Summer holiday survival pt 1: Desi Gender Stereotyping

It’s school summer holidays and hopefully we’ll get to spend some quality (er…!) time with our children. It’s a great time to get to know our children again, in a way, without the rush of routine, homework and after-school activities to think about. It’s also a good time as a parent to ‘re-group’ a little. So for the new few weeks I’ll be posting a series of practically focused parenting blogs.

Desi Gender Stereotyping

If your house is anything like mine during school holidays, there are probably toys lying around everywhere. And as I have a daughter and no sons, pretty much everything is pink or purple and girly.

The notion that pink is for girls, blue is for boys has become such a given that often we don’t question it. How many of us choose a pink card when we someone we know gives birth to a baby girl? Why not blue for a girl? It just seems wrong doesn’t it?!

Has it occurred to us that we are actually limiting our children and stifling their individual identities by forcing them into society’s idea of what a boy/ girl “should” be?

When I was growing up, my mum had very specific ideas on how to raise me. I was taught how to cook, clean house, shown crafts like sewing and knitting (all of which I rebelled against as a teenager and lay around reading Just 17 magazine.) But she was trying to raise me to be a submissive, respectable young lady that would one day make for a suitable Asian bride.  Meanwhile my brothers were encouraged to ride their bikes, play sports, Lego and generally “be men”. It’s all so forced- so stereotyped that it makes me cringe.

The debate on how we limit girls by dressing them in pink with aspirations to the Disney princess mould of womanhood is one that is important to me. Why should our girls only be raised to be “suitable Asian brides”? Why should they be told they can only wear ‘girls colours’, and play with dolls and kitchen sets? Equally, if our sons are creatively minded, why should they be forced to play with Lego rather than craft, paint or play instruments?

In our South Asian culture where gender roles are very much defined, it can be difficult for desi parents to navigate this whole debate. From day one our girls are expected to be demure even submissive whilst our boys are encouraged to be manly-men. This continues on well into adulthood where us women have all kinds of expectations- and limitations- placed on us in terms of our careers, married life and so on. (The same goes for Asian men to some extent too, which I have written about.)

And even if we as parents are enlightened (uh-hum!) on this whole debate, it can be really awkward when the grandparents vehemently disagree with you because your ideas don’t fit with their ideas of how their grandchildren “should” be raised.

So how do we manage to avoid typecasting our children, keep the extended family happy and maintain some sanity? Here are my tips:

Pick your battles and be gracious:

I did once turn down a gift from my mother-in-law because I felt really strongly that it wasn’t suitable. I told her why and she accepted my reasoning- thankfully! I think its important to set your boundaries as a parent. But the key thing is to pick your battles and not turn down every Disney Princess or Ben 10 gift that your children are given. Grandparents have a stake in how our children are raised and it is their prerogative to spoil our children a little.

Don’t be too strict:

Which leads me on to say that its important to have a balance. It’s never wise to completely ban a toy, colour or anything else from your children’s choices- you run the risk of it becoming a forbidden fruit which simply makes it more exciting. We do indulge our daughter’s love for princesses a little, but always show her there are other choices, and emphasise that its good to incorporate non-girly toys in her playing. And we always tell her there is no such thing as “girls/boy’s toys” or “girls/boys colours”.

Talk it through:

If there are some things which you feel very strongly that your child shouldn’t have, talk it through with them as to why it isn’t good for them. This is something we are working on with our daughter: like any other five year old, she doesn’t want to listen to reason and rather have instant gratification! But communication is a part of parenting so I know it’s worth investing in, and we keep working on it.

Be a counter-culture parent:

Ultimately there are some things you’ll have to stand your ground on, whether that’s with your child or with other family members. And yes that’ll make you unpopular at times. But one thing I’ve realised, in today’s society where so many things grab for the attention of our children- and not all of those are good, is that we have to fight for our children. Sometimes we have to make choices for them that we believe are the right ones and hope there is a dialogue there for understanding.

If you have any thoughts on this debate, or any tips to share, please do leave a comment. 


The tinted glass ceiling: Asian women at work pt 2

Racism in the workplace

Continuing on in my series on British Asian women in the workplace, this week I’ll be looking at racism. My thoughts are based on comments that came out of a Twitter chat I hosted a couple of weeks ago on behalf of Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). What was clear from all the experiences that women tweeted was that for British Asian women, the glass ceiling is tinted. Both our gender AND our race are barriers to career progression. In this age of political correctness, tolerance, equality and all those other buzzwords, it’s clear that in the workplace, some things still haven’t changed.

