In this essay I will be discussing the ways in which British-Bangladeshi women construct the housewife identity; I have chosen this topic because it interests me as I am from the same cultural background. My main focus will be on the category gender. My main argument is that the housewife identity has declined in recent times than compared to the past. Firstly, I will define gender in relation to masculinity and femininity. Then, I will define ethnicity in relation to identity and suggest how people relate to the concept.
I understand identities as changing based on the context and people, therefore, I will explore this further.
The first section will discuss the historical movement of the housewife role and how it was appealed to white women before Bangladeshis migrated to Britain. I will then relate these to political movements and legislation such as Feminism and the Equal pay act; I will contrast this with barriers to engagement with mainstream society such as racism.
Afterwards, my discussion will be based on the workplace and home, I will analyse the unemployment rates of Bangladeshis in the past in comparison to white people. I will also discuss educational aspirations and family expectations.
My second section will focus on the decline of the housewife role and how younger generation of Bangladeshi women are going against it. Also, I will discuss how many Bangladeshi women use their religion, which is Islam as a shield to go against traditional, cultural and patriarchal views. Plus I will suggest how the media portrayal of the housewife role affects some women who are passive audiences who do not challenge media views whilst others who are more active audiences do their own research and contest the housewife role.
In addition, I will discuss how primary socialisation in family life creates the traditional housewife role for Bangladeshi women. Furthermore, in the last section I will discuss evidence for and against the construction of the housewife role in recent times. Finally, I will conclude by summing up all the key points of this assignment in relation to culture, identity and gender and suggest whether or not there has been an overall decline in the housewife role or not.
Our identities are very strongly influenced by how others perceive us. We are limited by the identity classifications already in place socially. Gender is not fixed it is actively constructed and performed. Therefore, this suggests that people construct themselves as masculine or feminine and claim a place in the gender order. However, how people perform gender depends on their cultural and historical context (Connell, 2002).
For the purpose of this assignment I will be discussing gender in terms of ‘male’ and ‘female’. In terms of gender I will be exploring identities of young British Bangladeshi women and how they go against the cultural expectations i.e., the housewife role.
According to Stuart Hall cited in Procter (2004) ‘Ethnicity’ is described as social or cultural differences that are not necessarily visible, ethnicity is an anti-essentialist term. It is an attempt to understand the cultural construction of difference, rather than perceiving difference as a biological or racial marker, as something that is fixed in our genes. For Stuart Hall there is no understanding of identity outside of culture his use of the term ‘cultural identity’ clearly states this.
Cultural identity is when people define their identity in relation to the community they belong to and traits of that community (Kupiainen, Sevänen and Stotesbury, 2004). Many British-Bangladeshis have different sets of constructed cultural identities, some elderly Bangladeshi’s see them as ‘Westernized’ however; they are perceived as un-British by many sections of the wider British Polity. It can be suggested that many find it difficult to identify themselves as either British or just Bangladeshi (Hoque, 2015). It is often important to note that identity is not a fixed term and relies on the perception of the person creating that identity. Identity can create a sense of belonging, but can also exclude certain groups of people (Sen, 2007).
In addition, Asians in Britain want to keep their cultural identity, including religious practices, distinguishing patterns of family customs, and mother tongue. At the same time, they adapt to other aspects of Western culture such as the language, the education system, employment patterns etc.,(Anwar, 1998).
Also, British-Asians may have multiple identities, adopting an Asian identity at home, a ‘white mask’ identity for example they may adopt the features of white culture and acting ‘white’ at school and see themselves as very fashionable, with designer gear etc., These multiple identities sometimes merge into ‘hybrid’ identities which help them fit into different communities and groups. This suggests that their identity changes according to their social context and surroundings (Browne and Browne, 2008).
However, there is evidence to show that British-Bangladeshis feel like outcasts and strangers as they perceive themselves through the eyes of others. Bangladeshis are a part of Britain yet they stand outside it. There is a claim that they are ‘warring’ against the tension of being Bangladeshi, Muslim and British, three un-reconciled strivings (Kureishi, 1990 cited in Hoque, 2015).
