Shamim Chowdhury: Do we really need these patronising awards?

I do not feel a closer affinity with another woman simply because she happens to be Asian
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The Independent Online

The list of names is certainly impressive; Shami Chakrabarti, barrister and director of the human rights organisation Liberty; Nigat Awan, businesswoman extraordinaire despite suffering from cancer, motor neurone disease and temporary paralysis; Bushra Nasir, Britain's first ever Muslim female secondary headteacher.

The list of names is certainly impressive; Shami Chakrabarti, barrister and director of the human rights organisation Liberty; Nigat Awan, businesswoman extraordinaire despite suffering from cancer, motor neurone disease and temporary paralysis; Bushra Nasir, Britain's first ever Muslim female secondary headteacher.

These are just some of the women to receive this year's coveted Asian Woman of Achievement Award as recognition for their remarkable talent, determination and hard work.

The awards, launched six years ago, have catapulted to the forefront women hailing mainly from the Indian subcontinent who have battled tirelessly with mainstream society and their own communities to realise their dreams and make their mark in the world.

Women from all walks of life including politics, the arts, journalism, business and entertainment - women who would otherwise have gone unnoticed - have been unearthed and exposed, and that truly is something to be celebrated.

But for all the good they have achieved, the awards do not come without some fundamental flaws. The first weakness lies with the word "Asian". The assumption here is that the term is exclusive to those whose ancestry lies loosely within the geographical area that comprises the Indian subcontinent. In other words, south Asians. Even if we were to assume that, for the sake of argument, the term "Asian" refers only to Subcontinentals, the issue of diversity and difference still applies.

To assume that the term "Asian" serves as an all-inclusive binding force to all women from a particular geographical location is simplistic and misleading. A Muslim south Asian woman will find more in common with an Arab or African Muslim than she would with a Hindu from her neighbouring village.

Language also often forms an impenetrable barrier. The Bengali woman who speaks broken English will be more likely to forge a bond - no matter how tentative - with her English neighbour than she perhaps would with her Gujarati counterpart.

The artificiality of the term "Asian" is further compounded when we are reminded that some of the most profound and timeless issues affecting women such as sexism and class prejudice transcend cultural and geographical boundaries.

I do not automatically feel a closer affinity with another woman simply because she happens to be Asian. I make no apologies for it and I resent that this stance is sometimes taken to be a deliberate act on my part of distancing myself from my heritage.

To reduce women so varied in tradition, values, beliefs and lifestyles as simply "Asian" is akin to saying to the world at large: "You were right all along - we are all the same", which is surely the very mentality we are trying to move away from.

Further, accolades such as the Asian Woman of Achievement Awards are, by their very nature, in danger of ghettoising the very beings they wish to promote. How much longer will the success of women, and not just those from minority groups, be prefixed or qualified in some way by their ethnicity or their gender?

To draw attention to the fact that we are not simply women, but "different" women serves to reinforce the image of the hard-done-by victim that is patronising and insulting.

Of course the experiences of Asian women - or any women - should be recognised and documented and credit given where it is due. But if we persist for too long in reinforcing our difference, there is bound to be a backlash in the form of ghettoisation. Many of us do come from positions of disadvantage, and women who manage to break away from this deserve our admiration and respect.

But perhaps instead of constantly reminding ourselves and others of this fact, we should simply move on. The winners of this year's awards are a source of inspiration, but I look forward to the day that our achievements are recognised as those not just of women, but simply as those of citizens. Naive and idealistic perhaps, but one can live in hope.

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