due to low pupil-uptake and in an attempt to save money. Growing up and studying in a British school, I wasn’t even aware that I could have sat a GCSE in Hindi or Panjabi – the option had never been considered or brought to my attention. It makes me wonder, how many students actually know that they could have gained an academic qualification in their mother tongue?

It further pains me to see that European languages such as German, French and Spanish haven’t seen such cuts despite statistics showing that less than 40% of students choose to learn these languages. It feels as though we have definitely attached financial value/economic gain to certain languages and discarded those that we ‘cannot make money from.’

Learning another language strengthens your brain and helps to protect it from dementia and Alzheimer’s

As someone who is fluent in several languages, both European and Asian, it feels like I’ve been thrown into a parallel universe where things such as the arts, languages and creativity were not appreciated. I often have to pinch myself, hard, to realise that this is in fact happening to us in this day and age. What saddens me even more is that there are not enough of us speaking up and against this. Too many have forgotten the trouble that immigrants go to in order to study English, learn it, adopt an English accent and show it as a sign of integration. This often comes at the risk of losing their own mother tongue and not encouraging their children to learn it, take pride in their heritage and feel confident when speaking it. I remember how ashamed I felt whenever my grandmother spoke Panjabi to me in public.

I believe that community languages are an inherently important part of our lives, especially for those of BAME heritage. For many of us, including myself, it is the only solid link that we have to our heritages and cultures – which is why it hurts me so much. It almost indirectly says to us that ‘your language isn’t worthy of our time and money’ which further suggests that the ethnic groups behind these languages are also not worthy of public time, money and resources. And, for me, I guess that’s why I suddenly feel hopeless.