In the early 1960s Friedan discovered that many white women were unhappy, bored and depressed they found the housewife role to be unsatisfying and restrictive, but it was difficult for women to state that they were unhappy as they feared of being thought ‘unwomanly’. She suggested that women should be able to make choices that allow them to find alternative ways of doing femininity that they found more fulfilling. This suggests that in Britain the housewife identity only appealed to the majority of white women, as Britain was not a multicultural country at that time (Holmes, 2009).
However, after Bangladeshis migrating to London from 1960s onwards, they had taken on this ‘housewife identity’ and found themselves in the East End, women had taken up domestic housewife roles however, and they also took on sewing jobs at home, which is also a domestic task. However, they still remained homemakers whilst men had easier access to permanent factory positions (Kobayashi, 1994). The housewife role offered apparent dignity and purpose to working class women; the success of this housewife identity has been closely linked to the decline of domestic services. The role held more significance for women across all cultures in the past (Delap, 2011).
Another example of Bangladeshi women taking on the housewife role is conveyed in the film Brick Lane within it, there is a portrayal of a Bangladeshi woman who is 18 years old and has an arranged marriage with a man who is 34 once she comes to England she is expected to carry out the domestic role of being a housewife. It is argued that cultural segregation is upheld by the Bangladeshi community through fear of social stigmatisation and those who wish to progress and rise above this boundary and the role of a housewife are looked down upon (Eckstein, 2008).
This suggests that although many women want to work and progress they are and have been stopped by their families and community as there is a certain expectation of what it is to be a woman, the connotation of being a woman in the Bangladeshi community is a homemaker. This acts as a barrier to women’s success and progression in the world of work.
However, as times have moved on there have been movements that support equality between men and women, Feminism is one big movement that came about in order to end sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression. Second wave feminism emerged in 1960s and there was more of a focus on issues such as family, culture and violence. It became embedded in institutions and companies and there were small changed made in laws to tackle these issues (Walby, 2011). It can be suggested that because of this movement women felt more respected and secure in the place of work or institution.
Soon after that, there were changes in law making women and men more equal in terms of pay. Equal pay act 1970 came about and then that got replaced by Equality Act (2010) legislation which makes it against the law to discriminate against anyone based on their sex, age, gender, race, religion and beliefs, disability and sexual orientation. This allows people to work and not worry about discrimination as it protects them against unfair and discriminatory treatment.
This suggests that women are protected in the workplace because of these policies that help protect them to an extent. Women don’t have to fear being discriminated against by other workers, staff etc., They also have the right to be treated fairly and equally in terms of pay, this allows them to feel safe and secure in their job role and allows them to progress and become successful in their chosen field of practice. Therefore, there could be a decline in housewife roles as more women feel comfortable, safe in other words protected to working outside in an institution. However, it can be argued that despite, all these policies and legislation being put into practice, women still face discrimination at work, probably at a much lower scale, but discrimination/ sexism against women hasn’t completely been eliminated from work life, practices and institutions.
It appears as though British-Bangladeshi women are trying to engage more with mainstream society, but there are hidden structural and cultural constraints that place restrictions on many British-Bangladeshi women, the barriers to engagement are things such as racism, sexism and anti- Muslim Prejudice (Abbas, 2005).
In addition, a lot of Bangladeshi women faced racism whether it be on the streets, workplace, or at school. A research project done in the form of interviews on some Bangladeshis found that most Bangladeshis living in Britain have been subjected to some sort of discrimination or racism. A Bangladeshi girl called Taiba recalls being called a ‘Paki’ on numerous occasions which she replied ‘we are not pakis, we are Bengalis.’ It could be argued that Racism clearly had a role in directing the identities of many British Bangladeshis (Hoque, 2015, p.79).
