What Does it Mean to be an Asian Woman?

Inspired by the Asian Woman Festival, hosted by Shani Dhanda, I revisit the panel discussion surrounding Asian Women and identity.

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The Asian Woman Festival 2019 was an experience like no other. Hosted by Shani Dhanda in Birmingham, the festival comprised of a series of panel talks and intimate discussions about what it means to be an Asian woman living in Britain. The first panel featured Sharan Dhaliwal, editor of Burnt Roti, South Asian tattooist Heleena Mistry and BBC podcaster and comedienne Sadia Azmat.

So, what does it mean to be an Asian woman?

Well, the answers were pretty similar across the panel – it means being you. Being unapologetically you, every part of you. Identity is nuanced and all we can do is strive to live our truth.

Being an Asian woman is just a “singular part of a wider identity”

Sharan Dhaliwal, Editor, Burnt Roti

Being an Asian woman will mean different things to each and every one of us, coloured by our experiences in life.

To me, it means being Punjabi, thriving in the culture. It means being different and standing out. It means surprising people when they learn that I speak Spanish better than I speak Punjabi.

Being an Asian woman means having my name mispronounced at least once a day. It means tiring of correcting people every time this happens.

Being an Asian woman means reconciling the dichotomy of Western values and traditional Indian values. It means having choices, but not too many choices. It means that my feminism is 20 years ahead that of my peers.

Shani Dhanda, organiser of AWF 2019, described being British-Asian as “living in contradiction”, and I think that’s the best way to describe the dichotomy we live in. By embracing the Western side of our culture, we, theoretically, alienate our own Asian-ness, and vice versa. British-Asian women have grown up in a country that values women, that allows us to pursue any career, one that affords us choices that may not have been available, had we lived in the countries of our forefathers. But even though these opportunities are available to us on paper, often our traditional values and upbringings hold us back.

You can’t do that! Log Kya Kahenge?

Every Auntie ever at some point

Asian families are so focused on external validation – from relatives, from friends, from random people in the community – that we often leave the aspirations of our young women unfulfilled.

The Asian Woman Festival was an opportunity to celebrate the strength of women in our community. Despite the pressures of being a dutiful daughter/wife/mother, so many of us have grown into strong, independent women, smashing the patriarchy in both western society, and within our homes. We have created safe spaces to discuss topics that would otherwise be taboo in Indian society. We have allowed ourselves to celebrate who we are, instead of staying in the corner of the kitchen, burning rotiya.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that everything changed for us; maybe there was no one moment, and things have been slowly changing over the years. Slowly, women in Asian spheres are becoming more confident, outspoken. We’re pursuing dreams that we wouldn’t have 20 years ago; careers in the creative industries, travelling alone, relationships. So much of this would have been “frowned upon” previously, and in many spheres it still is, but part of being an Asian woman in Britain is balancing the two worlds.

What I do know is that things are changing. Our feminism may be years behind the feminism of the West, but Asian woman are speaking up, speaking out. I can’t wait to see us flourish further. Being an Asian woman means being unapolagetically me.

What does being an Asian woman mean to you?

1 comments on “What Does it Mean to be an Asian Woman?”

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