In particular, negative stereotypes surrounding the role that women play in the Asian community has proven problematic. Many women feel they have to work harder to prove to their bosses and colleagues that they are committed to their careers, due to the perception that Asian women are expected to settle down, raise a family and give up on working life.

I have written before about the limitations that South Asian culture and community places on us women. But being a part of AWMB has shown me that there are plenty of British Asian women today bucking these trends. There are those occupying senior roles; those with business vision and plenty of entrepreneurial spirit. Some do this with the support of their family, others forge on despite of cultural pressure.

So to hear from my AWMB peers that many still put up with narrow minded, racist attitudes every day at work is disappointing and frustrating. We’re overcoming- to some extent at least, the double standards of South Asian culture, and yet we still face discrimination in the workplace. Two women at last week’s chat tweeted that they were asked by their managers whether they were going to have an arranged marriage and get pregnant straight away. Does doing both of these things mean you can’t also be ambitious?

Everyone assumes that racism is calling a person of colour “Paki” or “Nigger” to their face, but what about the subtle levels of racism that go on every day, when someone is passed over for promotion due to the notion that they’ll have an arranged marriage and be locked away; or sniggered at due to the sound of their name (I worked somewhere once where the Director’s PA hung up the phone on a caller from laughing too much at her Asian name).  One contributor to the twitter chat had an interviewee refuse an interview with her because she was Asian (apparently they showed him the door- thank goodness).

For many British Asian women it means “acting white” as one woman said she had to do in order to overcome this. Why should we have to do that? In a country that boasts countless curry houses and once considered Chicken Tikka its national dish, why on earth do we have to hide our culture and our difference just to get by at work?

But perhaps not hiding our diversity is the answer. Ignorant comments aside, many employers and colleagues are simply not savvy about different cultures as one woman pointed. It’s up to us to be our true selves at work, and share our strong family and work ethics as a positive thing. By doing this we add value to our workplaces. If Britain is a multicultural place, we should be the ones who prove how much worth the British Asian community has.

I think the idea that we add value to our workplaces just by sharing our diversity is so inspiring. It gives me hope- amidst the prejudice and frankly stupid comments we have to battle with on a daily basis. As someone recently said to me, if all the British people stay in one neighbourhood and all the ethnic minorities congregate elsewhere how will integration, and eventually understanding and acceptance of each other ever happen? Well the answer is that it won’t so it’s vital that as British Asian women we ‘own’ our ethnic minority status and culture and share it as a positive.

Yes that’s going to be frustrating as we are time and again faced with racism. But to me turning racism on its head is better than playing the victim card.


To read part one in this series, click here.

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion


Celebrating 1000 Followers!

When you start a blog you really don’t know if anyone’s going to read it. It begins life as something you do for yourself and you hope people will join you along the way. Now, as I celebrate two years of British Asian Woman and specifically, 1000 followers (yippee, thank you guys SO much for following!) I’ve been thinking a lot about how to mark these two milestones, particularly my awesome 1000 followers. I thought about writing the obligatory piece on highlights & low lights. But that felt a bit self-indulgent and rather like writing a thesis on my own blog. Dull, dull, dull.

Instead I’ve decided to write about the two biggest things that have come out of British Asian Woman over the last two years: the Thing I’m Most Grateful for and the Thing I’m the Proudest Of.

So let’s see.

The Thing I’m Most Grateful For

Well it’s two things really.

British Asian Woman has been a real sounding board for me. As pretentious as this sounds, it is my world: it’s literally the things I think about every day. Like current affairs. We look at what’s happening around us and often cannot relate or make sense of it, even when they’re the big issues that we should be aware of.

For example, when 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped earlier this year, the whole world got tweeting #bringbackourgirls. I use Twitter a lot, but even I thought “what good is that going to do?” Can hashtag activism really make any difference? And when the Government started the British values debate, right off the back of an investigation into extremism in our schools, I immediately wanted to know how British Asians can respond and where we fit into that discussion. Researching, thinking about, processing and eventually writing about these things have really helped me to understand and find some answers- and that’s point number one of the thing(s )I’m most grateful for.

