The Pyrex Ceiling

Pyrex or glass? Image from https://www.linkedin.com “Shattering the Glass Ceiling Mindset”

“I want you to be successful, but not too successful. Get to a high enough platform and try to stay there – that way you can still live a good life and not have to sacrifice your family.”

This is a phrase that, unfortunately, many young girls and women still hear. Or at least something along those lines. I wish that so many of us didn’t have to hear it from the lips of our loved ones or the people that we live side by side with. Today I was told this by someone who is quite close to me and it’s surprisingly hurt me. I don’t know whether that hurt stems from naivety or having an idealistic outlook inside of my head, but I never thought that I would be directly blogging about this, as it’s something that I have alluded to but not expanded upon in previous posts.

Firstly, writing this is so personal (and painful) and secondly because I didn’t expect to be told what was said in the quote at start of this post. It made me think and wonder why, in this day and age, so many South Asian girls and women are still told this. I’ve got a couple of aunts who have done spectacularly well in their careers for Asian women; as a child I would look up to them and secretly wish that one day I could become as independent and successful as they were. I remember innocently saying this to a family member, who then curtly told me that good girls didn’t go off and make lives like that for themselves. Naturally I didn’t tell anyone in my family after that because they were both regularly used as examples of “less than ideal Indian women” – they had sacrificed not having a family in favour of furthering themselves. Instead of praising their success and encouraging other girls in my family to emulate similar successes, they were used as examples of the type of woman that we should not become.

You don’t have to look very far to see the demonisation of successful women

It was as if we were being told that all of my aunts’ personal problems were because they chose to develop their careers over getting married/having children. There is this – greatly misplaced – idea that if a couple have a child or if someone gets married, that all of their problems will magically disappear.  We obviously know that sometimes this isn’t the best solution, but why do so many of us still uphold this idea even though we know that it clearly didn’t work for older generations?

Every other day, we see and read articles which discuss the possibilities of women having it all and maintaining a work-life balance and articles which then counter the latter by talking about women demanding better flexibility, doing jobs that they actually enjoy and debunking the myth of ‘having it all.’ There are thousands of articles and books like this floating around on the Internet and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or confused with the conflicting messages that they send out. The one thing that they have in common is not mentioning cultural expectations of ethnic women which often hinders them from attaining successes in their working lives.

You don’t have to look very far to see the demonisation of successful women – the depiction of Miranda Priestley as a ruthless and vindictive woman of power from The Devil Wears Prada is self explanatory. It is an assumption that any woman with power, outside of a domestic sphere, is one that is unnatural and a threat to other men and women. When we see such depictions, it comes as no surprise that so many girls are put off about becoming CEOs or holding senior positions in companies or start-ups. There is an undercurrent, and anxiety, of thought that it is more important to be well liked and receive praise for adhering to certain traditions than focus on ourselves and attain success in one’s work life.

So what we do actually want? Having it all? Better flexibility? Or changing cultural expectations of women?

Growing up I often found myself torn between ideas of smashing the infamous glass ceiling, that so many Feminists talk about, yet knowing full well that there was an expectation of me to uphold ideals of womanhood in South Asian culture to appease an older generation’s traditional outlook on women’s lives. We were told to work hard, get good grades at school and get into a good university, then get a good job, work there for a few years and then look to get married, have children and settle into a nice family. Of course, none of this was explicitly said, it was silently assumed as the norm. It’s certainly easier said than done, to tell South Asian women in the Diaspora and the motherland, that it’s their life and they they should fearlessly live it on their own terms.

The vast majority of us are brought up with ideals of familial closeness and the importance of our responsibility to uphold it has been embedded into our psyche. For many, it becomes a core part of their identity, as most South Asian cultures idealise womanhood and the duties that we are expected to perform without a second thought by putting them on a pedestal. This is where and why so many families tend to place their izzat (honour) into young girls and women. If we do anything that would threaten the peace and welfare of our families it comes back onto us in the form of guilt and shame which may often result in honour-based violence. I’m not saying this is the sole cause of honour-based violence, but it is a factor worth considering.

