Women's Work With Women:
The South Asian Context

By: Vijay Agnew

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 64-71
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

This essay provides a platform for the voices of South Asian women who have been required to take on responsibilities for both cultural maintenance and cultural change in a demanding new environment. It emphasizes the significance of ethnicity in addition to race, class, and gender issues that South Asian women share more widely with women in the host society.

This paper presents a selection of the voices of South Asian women involved in the inevitable process of cultural and social adaptation that accompanies immigration to a new country. In the following interviews South Asian women in Toronto discuss their experiences with the family, ethnic community, and women's organizations-experiences that influence their view of their ethnic and gender identity and guide their social and political activities. Although the economic and social environment was more influential than the ethnic sexual roles they had inherited, prevailing images and concepts of gender roles for South Asian women complicated their sense of themselves as women and as South Asians. None of the women interviewed accepted traditional gender roles in their entirety, either because of the exigencies of surviving as an immigrant or because they did not believe in them. Some of the women were struggling, individually or with other women, to construct their own models of ethnic identity and gender roles for South Asian women.

The interviews were conducted with community workers associated with immigrant women's centres and active members of South Asian women's organizations. South Asian community workers were interviewed because they have intimate experience of the difficulties encountered by South Asian women. They have experienced social and cultural alienation and sometimes discrimination based on sex and race.

Immigrant women's centres are intended to facilitate adaptation and settlement; they usually provide language instruction and training programs for immigrant women. However, these centres also serve social and recreational needs and indirectly nurture a political and feminist consciousness. Many of the counsellors were themselves clients when they first contacted a women's organization or centre. Their personal experience and professional expertise combine to give them insight. Their work intensifies their political consciousness and motivates them to challenge mainstream institutions and feminist organizations to meet the needs of immigrant women.

In Canada, South Asian women who attempt to help women from their own ethnic group can do so either through volunteer activity or paid work. In their countries of origin the immigrant women were generally middle-class, but in Canada their jobs placed many in the working class, so that the counsellors are usually middle-class and their clients are primarily working-class. The context of work with women in Canada is also different from that in India. In Canada, counselling is funded by governmental agencies that impose some restraints and limitations. And in Canada women's work with women generates a political consciousness of the oppression based on race and sex, as the following interviews show.

Conventional wisdom regards immigrants as uprooted individuals who must adopt the ways of a new land or at least compromise between old and new world values. This view is being challenged by scholars who argue that immigrants remain attached to the emotional and social nexus of their homelands, and that life in the New World is primarily conditioned by the obligations and requirements of their family and the old society. Women immigrants are faced with more difficulties and contradictions than men. Theoretically, immigration to Canada creates the possibility of exercising choices, asserting individual rights, and becoming autonomous, independent women. But immigrant women who are socialized within family and kinship networks are influenced by the psychological and moral needs established in those networks. Their new power of choice is exercised in a society where race, class, and gender affect them in new ways and require new evaluations of themselves and their new society.

Carol Gilligan, a feminist psychologist, has questioned the concept of an autonomous, independent woman disconnected from others. She notes that a woman's sense of self is developed by making and maintaining relationships and affiliations with others. A woman's moral development is complete only when she recognizes herself as a responsible agent, a recipient of care, and an individual with some rights. Consequently women need to maintain a "web of relationships."

Immigration breaks the old web of relationships and requires that immigrant women establish a new network to support the exercise of care and responsibility. The old values may conflict with the assertion of individual rights, which the immigrant group as a whole may consider selfish, and a threat to traditional norms and social and family relationships. These women may be seen as "unliberated." In the new society, on the other hand, women immigrants must therefore find a balance between conflicting needs, demands, and perceptions. They must maintain the existing relationships within the family and at the same time establish new friendships with others with whom they share common interests of race, class, or sex. These relationships must be formed in an alien and sometimes hostile environment.

Ethnic identity is influenced by a number of factors, such as the political environment, the experience of finding work, family adaptation, and gender role. South Asian women acquire their ethnic identity in an environment replete with images of the "traditional," "unskilled" woman oppressed by her old culture. Interviews with South Asian women, however, cast doubt on such popular and mistaken stereotypes. They suggest that ethnic identity and gender roles for South Asian women do not exist in some fixed and unchanging cultural codes but are constructed and reconstructed in the context of work, family, and social relationships.

The political environment in Canada is favourable to South Asian women, and their needs and difficulties are a matter of public discussion and policy. South Asian women have sometimes benefited from government policies and programs intended to address the special needs of women in general, for example, the Family Law Reform Act. However, their class and race have sometimes excluded them from resources and services like women's shelters or daycare.

