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Archive for February, 2016

Feminism is a word that comes with decades of baggage and has numerous definitions. Google offers, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” while Wikipedia says, “a range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.” The concept of feminism is fluid, subjective and open to adaptation by women (and men) in their respective and varying social, political and economic climates.

Identifying as feminist has not been easy for people to accept, even some women dislike identifying as such. The term has been utilised in political and consumerist manoeuvres which tarnish the essence of the identity. From its original inception out of a desire to be recognised as an equal and valuable member of society by relatively well-off white women in western society, feminism has become synonymous with a myriad of statements and causes that have expanded to include racial, political and economic struggles. Feminists are traditionally thought of as: Bra burning; Man hating; Equality hungry; Respect seeking; Power hunting; Hairy; Women. Disappointingly, these qualities are not seen as positive by society at large and the idea of being a feminist was (and still is) frowned upon in many circles. Especially in South Asian women, the double standards of wanting equality and respect but deferring to a knight in shining armour to provide and love them, is a worrying trend. So what does this mean? Does a feminist South Asian woman exist at all? Does she have to be short haired, butch and single? Or is she merely a figment of our imagination? It is imperative we question the status of feminism in Australia and South Asia respectively to understand who the Australian South Asian woman is and what her feminist reality looks like.

Feminism in Australia society is largely defined by the developments taking place in America and Europe. The newer generations of Australian men and women are not familiar with the Germaine Greer’s of Australian feminism and even if they are, find her stance to be divisive rather than helpful to the integration of feminism into mainstream discourse. Even the famous Julia Gillard Misogyny Speech was received well in Australia largely due to its global recognition. Feminism in South Asia was largely frowned upon and whenever it came to the fore of social discourse, it was tinged with an ulterior motive. The English and Dutch coloniser’s used it to point out the tradition of structured subjugation of women as lower class citizens, then the political elite used it to ‘emancipate’ that same class of women into a new era of post-colonial ‘freedom’ where oppression was merely hidden under a different veil – sometimes literally. Hindu and Muslim women who covered themselves out of deference to their faith were mocked as the trends and fashions of post-colonial life pressured women into ‘freeing’ their minds and bodies figuratively and literally.  Fast forward another 50 years and the rampant abuse of women both within and outside the home, the escalation in reported rapes and domestic violence, prove that women can wear what they want and say what they want but until men are taught to respect a woman’s right to do as she pleases – feminism is and will remain a mythical ideal to which South Asian culture aspires (or not).

So what does this mean for the South Asian woman living in an Australian society? How can she grow out of the murky entrenched ‘values’ of shy deference and obedience that have been imbued gradually over a century of instruction to accept that seeking respect for her right to think and do as she pleases is as inherent in her psyche as it is to breathe. That right can be called ‘feminism’, it can be called ‘the rights of women in Islam’, it can be called ‘modernist’ and ‘untraditional’ but they all refer to the same thing. A woman’s right to choose for herself. A woman that chooses to give up her career for a role as homemaker can be every bit a feminist as a woman who shuns the ‘traditional’ role for a more ‘masculine’ one. But women cannot do this alone. We co-exist with a male population that is just as crucial to the embedding of feminism in our social fabric as women themselves. Men have to accept, respect and encourage feminism with the same ardour as women for the concept to have any meaningful impact on our lives. And why wouldn’t they ascribe to a way of life that is positive and cohesive in it’s intent?

Feminism is the way we defer to our fellow human beings, not due to social hierarchy or traditional gender roles, but out of genuine respect for another individual.

Feminism is the way we reject stereotypes of what a woman ‘should’ be doing with her life at/by a certain age and embrace that every life, every situation is different and equally worthy

Feminism is the way we frame our discourse to abandon the classification of jobs as masculine or feminine, as traditional or untraditional.

Feminism is the way we stop the need to be ‘equal’ with men and accept that men and women are created differently physically and psychologically to serve differing purposes in life – each no more significant than the other.

Feminism is the way we come to an understanding in modern society of how to engage in honest but polite discourse with another person, be it a man or a woman and respect their personal space, wants and needs.