I’m sure that there are scores of South Asian women who have maintained this balance without compromising their career or family traditions, such as Indra Nooyi and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, but why does it feel like such a big compromise that we are automatically expected to do? Instead of feeling like we have a glass ceiling to smash through, to many, it often feels like that ceiling is now made out of Pyrex.

 

Dear Mr Cameron

Yesterday the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was in Birmingham to give a speech detailing a five-year plan to combat extremism and terrorism by proposing to bring in tough measures via a new Extremist Bill.

Terrorism; it’s been touted as the ‘biggest issue facing our generation’ which knows no borders, is bloodthirsty, ruthless, violent and has become another social issue for our leaders (in the West) to declare war upon. Things like terrorism, and terrorist groups, have been around for centuries – it’s only because of 24-hour news channels and technology that we are made more aware of it – therefore, it would be naive to suggest that terrorism is a modern problem exclusive to those living in the West.

Cameron’s speech, itself, was interesting but I found it to be problematic because in some parts it simply did not make sense and was deeply patronising. The main part which I want to discuss is the link between terrorism/extremism and integration/social cohesion with a focus on the latter. I’ve always found that whenever we talk about these two topics, they are mistakenly lumped together. I’ve always believed that integration and extremism are two, very distinct concepts that are rarely discussed in a coherent and concise manner – which is crucial given what is happening in contemporary British society.

“Some argue it’s because of historic injustices and recent wars […]  This argument […] I call the grievance justification must be challenged” ~ David Cameron

This clumsy re-packaging has social implications which we are already living in and starting to see the effects of. Many of us are of the belief that if you are not integrated into British society, you have a higher chance of becoming indoctrinated with extremist ideology and becoming a terrorist. It sounds a bit too simple, but at its very core, this is basically what that hasty connection has created.

What this misplaced link does not discuss or take into consideration is the process of integration itself. For decades, even before 9-11, the lens has exclusively been fixed upon ethnic minorities and their ability to integrate into Western societies. In a post 9-11 world, that lens has become increasingly harsh and as someone of ethnic descent, I have experienced first-hand how damaging that scrutiny has been upon my ethnic group and other ethnic communities.

The term, ‘British,’ is incredibly vague and what has become apparent is that the words ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Christian’ have been embedded into ideas of Britishness for centuries without being challenged. The presence of ethnic minorities has questioned this archaic definition and instead of society reflecting on what it means to be ‘British’ today, they have actively promoted homogenisation and confused it for integration.

The whole idea and process of integration has always been presented as a one-sided affair: ‘you must fit in with our society in order to live here.’  I find that this often results in people (of all backgrounds) mistaking integration for homogenisation. Integration is a two-way system which allows diversity, in all of its glory, to flourish from both incoming communities and the host community. Homogenisation is making different things more alike; this is something that we are starting to see more of and has manifested itself in varying degrees of bigotry, demonisation, discrimination and intolerance.

Terrorism: the ‘biggest issue facing our generation’

It is very rare to see the other side of what integration means for incoming communities – for many it often involves diluting or getting rid of aspects of their cultures which they hold dear. In some cases, there are cultural practices (forced marriage, acid attacks etc) which are truly outdated and need to be sent back to the past, which are thankfully being dealt with. But the main components often include knowledge of their ethnic language, in some cases religion, cultural and historic awareness of their roots, Anglicising names – the list can go on – but these are things which are hardly spoken about and create underlying tensions between incoming communities and the host community.

It’s not surprising to see why so many young people identify more with the glamours of ISIS (Daesh) than with the country of their birth which has bashed them about for not being ‘British enough’ or succumbing to ‘British’ values. If you consistently demonise, isolate and step on a particular community for long enough, you will inevitably get a backlash. It never ceases to amaze me whenever I hear exasperated cries of: “Oh why don’t they like us?” whenever an individual from a particular community reaches their limit and has an outburst. I am not saying that it is acceptable to join terrorist organisations and kill innocent people – what I am saying is that there is no smoke without fire and it is wrong to condemn an entire ethnic group, religion or race to a witch hunt based on the actions of what a misled minority chooses to do.