The experience of paid work, or the possibility of access to some independent economic resources, however marginal, creates a measure of self-esteem and the possibility of exercising choices. However, when searching for a job and dealing with social welfare agencies, South Asian women may encounter racial and sexual discrimination, which, whether real or only imagined, makes it more difficult for them to struggle against sexism in the family.

The need to establish a network of relationships serving a variety of economic, political, and social needs is an important motivating force in South Asian women's relations with other women. Women come together through activities initiated by women's centres, as volunteers in women's organizations, or in the course of their professional activities as community workers, social workers, or counsellors in women's centres. In interviews these community workers report that because they have the same ethnic origin as their clients they have a special insight into the women's problems.

In Canada, South Asian women may form political alliances with white Canadian women on the basis of sex, or they can affiliate with women of their own class or race in ethnic women's organizations. They may address problems within the family or work through women's centres or organizations that serve the special needs of immigrant women. South Asian women participate only marginally in mainstream feminist organizations; they are more active in South Asian women's organizations or organizations of women with cultural origins in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The women who were interviewed are of different ages; one of them is in her late twenties, one is in her fifties and one is sixty. They have all lived in Canada for several years, and the younger women were educated at Canadian universities. The interviews were conducted in the summer of 1989 and form part of an ongoing research project. The interviews were taped and a questionnaire was used to facilitate the discussion, but the women were encouraged to discuss the issues that were of the greatest interest to them. All trace their political commitment and activism to personal experiences, especially of sexual and racial biases, which they see as significant influences in women's lives in Canada.

In an interview at the Immigrant Women's Job Placement Centre, a South Asian woman who works there as a counsellor described the hopes women have when they first arrive in Canada: "Immigrant women choose to come to Canada and when they come here they have a dream. They know they have a bright future." But they have left "their country, their relatives, and their roots" and "they must start a new life all by themselves." They are "faced with a new language, new society, new culture, and they are faced with family problems, financial problems, and language problems." Usually people want to come into an existing network, "either a community network, or a support group."

When she first came to Canada, she said, she wanted economic independence-a job. "I wanted something regular, some money, that's really what I was looking for, coming to this country." The Immigrant Women's Job Placement Centre helped her find work; before becoming a counsellor she was a housekeeper and companion. "After that I did some babysitting and gave private Yoga classes." But sending resumes and trying very hard had disappointing results until she was hired by the centre-"and this is only a part-time position."

"At least this gives me security. Some self-respect and some confidence that I can do something. No matter how old you are, when it comes to paying the rent, put[ting] the food on the table and when you need some money, you have to work and that is the reality."

South Asian women want to achieve success in the new country. However, they "cannot be open. South Asian women are forced to give up their own tradition. They have to cut their hair in order to absorb themselves in the Canadian society. They have to change their dress, especially the woman who wears saris. She comes to me, then I have to tell her as a counsellor, you don't put the red dot on, you can't wear a sari and go to work."

South Asian women experience culture conflict, isolation, and confusion about their sense of themselves. Their anxiety makes them limit their expression of ethnic identity to home and family, and "they are really living in two distinct societies. It's not the same person that you see out there that you see at home. And yet we don't know what is happening back home in terms of the culture so we come out really cultureless. On the one hand, we want to preserve our own culture, our own identity. On the other hand, peer pressure in society will also come into this. We don't know which direction to take and what's the best solution."

Even in the home, conflicts can arise from the clash between the new Canadian society and the social environment of their homeland. Choices which are made to resolve this clash depend upon the availability of support systems and social networks, not cultural and social inhibitions. "The father may want to arrange a marriage for a young girl, and the girl says, 'That's it. I'm leaving home. Good-bye.'

Then there is no support system. All these people that have encouraged her, all her peers and her friends, Canadians or others in society-they have said to her, 'Okay we'll take you to a shelter,' but that was it. There was no support that she had out there. No financial support-nothing. The parents had to go through a lot of things as well, to see what did we do wrong, why did our daughter leave home?"

Another interview was conducted with a volunteer worker in the immigrant women's community. She has taught English "As a Second Language" (ESL) to immigrant women and is now teaching adult literacy as a volunteer. She was born in India and has lived in Canada since she was a young child. She has a BA from the University of Toronto. In the interview she discussed her work experience and addressed the issue of cultural conflict and identity.

