At a time when Asian women are only being discussed in terms of their veils, forced marriages and oppressive religion, what a relief it is to read a book about Asian women as agents not objects. And to read a book by a journalist-cum-campaigner which avoids the usual academic claptrap about ‘the other’ and culturalist explanations.
If Amrit Wilson’s first (pathbreaking) book on Asian women in Britain was called ‘Finding a voice’. This one should probably be called ‘Needing a megaphone’. Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian women in Britain describes the struggles of Asian women within their communities against patriarchy and, in society, against racism and the ways in which the two reinforce one another under today’s globalised market forces.
The book draws on interviews and conversations with Asian women in Northamptonshire, Middlesex, Bedfordshire and East London over a number of years. It reflects on the similarity of experiences across communities whilst also pointing out, where necessary, specificities to Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.
Two chapters reflect on patriarchy and masculinity – the ways in which women are attempting to shake off or subvert familial control and the impact of religion and the politics of the sub-continent on male behaviour. Another two examine Asian women’s images of themselves via, on the one hand, their ideas of ‘the Wedding’, and, on the other, their views on women’s representation in film and on TV.
But the strongest chapters are those on state racism – the impact of immigration controls and psychiatric services or non-services – and the experience of sweated labour today. How many of us were aware that 50-year-old newly arrived Punjabi grandmothers are picking, cleaning and loading from dawn to dusk for around £25 a day in our rural counties the vegetables we buy at our local supermarket?
Why the megaphone? Because, despite the heroic efforts shown here of how women are resisting on a multitude of fronts and usually having to take on both male oppression and societal racism, we seem up against brick walls at every turn. Many demands that black women’s groups came up with a generation ago, have been met – but by the state. And things like refuges, which once were seedbeds of revolutionary politics, are now part of social services. Feminism, which fuelled so many of the struggles reflected here, is now a dirty word or a dirtied word. (Some feminists in Europe are, under the guise of protecting enlightenment values and women’s freedom, embracing Islamophobia and joining the anti-immigration lobby.) Finally, as this book shows only too clearly, market forces and the pressures of globalisation are everywhere.
The answer, says Wilson, is to build new alliances and strengthen those that exist – but outside the framework of the state. ‘When we bring our separate, often very different struggles as women together, they make each of us stronger where we stand… the Burnsall strikers who, in the middle of an exhausting strike, found the energy to travel to London to show solidarity with low-paid refugee workers; Varsha, who fought patriarchal violence at home, took on racist immigration authorities and won, then against all odds helped to organise a self-help group for women facing the Two-Year Rule.’ At this time, she concludes, ‘when women’s struggles are both denied and portrayed as deviant, these voices remind us that we must acknowledge our battles and use them to reflect on the world we want.’