Identity is a big deal to me, mainly because as a first generation, South Asian expat who has lived in Britain all her life, who is now in a mixed race marriage and raising a mixed race child, there are a lot of factors to work with. I always used to think of myself as a coconut- you know, brown on the outside, white on the inside. Growing up, I identified more with the ‘British’ part of who I am. I even felt a little sheepish about calling my blog “British Asian Woman” like I was extolling myself as some kind of archetypal Asian person, when deep down I knew I didn’t fit that mould. But slowly, over time in writing I’ve come to see that there is diversity everywhere- including within the Asian community.

So when I wrote “What kind of Asian are you?” it was kind of like my putting to bed all those guilty, mixed up feelings and thoughts on identity. I was, and am finally able to say to other Asians “not Asian enough for you? Oh well, you hold onto your stereotypes while I celebrate my heritage.” Or to the British people who look at me wondering if I speak English or “is she like us?” I laugh and know I don’t need to act white to make them accept me. I can just be myself, and that’s incredibly freeing.

So the (other) Thing I’m Most Grateful for is that writing this blog has been like a cathartic working out of my often mixed up thoughts on identity and issues. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to tackle some of the big things that I’ve struggled with, and all the while my readers have patiently let me rant,  muse, and ponder (and still continue to read!) until….I reach that light bulb moment and I know I’m done with it- I’ve found the answer I was looking for.


The Thing I’m Proudest Of

Finding answers and solutions to problems has been an interesting development that has come out of my writing.

When I wrote “The only brown face at the school gates” I would never have thought someone who Googled “the school mums all ignore me” would find me; (WordPress offers some analytics tools that allows me to see who finds my site and through what search terms they put in) I really hope that person found some practical help in the tips that I offered for making friends with the other school mums- the school playground is a scary and isolating place- for parents.

Time and again, so many of you have thanked me for writing on subjects like rape, child abuse, what it’s like to parent a mixed race child, British Asian identity. As I said before, when you blog you don’t even know if people are reading, so be thanked and told through comments and tweets that “you’ve nailed it” on a certain topic is so rewarding. Probably the best comment I ever received was:

“You write about the things we all think about, but just never know how to put down onto paper”


When I wrote my first post on the rape culture in India, which is to date my most successful due to getting Freshly Pressed two years ago, I never thought of the massive response I’d get. The most moving comment I received was:

“You obviously are concerned about everyone receiving the respect they are due. You are not just interested in your own fame and fortune. That’s refreshing.”

That comment blew me away and I spent a lot of time thinking about it- it was never my intention to be some kind of advocate for issues or disadvantaged groups or people. But it’s happened that way and a new focus of British Asian Woman going forward will be to do just that and importantly, find solutions.

You’ll see a series that I’m doing on Asian women in the workplace, a practical angle on how we can as Asian women can channel workplace disadvantage and discrimination for positive change as just one example of this.

This series came out of collaborating with Asian Women Mean Business, a fab group of like- minded British Asian women. I’m really proud to have worked with them and some great people over the last two years: the fabulous MasalaMommas, Indian Connect and Red Magazine. I love the partnership aspect that blogging allows, and hopefully creates more interesting content to reach a wider group of women- women who are perhaps struggling with the same issues I am.

I’m excited about the future of British Asian Woman and the potential it has to be a platform that continues to help people and ask provocative questions.

THANK YOU all for following, reading, commenting and being a part of my journey. See you along the way.

British Asian Woman x

Is Priti Patel the token Asian in Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle?

So after David Cameron’s extensive cabinet reshuffle this week, which now includes six women sitting in or attending cabinet, the papers are awash with the argument that they were only appointed to fill his 2008 pledge to have a cabinet that was one third women by the time of the next election. Mission accomplished. Some are arguing that the appointment of these women is diminished by the notion that they are simply token female appointment’ rather than being appointed on the basis of merit.

Other media commentators are up in arms over the fact that a lot of today’s newpaper front pages have focussed on the outfits, accessories and overall appearance of these new female cabinet members. The infamous walk to 10 Downing Street for the morning meeting has been called a catwalk- rather than the serious stride we see from male MP’s who are clearly there to do business, natch, not look pretty. Dubbed ‘Cameron’s cuties’ (yuk- how disgustingly patronising and chauvinistic) it’s clear that the press are branding these women as cabinet eye candy.

Either way, if this new cabinet is all about appearances and filling quotas, what do you make of Priti Patel’s appointment as she joins the Treasury as Exchequer Secretary? Um, diversity quota anyone?

