By Mithara Kaluarachchi
I have noticed that we associate freedom of choice with luck. I was “lucky” to be born into a family that championed me to pursue my aspirations regardless of my gender. People often tell my friend that he is “lucky” that he still has one parent who speaks with him after he came out as gay. I remember a close family friend say that women in the United States are “lucky” to experience less sexual violence than women in developing nations. The danger of cloaking the human right of freedom of choice and bodily autonomy under the veil of “luck” implies that these are not really rights but rather privileges that must be earned or granted by someone else. Consequently, there is no freedom in luck.
I was born in the United States in South Orange, New Jersey. My parents moved to America during their tender teenage years to escape the political unrest in their home country of Sri Lanka and for the opportunities that were fabilized about the West. Like the millions of memoirs that have been written by immigrants, assimilating into American culture has often been described as being difficult but deemed necessary to be somewhat accepted by the larger society. Sadly, integration often involves the erasure of aspects that don’t fit inside the cookie cutter frame of the Western world: the shortening of Asian names into words that can be pronounced by high school classmates, the abandonment of traditional holidays in exchange for ones that can be found on an American calendar, the multitude of speech therapists who specialize in silencing the beautiful accents that echo the complexity of the world. Although both my parents went through the painful process of assimilation, they were still undeniably grounded in their culture’s roots. They could call their parents and speak without a skip in their local language; they could venture to South East Asian marketplaces in South Orange and talk with the vendors about the parts of the country they came from; they could visit home and fly under the radar because their English still had taints of accent. Children of first generation immigrants who have grown up in the United States often precariously navigate the tightrope between two cultures, not fully belonging to either but forced to push forward. Unlike my parents, I have no accent. I do not know my country’s local language of Sinhalese. I stick out like a sore thumb when I visit family back home. Yet, I am still expected to constantly prove my place here in America. I used to lie that I was Catholic even though I was raised Buddhist in order to avoid probing questions. I shortened my messy last name until I went to college. I watch my weight due to the pressure of adhering to European standards of beauty. Truthfully, I have never felt like I belonged anywhere which has made navigating my identity confusing.
Minority women like my mother and I face the dual burden of sexism and racism in the United States. This often hinders us from receiving equal access to resources and support systems as compared to our more racially privileged counterparts. Historically, outreach and legislation in support of minority women have prioritized fighting racism over sexism, ignoring that the two oppressive systems function together. Consequently, this distribution of resources to eradicate “racism over sexism may partially account for the fact that there has been little special interest in minority spouse abuse and domestic violence”(Minority Women and Domestic Violence: The Unique Dilemmas of Battered Women of Color). Additionally, American systems that aim to fight oppression against women often ignore how cultural backgrounds play a role in the types violence against women. This blind spot on the cultural aspects of oppression is partially due to the normalization of assimilation, and Westernized perspectives on minority women makes them especially vulnerable to continued abuse and repression. Often times, this abuse hides under the veil of “culture” or “tradition”. There is documented narratives of healthcare providers and social service workers admitting that they failed to address many cases of culturally derived violence, commonly referred to as “honor based violence”, on the grounds of not wanting to intrude into the realm of minority culture and because they lack the knowledge to understand the types of issues at hand. This lack of intersectionality when addressing oppression against minority women in the United States often imprisons them and, sadly, when tragedy strikes such as in the honor killing of Noor Alameki by her father, minority groups as a whole are blamed for the actions of an outlier. It is important that we understand that no religion or culture encourages violence or oppression against women. It is the radical interpreters of religion and culture who justify these acts and claim that women should be chained to a level of inferiority to men; they are outliers.
We must not ignore how our complicity in the name of “culture” perpetuates honor based violence. We do not need to look at extreme cases of honor based violence to see such oppressive narratives in play. I see it in friends who have only been granted financial support and independence if they pursue a medically related career in order to uphold the family honor; I see it in relatives who condemn marrying outside of race and religion; I see it in reviews about the award winning films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” that fail to cover the role of honor in the plot of the film. One might argue that these are trivial instances of honor based culture, and that by global standards, women in America are “lucky”. But unconditional autonomy and gender equality should not be granted only to the lucky. These are not questions of culture but of human rights that should be guaranteed, not expected to be earned. I applaud the United States for the headway we have made in terms of gender equality, but we still have ample work to do. Last year, the esteemed Thomas Reuters Foundation named the United States as the tenth most dangerous place in the world for women in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp revelations; the United Nations condemned the recent national attacks on abortion access as equilvalent to torture; thousands of indigenous women have gone missing throughout the country. It is important that we understand that minority women are hit twice as hard by such instances of gender inequality. If we are complicit, we are culpable.
I am so proud of my culture now. I love everything that makes my identity so messy and ambiguous. I love my name that’s never on key chains at gift shops. I love being a woman. I love being loud and unapologetic. It has taken a lifetime of self reflection to come to a point where I am not ashamed about my messy but beautiful identity – admittedly, it is still an ongoing work in progress. As much as I love my culture, I am not afraid to critique it. We must celebrate the parts of culture that empowers all who partake in it, not just the men, not just the privileged, not just the lucky. Savera UK understands this approach, and I was drawn to their work because of their emphasis on working with the Black Minority Ethnic community on the issue of honor based violence. There is a lack of services in the United States that acknowledge the role of culture in acts of violence against women, and I was immediately interested to see how their holistic approach to honor based violence would help inform my future career aspirations as a Psychiatrist. This experience is not one that I can learn from through a textbook or class; it is through the authentic conversations I will have, the poignant stories I hear, and the brave people I engage with that will better inform me as Psychiatrist but more importantly a human being and a global citizen in the future.