Tales of gang girls, rebels and survivors
"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 portionsI 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.
The Schooling and Identity of Asian Girls 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-headedI 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.
Shain then allows a group of girls to speak for themselves. She relates their understanding of their world to sociological frameworks and to an essentially normative view of the power each group might have to change the world they are in. The sociology, as I have suggested, is technical and dense for the lay reader. But the normative view is arresting and recognisable to many teachers.
The group Shain calls the Gang Girls are shown to collude with their oppressive situation by identifying their problem as racism: "they believed that change was not possibleI Inherent in this view was a fatalism that owed as much to their class locations in England as to their cultural backgrounds." The Survivors, on the other hand, coped through aiming for educational success. "They did not view the worlds of home and school as fundamentally opposed." The Rebels went further. They were critical of their home world and its gender relations. They "played an active part in the transformation of their cultures by rejecting some aspects and accepting other aspects of religious and cultural teachings". Finally, the Faith Girls took their stand on belief and principle rather than on race.
Their strategy was ultimately one of survival.
I found myself reflecting on the many Asian girls I have known and taught, and on the poetry and novels written by the inheritors of this increasingly multi-ethnic and multicultural society. It is not possible to understand the racism the Asian community in Britain endures if you are white, as I am. But it is possible to see the host society and the incoming social and ethnic groups changing under the impact of their encounter. When Shain concludes her account of these four categories of response, I was struck again by her earlier comment that the Gang Girls were affected by a fatalism that was as much to do with class as race. Her Survivors and her Rebels similarly show responses that are recognisable in terms of a response to class as well as to racism.
Shain challenges her readers to focus on "what these racialised working-class femininities have in common with other groups, especially asylum seekers, as well as minority groups in Western European countries, who are also subject to racialisation processes that are shaped by historical relations of power". She could equally well say the same of all young women (and young men) faced with the class system as it still operates in the UK.
Hilary Belden is co-ordinator of North West Ealing Partnership EiC action zone