We need to be celebrating Diversity of Role Models leading up to International Women's Day 2020
Updated: Feb 27
Today, I made a list of women who inspire me.
It went like this:
My mother My grandmother
My aunt My friends Oprah Winfrey Michelle Obama Malala Yousafzai Jhumpa Lahiri
Arundhati Roy Beyonce Knowles Carter
Indra Nooyi Brene Brown
Jacinda Ardern Frida Kahlo JK Rowling Maya Angelou
As an Indian-Malaysian/Singaporean/American and now Australian, the lack of diversity represented by women I share a cultural background with stuck with me. On my own list! Cue pangs of guilt. I was caught by surprise that this wasn’t as easy of an exercise as I thought it would be.
I struggled as I tried to add more South Asian and East Asian women to the list. Maybe it was just me? I texted with several close friends (also Indians living in Australia, America and Singapore) and asked them to share examples of South Asian women who inspire them.
I collected these additional names: Mindy Kaling Priyanka Chopra Deepika Padukone
Then, a brief silence was followed by a variation of this response from almost every person, “I can’t think of enough examples beyond celebrities, to be honest.”
This is in part due to a broader issue that extends to all Australian, American and even South East Asian women — the lack of diversity in government, corporations, and especially media and pop culture. In the media culture for example, unlike men, female value is tied to sexual identity and objectification.
Having spent 22 years in the media and entertainment industry, what is apparent is, there is an over-sexualized media & pop culture, especially in the US. And this is how it breaks down for women: white women are sexually sensationalized, black women are hypersexualized, East Asian women are fetishized, and South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Pakistani) women aren’t assigned a sexual identity at all. Though changing to a small extent, it does not seem to happen rapidly and on a larger scale. I believe these associations shouldn’t exist in the first place but when it comes to identity, the lack of one for South Asians is no coincidence and speaks volumes: the silent (and asexual) ones.
In government, corporates and businesses across Australia and overseas, culturally diverse women experience a ‘double jeopardy’ when accessing leadership roles due to their gender and cultural background. This double jeopardy results in a ‘glass-cultural ceiling’ in which invisible organisational barriers lockout culturally diverse women from accessing leadership positions in their workplaces.
Shouldn’t we value women for their contributions to this world above everything else? And surely we should be able to easily name more than ten inspiring and diverse women worthy of celebrating.
Why are their names not at the tip of our tongues? We can and we must do better.
My mind is blown by the underrepresentation and lack of empathy for South Asian and East Asian women in Australian, American and even South East Asian media and in conversations with my peers. There’s an opportunity to celebrate these women as important contributors in the world and better understand them within the confines of their own cultural communities.
Understanding them requires empowering their voices and paying careful attention. For years, South Asian and East Asian women have been robbed of fully owning their voice and identity. Even in their native countries, they have been taught to do everything in their power to simply blend in rather than boldly stand out.
Have you ever wondered what it must feel like to be a fly on the wall? Ask a South Asian or East Asian woman.
If they are immigrants, this inclination to avoid attracting any “unnecessary” attention exists even more prominently. This is a symptom of being an immigrant that I’ve seen and experienced myself. After all, how can first or second-generation immigrant women have the audacity to feel empowered to fully own their voice and identity when their identity is exactly what is often used against them in the country they immigrate to?
A quick and dirty Google search for inspiring South Asian women yielded limited results and more disappointment. Of course, I could have found the data I was looking for if I spent a few hours researching the topic, but this is exactly my point. Why is this information not more prominently featured? Where are the trendy listicles featuring ethnic women and why aren’t they being shared on Facebook? When and how will we give these diverse women the visibility they deserve?
It’s 2020 — we’ve already waited far too long. They deserve more than visibility; they deserve prominence.
Their stories are privilege worthy of being told. In the western world, their reserved demeanour is grossly misunderstood and cause them to be dismissed as powerful women. Don’t mistake their tenderness for submissiveness or apathy. They are humble and fearless survivors wanting to be seen.
Being loud and outspoken about deeply personal stories, a classic western tendency, is a privilege and does not necessarily equate to a linear definition of strength. Even for me, a worldly international South Asian woman, who is articulate and extroverted, it has taken time, courage and a large dose of vulnerability to share some of my personal stories.
Silent resilience requires immense courage and strength too. To not appreciate and embrace this spectrum of strength and its different manifestations is ignorant. We need to start challenging ourselves and the media to create more empathy for this group.
As we lead up to International Women’s Day on the 8th March, with the theme #EachforEqual I found myself thinking about the many young multicultural girls who lack access to role models they culturally identify with.
The depth of what young women believe is possible - it's only limited by what they are shown. It is our responsibility to expand what they see. Today, these young women lack enough range to imagine themselves outside the confines of a role they have been presumptively assigned to.
There are so many stories of strength that are aching to be told and women wanting to be seen. We are overdue in giving these stories a platform. Let’s help the next female generation colour outside the limiting racial and cultural lines. Again, representation matters.
Being part of #ELEVATE2020 conference this weekend that focuses on what it means to be a Sikh and South Asian in 2020, and being honoured to be appointed a Champion & Ambassador for #ColourFULL - Australia's first conference and awards event by and for WOMEN OF COLOUR, I am committed to doing this, and hope others will join me in doing so.
We are committed to creating more female role models and thought leaders!
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