One of the founders of “The Lifting the Veil Project” was recently interviewed by The Quail Pipe, a feminist organisation.
Thank you to The Quail Pipe for highlighting our work!
How did the idea for the project come about, and what are the site’s aims?
I run the website with my best friend of 17 years. We are both British Asians and have been interested in issues which affect women in the community for a long time. We both know women who have been the victims of domestic violence (which is very common in South Asian communities, and almost “normal”), as well as a number of other factors like “coercion” into marriage, and the spectrum of forced marriages. We also know people who have escaped the horrors. The important thing to remember though is that South Asian women are not stereotypes; often we are thought of as fitting into the “forced marriage, domestic violence, victim” box and the truth is that women are also celebrated in South Asian societies. What we wanted to do was to show that South Asian women are not two-dimensional. There are many aspects to our lives that are not covered by mainstream media. We found that women tend to be more receptive when invited to write by South Asian women. We’re both ethnic minority women in the UK and are extremely proud of both of our heritages.
How easy has it been to reach out to the women who write for you, and encourage them to produce a blog piece?
There has been a fair bit of interest. I think that at the moment, we have not been able to devote as much time as we would like to the Project because we have both been so busy; each of us has had a parent who has been unwell lately which has caused delays in commissioning articles, and writing etc.
However, there seems to be a real interest in understanding the complexity of South Asian women’s lives. I think that we owe a lot to the intersectional feminist movement which has challenged many preconceived conceptions about minority women. I think that it’s important to allow South Asian women the opportunity to speak for themselves and thankfully they seem to be receptive to allowing us to provide a forum. I think that offering people the opportunity to post anonymously has also been critical. We deal with a lot of sensitive content and not everybody is happy to go on record. Some people just want it out there, almost like a catharsis; we have to adapt to what people want and we ourselves understand that there are many areas that we do not have experience of in South Asian culture. We can’t neglect important voices, we have to find them and promote them.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running the site?
The response has been lovely so far. I’m not sure if it is fair to say that this is rewarding but we feel very privileged to be able to promote marginalised voices. We are both privileged in many ways, in that we haven’t experienced some of the things that we hear about, and we simply have to recognise that we cannot patronise people; the only way to truly understand the spectrum of issues which affect South Asian women is to allow them to speak for themselves, and ensure that we reach as diverse an audience as possible.
It is problematic that so much of mainstream feminism is pioneered by relatively privileged white Western women: do you think this can ever be changed in some way?
This one is a difficult one to answer. We are both aware of how much we owe to women who have fought for so much that we take for granted, but it is essential that more voices are heard in the mainstream. Marginalising voices only adds to stereotypes and reinforces an idea that the only issues which affect South Asian women (among many, many others) are simply “going to have a forced marriage or not” etc. I think the tide is turning though; the reality is that intersectional feminism is (to our mind) the most honest form of feminism. I am not talking about privilege checking here; there are many aspects of internet intersectional feminism that I am not referring to here (that is another debate). I am talking about the need to understand that many issues overlap (intersect) in feminism; an Indian woman living in horrendous poverty in the UK will not have the same experiences as an upper-middle class white woman who went to Oxbridge. The former is likely to have experienced horrendous racism and class prejudice on top of sexism; the latter is likely to have experienced sexism, but unlikely to have experienced the additional problems that the poor Indian woman has. This is what intersectional feminism is, and it’s the reason why it is so vital to understand what the spectrum of problems are that women (from all backgrounds) still encounter. The call for a united feminism is (to our mind) premature. For instance, we do not live in a post-racist society, positive discrimination is still essential, our trans sisters are heavily discriminated against by women who call themselves feminists, and those who do not. These are just some of the problems that exist, and they happen to women. If these aren’t feminist issues, then I am not sure how to begin to define feminism.
Has anything contributed to the project particularly shocked or surprised you?
The attitude of the people who contribute to, and follow, our website has been the most surprising aspect in the best way possible. Women have been so open and the whole process has been deeply personal. We care about each and every one of our contributors, and when they ask to remain anonymous we are strict with ensuring that nobody can identify who they are. It has also surprised us just how poignant and witty some of our posts are. We had a hilarious post by the journalist Iram Ramzan about an “arranged marriage” meet and it was so sharp, and witty despite being about a serious subject. I think the most surprising aspect is that by letting South Asian talk about their own experiences – as opposed to white women or commentators doing it for them – they are able to discuss them from their own point of view, with funny comments and the like. The point is that South Asian women are not two-dimensional and the surprising thing is how well people have taken to seeing this side of us. It’s about time we had a better voice in the media.
What are some of the most pressing issues affecting South Asian women?
It’s funny that you should ask this question because before we started this Project we thought that we knew – arranged and forced marriages, domestic violence etc, but actually what we have come to realise is that one of the biggest problems is being misunderstood. People automatically generalise and stereotype us; we fit into one of two boxes that society has for us: “oppressed” or “one of the good ones” (a phrase we have both heard often). The latter phrase basically means “oh, you act Western enough that you’re okay to hang out, and crack racist jokes ‘ironically’ with”. I think that in part this is also to do with the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the media; so much of how we are perceived is through the eyes of white commentators, and that contributes to people not understanding just how complex our lives really are.
Are these just problems for women still living in Asia, or do women who’ve emigrated to the Western world still experience them?
I think that there are a range of problems which affect South Asian women living in the UK and overseas. The truth is that we cannot speak for all of them, but we can try to make sure that their voices are heard.
You say that South Asian nations are in a state of change, and the empowerment of women is high on national agendas – what do you predict will happen over the coming years?
I think that there are cultural shifts which are happening in the UK (this is mainly who we can talk about) and India (our other culture). Women’s rights movements are gaining momentum overseas – just look at what happened after the abhorrent rape and murder of the student in Delhi last year. Indian women were in uproar at the victim blaming of high profile politicians. Perhaps India is a special case; it has been said that India lives many different centuries at the same time, and I think that is true. So the drastic change that is happening all over the sub-continent is still coupled with patriarchy in other sections of society. I think that in India it will be more extreme as time goes on.
Look at the tireless campaigners who exist beyond the internet and work to stop child marriages, forced marriages, and ensure that women understand what consent is so that they understand that they may have been abused. There is still a long way to go, not least in the UK, where minority voices must be heard. For instance, in the recent uproar about the niqab very few Muslim women were given voices to talk about their own experiences and opinions on this; almost every comment was written by a white person. However, I do think that things are changing, but perhaps not quickly enough, and as we can see around the world they are beginning to change now.
Has the site got any future plans for expansion or development?
We would really love to expand our site, but at the moment what we need to do is collect data and to really understand the complexity of what we set out to accomplish. We had our ideas at the beginning of this project of what we wanted, but now we are beginning to realise that before we can progress we have to understand just how varied problems are in society. Although, yes we are hoping to expand once we feel that we really understand the range of issues in front of us.
How can women get involved with the site?
They can through e-mail or Twitter mainly. We have been careful to avoid putting our personal information on the website as some of the content is sensitive and we have been warned about the possibility of threats for posting about certain topics. However, people can contact us through the web page and e-mail and we will whatever we can to reply quickly. If anybody is thinking of getting in touch with us, then please do so, and thank you for interviewing us about our Project.
You can access the thought-provoking articles at https://liftingtheveilinfo.wordpress.com/