Feminism and the liberation of women is not a topic I tend to lose much sleep over - perhaps to my own detriment. I often feel that we in the western world have more or less conquered old sexual prejudices, or are at least well on our way to ironing out the most important remaining social biases toward gender, one way or the other. This despite an undercurrent in me of welling discontent at the lot of the Asian woman in our Post-postmodern, post-patriarchal, post-all-things-bad society.
Not that things have changed since yesterday; at which time I had not the same compulsion to write this article. Of course I was, as I have been for some time, acutely aware that some women in Asian communities in the UK, and here I am referring mainly to Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities, are subjugated to a life so far removed from our western ideals of equality and liberty, as to warrant utter condemnation and immediate action. No, what has really prompted me to write is the seeming acceptance by considerable numbers of people in these communities that this is just the way things are - and will remain. It is worth noting that all forms of abuse take place in all types of communities, and that many Asian communities are not guilty of anything mentioned in this article.
However, there is a specific form of abuse that I have noticed is most endemic in Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities. We hear of exceptional cases, of beatings, of forced marriages, of honour killings. But herein lies part of the problem. I can only speak from my vantage point as someone who is conversant with many different kinds of Asian communities, and has accumulated anecdotal evidence to highlight the issue in question. While we have rightly been vocal about honour killings and forced marriages, we have remained far too quiet - sometimes completely unaware - of more insidious abuse experienced by many Asian women within their communities. Mostly it takes the form of intimidation and ostracisation by family and friends.
Here is the typical form aforementioned abuse will take. An Asian girl wilfully enters into marriage with her partner and realises months or years later that things are not right. He has become aggressive, demanding, his in-laws make unreasonable demands; she must not pursue a career, she is not to go out and see her friends, she must be totally subservient within the marriage. At this point I could be narrating the married life of a girl from any ethnic background. But it is in her options that the world of the Asian girl diverges from that of the Caucasian. For the Asian girl's options are far more limited. She faces ostracisation by family and even her community if she chooses divorce. Our in-built laws of equality and justice mean nothing to her, for what good is legal justice if she is left bereft of those things most precious to her?
These cases appear outwardly to be far too benign to vindicate vociferous action, but they are in fact an incredibly distressing reality for so many women. And it is particularly the fear of being shunned by one's own community that prevents change and progress. Intimidation is an effective method of preserving even the most injurious cultural norms.
It is unlikely therefore that the solution will come from government legislation, since we theoretically already have the framework in place to ensure that women in the UK are not powerless in the face of abuse. But this framework is impotent at tackling insular communities within its jurisdiction. I had, and still have, hope that new generations emanating from these communities will break this conspiracy of silence. Some Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus I speak to, reassure me that my hope is not misplaced, even when others seem to be adopting the attitudes of their forebears. All we can do is expose the brow-beating wherever it occurs in the hope we may empower women to break the heavy chains of tradition and force change from within.