Why I no longer cry on trains

trains

I spent a lot of time crying on the train. Sometimes on the Underground, but mostly on the Virgin mainline train after a weekend spent with my parents. I spent my teens and early twenties feeling torn between my love for them and all that mattered to them, and wanting to break free of their control.

At that point in my life I faced the prospect of an arranged marriage. I was already dating my future husband by my mid- twenties. Just the thought of having to leave him and be with someone my parents chose for me filled me with utter dread.

But that was the expectation. I wasn’t free to choose. I didn’t of course have the arranged marriage. I broke free of all of that culture and tradition, and with it, severed my ties with most of my family- not completely, but to large extent. I was told that no one in our family had ever done that. That they all had to toe the line so I must too. How dare I think of doing something different?

Triple jeopardy

I believe Asian women face a kind of triple jeopardy:  we are discriminated against because we are women and because we are a people of colour; but we are also oppressed by our culture. Culture and family expectation dictate the choices we make.

Finally this year, I understood how that inequality plays out in my life- and how it shaped my difficult teen years and early twenties. I finally understand those tearful train journeys and the anxiety-filled years.

Why do parents, older siblings and extended family get so heavily involved when an Asian woman gets married? How are our love lives any of their business? Because we are women. We are the property of our families. Our honour and purity is their dignity- apparently. And it’s not just men that perpetuate these oppressive, dehumanising traditions. Sometimes it’s the women in our families too. Founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera said that it was her mum and older sisters who delivered the ultimatum that she must marry the man they chose for her, or be disowned by the family. Her mum called her a prostitute before asking her to leave their family home. Her crime? Going against her family’s wishes.

Sounds medieval doesn’t it? Well don’t be fooled- it’s very much twenty first century. The control of women happens all over the world in many different forms. What I’ve outlined is simply the particular shade of inequality I’ve dealt with all my life. Power structures exist in our families and for women, this is detrimental.

The greater good

I used to buy into the whole collectivism versus individualism theory. This idea that Asian families are collectivist: they promote interdependence and the good of the family over the individual. Individualism on the other hand is the idea that your life is your own and you make choices that suit you alone- it does not ask for the approval of the group (or family in this case).

I used to think life in the West for Asian families often meant a clash of cultures. It meant tension between the older and younger generations due to tradition versus modernity.

Whilst some of those tensions might exist, I no longer believe that’s an excuse for anyone to dominate or control. We live in a world that is much smaller than it ever was. There’s no more ‘East versus West’ dichotomy. The flow of information and spread of ideas is unstoppable thanks to the internet, smart phones and social networks. Different cultural values mix and merge everywhere. Lots of aspects of Asian culture are becoming ‘Westernised’ and take elements from Western influences.

So to say a woman or a person has ‘become Westernised’ is no longer an excuse to control them in any way.

Today I have finally let go of a lot of the guilt and regret that came with breaking away from my family. It’s taken me over ten years to get to that point of freedom. When they try to judge me, I choose to say “you don’t control me anymore.” I love them still- in the same way that you love your family. But I’ve finally realised that their control does not make for a healthy relationship, and some distance from them is actually good for us all. No one has the right to own you.

What I’ve learnt about love…

love is

….after ten years of marriage.

Love doesn’t always buy me expensive or extravagant gifts

Love doesn’t whisk me away to far-flung destinations

Love isn’t as spontaneous anymore

 

Love always brings me a cup of tea in the morning while I’m having my shower

Love always arrives on time when I need picking up from the station

Love is the one person who believes in my crazy ideas- and doesn’t call them crazy

Love babysits for me when I need a night out with the girls

Love gets excited about starting a new box set together!

Love knows how I like my toast buttered (right to the edges)

 

The excitement of fluttery, flirtatious love gives away to solid, enduring, fulfilling love that enables you both to do life together in the trenches. When cancer comes knocking, when redundancy happens, when life is so shitty that you just want to go back to bed and sleep until it’s better.

Because that love is the most thrilling, and it lasts forever.

Are “friends with benefits” really of benefit?

friends with benefits

In the Noughties, the Sex and the City girls popularised the phrase “having sex like men”, (which I might point out is very sexist: not all men have sex this way) ie with no strings attached. No feelings, no “is he gonna call me?” hang-ups. Fast forward ten years or so and films like “Friends with Benefits” (FWBs) have further cemented the idea of regular sex with little or no emotional entanglements.

What’s more, it’s become a part of mainstream dating culture. For example dating app Tinder- which allows users to peruse and rate photos of nearby potential matches, grew massively in popularity within its first few months of launching. The app has become synonymous with hook-ups and has capitalised on the casual sex trend.

Not that casual sex is a new phenomenon, as the Guardian points out.

