Does anyone care about caste anymore?

For those celebrating Navarati over the next few days, and soon Diwali, it’s a great time of community. It’s a time to celebrate your heritage, your family, your religion. There’s a wonderful sense of family pride and community spirit that come from such religious occasions. For many British Asians who spend most of their time immersed in British life and society it’s great opportunity to pause, and touch base once again with their Asian roots.

Sadly though this year, there have been many news stories that have reminded us of the dark side of our community. For Muslims, the stories of extremism and militant Islam just continue to roll. For Hindus and Sikhs, inter-caste discrimination has once again been debated after events such as the horrific rape and hanging of two cousins in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, where the father of one of the girls said they were attacked because they were Dalits.

How can caste still be such a divisive issue amongst Asians? We all know that there have been literally hundreds of years of conflict that have stemmed from caste, but in this day and age of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity, how are we still having this debate?

Caste is mentioned in some early Hindu manuscripts, but isn’t necessarily tied to spirituality. The early models for the caste system were there to fulfil various job functions in society. Teachers, priests, warriors, merchants & businessmen, craftspeople, farmers, labourers and servants: it seems a simple enough structure designed to ensure the smooth running of society.

Many young British Asians will fervently tell you that caste doesn’t matter to them, that it is an outdated and irrelevant system.  But for many more, the reality is that caste is still important to their parents. They feel compelled to marry within their caste to honour their parents’ wishes despite that it’s not really a priority of their own. For the older generation on the other hand, caste is still about the honour of an inherited family status and name. In practice, caste is very much a matter of identity for most Hindus and Sikhs.

But with stories like the Uttar Pradesh rape case once again showing that caste simply divides people and perhaps even cause damage and heartache, we are left wondering what place caste should actually have anymore, and what its future should be.

Perhaps one answer to this is intermarriage. The intermarrying of castes is becoming more common and more acceptable amongst young Asians. Many are choosing to marry for love; either the parents learn to accept this or the young couple live with being ostracised simply because they love each other. The result is that the caste system is becoming diluted. One young Asian woman I spoke to said this about inter-caste marriage:

“In 20 years’ time you’ll have a father who is Punjabi, a mother who is Pakistani, a son who is half Jatt, half Dhakan…. our kids will become more and more multicultural and caste won’t matter anymore, in fact it will be irrelevant. Inter-caste marriage is good, because it will eventually do-away with the caste system.”

Whether or not inter-caste marriage will actually eradicate the caste system remains to be seen- but you can see the logic in it.

And if caste started out as a practical way to organise society, it clearly isn’t about that today because modern society- even in India, doesn’t run like that anymore. I mean, how many Jatts do you know today who are actually farmers?! With this aspect of the system no longer viable, perhaps caste is becoming obsolete.

With all the heartache the caste system brings are we better off dismantling it?

#WhyIstayed in a love-less arranged marriage

Last weekend the hashtag #WhyIstayed dominated Twitter. It was a response to the awful footage of American football player Ray Rice punching his then fiancé, now wife Janay. Instead of sympathising with Janay, the press asked why she stayed with him and went on to marry him. Victim-blaming in action. As a response, those who understood that there are often very complex reasons as to why a person stays in an abusive, love-less marriage tweeted.

I feel I have to add my voice to this powerful collective testimony. While it’s not news that countless South Asian women stay in unhappy marriages, it doesn’t get talked about enough. Women all over the world in Asian communities simply ‘get on with it’ because that’s what they have to do.

Once the hue of being a newly-wed has dimmed: the bridal mehndi has long faded, the many wedding outfits packed away and the community moves onto the next wedding hoopla, the new Asian bride starts to feel it. They don’t talk that much- there isn’t actually that much in common. Sex becomes more duty than passion. They sleep with their backs to each other. Children kind of glue things together a bit, while the ever-present in-laws often drive them further apart. They start to become cold towards each other, distant. He seems to resent her. He starts to yell at her, humiliates her in front of their children, their friends. He calls her names and talks to her like she’s a child.

And because she’s moved away from her community or country she’s desperately lonely and isolated, away from her people. She has no one to talk to so she calls her sisters. She cries down the phone and they tell her, “You have to just work things out. This is it now, you’re married. That’s what married life is about.”

When I was about 11, I remember my mum saying she was going to leave, go back to her country, back to her mother and sisters. “I have a house there you know” she used to say to me. Ironically, it’s the house that was given as part of her dowry.