That seems a bit harsh but with all the cynicism surrounding Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, it’s something I can’t help but ask. I’ve no doubt that her appointment is also strategic to some extent: the 42 year old Conservative MP for Witham is also Cameron’s India Diaspora Champion, a supporter of India’s Prime Minister Modi and a staunch supporter of UK-Indo relationships. She champions UK business opportunities in India, one of the world’s fastest growing markets; backs better trade links between the UK and India and has been working with the Prime Minister to boost UK exports to India. With India’s Prime Minister Modi said to be eager to increase trade globally, clearly Patel is well-placed to ensure the UK’s share of the pie, or in this case parantha.

David Cameron today tweeted that he wants “a team that reflects modern Britain and that can be everything modern Britain expects it to be”. If you take this reshuffle at face value, then it’s great for the British Asian community that the inclusion of a British Asian is seen to “reflect modern Britain” and is “something that modern Britain expects.” I for one am glad that there is a British Asian woman in David Cameron’s latest team. It’s one step further to the rest of us smashing that tinted glass ceiling.




The tinted glass ceiling: Asian women at work part 1

The Need for Mentors

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of hosting a Twitter chat for a networking group for South Asian women called Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). Our topic was the experiences of Asian women in the workplace. Social networking can sometimes feel a bit meaningless, so it was really refreshing to connect with this group of like-minded women; and it was wonderful to find empathy in the challenges we face as Desi women. It was clear from the comments that for British Asian women today, the glass ceiling is definitely tinted: that both our gender AND our ethnicity act as barriers to career progression.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs highlighting both the challenges that British Asian women face in the workplace as well as discussing solutions to some of those issues. I’m dedicating the series to the founders and members of AWMB.

This is a group of intelligent, hard-working, talented women who inspire me; not just to forge on in my own career and ambitions, but to be a cheerleader to the next generation of British Asian women. While Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg urged us to “lean in” and take hold of our ambitions and opportunities, Labour MP Yvette Cooper pointed out that we should really “lean out” to take the hand of younger women coming up behind us as they start to climb the career ladder. And the need for mentors amongst British Asian women was made obvious in the discussion at Wednesday night’s Twitter chat, and from tweets that ensued in the next few days.

Comments like “Asian women can be so competitive towards each other” and “unfortunately, Asian women don’t help other Asian women” make it so clear that we have a problem with an unhealthy type of competitiveness. But what really brought it home to me was this comment from one young British Asian woman:

“From my experience…I find that most Asian girls in my generation aren’t brave enough to follow their ambitions. It’s even harder when so many women don’t support those who want to go off and do their own thing.”

Wow. Her comment was a real eye-opener that’s got me thinking about the whole area of mentoring.

I guess I’ve always been lucky enough to have had a couple of mentors around me, both personal and professional. When I failed my driving test for the millionath time, there was the one who encouraged me not to give up despite my many failed attempts. When my first freelance writing job was cut after just three months, a writer friend of mine (who also did the same role and subsequently also lost her job) sent me idea after idea to pitch to magazine editors she knew and even passed over to me an article she was asked to write. I didn’t realise it back then, but these people helped me not to give up on myself.

However confident, independent and successful you are, I believe that we all need those people who pick us up, give us new ideas and generally cheer us on in the rat race of life and especially work- which really is a rat race, as we all know.

Frankly, as British Asian women we face so much prejudice and disadvantage in every arena. And how true this is in the world of work partly because this is not an area that our culture and communities expect to excel at. Comments that came from Wednesday night’s chat echoed this sentiment, with many women telling of how their families only want them to succeed  to a certain level and no further; that husbands are not supportive of an entrepreneurial spirit; and as we’ve just seen, that other women in the community are unsupportive and often jealous of each other.

But then one woman pointed out that, “we need to highlight the achievements of others so that the next generation can see them.”

Let me just repeat that last bit: “so the next generation can see them.” So not just to inspire and applaud each other although this is important too, but for the sake of inspiring and being role models to the next generation.

Why don’t Asian women support each other more? Perhaps it’s down to an innate female competitiveness, I don’t know. But with the odds stacked against as South Asian women due to our gender, our culture, our race, even from husbands sometimes, what is very clear is that as women we need to put aside any petty rivalries and support each other. We need to be the first ones that help a younger Asian woman get a project off the ground or share industry contacts; or simply cheer her on when she’s had a bad day by telling her not to give up on herself.

It’s up to our generation to empower and inspire the next one. I’ve talked before about role models for the Asian community, but until now I didn’t realise that I can actually be one of those role models.

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion

Who in the Asian community will talk about child sex abuse?

