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.
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?