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South Asian Women in Britain

Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain by Amrit Wilson


South Asian Women in Britain

Uma Chakravarti

patriarchal ideology – which is just as offensive as south Asian patriarchy – south Asian women who have grown up in the UK must conform to market-led definitions of sexual attractiveness as well as stay

ver a period of three decades, the women’s movement and feminist scholarship in India have produced a body of work that has generated an understanding of the everyday lives of women. And yet we know very little about the lives of south Asian women in diasporic contexts as they are enacted in the cities of the United Kingdom (UK) and North America – even as the dream of migration to the countries of these regions grips south Asians with increasing intensity. Amrit Wilson, who lives and works both politically and professionally in the UK, has been engaging with south Asian women as a scholar-activist since the 1970s: her first book, Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain, published in 1978, is now complemented by another work Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain, which extends her analysis powerfully to capture the specific social, economic and political context of south Asian women’s lives at this contemporary moment.

Double Jeopardy

The book sets south Asian women within a double patriarchal context, one south Asian, one British: one a continuation of older structures, the other newly relevant in the context-specific geographical location occupied by south Asian women, both inflected by the capitalism of the economy and the society of the two disparate locations. The double framework lifts the analysis to a very powerful level such that though the book is “little” in size it is full of relevance for an understanding of south Asian women’s everyday lives as they are unfolding in the UK. Since class is a dominant axis of analysis the book is able to move beyond mere ethnic categories and racial experiences to include other elements in the lives of south Asians – work, consumption and family structure among many others.

The chapter ‘Low Paid Workers in a Global Market’ captures the cheap labour of immigrant workers which is so important for profit but remains

Economic & Political Weekly

april 19, 2008

Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain by Amrit Wilson; Orient Longman, Hyderabad 2007; pp ix + 190, Rs 325.

unacknowledged in the public domain as the lives and work of these women are hidden behind a veil of silence. What is amazing – and delightful – is the range of data Amrit uses: in-depth interviews, reports produced by south Asian women’s organisations, research studies, personal experiences of political activism, the watching of Bollywood movies and conversations on them, and delicious tidbits from popular newspapers such as a news item in the Daily Mail on the discovery of an infidelity gene by a British scientist which the professor claimed can be transmitted genetically:

A quarter of British women may carry

“infidelity genes” which sharply increases

the chances of being unfaithful…professor

Spector came up with his theory after

studying the faithfulness of 5,000 female

twins compared with 5,000 unrelated

women … [Daily Mail, June 2, 2005]

Amrit uses this bit of trivia to flag off one of the chapters of her book and to argue that there is a strong British context to south Asian women’s experience of patriarchy in Britain – a context that the British wish to deny, placing the entire burden of ideology and culture determining Asian women’s lives on an “incomprehensibly foreign” environment that the immigrants refuse to give up in favour of British values. As Amrit argues, south Asian women have been affected by indigenous British gender relations which are inscribed in the policies of the state, in the discourses of the media and in the constant, insistent pressure of the market. These ideas, she suggests, are strikingly similar in theme to those originating in south Asia.

In my view this capacity to place women in the doubleness of the experience of patriarchy of south Asian women – which runs through Amrit’s book – is its most important contribution to feminist scholarship. Given the tenaciousness of British within boundaries set by caste, religious and communitarian patriarchal ideologies; they are thus put in the deadly grip of ‘quam’ (community), ‘khandaan’ (family) and a sexualised identity – in other words, within the intersecting set of ideologies operating upon them. Thus, we see the enormous pressure of British clubbing practices and new south Asian masculinities which require women to be “with it” and “have fun” without any corresponding obligation upon men to be responsible. At the same time control over south Asian women’s sexuality is as obsessive as back home with a new edge of ethnic and racial anxieties. Thus we find the emergence of new endogamous boundaries among the Gujarati Hindus, who position themselves as modern in contrast to south Asian Muslim communities but who also lay down who one can be friends with for purposes of spouse selection: as one woman informant put it, no BMWs – i e, blacks, Muslims, whites!

Double Male Gaze

Amrit’s analysis of the fragile masculinities of south Asian men is particularly useful: ideologies of masculinity for example have been enhanced by the increasing competitiveness between individual households in post-green revolution Punjab; one’s own fragile masculinity is defined against the masculinity of others

– low castes and Muslims – such that whatever men might do, they must protect their women from a hostile and corrupt society that threatens the virtue of “their” women. Inevitably then, men believe that they have a right to police women, keeping them from going astray, and have no qualms about defining their harassment of women as a way of keeping them under control. While women describe the harrowing experience of walking home from school as boys hang about on the street, passing remarks and rating the girls, the boys also act in concerted ways to keep girls from choosing to dress in non-ethnic clothes and make them stay away from BMWs, acting as milder versions


of the infamous Babulal Bajrangi of Ahmedabad who is the self-appointed guardian of Gujarati (Patel) girls’ morality and forcibly breaks up marriages they may choose to make with non-Patel men, especially Muslims and Christians.

