Book of the week: Tales of gang girls, rebels and survivors

28th February 2003 at 00:00

The Schooling and Identity of Asian Girls
By Farzana Shain
Trentham Books pound;15.99

"It felt strange to hear Punjabi under the stars. It was an indoor language to me, an almost guilty secret which the Elders would only share away from prying English eyes and ears."

Meera Syal vividly captures the shock her heroine feels, in Anita and Me, when her extended family gathers in her parents' small house in a Midlands mining village to welcome her grandmother.

"I stood uncertainly on the front porch and watched helplessly as the Aunties and Uncles began reclaiming the Tollington night in big Indian portions. challenging the single street light on the crossroads with their twinkling jewels and brazen silks."

Farzana Shain interviewed 44 Asian schoolgirls for the research she presents in The Schooling and Identity of Asian Girls. Her classification of the girls into Gang Girls, Survivors, Rebels and Faith Girls would, I think, have placed Syal's character Meena Kumar in the Survivor or the Rebel group.

This book is not an easy read. It is a reworking of a doctoral thesis, written with few concessions to the non-specialist reader. The concluding sentence gives a flavour of some key sections: "With reference to Asian girls it means moving away from fixed and static conceptions of culture to focus on how these racialised working-class femininities have been shaped in a complex historical process of articulations - that is, how their lives intersect with economic, political
and ideological relations of subordination and domination."

It is, however, a thought-provoking study, written by an academic on the inside of the experience she is researching.

The generation she is writing about lives in a Britain affected not only by September 11, 2001, but earlier by, for example, the Satanic Verses controversy, the Gulf War and the 1992 PakistanEngland cricket series.

The allegation of "ball doctoring" in that competition was an allegation which, she says, "resulted in the Pakistanis being characterised as uncivilised, hostile and hot-headed. So much so that whatever the Pakistanis did on the field was interpreted through this lens."

In her first chapter, "New Racisms, Old Pathologies", Shain describes the British tendency to "homogenise" Asian communities and to perpetuate and rework racist stereotypes. One telling example is her critique of a TES piece in 1991 about eating disorders among Asian girls.

"Throughout the article Asian culture is defined explicitly and implicitly as constraining." Many of the trainee teachers with whom she discussed the piece at the time could not see what she was criticising.

Read the full review in this week's TES Friday magazine

Hilary Belden is co-ordinator of North West Ealing Partnership EiC action zone

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