The point that many of us appear to be missing
So, I can kind of, sort of, understand why a question like this might be posed on Nihal’s Asian Network phone in. There is a widely held perception in much of Europe and North America that Asian, Latin, [fill in the blank] men are inherently patriarchal, inherently misogynistic and inherently more violent than non-Asian men. In other words, no matter what they do, they are biologically and culturally predestined to behave a certain way towards women.
Having had mostly negative experiences with Asian men myself, both as friends and as partners, I used to subscribe to this idea once upon a time. This began to change however when I started to read up on the literature on patriarchal values, misogyny, abuse and domestic violence. I began to reject cultural relativist claptrap that predestines all non-white men to a life of oppressing women and found that the answers lie elsewhere. I started to realise that thinking about the issue subjectively wasn’t going to get me very far in understanding the whys and hows. So I turned to academic research.
In the UK, there appears to be a dire, dire lack of critical thinking among the general public about issues such as gender, patriarchy and violence against women. We fall so easily into culture and race generalisations to explain away phenomena in a way that not only pretends to be “culturally accommodating” but is inherently racist. Turning the mistreatment of women of colour by men of colour into a “cultural” phenomenon essentially removes responsibility from the perpetrators of the injustice and implies that women of colour should never hope for better treatment from their male counterparts on the basis that it is “cultural”.
Yes, as a British woman of Asian origin, it does seem like I come across a high incidence of domestic violence, psychological and emotional abuse and strong patriarchal and misogynistic values in Asian communities. I would not deny that for a second. But surface discussions about “Are white men better than brown men” are simply a way of finding convenient excuses and not real solutions. Is it possible that the difference between Asian and non-Asian men is the level of tolerance that their communities have for negative, abusive and violent behaviour towards women? Probably.
The point that most people on Nihal’s show seemed to completely miss, was that being Asian or Latin or African does not somehow predetermine how much or how little of a douchebag you are. Hence, the gentleman who called up and said that Indian men were “the best” might want to explain to me how he can defend that position when practices such as Sati and Female infanticide still persist in a widespread fashion across India and forced marriages and caste based discrimination still exist within British Indian communities?
If culture, colour, race or religion could predetermine the quality of a man’s behaviour towards women, then defences such as ”I beat my wife because it’s part of my culture/religion etc” would be acceptable in court. A misguided New Jersey judge actually allowed such an argument to be presented and ruled in favour of the defendant who had repeatedly beaten and raped his wife and claimed that it was part of his religion. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the decision was overturned, but it just goes to show where we can end up when we entertain the “brown men are inherently bad” line of reasoning. We need to dig deeper.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Men in general or of a particular race are not “inherently” anything. Just as women in general or of a particular race are not “inherently” anything. We’re “inherently” just human. It is what we see around us that shapes our attitudes towards the opposite sex and shapes how we seek to establish and maintain relationships. What does differ from culture to culture, are the boundaries within which we operate. Hence, if I were in the shoes of an Asian boy growing up in Britain, and it just so happened that I rarely saw an equal, mutually respectful relationship between an Asian man and a woman, I might learn something from that. If I saw that most Asian women were housewives (which I have the utmost respect for might I add), were responsible for picking up after the entire family and did all the housework with little or no recognition, I might (in the shoes of a grown Asian man) think that this is “normal” and “acceptable” treatment of a woman. If I grew up seeing my mother being barked at by my father while she remains quiet and submissive out of fear, then again, it’s no surprise that I may (in the position of an adult Asian man) end up modelling my own relationships on this power imbalance. What we perceive to be “normal” in relationships is significantly informed by how we see our parents interact.
“Bangladeshi and Pakistani women had the highest female economic inactivity rates (77 per cent and 68 per cent respectively). The majority of these women were looking after their family or home. Within each ethnic group women were more likely than men to be economically inactive.” (Source: Office of National Statistics (2005) “Focus on Ethnicity and Identity Summary Report”)
In the year 2012, why are such a high proportion of British Asian women still being expected to adhere to restrictive gender roles and dedicate all of their resources, intellect and ambition to the whims of everyone else but themselves?
Don’t get me wrong, I adore my husband and have wonderful in-laws. I would happily go out of my way for either of them. But I am lucky, because I can choose whether I want to cook an elaborate meal for my husband or whether I do the laundry or not depending on my workload. When he’s busy, I help him out, when I’m busy, he helps me out. We have never sat down and discussed who’s doing what in the long term, yet it all just falls into place. Why? Because we see each other as equals. We are sensitive to one another’s commitments and supportive of one another when one of us is busy with work and the other is not. Something that few British Asian women ever experience in their lifetime. Why? I’m getting to that.
We are all “inherently” human, however if Asian or any other communities have such a high tolerance for the subordinate status of women and do not respond collectively to such behaviours with disgust, condemnation and a strong will to protect the abused target? Then this is what makes the difference between how Asian and non-Asian men (in general) tend to treat Asian women.
“It is important to note that research has shown that men who have abusive mothers do not tend to develop especially negative attitudes towards females, but men who have abusive fathers do; the disrespect that abusive men show their female partners and their daughters is often absorbed by their sons.” - Lundy Bancroft (2002), p.41
I am not for one second suggesting that we should see everything about non-Asian cultures as superior. I don’t think in binary and neither should any of us. I am however suggesting that a culture that saves its best parking spaces for the disabled and sets up mechanisms to prevent forced marriage of its Asian citizens abroad definitely has aspects worth holding in high esteem, as compared to the culture that treats disabilities with level of disdain and deems violence and mistreatment of women as something “cultural” that is to be tolerated.
