‘The tandoor shop round the corner’ – How British Asian communities can redefine female empowerment and become a beacon for wider society
BY Aisha Iqbal Khan
I think I became a feminist aged 12 or so, when I refused to learn to make ‘rotis’ unless my mum also taught my four brothers how to make them.
They never did, and mine still aren’t as round as I’d like them to be. But they don’t need to be do they? Not when the tandoor shop round the corner sells them four for £1!
Through the years, I would notice small injustices, always justified by cultural traditions, that meant ‘our girls don’t do this, they don’t wear that, what will people think, girls are a family’s ‘izzat’, you have to be prepared for when you go to your in-laws’, etc. I would always ask ‘why?’ and – to this day – I don’t think I have ever got a satisfactory answer.
I think that’s a huge part of the reason why I became a writer and a journalist. I wanted to find those elusive answers and keep asking those same questions.
We have clearly come a long way from those days when even wearing a pair of jeans was considered an affront to a good Asian girl’s modesty, but there is a long way to go. As we approach International Women’s Day, I can’t help but wonder how far we have really come, both as a community and as a wider, global society. Across the world, women living under brutal chauvinistic regimes can only dream of some of the freedoms we enjoy in the UK. But even at home, a look at sexual assault and domestic violence figures – and various studies on huge numbers of unreported crimes – suggests there is much to be done.
All this while we simultaneously feed into and gorge on a hypocritical, blatantly misogynistic celebrity-obsessed popular culture where pictures of Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne glass on her naked behind on a magazine cover are sold to us as an act of female liberation, where 30 women fighting to impress one man on a TV show is considered the height of Saturday night entertainment – and where lunatics can organise pro-rape events.
Have we lost the plot and in fact started to regress into a patriarchal parody of ourselves? Emmeline Pankhurst would probably be turning in her grave. American feminist icon Margaret Sanger said once that “no woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body”.
And yet, in a world where women have travelled in space, cured diseases, performed magnificent feats of engineering and personal bravery, fought in wars and led great nations, we are still reduced to the sum of our bodily parts and
how we choose to present them to the world.
The confused mess is summed up by debates around page 3 girls and Muslim burqa wearers, both of which seem to pop up again from time to time. I am no fan of enforced cover-ups, but the dominant narrative would have us believe that a woman having the freedom to take her clothes off in a newspaper is somehow a feminist statement, while the same woman choosing to cover herself is a symbol of religious and cultural oppression.
Then there is the parallel narrative gathering momentum, that actually it’s the freedom to cover up (whether by burqa or hijab or other ‘modest’ dress) that is the true statement of feminism. Both choices can be interpreted as neo-feminist acts. But I despair increasingly that the feminist narrative has been hijacked by a regressive, resurgent, insidious form of patriarchy.
It cannot be denied that there is deep hypocrisy in some of our own communities too about the true meaning of ‘modesty’ and ‘izzat’, something that goes hand in hand with any discussion on female empowerment.
‘Izzat’ and honour are massively strong emblems and themes in South Asian communities, but by redefining those concepts in a way that empowers rather than punishes our women, we can actually reclaim the best of feminism’s core principles from within our communities and be a beacon for a wider society that is losing its way. I recall an argument with a male friend a long time ago after he foolishly described a mutual friend’s slightly frivolous, light-hearted behaviour as ‘dishonourable’.
That conversation has stuck with me for many years. I told him that to talk about izzat and honour in the way he had was the lowest of the low form of misogyny. Because when weak men have no other weapon to use against a woman, that’s the one they pull out.
Why is it that it is men who give women ‘honour’, I asked, and men who take it away, but women who bear the scars – in every sense?
By allowing women to define their own sense of honour and izzat we empower them. Honour comes through hard work, bravery, compassion and all those core principles and values that we should and do share, and not through being scared of change or modernity or a slight move away from tradition for tradition’s sake.
It is almost 100 years since the Parliament of Great Britain first granted the vote to women in 1918.
In December 2015, 97 years after that act, women were finally granted the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani women won the vote in 1947 on the country’s creation, while Indian women were granted the right in 1921, although it was initially limited to the educated and wealthier classes.
When I think of female empowerment in all of its many forms and waves, I think of personalities like (in no particular order) Rosa Parks; Boudica; Beyonce; Emmeline Pankhurst; Alice Walker; the Bronte sisters; Benazir Bhutto; Margaret Thatcher; Shami Chakrobarty; Indira Ghandi; Amelia Earheart and Florence Nightingale. The list goes on and on.
Feminism, for me, is not a political movement but an ideal that embodies the best of womanhood: grace, eloquence, perseverance, idealism, passion, sisterhood and motherhood in its most complete, universal sense. The fight for gender equality does not have to be about men VERSUS women, it should be about women working alongside men for a better, fairer society.
What is often lost in the myriad debates is that some of the earliest champions of feminism have been men. As far back as 1748, the English classical liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham spoke for complete equality between the sexes including the rights to vote and to participate in government. Even further back, the Prophet Muhammad married a businesswoman 15 years his senior and together they built the foundations of the one of the world’s most influential religious and political movements.
And yet, in the 21st century, we seem to be going ever backwards – and RE-mancipating ourselves. Our South Asian communities can play an important part in forwarding productive debate. We are already doing it by educating ourselves, by increasingly welcoming genuine discourse, by letting our women have a real voice (although certain politicians seem to think otherwise) and by reclaiming our personal physical space and identity both from those who want to undress it and us, and those who want to ‘protect’ it and cover it (and us) up.
It’s not really about swapping the tawa for the tandoor-shop round the corner. It’s about genuine enlightened thinking, and having faith in ourselves and each other.
The eternal battle of the sexes is not about to reach a ceasefire any time soon, it’s in our genetic make-up.
But I dream of the day when we no longer have to mark International Women’s Day or have women’s power lists or even publish a special women-centric edition of this paper. That is when we will have true equality.
Aisha Iqbal Khan is a staff writer for the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post
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