Why do we need International Women’s Day?

 

So what’s the deal with International Women’s Day? Isn’t it just angry women ranting about not getting a pay rise or whatever? A bunch of feminist bloggers?

Hmm, the F word.

Feminism is such a tricky term; one that is often treated with as much contempt as the other F word.

The Huffington Post’s Poorna Bell claims that:

“We have moved beyond the procrastination of 2013, when women were deciding whether or not they were feminists,” to this year where “the voice of women grew from a murmur to a roar.”

Well that maybe true in certain sections of the press, and perhaps on Twitter. But in real life, do people really care about inequality and gender issues? Do you?

 

What was it that broke the internet?

According to one editor of a prominent women’s magazine, the articles that get the most click-throughs on their site are chicken recipes and Mary Berry’s cupcake recipe. It seems we care more about fluffy lifestyle topics such as baking or how to contour our cheekbones to cut glass than we do about FGM, the gender pay gap or domestic violence.

Think about it. It wasn’t the picture of Malala receiving her Nobel Prize that broke the internet was it?

It’s great to celebrate some of the steps forward that we have taken as a society. Like the changes to paternity leave that mean the responsibility of childcare no longer falls solely on women. Or the growing openness around breastfeeding.

But let’s not overstate the case. What about the issues that don’t gain a hashtag or social media attention? What about marginalised women who don’t have a voice at all?

If you need further convincing on this, then consider the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, #PledgeForParity. Not #LetsCelebrateHowFarWe’veCome. According to the official website, “progress towards gender equality has slowed in many places.”

#PledgeforParity is about the continued fight to see women gain equal status all over the world. Not just here in the West. It’s the fight to see women in India have access to indoor toilets. It’s the fight to end FGM, the practice that is said to maintain a woman’s sexual purity. It’s the fight to stop girls being married off as young as 12. And so much more….

But I fear that before we take on that fight, we have to move past our own apathy.

Because let’s face it, most people would rather watch the video of the baby panda sneezing or anything to do with cats before they engage with gender issues.

 

Some unlikely home truths

So how do we get people to care? It seems that once a year, the stats and figures on the plight of women across the world get rolled out; only to be put away again until March 8th the following year. Instead of shocking people once a year with “what’s happening out there”, how do we really bring it home?

Well how about asking a few home truths that may seem unlikely. Like:

Do you have a vagina?

Do you have children?

Do you have a non- English name?

Do you have coloured skin?

Are you gay?

Are you on the minimum wage?

Are you an immigrant or the child of one?

Are you disabled or suffer from a long term illness?

Answering yes to any one of these questions means you WILL face discrimination at one point in your life. Simply because there are power structures in place which mean that most of us will experience discrimination and disadvantage.

That’s why we should all care about International Women’s Day. Because its a day for the disadvantaged, and yes that includes women. Because, as Hilary Clinton so famously said in her iconic 1995 speech to the UN, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

And one more thing. Why should it be me, you, us that roll up our sleeves and do this? Because:

“I am resourced. I am educated, I have the right to vote, I have access to medical healthcare. WE must open doors for others who don’t have the rights that we take for granted.”

Annie Lennox, speaking at Women of the World 2015, London.

 

 

 

If you want to read more on this topic, you might like these posts:

A letter to my daughter on International Women’s Day

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

Why we don’t care about other women

What is Desi Feminism?

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.

No Country for White Men

no country

Last Saturday, my family and I took a shopping trip to East London’s Green Street in Forest Gate. Green Street is a high street of Asian clothing shops, jewellers, grocers and beauticians. It’s a great vibrant little community that also has an Islamic Centre and Gurdwara.

I was there looking for an Asian outfit for a Sangeet night I’m attending soon. I used to get my threading done in this part of London when we lived fairly nearby, some six or seven years ago now, so its familiar territory for us.

But apparently not a welcoming territory any more.

From the moment we hit the high street, the hostile glances towards us became really obvious. Literally everyone stared at us. We went into the shopping mall, people looked us. We went in and out of shops- this was the worst- the shop keepers made us feel so unwelcome. Think of the shopping scene in Pretty Woman before Vivian’s big makeover!

Seriously, it was a horrible experience. In an all-Asian area, an Asian woman with her white husband and their mixed race child are made to feel unwelcome. You could see the judgement and prejudice written all over their faces. It was intimidating, upsetting, and totally infuriating.

I’m used to people, particularly other Asians, judging me for my unconventional life choices, so it wasn’t this that was shocking.

No, what really shocked me was that this racism was happening in London, in 2015. I mean when my husband and I first started dating 15 years ago, there were certain places we’d go that this kind of obvious racism would happen a lot. Brent Cross shopping centre was one of them (!) All the aunti-jis would look disapprovingly at us, sometimes even tut at me. But that was pre-9/11, pre-Islamaphobia (as we know it today), and pre-fourth wave feminism. It was a different time. Social activism via Twitter and the fight for equality wasn’t what it is today. Not that that excuses the behaviour, obviously; but it was of its time.