But of course she never left- which I am eternally grateful for.

Why did she stay? Yes for her children but also because that’s what you do when you have an arranged marriage. It was all arranged for you. Packaged. The right guy, from the right profession, in the right family. Oh yes on paper you are so right for each other. But in real life….

The sad thing is I know there are other British Asian women reading this right now and thinking uneasily that it was written about them. Well it was, because so many, too many women stay.

And there’s always the fear that one day he’ll get so angry that he’ll hit her.

Thousands of South Asian women live with domestic abuse. Some sections of our community condone it. Consider the ruling in the UAE about three or four years ago that said it was ok if a man hit his wife, as long as “he didn’t leave a mark.”

WHY doesn’t she leave? She has to be fool for staying! She’s got a brain, she can think for herself, of course she can just leave. Besides, today there a loads of organisations that actually help Asian women, they even offer language services if she can’t speak English. So there’s no excuse. It’s her own fault for staying.

She stays because of what the family would say if she left. Turned up on their doorstep with her children. And what then- live there forever? Who in the Asian community would want her and her children now?

She stays because….

If she leaves she will be considered damaged goods by her own community.

If she leaves she risks being ostracised for the rest of her life.

If she leaves she’ll be the one that everyone talks about at the mosque, gurdwara or wherever.

If she leaves she’ll be branded as having ‘Western’ ideas and being selfish.

If she leaves they’ll say “who’ll want her now?”

So before we judge her for not leaving, perhaps we should check our own attitudes. It’s often because of us that she stays- her community and the shame and victim blaming that we will heap on her. So next time, before you say “why did she stay?” ask yourself first what will your reaction be to her, when you know she left.

If you are in an abusive or unhappy marriage, please please seek help. If you cannot speak to your family, please call one of the numbers below, if only to have someone else to talk to.

And remember, emotional blackmail and mental torment of any kind is NOT acceptable and NOT your fault. You deserve to be treated with respect, even if you don’t love each other. Please reach out to someone- you are not weak for doing so.

editor@britishasianwoman.com

 

The Sharan Project

http://www.sharan.org.uk/

info@sharan.org.uk

UK only: 0844 504 3231

The SHARAN Project aims to support vulnerable women who have had to leave home either forcefully or voluntarily. Run by South Asian experts they provide assistance on key life skills as well as information and advice on a range of issues including health, housing, employment, education, and financial, legal and personal development.

Karma Nirvana

http://www.karmanirvana.org.uk/

Karma Nirvana
PO Box 148
Leeds

LS13 9DB

Honour Network Helpline: UK Only: 0800 5999 247

Supporting victims of honour crimes and forced marriages. They provide three key areas of service:  a telephone helpline for those in danger; advocacy work; education & training for victims, and partners seeking to work in this area. They have also recently worked with Cosmopolitan magazine petitioning for a day to remember victims of honour killings called “Who are Britain’s Lost Women?”

Asian Family Counselling

http://www.asianfamilycounselling.org

London Office

Suite 51, Windmill Place

2-4 Windmill Lane

Southall
Middlesex
UB2 4NJ

Tel  020 8571 3933 or 020 8813 9714

Gopi Aswani (Senior Counsellor): gopiaswani@asianfamilycounselling.org

A confidential counselling service for individuals, couples and families of Asian communities. All counsellors are fully trained and supervised. Counsellors are recruited from the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh communities, and provide counselling with a full understanding of the different cultural customs and religions.

 

Are British Asian Muslims too politicised?

Today, 9/11, is a watershed day for my Muslim friends. It’ll always be the day in history when they were forced to become politically engaged with world events, due to the actions of a few (so-called?) Muslims.

Fast forward 13 years to this summer, British Muslims took to the streets over the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. They campaigned for the boycotting of pro- Israeli brands such as Mc Donald’s, Starbucks, Nestle; I even heard of one family who were boycotting Asda. At the London rallies, I saw photos of children as young as 6 with their faces painted with the colours of the Palestinian flag. The death of Joan Rivers was greeted with joy after her comments on Gaza.

Are Muslims today too engaged in pro- Islamic causes? It seems it’s not enough to just believe in Islam and practice it, but its followers- all over the world, are political activists to boot. Now this is very different to me saying they are terrorists or jihadists so you can dismiss that thought straight away. I’m asking, isn’t enough to just be a Muslim but not carry out social justice in its name- like boycotting supermarkets or re-posting anti-Israel sentiment on the social networks?

