For women the world over; patriarchy and inequality has been a constant struggle. Although some cultures strive to address it, others refuse to change. So on International Women’s Day – as a woman of Indian descent born and raised in Britain – I couldn’t help but wonder whether the struggle can be tougher.
In the year that we’re celebrating 100 years since the Suffragettes successfully fought for women (albeit over 30s only) to have the democratic right to vote; why is there still little or no mention of non-White women who were part of this noble movement. Namely, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh who was of Indian and English heritage. She was at the forefront for the suffrage movement yet she only appears to be celebrated by the Sikh community because she was the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh; the only Sikh king of south Asia.
But there is some hope – she has been featured on a British stamp: the only woman of South Asian descent to do so. But even then she’s on the most expensive stamp…how many people buy them? Is there still an element of inequality at play here?
Bringing it closer to home – there’s been a lot of talk about equality in the workplace. Women are often paid less for doing the same – if not more – work than men. Maternity leave often stunts their careers. Boardrooms with senior management are still full of (mostly White) men. Even in 21st Century Britain, women are fighting to reach equal treatment in the workplace. Now throw race into the mix: an Asian woman has the added challenge of racial prejudice to contend with. Comparatively, there are far fewer Asian women in top management than White women. If you’re older and have a disability? Well, the odds are stacking higher against you.
Bringing it even closer to home; Asian girls and women face discrimination within their own families and communities. As a Punjabi, historically the birth of sons is celebrated with the annual winter festival of Lohri, which is also marked by families where a son has married. The notion behind it is that the family is growing – a son is thought to stay with the family and carry the family name whereas a daughter will eventually marry and become a part of her husband’s family. And this mentality is common across South Asia. So from the very day she is born; an Asian girl is considered to be an outsider of the family. My own father cried when I was born – and they were not tears of joy – because he was upset he had a second daughter. Thankfully, some people are demonstrating progressive thinking. My cousin threw as big a Lohri party for his daughter as you would expect for a son and the whole family supported him. There are initiatives like Pink Ladoo where pink Indian sweets are shared on the birth of a girl (ladoos being the traditional Indian sweet at celebrations).
But then as a girl grows older, the differences become more apparent. She may not go out as late as her brother, she may not dress as she pleases, she may not enjoy a night at the club with friends or a drink at the pub – which her brother could do every day if he pleased. And God forbid she were dating…”what will people say?!” – or so is the narrow-minded thinking. If a daughter does anything considered to be out of line, the family’s honour is at stake. If a son does the equivalent, he’s commended for being ‘a man’.
Gender stereotypes have been challenged for decades in the western world. But for South Asians, its only recently become more rife. Women in India are living out their ambitions, which previous generations could only dream of. My mum was a postgraduate in the early 1970s – a Punjabi woman with two degrees in her early 20s and unmarried at that time…she was a trailblazer. But education and careers are fast becoming accepted and sometimes even expected of Asian women, which we should all celebrate.
However, not all perceptions or expectations are changing. Asian women may well be celebrated for their academic and career successes but once they’re at home – they’re still expected to get married in their 20s, they’re still expected to start a family soon after, they’re still expected to be a dutiful wife who cooks and cleans for her husband and kids after a day at work (whereas men quite often use the “tired after a day at work” line) and Asian women in particular are expected to be the obedient daughter-in-law who tolerates taunts from in-laws yet is expected to treat them like her own parents.
For the rebels like me who refused to settle down or accept any Tom, Dick or Harinder’s marriage proposal in my ripe 20s – I’m considered to be fussy. I’m often warned that I’m getting too old and my biological clock is ticking. The same complainers overlook my career progression, my travels that have opened my mind and exposed me to much more than marrying at 23 and being a mum at 25 would, living away from home that has taught me essential life skills and how to be independent. Oh no, that’s all unnecessary.
What they also overlook is that young Asian women today tend to be educated and goal-focused. They’ve not only fought prejudice at work but prejudice in the home where their male counterparts are prioritised. So when it comes to settling down, they don’t want a man who relies on his parents wealth or feels he is more superior simply because he is male. And that’s precisely what I’ve found a lot of British Asian men are like – their parents raise them on a pedestal so they develop an inherent sense of entitlement, which translates as arrogance. Is it any surprise then that more and more Asian women are settling down with White men who aren’t raised with the same inequality at home?
Sadly, I find its often mothers who are to blame. They sometimes prioritise sons over daughters so in actual fact its women holding other (younger) women back. There are signs of this changing with Asian mothers who are born and raised in Britain, but I think there’s still a long way to go.
But what’s more important is how far British Asian women have come. We’re third and fourth generations carving our futures through our own drive, tenacity and strength. We are superwomen who have the astounding power to be doting daughters, wonderful wives, marvellous mothers and dutiful daughters-in-law. Few communities can boast such remarkable women.
On this International Women’s Day, I salute the amazing British Asian women who – despite the odds being against them – are going from strength to strength to prove we are worth it, we can do it and we will bring about positive change.