Many Bangladeshi women would constantly hear things such as ‘go back to your own country, you don’t belong here’ some Bangladeshis were very scared that they didn’t even want to step outside their own house due to fear of verbal abuse and attacking. The usage of words such as those clearly showed that the British Bangladeshis were being rejected and displaced, they were not seen as ‘British’ despite being Born and raised in Britain. This could be a barrier as the fear of being targets of racism could have changed their views about going through education or work due to prioritisation of their safety (Hoque, 2015, p.79).
In 1991, the unemployment rate for Asians was about 25 per cent, compared to 8.8 per cent for whites, the labour force surveys showed a similar pattern, the unemployment rate, in 1993, for Whites was 9.5 per cent compared with Bangladeshis (27.7 per cent). Evidence shows that racial discrimination is a contributory factor to these differences. Therefore, it can be suggested that women stayed at home as they couldn’t find a job or they didn’t feel comfortable working in an institution due to discrimination (Anwar, 1998).
The opposition discussion is that some that women who agreed with Asian women going out to work gave financial reasons and said that extra family members need to work to supplement the household income, there were some agreements and disagreements that Asian women would go out to work if they didn’t mix with men. Also, it is important to note that in the 1980s and 1990s Asian women had been forced to work due to economic reasons (Anwar, 1998).
It can be argued that Asian parents ambitions for their children were generally unrealistic in the past, a survey in 1983 conveyed that almost half (45 per cent) of young Asians still in full-time education wanted to go on to further education, compared with only 17 per cent of white young people (Anwar, 1998).
According to these statistics it is evident that Asian parents were supportive of their children’s aspirations and placed a huge amount of importance on education and work. However, if there was a huge amount of emphasis placed on education, then why did some women still stay at home? Well there are two reasons for this firstly, due to cultural reasons- for example the fear of judgement from their community and secondly because some faced language problems. From a survey in 1975 it was found that more women agreed with the second reason of why women don’t go out to work (Anwar, 1998).
Furthermore, when asked what their attitudes were towards Asian girls and young women going out to work, nearly a quarter of the participants in the research agreed that they should not go out to work. This suggests that although many women wanted other women in their community to work and progress some still held traditional views that a women’s place is in the home (Anwar, 1998).
In contrast to the view that the housewife role is still a growing influence, there is an argument that it is declining as younger women are more influenced by mainstream British culture, moving away from the domestic sphere and entering social spaces such as youth clubs, going to university, traveling abroad and other similar things (Gavron, 2005; Din, 2006; Lewis, 2007 cited in Hoque, 2015).
In addition, the housewife role is declining in the Bangladeshi community as years go on than compared to the past. In recent times more and more young women are gaining qualifications in higher education. Economic activity rates in the sense of employment and education has risen than compared to the past. It can be argued that the younger generation of women want to work and be actively involved by gaining independence in society and therefore more of them are doing so through education and taking on jobs that suit their degree of knowledge (Dale et al., 2002).
A study that took place in Oldham found that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women were likely to compose 16 percent of the female working age population in 2011. There was an interview done on 43 Pakistani and Bangladeshi women asking them their views on culture and gendered divisions of labour. The women subscribed to the view that primarily the male was responsible for earning money in other words being the breadwinner and the woman held responsibility for looking after the home and family, but some of these views were contradicted with younger single women who had been brought up in the UK, they saw work as an important source of identity which held relevance to them personally. They valued the self-esteem they got from work. With this younger group the traditional expectations joint to family life were open to negotiation and discussion.
Younger Bangladeshi Asian women wanted to progress, education was their support system that allowed and enabled them to do so, they gained independence and freedom of choosing their career pathway through education and their identity was created in relation to their job. (Dale et al., 2002).
In addition, there were other young married women who were unable to take paid work due to the lack of education and some had taken on a role within the home that they felt powerless to change. It can be suggested some women may not want to construct the housewife identity, but may be compelled to do so due to their lack of education and knowledge of British Society and they may not have sufficient skills to carry out a job. Although they may want to change their status and identity of a housewife they haven’t got the right amount of support or will power to do so.
