Transmission and Transformation of Asian Femininity in Everyday Life

Guru, Surinder (2003). Transmission and Transformation of Asian Femininity in Everyday Life. Everyday Cultures Working Papers 8; Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes.


Femininity refers to ideas of womanhood and the ‘psyche’ that women deploy in understanding and formulating the inner world of their daily lives (Chodorow, 1978, Lawler, 2000), as well as to objectively conform with and to undertake the various social roles and positions they hold in the economic and political structure of their societies (Oakley, 1979, Wilson, 1978).

The concept of femininity has received limited attention within the Asian feminist discourse in Britain. With a few exceptions (Wilson, 1978, Shan, 1985), the earlier focus in Black feminism was to prioritize the anti-racist struggle and to provide an analysis of the triple state oppression in terms of ‘race’, gender and class in order to enhance ‘cultures of resistance’ with which to fight back the pathologization of Asian women as ruthlessly oppressed by their cultures (Parmar, 1981, Carby, 1982). The focus was therefore on macro sociological, structural features of oppression rather than the everyday cultural and intergenerational processes that have produced the meaning of womanhood for women of South Asian descent settled in Britain. This study attempts to fill that gap by looking at the everyday negotiations of, and changes in, cultural notions of femininity that both oppress and present opportunities for challenge as the economic and social conditions change for mothers and daughters. In doing so it argues that neither ‘culture’ nor ‘the everyday’ are essentially static, stagnant and passive concepts but that they provide real opportunities for dynamic change (Fiske, 1992) when facilitated by appropriate economic conditions and consciousness.

Feminine identity arises out of particular historical social formations that introduce women to a range of social and psychological experiences and ideologies that are both objectively and subjectively experienced and from which different levels of consciousness and practices emerge. It defines for women who they ‘ought’ to be and how they should behave; but it is not a static concept over which the ‘agent’ has no control. It is a fluid and a dynamic notion that is constructed through and transformed by the various social and cultural dimensions through which women move and it changes as much through a life course of a single generation of women as it does between them (Lie, 2000). As such there is no single ‘feminine’identity but there are core universally recognizable features that emphasize domesticity, subservience, loyalty and sexual ‘purity’ as its essence and act as a backdrop to the everyday experiences of women.

This paper is based on a three generational study of mothers and daughters conducted under the auspices of the National Everyday Culture Programme (NECP) in Sociology at the Open University. It explores the continuities and changes in women’s perceptions and experiences of their identity as women whilst teasing out some of the tensions between the ideals of what ‘ought’ to constitute womanhood(s) and the reality that is lived in everyday life. It provides a feminist approach to a subjective understanding of femininity as experienced by Punjabi women in the context of ‘race’, class, caste and other social factors. It highlights the attempts to feminize and control women through notions of izzat and obedience, which form the bedrock of femininity in the South Asian Diaspora and shows the continuities and changes observed at an everyday level across three generations.

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