Saturday, 15 November 2008

class and colour

there was an interesting interview on radio nz with dr edwina pio, who wrote the book "sari: indian women at work in nz". also interviewed were two of the women who were the featured in the book: ex-dunedin mayor sukhi turner (punjabi) and wellington nurse naema chhima (gujarati). as the pre-interview blurb says, dr pio wrote the book because she found when she moved here that "many nz'ers thought the typical indian woman speaks broken english, reeks of curry, works in a dairy, and is completely under her husband's thumb".

i can so totally relate to her experience of "professionally qualified women and women with a wonderful treasure of skills and experience" having trouble finding appropriate jobs, because they were held back by such stereotypes. it's very hard to be seen as confident, assertive and competent when the predominant view of women of your ethnicity is one of being victimised and passive. of course that has an impact when employers are trying to assess your capabilities.

therein lies the difficulty for women of colour. in many of our countries of origin, inequality and abuse of women exists at high levels. the moving piece by eve ensler (linked to by the ex-expat here) shows there are some seriously appalling issues faced by women in developing countries. none of us wants to downplay that, nor ignore it.

but the reality is that, unless they are coming in on the refugee quota, this is often not the experience of women of colour who migrate here. simply because these days, they have to be well-educated, english-speaking and pretty much from the upper class in order to get in. that's the way our immigration system works.

and i'm not saying that domestic violence doesn't happen in these households. sometimes it does, most often because of the financial pressures and the lack of social support networks that is the hallmark of the migrant experience.

but violence and vicitmisation is not the universal experience for women of colour in this country. many of us are empowered, educated and ready to contribute. to automatically be seen as victims is not only insulting, but also takes away our power and confidence. it makes for a hostile external environment, in which it is that much more difficult to achieve.

that's why this book is important. because it tells the positive stories of women who have succeeded, and tries to break the stereotypes that hold us back. it provides strong role models and hopefully will change the way others see us.

and yet, in my heart i know that eve ensler's story is the more important one. it's the one that needs to be shouted from the rooftops, to try and shake us from our complacent existence so that we will be moved to act. the suffering of those impoverished women suffering from extreme sexual violence is much greater than the discrimination faced by privileged migrant women of colour here in nz. so i have this sense of guilt that highlighting the latter somehow diminishes the former. a sense that really, we in this country have no right to complain.

except that injustice anywhere does need to be called out for what it is. does need to be highlighted and attended to. because if we let the little things go, then how will deal with the bigger issues.


Anna said...

At it's worst, the assumption that women of colour are victimised and helpless leads to a smug my-culture-is-better-than-your-culture position - seen in it's most ludicrous form in the assertion that the US invasion of Afghanistan was motivated in part by George W's concern for women's rights. It can be racism in a new guise. It's not at all unrelated to the suffering of those women of colour who continue to experience terrible forms of violence. I think it's because they're 'other' (read 'primitive' or 'backward') that we manage to turn a blind eye to things which are unconscionable, and that we wouldn't tolerate happening to people more 'like us'.

Luddite Journo said...

Thank you Stargazer, having conversations about the interactions between gender, race/ethnicity, class, culture and geographical place are really important - and the more we have them the better. These are big, complex issues often simplified into the stereotypes you talk about here.
The real world is never that simple.
Just one thing though - domestic violence emphatically does happen within migrant communities as you acknowledge. And as you acknowledge, the racism new migrants (especially of colour) encounter, the difficulties of living in an unfamiliar environment, the lack of supportive social structures etc all contribute to how domestic violence takes place.
BUT so do gender norms - in both countries of origin and countries of settlement - otherwise women of colour would be beating men of colour at the same rates as vice versa - which ain't the case for sure.
So I just want to ask that we continue to have gender in there as part of the discussion - while acknowledging the different experiences women and men of colour have. One of the effects of racism is that it is makes it more difficult for women of colour to leave abusive men - what will their community be if not their 'home' one? And shared experiences of racism are a powerful bond too.
Thoughts of a Pakeha woman with mixed up class background who likes thinking about this stuff :-)