Also, whilst some families in the Bangladeshi community were supportive of their daughters attending college and university others with a more traditional mindset were not, it can be argued that in contrast white women face much less pressure from tradition when they make decisions about paid work than compared to Asian- Bangladeshi women suggesting that the role of qualifications may have more of an impact for Asian women than for white women. (Dale et al., 2002).
From the cross sectional data the assumption cannot be made that younger women who are not married and don’t have children won’t adopt the role of a traditional housewife; the young women who were interviewed stated that whilst their family may take priority overwork they would like to work part-time (Dale et al., 2002).
Therefore, it can be argued that the decline that there is now won’t stay that way for long as the housewife role may also become a dominant identity due to family pressure and other factors for younger Bangladeshi women as they get married and have children. They may feel bound by cultural norms, traditions and expectations by their in-laws to make a decision to prioritise their family and stay at home to do housework. However, although assumptions cannot be made, in my view Bangladeshi women are becoming more open-minded about working outside the home and there is more encouragement and support from families regarding this.
To some extent it can be argued that Religion is used as an identity shield to strive for Gender Equality and to challenge the traditional role of Bangladeshi women as being a housewife. Islam gives a lot of rights to women and clearly states that women should be treated with utmost respect. Many Bangladeshi Muslim women suggest that the view of women in Islam is positive; however culture, patriarchy and tradition still play a huge role in forming the British- Bangladeshi female identity (Hoque, 2015).
It can be argued that women face oppression and patriarchy in different ways; there is no one single reality for women (Stanley and Wise, 1990).
Furthermore, Media, like any other institution has a very big effect on people’s day to day lives. It can be argued that media representations and portrayal that focus exclusively on conveying women in the mother- housewife role may assist in lowering women’s aspirations in regard to work and careers, this can be due to the audience being passive and absorbing information from the media without questioning or challenging these views.
In contrast, when Media audiences are active readers they interpret the information they view and don’t absorb all of it like passive audiences (Croteau et al., 2012). Women may be affected in the same way because if they keep seeing the portrayal of the housewife role indirectly it may affect them and their perceptions of a women’s role therefore, limiting them from getting jobs. But, it can be suggested that not everyone’s views are changed through media portrayal for example active audiences do not take in all the information from the media they challenge media views and do their own research. Therefore, some women may contest the housewife role and they may be pushed further towards progression and careers since they dislike the role (McNeill, Blundell and Griffiths, 2003).
Oakley, (1972) cited in Holmes, (2009) argues that media does play a role, but women are brought up to be more feminine, caring and nurturing and they are treated as delicate and dependent whereas boys are treated as to be more robust and independent this is called gender socialisation, people learn the ‘normal’ ways of acting feminine or masculine through society and by their families. Institutions such as media and schools could reinforce this as they teach different types of behaviour and they would expect young women to be less troublesome, more quiet and much more focused whereas they may expect a lot of disruptive loud behaviour from boys these are the stereotypical views held in society. However, they are sometimes proven wrong as some girls act in a disruptive way in other words in an ‘unfeminine’ way.
In addition, education is highly valued in Bangladeshi families as there is reputation and competition linked with it, Most Bangladeshi parents would want their daughters and sons to follow in their older siblings footsteps, for example go into a successful and rewarding career. Therefore, the housewife role may be looked down upon more recently (Hoque, 2015). According to Bordieu (1994) through education you can go through a process of upward social mobility.
According to Hakim Cited in Huppatz, Hawkins and Matthews, (2016) women exist as three identity ‘types’ they either exhibit home-centred, work centred or adaptive lifestyle preferences, which means that segregation is the result in women’s investments in home life. Women’s work tends to be less respected in terms of power. In addition, it can be argued that Hakims controversial ‘preference theory’ suggests that women may be differentiated by their orientation to work and home.
However, the critique of this is that it over-emphasises women’s freedom of choice and cannot account for workplace discrimination. This could possibly suggest that women have to prioritise work and family and segregate their professional lives from their personal (family lives) and their identities change according to the work/ home context. Even if women make a choice to work they are still not progressing enough as they face workplace discrimination and there is a glass ceiling in a sense that is stopping them from progressing (Huppatz, Hawkins and Matthews, 2016).