Having said that, the Samantha Jones version of female sexual liberation certainly gave women a green light. She glamourised promiscuity which meant a woman could escape being labelled a slut, in some cases anyway (see: every case of misogyny ever. A woman is a slut, a man is considered a stud/lad. Double standards still exist.)

Anyway, I was watching something the other day where two friends were discussing whether to add benefits to their friendship. And it struck me: there’s never really such a thing as no-strings sex. Unless you’re utterly devoid of any emotion, one person will be left feeling something from their night of passion. As one commentator pointed out, at the very least, for FWBs, the string is the friendship.

As someone who has been in a meaningful relationship for many years, I can’t help but wonder: aren’t we selling ourselves short if we ask for nothing in return for physical intimacy? I mean, it’s never “just sex” is it? It’s the most vulnerable we ever get with another person. It is baring your body and your soul. Doesn’t that count for anything?

Perhaps I’m romanticising it too much. Well there’s a reason for that.

Men are from mars… etc

Men and women are wired differently; that’s clearly no secret. The source of a woman’s sexual desire is very different to a man’s- and much harder to identify, apparently. Studies have shown that men are aroused more spontaneously by visual images. Whereas women take a lot more nurturing before you can get us in the sack. It’s why we like the whole romance, seduction thing- it appeals to our emotions. When a man takes time and effort to engage with us on an emotional level, it makes us feel valued, special, and it makes us feel desired. It’s that desirability that makes for great sex!

So I find it hard to believe someone who says casual sex is fulfilling. It leads me to think they’ve never had the real thing. Or perhaps they would say I’ve never really experienced the ‘freedom’ and the thrill that comes with casual sex. But to me that in itself is counter-intuitive: I believe you can only really be free with someone who you know and trust explicitly. And the thrill comes from knowing you don’t have to worry about whether they’ll call you in the morning- you know they will. Yes that kind of relationship takes time to develop but it’s worth the work.

Relationship with herself

At the end of the first Sex and the City film, Samantha breaks up with Smith Jerrod- a kind, supportive, genuine not to mention gorgeous guy “to have a relationship with herself.”

Riiiiight….

Yes, you need to be comfortable in yourself before you can function successfully in relationship. But ultimately we were built for companionship. It’s why we crave love.

I think the idea of friends with benefits being a healthy, viable alternative to a committed relationship- that involves sex, will simply leave us confused about real intimacy, and open us up to heartache.

And personally I believe I am worth too much to give away the goods that easily.

Do you have life envy?

facebook thumbs downThey tell you as a blogger, that you need to be authentic- or your readers will see straight through you. That’s true in life too, don’t you think?

There are so many voices vying for our attention everyday- social media, blogs, 24 hours news; that it can be really hard to hear your own still, small voice. The voice that tells you who are you, encourages you to keep going, tells you you’re doing a good job even when you feel insignificant.

I think that’s why so many of us fall short of being true to ourselves and try and take bits of other people’s identity.

It’s easily done. Sign posts that make us feel life-envy are all around, and are heightened by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. As if we didn’t already know this, new research has found that Facebook can increase feelings of depression, stemming from envy. We see the amazing holidays, outfits, relationship success and instantly feel challenged: why doesn’t my life look that good?

Cue feelings of inadequacy and insignificance.

Here’s a newsflash: their life doesn’t look that good either. It’s simply self-presentation of the best bits of their lives.

And yet we all compare ourselves to our friends and many of us, in some inadvertent way, end up modelling ourselves on those we deem the most successful. Certainly Facebook and Instagram have fuelled that, but it’s an age-old practice.

Some peer support can be useful at times- we all need support and guidance. Role models are crucial in my opinion and not just for young people. I think we are constantly redefining ourselves as we enter different lifestages. What does it mean to be a newlywed? Or a new mum? Or recently divorced or recently bereaved? How about redundancy and a change of career, or moving to a new town or country? These are life events that many of us face and tackling our own identity in the midst of that can be bewildering and confusing.

But I’ll tell you what’s not cool, and that’s simply copying someone else. Sounds childish right? No one does past primary school.  Well actually, everyone does it- to varying degrees anyway. We often aspire to others and that makes us want to imitate them- because we see something in them that we want for ourselves.

Let me tell you that that is unhealthy and it cannot be sustained. Sooner or later you’ll tire of trying to be someone or something that you’re not. You cannot be someone else because you are unique. However appealing the mum at the school gates is, with her hair and makeup intact and the perfect job and happy kids, you won’t be her. What’s more, there are struggles going on in her life that are not meant for you.

I think as women we are wired to compete with each other. From the earliest age we look to other girls and envy them. And do you know why we do that? Because ultimately we’re all trying to work out that big question “who am I?”