Feminism is – whatever you want it to be. It is an identity that you own and shape by upholding the values of love, respect and honesty. Whether you are Khadijah RA who defied convention and married the soon to be Prophet Muhammad when he was just a poor orphan, Kate Winslet winning a BAFTA and reminiscing about the drama teacher who told her to ‘Settle For The Fat Girl Parts’ or Twinkle Khanna who writes about ‘Why I am not a feminist’ and believes in the superiority of women over men. Whether you are a man or a woman, you can embrace your history, your religion, your culture and your values to form your own distinctly creative feminist identity.

 

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Recently, I was at the checkout in Aldi when, the (for lack of a better way to describe her) white, ‘Aussie’ woman behind the counter asked the two Asian girls in line behind me to ‘pass over the incense stick lying over there’. The girls gave her blank looks and she repeated her request three more times, each louder than the last until she said, ‘Oh, don’t worry!’. I turned around, noticed the offending incense stick poking out of a counter top, and handed it to her and she said, ‘Oh, you would know! Thank you!’ and I left on my merry way.

This small exchange got me thinking about cross cultural communication and the dialogue we utilise to express ourselves with others. In hindsight, I found it interesting that the cashier chose to repeat the same words louder instead of trying different words or even sign language. This exchange is a microcosm for wider society in which all of us are getting louder and louder in an effort to make ourselves heard, resulting in a cacophony of noise in which no one is actually understood.

The other. Our inherit need to apply structure and control to our surroundings have always implemented a classification system for everything – including ourselves. Throughout our history, social; economic; geographic and natural concerns have impacted the way we see things as well as the way we rank our disparate selves. Now so accustomed to this classification, we fail to recognise in each other our similarities. Instead we assume our difference are what defines us. We assume that an Asian woman should understand English (accent and all) by virtue of being in an English speaking country and that if we just repeat the words louder she must understand. We assume that a veiled woman must be Muslim and therefore oppressed. We assume that covered women must be Muslim and are ranked below Muslim men and have no mind of their own. The same classification system teaches us that it is ok to demand a Sikh man remove his turban, or a Muslim woman remove her veil. That it is ok to subject people of non-white skin colour to more rigorous security protocol at airports or other public places for no other reason than prejudice.

Nowhere is this more palpable than in the country that proclaims itself as the ‘greatest country on earth’. Every day there are reports in mainstream media which portray the Black, the Muslim, the Sikh and the Asian as the Other. The coverage from the media is loud and stubborn as journalists and broadcasters alike spew the same vehement hate speech over and over, louder and louder and wonder why others do not understand or listen to their repeated requests to submit to their way of life. This dangerous pattern has gained traction due to the distinctly unique campaigning style of the Republican nominees who have based their campaigns on one key thing: Fear-mongering. And it’s not just America that’s listening. Hate fuelled acts of violence are being committed every day in almost every part of the world, as people become increasingly scared of the other.  From the Islamophobic graffiti attack on a car in Sydney to racist attacks against British Muslims. It seems that no matter where you are in the world, there is someone who feels threatened by another and reacts in a violent and hateful manner,  thus perpetuating the feeling of being threatened. The net of hurt anger is cast wider and wider.

As I read my newsfeed despondently, two babies sitting on the laps of their respective mothers caught my eye. Both mothers sat on the train facing away from each other but the babies didn’t let that dissuade them. They reached out, and as brown skin made contact with white, both babies faces lit up with undeterred delight. There was no fear and no hatred. Only smiles. Those babies made me realise that love is something we are born with and fear is something we learn. We learn it through a media that sensationalises every attack and every action, we learn it through politicians, and other leaders in the community who misuse their positions to incite fear and hatred in order to further their own agendas. And we perpetuate what we learn through ignorance and refusal to unlearn our hatred by educating ourselves about others who share this world with us.

It is incumbent on every man, woman, and child to learn. As it says in the Holy Quran, “Read! In the Name of your Lord who created” (95:1) Find out about what is happening around you and look beyond your own situation so you can understand what is happening in, and to, the big wide world we all live in. So you can empathise with those less fortunate, so you can use your knowledge and good fortune, your health and your wealth or even just your voice – to fight for what is right. Not louder and louder – but in different ways to reach different audiences. The greatest gift we have is our ability to give and while everyone feels threatened, there are a few who are not afraid to be warm in their welcome. Let’s learn from them, emulate them and communicate with each other not just loudly but more meaningfully so we can forge connections that help us coexist on this shared possession we call Earth.

 

 

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