Although it addresses important issues within contemporary feminist scholarly debate, the text is far from being dry or overly academic. The close attention Wilson pays to the words and ideas of her interviewees and her insightful analysis of everyday phenomena make the book both accessible and interesting. Her exploration of patriarchy and its expression among South Asian women is consistently grounded in the narratives of the many women with whom she has worked and conversed, some during her thirty years of activism and others specifically for this book. Through and beyond these dialogues, Wilson traces the gendered exercise of power through space and time – between South Asian villages and British cities, between colonial India and the modern British state. In so doing she challenges the notion that the oppression experienced by South Asian women in Britain is ‘something incomprehensibly foreign... that requires cultural expertise’ to understand (p.7). Rather, she insists that we recognise both the striking similarities between British and South Asian ideologies of gender, and the dynamic manifestation and ongoing transformation of those ideologies through the lives of individuals and communities.
To this end, Wilson is as concerned to unpack the construction of British Asian masculinities as she is to explore questions of womanhood and its restrictions. The second chapter of the book, on ‘Changing Masculinities’, is a thorough investigation of some of the ways in which male identities in three communities (Sikh, Muslim and Gujarati Hindu) have developed and ‘been reshaped by multiculturalism and by the forces of politicised religion’. This chapter offers a bleak view of the ‘rigid and authoritarian forms of religious belief’ that are increasingly becoming entrenched in British Asian societies (p. 71).
Unsurprisingly, the objectification and commodification of South Asian women constitute a recurrent theme in the book. The izzat carried by the women of a family, the iconic status of the bahu, and the persistent reinscription of ‘traditional’ paradigms of gender in contemporary films, are all framed within the structures of South Asian patriarchy. Furthermore, Wilson shows that these structures exist in a close relationship with those of the British state. In several chapters – most particularly those that address issues of race and immigration control, mental illness, and the difficulties and risks faced by South Asian women working in unregulated sectors of production – Wilson interrogates the collusion of the British government with structures and processes that actively or passively oppress South Asian women.
If I have a criticism of Wilson’s text, it is that the picture she sketches of the lives and representations of British Asian women appears deeply shadowed by negativity. There seems little scope here for the celebration of South Asian women’s agency and empowerment in contemporary Britain. Perhaps this simply demonstrates the impossibility of telling all the sides of the story in just one book, and does not diminish the importance and relevance of the story the author has chosen to tell.
The book concludes with a reflection on the achievements and aims of a number of feminist groups, whose members came together in 2003 – ‘the first national conference of South Asian women in Britain for many years’ (p. 159) – to launch the umbrella organisation Asian Women Unite! (AWU). This final chapter serves both to draw together many of the discursive threads of the preceding chapters and to signal directions for future action. Its last sentence neatly sums up the work of the book as a whole and the role of Wilson’s own voice within and beyond the British Asian community: ‘In this period, 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’ (p. 171).
Book Description: From schoolgirls to matriarchs, single mothers to extended families, and businesswomen to factory workers, the experience of Asian women in Britain today is polarised by class and religion. This book explores the lives and struggles of two generations of British Asian women to present a political account of their experiences: personal and public, individual and collective, their struggles take on power structures within the family, the community and, on occasion, the British state. Combining their personal testimony within a theoretical framework, Amrit Wilson locates their experiences in the wider context of global and regional politics. She examines the diverse issues that affect Asian women's lives, including: the impact of the feminist movement; domestic violence; marriage; representations of Asian women; and mental disturbance and suicide.
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