So why in today’s climate is it apparently even less acceptable, less tolerable, for an Asian woman like me, to be married to a non-Asian; at least in the eyes of other Asians?

Perhaps it’s part of the growing backlash against Asian women marrying out of their community. We’ve seen a sharp rise in this amongst the Sikh community, and so perhaps this intolerance is not just contained to one section of the British Asian community.

Or perhaps the Asians of Forest Gate have become so ghettoised that they cannot hide their surprise- let alone intolerance of a white man and an Asian woman together on their streets. I find that hard to believe though. Green Street sits right next to Stratford, home of the Olympic Village- the Olympics that we won the right to host because of London’s diversity and tolerance. Ok, so maybe that was disingenuous marketing strategy employed by the Olympic planning committee. But still, we’re not talking about some ghetto in the middle of nowhere: it’s LONDON- one of the most multicultural cities in the world!

And equally alarmingly, is that most of the hostile glances came from young women- some who were probably younger than me. I get it when the older generation judge me. They hold to their traditional values which don’t often include the intermarrying of races. But I would’ve expected my peers to understand my position. How many of them have fallen in love with someone of a different race at work or at university, and would give anything to marry him? How many of them want to make their own choices, like who to marry, but can’t because of family pressure I wonder? This is hardly unfamiliar ground is it?!

I think largely what it comes down to is that we are incredibly judgemental of our own people. The biggest critics we face are our peers. Perhaps some of them begrudgingly conform to family pressure and cultural expectations and can’t stand it when one of us crosses the boundary. It seems mind-blowing that there are no-go areas for people like me who have dared to do so.

And before anyone comments: “why would you take your white husband to an-Asian area? You know the looks you’re going to get!” I’ll say this. I think we all agree that there should be no street, no neighbourhood that is a no-go area if you’re of a certain race. But apparently those areas are alive and thriving today.

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.

What is Desi Feminism?

If the word ‘feminism’ conjures up images of angry women burning their bras think again. If you think feminism has nothing to do with you- regardless of whether you are a woman or a man, think again.

Did it upset you when, in December 2012 a woman in Delhi was gang-raped and attacked on a bus later dying of her injuries; her biggest crime being that she was a woman? Or the fact that in this day and age of political correctness, topless models still appear in the tabloid newspapers; like they are nothing more than a pair of tits? Or that in some countries is it considered acceptable for a man to beat his wife as long as he doesn’t leave a mark? If any of these issues made you stop and cry out “that’s not fair” I would say you’re on your way to becoming a feminist, because feminism is the fight for fair treatment of women.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what feminism means to today’s British Asian woman. Not those who sadly have been forced into a loveless marriage, or had the horror of female genital mutilation happen to them, or those facing domestic violence sanctioned by her religion (it does exist). I’m thinking of the average, so-called ‘normal’ British Asian woman.

I don’t know who coined the term ‘desi feminism’ but it seems appropriate, partly because the word ‘desi’ not only refers to people of the South Asian origin but also as it’s often used in everyday language to mean traditional. It’s precisely some traditional aspects of Asian culture that I think deals us a rough hand sometimes.

You see, 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. The first two are probably concepts you’re familiar with, but the culture thing? Well think about it. Our culture dictates the choices we make every day. From who to marry to how long to wear your hair; finding a ‘suitable’ career or not working at all; the pressure to live with in-laws, pressure to have sons, pressure not to go back to work after starting a family….it’s almost as if our life choices are not our own to make. If we go against the grain of our culture and ‘disobey’ our community, we are ostracised. They’ll fight you for the rest of your life because how dare you try to fight against them. You’ll face isolation, rejection and shame for bringing shame on the family.

As Asian women we live our daily lives under this kind of three-fold discrimination, it’s the constant pressure to do the right thing, culturally speaking; even when it’s not right for us.

So what do we do about this, ladies? Well starting the conversation is the first thing. Last year saw the explosion of fourth wave feminism, that is to say, the resurgence of the feminist movement. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” song, the “Keep Calm & Rape Them” t-shirts for sale on Amazon, Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism website and the campaign to end page 3 models in the British tabloid press have all been markers of this explosion. Crucially, the internet was the space that women used to speak out against sexism. It has got ugly at times but at least women are talking, speaking out.

We need to do the same in order to raise awareness- and the social networks could be a great place for us to start. I know it’s hard to fight against the years of tradition, but if they are traditions that oppress us and take away our freedom to be who we are, then it’s an important one.

 

Do you have any stories to share of Asian cultural oppression? Or perhaps you spoke out, fought back? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or email me at editor@britishasianwoman.com