First it was Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall. Now as we’re all reeling from Rolf Harris’ conviction we learn that there’s be an investigation into an alleged paedophile ring in Parliament and judiciary where judges, MPs and peers will be investigated. The bad news- that any number of children have allegedly been sexually abused in the last few decades by the famous and powerful just keeps coming. Should we be shocked?

The 1970’s- “that post-Pill, pre- Aids era”, by all accounts, was a time of sexual freedom and promiscuity- for both men and women. The whole “Carry-On”, “How’s your father?” culture allowed people to get away with a lot: behaviour that today would not be tolerated and even considered sexually deviant. Society tolerated crude jokes (think: Barbara Windsor with her boobs out every five minutes in pretty much every Carry On film) We even thought of it as entertainment! It seems lines of conduct and acceptable behaviour were totally blurred. And sadly the idea that children were victims within that all- well back then no one talked about it, but it seems there were those who indulged in it.

As a mum, I just feel more and more disappointed at the thought that there could be so many abuse victims out there. Those who have had their dignity and innocence taken away and had to live with the quiet humiliation and shame ever since.

Shame. That’s something that the Asian culture majors on. The honour/shame culture is big in our community.  One of the issues that the Savile case brought to light was that victims were, at the time, too ashamed to speak out. They were afraid that no one would take them seriously or believe their allegations against a then big name TV personality. How much more then will victims of abuse in the Asian community not be able to speak out against the uncle, cousin or even father who abused them? Who in our community wants to bring shame on themselves and their family by saying they were abused? But it happens- abuse happens everywhere. It’s one thing when a public office is being investigated, but what about when it happens behind closed doors? In a community where falling in love with someone from the ‘wrong’ religion, race or community is considered shameful, how on earth do we then talk about behaviour that is truly shameful, like child sex abuse?

As I sit here and think about that, I’m at a loss as to how to answer it. All I know is that victims have the right to be listened to and taken seriously- without the fear of bringing shame. And what’s more, they have the right to move on with their lives without having to bear that shame forever.


What can hashtag activism achieve for South Asian women?

First we tweeted to #bringbackourgirls, then we said #yesallwomen, now we’re reclaiming #likeagirl to be a positive statement. If there’s to be one hallmark of fourth wave feminism, it’ll be the hashtag statement- no campaign is complete without it.

As South Asians there is certainly any number of issues to get behind, and I often find myself gasping to keep up with each new campaign. From rape to forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), the stories keep coming. For all the criticism that the likes of Facebook receive, the one thing the social networks have done well is to socially and politically engage us. What is more, (ok two things then) they have given us a voice.

Growing up in a male dominated household, my opinions on social issues were rarely listened to. At best they were seen as ‘nice’ but they were never really taken seriously.

Fast forward twenty or so years and I have written about some difficult topics including child sex abuse and rape. The internet has allowed me the opportunity to carve out a credible space for my voice and opinions.

And whilst some might disagree I believe fourth wave feminism does have a place for diversity: I believe that Asian women like me can harness this wave of feminism to speak out against the injustices specific to our culture. We can be heard and gather together others who feel the same.

But here’s the thing.  The Suffragettes of the early 20th century chained themselves to railings; women of the 60’s took to the streets and burnt their bras, while we…. what, stay at home and silently tap away on our keyboards? Is that what our generation will be known for? All the while, how much is really changing?

Recently the Fox News panel were criticised for mocking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign by saying:

“Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Uh oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behaviour’?”

I hate to agree with them, but they have a point. Perhaps hashtag activisim simply makes us feel like we are doing something about social injustice. It’s like armchair activism. And what about the so-called smaller issues that don’t make the news or gain hashtag attention- but oppress us and destroy our souls nonetheless?

For the many challenges that face desi women today, change has to come from within the community. It has to happen right here in our homes and not just be tweeted about. We are the generation that have to stop endorsing various oppressive cultural practices before they can die out. But in our male dominated Asian culture this feels like a huge challenge. As I experienced as a teenager, our menfolk often just don’t take us seriously. How do we make change happen?

Instead of feeling frustrated that all I can do is sit here and type, I remind myself of this: twenty years ago I didn’t know it was ok to have these views and opinions, let alone have a space to voice them. Where once no one listened to me or women like me, we now have a platform and that’s vital. What is more, I can spread the word, and get others to engage. And for those victims who aren’t able to speak up, perhaps some of this will help empower them in knowing that someone else is speaking on their behalf.

So perhaps the hashtag is our friend after all.