Identity is a difficult thing. What’s more, its ongoing. It’s never a question that is settled. Your identity is constantly going to change because you are constantly changing. And that’s ok. Just please don’t rip off someone else’s style. Be YOU. Be authentic. Only you can do that with style.

Why British Asians must vote in the Election

vote1

I know, you’re bored of the election.

But here’s the thing. If black and minority ethnic (BAME) people don’t get involved with the election, there could be serious consequences.

If we don’t stand up for the issues that affect us , those issues will become marginalised and eventually ignored. What’s more, the anti-immigrant, generally negative language towards ethnic minorities that UKIP is stirring up could get more dominant.

The fact is, not enough of us are involved. Research has shown that in the last general election, in 2010, a significant number of black and minority ethnic people were not even registered to vote. Lack of citizenship was one reason given; perhaps the language barrier might be another in some cases. But what about the rest of us: second and third generation Asians and Black people who were born and educated here- what’s our excuse for not voting or not even registering to vote?

Ignored

Perhaps it’s because many of us feel ignored by our politicians and by Government. Our concerns are talked about very little in the political arena- other than when issues like immigration and terrorism are raised, where we get tarred with stereotypes. We simply don’t feel clear enough on how most of the parties will deal with racial inequality. And with only 27 Asian and black MPs at the moment, most of us don’t see ourselves reflected in Parliament. In the current election campaign so far, only Labour and the LibDems have launched BAME manifestos. I think that’s really significant. How is it the Conservatives have no detailed plans as to how they will serve minority communities and deal with our issues?

I want to know what each of the main political parties will do about issues such the BAME pay gap and stop and search. What about ensuring proper racial representation in senior executive positions or dealing with racism in institutions such as the police force? Our politicians are simply not talking enough about these issues.

An all-white discussion

I was at a Women and Politics panel discussion last month at the Women of the World festival in London. The all-white panel of some high profile MPs spent the hour discussing a variety of women’s issues.

From right to left:  Mary Macleod (Conservative);  Lynne Featherstone (LibDem); Ritula Shah (Chair & BBC4 presenter); Harriet Harman (Labour); Amelia Womack (Green)

From left to right: Mary Macleod (Conservative); Lynne Featherstone (LibDem); Ritula Shah (Chair & BBC4 presenter); Harriet Harman (Labour); Amelia Womack (Green)

Not once did they talk about race- related issues; not once did they take a question (which were pre-fielded) on issues relating to minority ethnic communities. This was despite the chair of the discussion being Asian! And at a “Women of the World” festival- how is this is even possible?

The media want to talk about how disenfranchised British Asians are. That we’re disillusioned with Britain and packing our bags to go to Syria. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is not representative of our community- there are many of us that are really concerned. In fact, research also shows that of those registered to vote in the 2010 General Election, the turnout was very similar to that of white British voters. It found that concerns about the commitment of ethnic minorities to British norms and values were displaced and in fact that we are ‘highly supportive of British democracy’.

Put that in your pipe Mr Farage.

Stop blaming us by saying not politically engaged enough and instead look at how the political race is run, and how the issues are addressed- whether they are addressed at all. Engage us! Include us in the conversation!

Let’s silence Farage

And as for our part as voters, let’s not let the side down. It is imperative that we get involved in this election. It’s vital that we silence the likes of Farage with our vote. Take a look at what parties are saying they will do for minority communities and other issues that are important to you. Perhaps there’s no candidate that gets your full support; in that case, consider voting tactically- voting for someone who is likely to win your in local constituency to block another party from getting into power.

I know many of us look at the political landscape today and say “they all say the same thing- I simply don’t know who to vote for.” It makes you feel powerless. But the truth is that your vote is powerful. Our Asian/Black/minority vote is needed to level out all the white voices that drown out ours. You can help decide who makes it into Downing Street for the next five years. Sounds really simplistic doesn’t it? Well, it is that simple.

And if you still need convincing, consider the words of activist Reverend Al Shapton, speaking in January at the launch of Operation Black Vote’s national campaign:

“People went to their graves so you could vote.”

“You may never lead a march but you can strike a blow for freedom in May and help change the destiny of this country. Your strength will not come from Downing Street down but from your street up.”

“You can be the balance of power.”

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

hashtag

It’s been a year since 200 Nigerian school girls went missing, kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Some reports claim that many of the girls have been trafficked or forced into marriage.

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Public response on the social networks at the time they went missing was overwhelming. Celebrities including Michelle Obama joined the campaign for their safe return, pictured holding placards bearing the slogan #bringbackourgirls.

At the time, a 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.

Armchair Justice

Perhaps hashtag activisim simply makes us feel like we are doing something about social injustice- but it’s nothing more than 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?

The thing is, 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?

We tweeted to #bringbackourgirls, then we said #yesallwomen, we’re reclaiming #likeagirl to be a positive statement.