The truth is, we’re all social activists these days, we’re all politicised- about something. Perhaps you didn’t care about Jennifer Lawrence and the nude photos being circulated of her. But after being told a dozen times by bloggers and opinion pieces that clicking on the photos was tantamount to sexual assault you probably did. Suddenly you care about the treatment of women- feminism. Likewise, you probably had no real opinion about the Israeli government’s actions towards Hamas- (“aren’t they a terrorist group?” “Hasn’t that whole crisis been going on forever?” you probably asked yourself). But after seeing photos of bloodied school children lying dead in the streets of Gaza, posted and re-posted you were probably outraged- just like the rest of the Muslim population and even if you aren’t Muslim.

And it’s not just feminists or Muslims. This summer many Christians changed their profile pictures to the Arabic symbol for the letter ‘n’, in solidarity with Christians being persecuted by IS in Iraq. Last year Facebook launched the rainbow emoticon in honour of gay pride. What about the ice bucket challenge in support of ALS? The makeup-less selfies for breast cancer awareness? Campaigning against FGM, rape, human trafficking, forced marriages? We’ve all at one point or another re-tweeted, posted, photographed ourselves or someone else in aid of a charitable cause, a political or social concern.

Social justice is becoming a part of the fabric of the society we live in; it’s becoming more and more familiar to us all. Because we live in an age where we are hyper aware of global events, political and social awareness are becoming as normal as checking Facebook (and is often facilitated by checking your social networks.) It’s part of our Brave New World, which includes the threat of terror, the social networks, the Internet. Can you even remember what life was like before those things dominated our headlines every day?! Yes it’s happened without us even realising.

I’m not saying I always agree with everything I hear coming from the British Muslim community but I understand why they are so impassioned about pro-Islamic causes. And really, is it any wonder when every time we turn on the news or sit down to watch a US cop drama, we are confronted with stories and storylines about militant Islamist groups and the war on terror- no one can deny that the media has jumped on all the furore and whipped up a frenzy. Of course that’s going to grab your attention and make you want to defend your religion and your identity.

Yes I’ve seen some really questionable comments from British Muslims- but I’ve also seen some really anti-other- people comments from all kinds of different groups too. Perhaps the question should be “how do we control ourselves on social media?” and how do we make it a constructive and positive space for social justice and campaigning.

Why are South Asians always after the latest gadgets?

Chances are by the end of this month someone on your Facebook newsfeed will be telling you all about their new iPhone 6. Like they are suddenly the aficionado of iPhone technology. What they are doing of course is telling you that they’ve got the latest piece of tech and you haven’t. And they’re way-cooler than you because of it.

Yes Apple is expected to announce the launch of the iPhone 6 tomorrow, and it’s likely on sale by the end of the month if not sooner. Fans can expect a bigger screen, more rounded edges, sapphire scratch proof screen; amongst other features. As well as different size variations on the phone, there’s even rumours of the much talked about iWatch being announced.  I’m telling you this so that you’re prepared for when your friend goes on about it!

Why is it that we Asians rush out to buy the latest versions of gadgets? Are we tech-savvy early adopters? A more likely explanation is that we’re extremely brand conscious, and having the latest gadgets feeds our competitiveness. And what’s more, I wonder how many of us will actually use all the new features of an iPhone 6- or will we just check Facebook and the weather app?! In the end perhaps it’s really about being the first to have one.

So am I saying that we are that shallow? Is it all just a case of keeping up with the Patels? Well I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

The truth is that we live in an upgrade society. Every few months, manufacturers tell us how out of date our existing phone is, even though it’s likely to be around a year old. And it’s not just phones. TV manufacturers now bring out a new model every autumn. Who remembers growing up, when you’d have the same TV for like about ten years until the screen went green?

Technology is increasing at a break neck speed and its fair to say that it’s not just the South Asian consumer who wants to keep up with it. We’re all pretty much sucked into the manufacturer’s race to give us the most advanced phone, TV, tablet, watch….

So I wouldn’t judge you if you were one of those queuing for days outside the Apple store: if we’re really honest we’d probably all love to get our hands on the curvaceous edges of the iPhone 6.

Personally I can’t wait for it to come out so we can start talking about the iPhone 7.

How often do you wear your ‘Indian clothes?’