 

Women in Sport

Image sourced from the Library of Congress and obtained from https://www.dailymail.co.uk

This topic is slightly unusual for me, as I don’t usually follow sports nor am I a die-hard fan of any particular sport. However, 2015 has been a great year for women in sport – so far! At the weekend, we saw Serena Williams win Wimbledon while Sania Mirza become the first Indian woman to win Wimbledon in doubles and FIFA Women’s World Cup received considerable media attention while it took place in Canada.

It was truly inspiring to listen to the news and read articles online about women’s achievements in sporting events, their journeys, successes, failures and dreams. I was particularly drawn to their ideas of how they hoped that their actions would inspire more girls and young women to take up some kind of sport in the future.

According to Sport England, it is estimated only 5% of sports media coverage is for women’s sport and that women’s sport receives 0.5% of all commercial sponsorship. With these damning figures in mind, it is incredibly important that we keep female athletes in the public eye because they provide perspective. The kind of perspective that they provide is crucial, because they question and shake up traditional ideas of how we define concepts such as ‘femininity’ ‘beauty’ and who/what is considered to be ‘beautiful.’

“The human body is the best work of art.” ~ Jess C. Scott

But then it all went downhill, as it unfortunately tends to these days, when numerous body shamers came out of the woodwork and began making snide comments about Serena Williams’ skin colour, biceps and ‘mould-breaking muscular’ physique. It was so disheartening because it undermined every single positive thing that I had heard about female athletes and it felt as though we had not made any progress.

These comments, as callous and cruel as they were, made me think about the current representations that we have of the female form and why physically strong, muscular women are consistently undermined and devalued. The earliest image and memory that I have of muscular women, dates back to the kind of films I used to watch as a child. These ranged from conventional Disney films to extremely old, black and white cinema – it was in one of these old films that I first saw a muscular woman on screen. She had been cast as a member of the circus playing the ‘Strong Woman’ and was depicted as a menacing, angry background character that the young, handsome male protagonist would never fall in love with. I believe that some of the stigma, surrounding muscular woman today, stems from this idea that no one in their right mind would love a woman with muscles. This is obviously not true, but it somehow became a widely agreed concept, as women were then encouraged to pursue sports that were ‘designed for women’ such as ring toss and cheer leading. As a result of this, most women only ever strived to have a body/physique that was sexually desirable, elegant and had poise. Any body shape or attitude which went against this mould was either stamped out, reprimanded or isolated until the said individual had ‘come to her senses.’

“WHEN did creating a flawless facade become a more vital goal than learning to love a person…” ~ Ellen Hopkins

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that many girls (including myself) who grew up as ‘tom-boys’ and participated in sports at school were looked upon with disdain and made to feel ashamed of ourselves.  If we are subconsciously telling young girls that it is more important to look sexually desirable and ‘feminine’ than be physically strong and healthy, why are we then surprised to see so few young girls and women take up competitive sports? And in addition, why are we gobsmacked to see and hear nasty comments made about female athletes who do not conform to our collective idea of ‘beauty and ‘femininity?’

Having said that, there are a number of body positive social media campaigns popping up to challenge our ideas of ‘beauty’ and being ‘feminine.’ They include This Girl Can, Strong is Sexy, Less is More and others such as ESPN’s latest body positive campaign which shows the human body in all of its glory while highlighting how strong it can become. These campaigns are already starting to inspire women; whenever I go to the gym to train it fills me with delight when I see another woman or a young girl join me in the weights area or attend a barbell class.

It gives me a lot of hope to see that we are, slowly but surely, beginning to question the images of ‘beauty’ ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ that we see on a daily basis. There are thousands who are trying to find role models, images and lifestyles of women that are attainable, positive and realistic in our modern world. If we can Photoshop a human being’s body into one that doesn’t even belong to them, surely we can use those same tools to highlight and celebrate the variety of bodies that we see on a daily basis. And I’d like to finish with the eternal words of Margaret Atwood: ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.’