But for all our tweeting and campaigning, are the lives of women really changing for the better?

The Internet gives us a voice

I grew up in a male dominated household. As you can imagine, I had lots of opinions on social issues- but they were rarely 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.

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.

Yes it will take a lot more than blogging and tweeting alone to stamp misogyny. It will take a lot more than that to ever see those lost Nigerian girls.

But speaking out against these crimes against women IS the starting point. The collective voices of women- on Twitter and on social networks everywhere will eventually change the dominant male narrative that silences us.

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- those lost victims, perhaps some of this will help empower them in knowing that someone else is speaking on their behalf.

Perhaps the hashtag is our friend after all.

Mumbai’s invisible poor: Review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forever also stars Meera Syal Photograph supplied by National Theatre

Behind the Beautiful Forever also stars Meera Syal. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

“I’m not going back there. I WON’T! I can still taste the hunger”

Poverty is one of the big themes explored in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, on at the National Theatre at the moment. This is one of the opening lines, delivered by the brilliant Stephanie Street who plays Asha Waghekar. It sets the tone early on as to what we can expect.

Adapted from Katherine Boo’s book of the same name, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a non-fiction novel based on Boo’s time studying slum life in India. The play is set in fictional Annawadi, a slum created on land owned by Mumbai airport. A billboard for a tiling company that bears the slogan “Beautiful Forever” divides the land- as well as the rich and the poor.

The play focuses initially on boys who make a living from picking rubbish. Tensions in the village between Hindus and Muslims; the younger and older generations; and modernity versus tradition, soon see the drama escalate.

A scene from Behind the Beautiful Forevers image by Richard Hubert Smith

Drama eventually turns to tragedy Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Strong Female Themes

In part, Katherine Boo set out to understand the domestic lives of girls and women in Indian slums. It’s no accident then that we see some important female themes explored.

“In Annawadi, the women are the survivors,” Stephanie Street tells me.  “And Asha clearly understands the system in which she lives – on a domestic front; in Annawadi and India; and also on a global scale – as being a battle in which only the fittest survive. The men have very short life expectancy because of the significant danger in their work with rubbish.”

“The men who do survive often then waste their lives away to alcohol, as does Mahadeo, Asha’s husband. So it’s left to the women to hold the homes together.”

A fantastic theatrical experience. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

A fantastic theatrical experience. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

And they often do so through any means possible- whether it’s lying, stealing, bribing and prostitution. I asked Stephanie if Asha is the ultimate Tiger mum, or simply corrupt. She told me:

“I can see that it’s tempting to make a moral judgement on her. But I have a young daughter myself and I would do literally anything for her. Asha is no different to me it just happens that she lives in circumstances radically different from my privileged reality, in the liberal West. She has to adopt means that are available- and necessary for their survival.”

‘Education is rebellion’

In real contrast, we see the younger female characters Manju and Meena really striving for a more lasting form of emancipation from poverty, namely education.

“Manju is passionate about education,” Anjana Vasan who plays Manju, told me. “But it isn’t just about improving herself. She has a natural instinct for teaching in that she wants to help others. Teaching gives her a sense of purpose. That’s something Katherine Boo said to me which really stuck with me. Manju’s strong sense of duty and passion for teaching is what gives her strength.”

There are some really poignant moments between Manju and her friend Meena as they meet in the outdoor toilets where Manju shares titbits of what she’s learnt with Meena. This really spoke to me. I wonder how many in the audience made that connection the there are many, many women today who are denied an education- that this is not just the storyline of slum-dwellers?

Sadly the relationship between Manju and Meena ends in tragedy, culminating in what was for me, the most difficult scene to watch.

Meena’s mother, enraged to find out that Manju had been trying to her educate her, admits “we all beat on Meena” to get her to submit. They see no point in educating her because, as puts it, “education is rebellion.”  “Is her mind broad enough for you know?!” she screams at Manju.

Stephanie who plays Manju’s mum says: “I always feel such admiration for Manju: even in the midst of the tragedy and no matter how tough the fight, Manju’s drive to make life better for the kids she teaches is such a beautiful, hopeful thing.”

Hope

Certainly hope is one of the enduring themes throughout the play. Abdul Husain, on whom much of the storyline is focussed on, displays amazing tenacity and hope; despite much heartache and persecution throughout the story. Shane Zaza who plays Abdul told me:

“He is both an ordinary and an amazing young man. He has this wonderful sense of integrity and discipline and maybe that is part of his DNA. His mother, Zehrunisa, has an outer strength and determination and his father Karam has faith. So it may also be a combination of his parents too.”

Heart-breaking at times, deeply moving, often funny; you cannot help but leave the evening somehow changed by the issues explored. This is a truly breath taking performance all round.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Olivier Theatre London until May 5th. Book tickets