How do you organise your wardrobe? Perhaps you have summer and winter clothes which get packed away appropriately. Or maybe you have work-wear sectioned off from your weekend clothes. Most people have some kind of a system, however loosely organised it is. If you’re South Asian you’ll most likely have, in addition to all this, a whole other section or wardrobe- your Indian outfits. All those lenghas, saris, shalwars… And then there’s all the jewellery, usually colour coordinated, and usually lots of it. And what with all the weddings, religious festivals, family functions and did I say weddings that we Asians go to, you’ve probably amassed quite a collection over the years.

But how often do you actually wear your Asian clothes, other than for special occasions? Have you ever worn a lengha to work?! No probably not, unless you work in the Asian fashion or retail industry. And yet, this aspect- the ‘Asian part’, is arguably a very significant part of who we are. However fashion conscious you may or may not be, no one can deny that the way we dress is an expression of who we are. So are we expressing the ‘British’ part of our identity first, while the ‘Asian’ only comes out at special occasions and when we’re around family?

Well clearly identity isn’t that cut and dry. But it is funny how, for British Asians, our wardrobes are almost like metaphor for our identities. We do keep the two worlds separate simply because that’s practical and functional: most of us dress in a manner that is appropriate to the community and workplaces that we are a part of.

But then again, there is also a third space: that place where the lines of British and Asian are blurred, where the two cultures meet and hopefully blend. Bindis, choorae and mehndi can acceptably be worn with jeans. A long khameez top can be worn with leggings…and so the fusion wardrobe is born. There’s one Asian mum who I see at the school gates, who often beautifully combines a kurta top with smart jeans. I happen to know she often rushes between meetings and the school run, so this is actually her work wear too.

However loosely you identify with your South Asian heritage, it is still a defining part of who we are, so it should be incorporated. There are lots of ways to do this, even if it’s just a subtle hint or nod at being Desi. How about adopting some of the current high street trends which are a ‘bit Asian’?  This season, the kurta top hit the British high street thanks to Zara as did Asian jackets, as sported by Kendall Jenner, available in River Island.

We don’t need to wait for our fashion to go mainstream before we adopt it. However you choose to do it, fashion is a great way to express identity. We should celebrate our South Asian heritage, rather than pack it away until the next family party.

Parents are not to blame for rape culture

 “…do parents dare to ask their sons where they are going?

Those who commit rape are also someone’s sons. It’s the responsibility of the parents to stop them before they take the wrong path.”

These were the comments of India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi speaking at yesterday’s Indian Independence Day celebration. His first major comment on India’s rape culture was clearly more intelligent and more accurate than those of his state minister for Madhya Pradesh back in June this year, who said:

“Rape is a social crime. Sometimes it’s wrong, sometimes it’s right”

(Don’t even get me started. I’ve read and re-read the context of what he said but I cannot find any justification in his comments.)

Anyway, back to Mr Modi.

What he’s talking about is a cultural shift which is spot on. He’s talking about raising our South Asian sons with attitudes towards women that are totally different to today’s male culture. It’s about erasing male entitlement from Indian and South Asian culture so that our sons don’t grow up with the notion that they can brutalise a woman’s body. It’s also about a respect for humanity. I’ve said before that rape is not about sex or lust or gratification but about power and a deep-seated disrespect for all women that allow a man to do that.

Bravo Prime Minister Modi for speaking out so openly and at such a prominent event, about gender equality and women’s rights. Let’s hope that his openness towards the further emancipation of India’s women (he talked about better sanitation for India’s women, an absolute shocker that they don’t have it already but at least now it’s being addressed), will inspire a cultural change amongst Indian society particularly Indian men- essentially the start of what he was getting at in educating our sons.

But despite the progressive nature of Modi’s comments I can’t help feeling a uncomfortable with it all. Why are parents getting the blame? Why is the onus of responsibility being placed solely on family? It’s a very Desi approach to things isn’t it, where ‘family is everything’. Newsflash: Your grown up sons can think for themselves. When they walked out the door and went onto rape a woman, it was a decision they made on their own. And ultimately they are responsible for their own actions.

So I have to ask the obvious here: why aren’t the men who commit these crimes being asked to look inwardly at their own hateful attitudes? Why isn’t the individual being held accountable for his actions? I get that Mr Modi is saying something like prevention is the best medicine, and he’s right in a sense, but I just don’t think that goes far enough.

