It is deep-rooted in mainstream media (e.g., movies, television, news, etc.) that many girls and women from different parts of the world still face discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudices. However, the problem lies in how our society immediately attributes these overlapping issues to only one absolute cause. It is not enough that our society stops at simply defining and recognizing such issues as gender-related. For instance, whenever someone tells you about blonde stereotypes, we simply agree that they are gender-based stereotypes. When we read about freedom of bodily expression and movement or domestic and sexual violence, we immediately assume that women suffer these issues because of their gender. We never try to look beyond gender and that is what limits our ability to think further.
Amita Handa’s Hall of Shame: Lies, Masks, and Respectful Femininity explores the experiences of South Asian girls like herself and how the intersection between cultural identity and gender forms a new context that changes how we should perceive many issues relating to girls and women. She asked to define normative feminine behaviour and most of the South Asian women she interviewed answered the question by enumerating the things that girls were not supposed to do (e.g., drinking, smoking, doing drugs, and dating boys), and the things that girls were supposed to do (e.g., studying hard, going to family and community gatherings, and helping with domestic duties) (p. 111). It is important to recognize that in particular cultures, feminine behaviour is strictly measured with tolerance. It seems to be placed in a cultural spectrum which has two ends that carry completely polar views and opinions (e.g., a dominant culture vs a non-dominant culture), where a woman’s experiences may be affected depending on where she is placed in the spectrum: whether in the far side of the dominant culture, in the far side of the non-dominant culture, or in the middle. For instance, Nina, one of Amita’s interviewees, explained how restrictions on freedom of movement and bodily expression are affected by her South Asian cultural identity. She defined that being South Asian means restriction of social activities by parents (p. 112). From this, we understand that Nina’s hardships as a South Asian girl stem from her non-dominant culture’s preservation of their representation of women and their beliefs about what feminine behaviour ought to be. It is not only the fact that Nina is a girl that explains why she is experiencing restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of bodily expression. Her restriction from movement and bodily expression are two interconnected issues that overlap with her cultural identity and her gender, which is observed in her non-dominant culture’s practice of cultural preservation towards feminine behavior.
The first step is to reformulate and ask questions differently when learning about issues that a person experiences which we know little of nor have any personal experiences to empathize with. The second step is to integrate more than one aspect or characteristic of a person’s identity (e.g., culture, gender, family background, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.) when contextualizing their problems and experiences. These are the habits we must apply when we encounter not only issues of women but all other issues that relate to how we live and interact with one another in our communities.
By: Hyacinth Domingo