The market-led double male gaze has an overwhelming power which some girls described to Amrit as destroying one’s own sense of self which is supplanted by a sense of worth only on being appreciated by others: the pressure to be slim and attractive so that they can find the best guy even in the arranged marriage. No wonder then that young Asian women have a high risk of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, a deadly consequence of the way south Asian fears about the difficulties of getting daughters married have locked into very western capitalist anxieties which are created by the market in the interest of profit.

The increasing use of the hijab in recent years in Britain can, at least in part, be explained by the attempt of Muslim girls to claim a non-sexualised identity for themselves so that they can carry on with daily life without being objectified all the time by men. And if one thinks that the wearing of the hijab necessarily means being invisibilised in other ways, Amrit recounts the story of a young 17-year-old girl who was teased by a white boy who called her “ninja” – an oft used taunt against hijab wearing girls. Clearly enjoying the challenging of assumptions that she was docile and submissive, she hit the boy back

– in her hijab! But of course post 9/11 the hijab also acquired a political meaning and has a very different connotation from wearing the hijab in a Muslim majority country, according to Amrit. Even so, my own lasting memory of a hijab wearing girl in London is of a stunning young woman – perhaps she was from Iran – dressed in blue-black trousers and long sleeved top with a short hijab much like a nun’s veil; she was a helper in a Pakistani restaurant in Southall. The amazing freedom with which she carried her body, dressed thus, as she went about the restaurant lifting and cleaning was a stark contrast to the unhijabed women sitting and eating demurely at the restaurant tucked away in the family room. Clearly there are many uses and meanings of the hijab and the sooner we rid ourselves of our simple assumptions the better it would be for all of us.

State Violence

This takes me to another important issue that Amrit addresses in her work, which is the relationship of south Asian women in Britain to the British state. Again, for many of us the way we in the Indian women’s movement first encountered British racism was the issue of the virginity tests in the 1970s. As Amrit points out British immigration policy has from the 1970s assumed that south Asian marriages are a sham, contracted solely to get into Britain, tying into Margaret Thatcher’s racist ideology which described Britain as being “swamped by people of a different culture”; everyone seeking entry was a potential liar and women in particular were treated as witnesses who were not credible. In 1976 a pregnant 18-year-old woman was detained overnight and was to be deported the next morning; subjected to this horrific torture she began labour pains and lost the baby before medical help was provided. The violence of the immigration practices is a chilling reminder of human rights abuses by state authorities in the country that first proclaimed the protective habeas corpus remedy against violence by the state.

The days of the virginity tests may be over, but the two year probationary rule which forces women to remain in violent relationships because they would be deported otherwise is currently the biggest challenge faced by south Asian women’s groups in the UK. During this period after entry to the UK a woman who is subjected to violence may lose her home, as well as access to public funds. The threat of being sent back by the families into which women are married looms large over them and contributes to the lack of choices available to immigrant women, caught between a racist state and an entrenched south Asian patriarchy.

At the same time the British authorities have found the issue of forced marriages useful in replaying the historic white men saving brown women from brown men stereotype from colonial times onwards. Given the home office’s pathologisation of the south Asian family, feminists in Britain have a difficult time straddling a racist British state and its privileging of “honour crimes” as a category to ghettoise certain types of custodial violence and an endemic south Asian patriarchy that seeks to claim immunity for selective cultural practices. In this context of the new recourse to multiculturalism as a way of dealing with immigrant groups, divided not by country of origin or language but along religious lines, the British authorities can now choose to intervene or not according to political expediency; while “honour killings” can be used to criminalise whole communities and police them in the post 9/11 war on terror; and the two year rule can be used to send women back to their countries of origin regardless of what dangers they may face upon their return.

In sum the British authorities, even under pressure from south Asian women’s groups to end their contradictory positions, have responded by trying to manage south Asian patriarchy – when not manipulating it to their advantage – rather than weakening it. As Amrit sums up in conclusion, now more than ever feminism is needed in Britain. In her words “In this period, when women’s struggles are both denied and portrayed as deviant [the voices of struggling women] remind us that we must acknowledge our battles and use them to reflect on the world we want”. Amrit’s book is an important weaving together of south Asian women’s experiences in Britain (with a very poignant chapter on the terrible alienation faced by women without friends, without kin and without human interaction), an analysis of the material and cultural structures that they are located in, their dreams and their anguishes, their struggles and their questions, as they seek to make their world a better place to be in.

Different and not so different from our struggles back here in south Asia.


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april 19, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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