She saw the cultural split as the dominant problem. "I remember at the Indian Student Association at the University of Toronto being told off. They said, 'You can say anything you want about India, as long as you're not critical.' The people who were in the Indian Student Association came from many parts of India. The one thing they had in common was an Indian heritage. Some of them had been brought up here, some of them had been born here, but the colour identity and heritage are India.... They seem to cling to that fact.... They tended to mirror in many senses the sexism that exists in India. We're Indians, but we are Indian Canadians. Basically you have to involve yourself in the issues of this country. So that was a bit of a problem for me, adjusting or feeling a sense of comfort or feeling like this is my place."

She articulates a consciousness of herself as a South Asian woman and questions the labelling imposed upon on her by the larger society. "It's not that I feel I am not Indian enough. It's more than this. It is part of me, like it or not. This is how I am identified by the dominant culture. My skin is brown, they call it many names ... but the thing is, they try to label me outside of Canadian. You try to form contacts with people in the same boat and that means minorities and people of colour, because other races are treated very differently."

"The curious thing is, I've come to recognize now that I don't really know what being Indian is. I've often been told I am not representative of the South Asian community. What does that mean? Does it mean, to be representative I have to dress in a certain way, I have to express my views politically in a certain way...."

"You are what you are perceived to be. The first image of a South Asian woman is skin colour. But then there is a whole range of associations we have with that. This woman is traditional. She bows down and does penance to her community and to her husband."

This woman stresses the importance of networks, not only for psychological and emotional support, but for survival and mobility. She displays a well-developed political consciousness of the inter-connectedness of race and gender. Being a woman, she said, especially a South Asian woman, makes it difficult to participate in political groups, but she is active in some organizations. "Whether you are a Canadian or not, whether or not you were born or brought up here, as women we are socialized not to be assertive. So to get up in a union hall or to speak publicly requires a certain amount of strength.... The skills required to exercise control in public are different.... But that comes through struggle, and I think it is not just South Asian women, but women generally [who] lack confidence that comes with having participated. What role does [a South Asian woman] have... ? What job you have determines the range of services available to you and the amount of power you feel you have in affecting change. You win some and lose some. But the idea is to continue. That is empowering."

"I've taken part in pro-choice demonstrations. I've participated in International Women's Day Coalition meetings. I represented an organization. But I guess there are differences in how pro-choice affects immigrant communities. We want choice, but we also want the choice to be able to have children, to be able to bring them up in a certain level of comfort. We may exercise the choice of abortion under very restricted circumstances. The real issue for us is determined by our economic situation. In the coalition, when it came up it was difficult. When it came to dealing with prostitution in the Philippines, it was condemned. It's another example of imperialism, of sex trade, abusive exploitation of women. But when it comes to the Canadian context, it is free women exercising their choice. It seems racist.... Liberal North American women will defend the rights of Filipino women or Latin American women, but women in Canada, they don't quite see them in the same light. They see them as free in exercising their choice. I don't buy that logic."

But despite her misgivings about racism within the feminist movement, she was hopeful about the future. "Like it or not, this is my country. This is where I am living and have been living for many years. I see myself participating in ongoing struggles. Whether I choose to ally myself with a particular discussion or issue doesn't mean it does not affect me. The idea is to bring to the floor my perspective [on] how these issues affect my community or affect me. We have a particular perspective to offer them as South Asian women. I realize that there are many differences that have to be fought out. We have many bridges to form with the Canadian women, white women, in a common struggle. We can come together."

The last interview was with a South Asian woman, married and with two adult children, who is active in the South Asian community and in her labour union. She is a founding member of the South Asian Women's Group. She discussed the formation of the group and its relationship to the mainstream women's movement.

She and her daughter knew that many Indian women were subject to family violence, and they began to work on the problem in 1977. Her daughter telephoned women she knew at the university and asked them to come to a meeting. "In the beginning she called ten or twelve women from all communities, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and also from Africa. We were trying to get ideas how to form a support group for South Asian women. It was merely a support group, a cultural group of women who either needed help or wanted to help single women, divorced women, or women who were isolated in their homes. We thought that a lot of married women would also come, but we really didn't attract married women as such. We found that men in the South Asian community became very insecure when only women were invited somewhere."

The formation of the group revealed how consciousness of sexual oppression could be created in a supportive environment. By establishing a group the organizers enabled the women to break their isolation, gave them information about sources of assistance, and established a valuable network for women that could engender a political consciousness of racial and sexual oppression. The women called themselves the South Asian Women's Group, preferring that to "an association or some other very snazzy name. We started to become known around 1979. From '77 to '79, we would collect together maybe three times in the year, hoping it was going to spread and people were going to be attracted to it. It took some time to really snowball. There were times when we were blamed for breaking up homes. We were moving very cautiously because we knew how orthodox our own communities are, our families are. There was not much militancy, or any kind of high political game playing. It was mainly a support group, cultural group, where we just made potluck dinners, talked about things, showed movies. We then discussed the movies and other women's issues in a critical way, to sort of somehow make them [women] feel what is right and what is wrong. There was no hard line laid down, you decide for yourself what is right and wrong."