In addition, it can be argued that the social system has changed which means that women can take on more male dominated jobs, men’s roles have more of a focus on the value of care activities whilst women’s roles have a greater focus on productivity. Therefore, it can be argued that gendered roles are changing and more and more women are working outside rather than taking on the housewife role. If you relate this to an Asian Bangladeshi context it can be argued that more and more Bengali women are studying and gaining qualifications to get a job and work, whilst some of their husbands may take on a part-time job and look after the kids at home more families are accepting this role reversal.
There are other families in which women work part-time and look after their family and kids whilst handling two sets of responsibilities. However, as it has been suggested there is a decline in the housewife role, there is still evidence and the cultural assumption that Bangladeshi Asian women should construct this identity (Best, 2015).
However, unemployment for Bangladeshi women may be explained by their very low levels of economic activity when children are young; levels of unemployment are usually higher for women from minority groups than for white groups. There are various factors that could affect employment and unemployment such as cultural and family expectations, acceptability of women carrying out certain types of jobs in the community, locality and the attitudes and stereotypes of employers. There is also evidence to suggest that over nearly a quarter of women with degree level qualifications are not in graduate level occupations. However, this is significantly higher for Pakistani and Bangladeshi women- 36% (Scott, Dex and Joshi, 2008).
Furthermore, this suggests that although many Bangladeshi women are educated and have degrees in certain courses and subjects they are unable to or cannot find jobs to suit their level of qualification, in other words graduate job positions. Therefore, they settle for a less qualified role which doesn’t challenge them enough and many are left unemployed due to family responsibility and other reasons and although they have an educational background there are certain factors affecting their decision to not work as mentioned above. Due to family and cultural pressure it could appear as though most women are still carrying out the housewife role, but there is more evidence that points towards the idea that the housewife role is in fact in decline.
In conclusion, for some identity can be seen as a collective factor where many people share common aspects, for example the term ‘housewife’ could be seen as a collective identity, but it differs in meaning and interpretation for women who carry it out. For others identity is fixed and is determined by your age, class, gender, ethnicity etc., The construction of the housewife identity depends on the individual’s perception of what it is and how it should be created, whilst some are not satisfied and unhappy with the housewife role/identity they are powerless to do something about it due to a lack of knowledge or understanding of how to move out of this role. Also, many women feel that they would be looked down upon by their community if they go against this role.
Also, the media portrayal of the housewife role may deter young Bangladeshi women away from the housewife role due to them being active audiences (Croteau et al., 2012). It can also be argued that in the past women didn’t have much work to do because they didn’t have education or knowledge about a specific type of job, but now families are supporting their daughters, sisters etc., to go into education and policies such as equal pay act and gender discrimination act have erased any fears regarding work and being treated unequally and unfairly, but there is some evidence to suggest that discrimination still exists, but it is limited and happens more indirectly in the workplace today.
Moreover, there is the assumption that the Bangladeshi community are more accepting now than in the past of young women not carrying out the housewife role and finding work as a source of independence. Families are more encouraging and open-minded and they encourage women to work and progress in education. A higher importance is given to education in the Bangladeshi community in recent times because of the changes in the economy, laws, legislation, policies and so on (Hoque, 2015). However, there is an argument that not all families have liberal and open-minded beliefs and are some are still traditional in the sense that they believe women should construct the housewife identity.
On the other hand, there is a lot of sufficient evidence which clearly suggests that the housewife role has declined within the British Bangladeshi community than compared to the past. It is evident that more and more women are taking on full-time and part-time jobs. The social system has changed which also means that there have been a change of roles as well as role reversals. More and more women now take on male dominated jobs whilst men take on more nurturing and caring jobs (Best, 2015). Thus, the argument can be made that the role has in fact declined for the British-Bangladeshi community in recent times.