I’m sorry Mr Modi, it isn’t good enough to tell parents to do something about India’s rape culture. We need to tell the men of today to do something about it as well as raise our sons to be different- that’s the long term approach. It’s like saying lets end poverty by planting a potato field: what about those who are hungry now? What about those women who have go outside to defecate only to have the further injustice of then being physically and sexually assaulted?

Yes by all means, let’s hold our sons to account by asking them where they’re going at night and let’s instil values that eradicate misogyny and male entitlement. But please, let’s find a more immediate solution too.

 

 

How hard do you push your children at school?

So A-level results are out today, and as always, the news is awash with what seems like slightly inflated statements:

 “…record proportion of papers had been awarded an elite A*”

(If everyone is getting A*’s, surely it’s not elite any more but normal?)

 “Smallest gender gap in A grades between boys and girls since 2000”

“….overall number of students expected to take up university places is likely to top 500,000 for the first time ever.”

Some social commentators would say that the system is simply getting easier. Parents on the other hand would know that our children are under more pressure than ever before to perform academically.

As Asians, we understand all about the pressure to do well at school. For most of us growing up, comments like “Why did you only get a ‘B’?” or “How do you expect to go to medical school with marks like that?” are served up with breakfast on a regular basis. My dad used to lament over the fact that I was more creatively minded (God forbid!) than capable at the traditional subjects. I will always remember him telling me to “be more intelligent”! Er….?

Maybe it’s our innate competitiveness as Asians. We’re always so concerned with “what the family will say” about anything that we do. I’m pretty sure that academic achievement is so highly prized just so that it can be boasted about at the next function!

The question is will our generation of British Asian parents repeat the sins of our fathers by applying the same level of pressure on our kids? Will we push them as hard as we were pushed? By all accounts, British Asian children today continue to outperform their white counterparts, pipped only to the post by the Chinese. It’s clearly a cultural thing- our work ethic is drummed into us at a very early age and anything less than over-achievement is not tolerated.

It’s true that we parent the way that we were parented; it’s simply doing what you know. Today, I’ve had to work pretty hard at suppressing the Tiger Mum in me. I continually check the urge to push my daughter to spend more time on homework; the temptation to instil in her the importance of doing well at school and keeping up with her peers. Have I mentioned that she’s only 5?

But it’s also no secret that schools today put our children under a lot of pressure- far more than we experienced. They have their first formal assessments at the age of 6. When they’re in junior school, the talk of much-coveted high school places starts around 9 or 10, with many 11 year olds putting themselves under intense pressure to pass school entrance exams and the 11+. (My nephew is on a three day intensive tuition class as we speak in preparation for his 11+.)

According to one report, universities are now placing more emphasis on GCSE grades due to the over-inflation of A-Level results (everyone now achieving the ‘elite’ A* status is a case in point), so there’s no hope of floating through these like we did, only to roll your sleeves up in 6th form.

I want my daughter to be able to compete on this platform and I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to instil the value of hard work in our youngsters.

But how do we do that in a healthy way that respects their individuality? How also do we achieve it without inspiring an unhealthy sense of competition, the sort that we see at Asian functions where people compete over job status, what car we drive and so on?

Finding a healthy balance is a challenge for me personally. Here are some of the guidelines my husband and I working towards:

  • Find your child’s individual bent and go with that. Is she a problem solver? Is he a naturally gifted musician? Encouraging their natural giftings will make your child a happier as well as more successful student
  • Avoid gender stereotyping. This is an area that is close to my heart, repeat after me: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BOYS/GIRLS SUBJECTS, THERE ARE NO CAREERS WHICH ARE MORE SUITABLE TO EITHER BOYS OR GIRLS!
  • Give them the tools. Today’s classroom is a competitive place, so any help you give them is an advantage. Support with home learning definitely has its benefits
  • After school clubs and activities such as sports, dance or drama classes will give your child an outlet for other talents and interests outside of formal learning. Some high schools also offer places to children who are exceptional at these, for example schools with a performing arts emphasis.
  • Avoid unhealthy comparisons with cousins, siblings or classmates. It only serves to damage self-esteem when they feel they don’t reach up to that standard; or an over-inflated ego if they outperform them
  • Our children are individuals! Help them reach their own potential, whatever level that might be at.

Good luck with the new term to both children AND parents!

Read the rest of my parenting series “Summer Survival Guide”:  “Desi Gender Stereotyping” and “Help! I don’t know any other Asian mums!”