"We started to get funding in 1981-82. A lot of South Asian women used to go to the Working Women's Centre for Spanish-and Portuguese-speaking people on Bloor and Dufferin. They told us that a lot of South Asian women came to them, so some of us started. That was me, mainly. I started sitting there. They gave us a little table."

She said that South Asian women's problems required different approaches than other groups. Immigration removes the protection of the cultural norms of their home communities, leaving them more vulnerable to male oppression within the family. Other immigrant women might be more willing to go "to an outside agency for help, to which our women are not used. Our women are used to other women helping them within the extended family or within the community. If the husband beats them up, there is always the mother-in-law or sister-in-law or someone who the husband respects that might come and give him a talk. So the husbands have this built-in inhibition, or they might get a bad name or the family gets a bad name. So there are all these circumstances by which women are protected. This is totally taken away in a society such as this where everyone is on his own, where even husbands and wives are at war with each other. Practically, a woman who doesn't work is totally at the mercy of her husband and the society."

"The most common problem faced by women who come to the South Asian Women's Centre is social isolation," she observed. "They have grown up, gotten used to certain things in their own societies, they find totally gone in this society. So they are looking for that, they are trying to discuss what their feelings are. They are looking for friends. There are many reasons for which they may seek a group such as ours: there are single women who are having a really bad time, family violence or who are trying to find a job."

She noted the cultural and social alienation experienced by South Asian women in shelters for women. She contrasted the work of her group in the South Asian community to that of mainstream feminists. "The mainstream Canadian women are really performing a miracle working with the family violence area. We haven't been able to do as much because of lack of funds, lack of volunteers, lack of space. The mainstream women's movement is doing their best. But when South Asian women come into the shelters, they don't have the resources to help them. Sometimes they call on me, they call on my daughter, they call on many other South Asian women to come and translate for them or to break the [battered] women's social isolation. We had an instance in which the woman was totally devoid of any knowledge of English and local food habits and all the other things that go with it. The counsellors at the shelter were having problems with her relating to other women there and she was having problems. In the end the woman went back to her husband who was beating her."

The South Asian Women's Group is trying to fill the gap. "In the beginning we were very critical of the mainstream women's movement, and I think they took it very well. They were pained because they had no idea that their movement was not our movement. So it was our duty to tell them that these are the immigrant women's issues or coloured women's issues. They realized that perhaps they had overlooked these things. But it's very difficult to get rid of all the conditioning in which white women would always think that they are the leaders and we should be the followers."

In her view the South Asian Women's Group has not begun to address the issues of the feminist movement. "The level of consciousness of women is so varied, they are from different economic groups, provincial groups. We get all sorts of women, so we are still building grounds. A handful of us are involved in the mainstream women's movement, but our attitude has always been not to push other women into something they don't understand."

The South Asian Women's Group tries to create confidence among the women and help them overcome feelings of dependence and vulnerability. But the struggle to establish a positive sense of themselves as women and South Asians remains difficult. "Remember we are dealing with women who find it difficult to come to our group even for potluck dinner. We are wary that even the word 'feminism' may inhibit these women [from coming]. We are trying to get them attracted to our centre so that at least they expose themselves a little to what other women are thinking. Let them hear that in this society there are laws against men being abusive to women or there are ways in which women can stand on their own two feet, be economically independent. They don't have to stay dependent on their husbands. This is why we want to keep our group away from all the jargon about feminism. We try to sort of incorporate it in a way that is easily understandable to them. We tell them we want women to be happy and to have good families."

However, this is sometimes a difficult and frustrating task. "How to get these women to be independent? How to help them have more self-esteem? How to get them to be happier? To take away some of the earlier conditioning. This is something that has been a source of tremendous frustration.

"I have a very strong Indian identity. I'll always fight; fighting is in my blood. There are lots of traditional things that I am proud of from my country; there are many things that I want to shake off. I totally disagree with the way we treat our women, the lower class, but that doesn't mean that everything Indian is bad. There are lots of things in Indian culture, the way we treat other people, our elders, that could be adopted by the West and they could benefit from it."

The interviews reveal women's struggles to define themselves in ways that do not reject their culture or accept society's definitions of "traditional" women. Rather, South Asian women are attempting to construct new models of ethnic and gender identity. However, their politics are tempered by the need to maintain a "web of relationships" within their ethnic community and in women's organizations.

Dr. Vijay Agnew is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Sciences, York University.

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