We know for a fact that other than a handful of matriarchal societies, the mistreatment of women and violence against women exists in every society and culture on earth. And contrary to popular perceptions, it transcends social class, occupation, education and financial capacity. However, this does not absolve Asian communities of their responsibility to respond to violence against women and misogyny in a serious and just manner.
“Among my clients I have had: numerous doctors, including two surgeons; many successful businesspeople, including owners and directors of large companies; about a dozen college professors; several lawyers; a prominent – and very mellow sounding – radio personality; clergypeople; and two well known professional athletes. One of my violent clients had spent every Thanksgiving for the past ten years volunteering at his local soup kitchen. Another was a publicly visible staff member of a major international human rights organization. The cruelty and destructiveness that these men were capable of would have stunned their communities had they known” – Lundy Bancroft (2002), p.69-70
We all need to move away from stereotypical presumptions about misogyny and violence against women based on generalisations about race, religion or culture and focus on the differences in cultural and community responses to such phenomena. Asian men aren’t the problem. Community responses to the mistreatment of women are the problem. They are inadequate and lacking in moral courage.
“Look pretty and shut up.”
Finally, I cannot end this post without acknowledging a lesser talked about but equally destructive form of misogyny which exists among many Asian women. Known among many Asians as “Saas-Bahu” complex (Mother in law – Daughter in law complex), this is a pattern of behaviour that I see repeatedly in cultures where women are powerless in their marriages, in their families and in their communities. It is compounded by the fact that many famous Indo-Pakistani TV soaps (or “drama serials” as they are referred to within Asian communities) act as a step by step guide on how to become a conniving, scheming woman and how to plot against other women out of your powerlessness. The fact that so many Asian women in the West (including my own mother) watch these programmes as their sole point of reference with regards to their culture, only confirms their beliefs that their daughters, grand-daughters, nieces, sisters, daughter-in-laws must not only wake up looking like the front cover of “Stardust” magazine, play the role of “Sati Savitri” (a demure, virginal woman who is uniquely devoted to her husband), but that they must be almost solely responsible for every domestic duty there is whilst putting their own ambitions and dreams in the dustbin.
The level of destruction which female misogyny wreaks must not be underestimated. Add to this the fear of polygamy that many British Muslim women face, et voila, another reason for women to hate one another and scheme against any woman deemed remotely younger, smarter, slimmer or more attractive than oneself. Deeply patriarchal cultures destroy the fabric of communities. They destroy any chance of real bonds of sisterhood between women and leave them feeling insecure, powerless and mistrustful of other women.
The recent Maya Khan fiasco in Pakistan is another example of Asian women scheming against Asian women and thus, perpetrating misogyny. This was an incident where Maya Khan and her “ghairat brigade” (honour brigade) went around a Karachi park in an attempt to name and shame unmarried couples. Faces were not pixellated and people were filmed despite being told that the cameras were off. In the end, a worldwide wave of internet activism resulted in the presenter and her team being fired and the show being cancelled. It was a victory for every free-thinking Pakistani and excellent parodies of her behaviour started to crop up on the www. But the point is, you cannot make amends for the pound of flesh you’ve already taken. Khan and her team cannot undo the fact that the people whose faces were shown are now potentially exposed to a heightened risk of honour crime being perpetrated against them.
So essentially, female misogyny in Asian cultures is just as damaging as the misogyny of Asian males. It supports the deeply unjust values of the community and leaves women with nowhere to turn for solidarity and support. As long as these destructive views remain unchallenged and anything that promotes equality is seen as a “Western” concept, Asian women such as myself will find partners from outside the community (not that there’s anything wrong with this. Ethno-cultural mixing rocks!) My point is, even if anecdotally speaking, we find that it is true that Asian women are treated better by non-Asian men, when we ask “why?” we need to move away from notions of “white men are better than brown men”. As tempting as such answers might be, they’re not very likely to address the problem. What we should be talking about, is why so many British Asian communities blame all of their problems on their youth and the influence of “Western values” when it is precisely these values considered to be “Western” that are making the lives of many brave Asian women (and men) remotely bearable?
Societies that have evolved to hold the human rights paradigm in high regard have no place for selective abhorrence. Hence, elders who purport to teach “good traditional values” within Asian communities cannot pick and choose which injustices are bad and which are acceptable based on the gender of the victim. All injustice is unacceptable.
It’s high time for elders within British Asian communities to stop pointing fingers and take a long hard look at themselves and what they’re contributing to the cultures of their communities. It’s time to search deep for some moral courage and solidarity against violence, disrespect or mistreatment of any kind, regardless of whether the victim is “just a woman” or not.
Note for readers who may be suffering domestic abuse: I am not an expert on matters of violence against women or domestic abuse (which is more than just physical abuse). See the definition here. If you are in a situation where you feel you may be suffering domestic abuse, whether that is emotional, psychological or physical and have no-one to turn to, please do not hesitate to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not qualified to advise anyone on such matters, however I can signpost you to some excellent individuals, organisations and resources that could be of help to you. Stay strong. You’re not alone.
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