Wersha Bharadwa: I feel for Shilpa, but she doesn't speak for British Indians like me

Shilpa's brand of feminity appeals to middle-class men in authority


As a British Indian, watching Friday's eviction of Jade Goody from Celebrity Big Brother was especially surreal. I felt compelled to watch it even though last week's events had pushed me into a hellish recollection of the humiliating and cruel racial jibes I've experienced in my life. Stupid how seriously some people take a gameshow, isn't it?

One thing's for sure; the fatuous, slicked-up new faces of racism - Lloyd as the wag, Goody as the chavvy celeb and O'Meara as the pop singer - has at last allowed young British Indian women to sigh in collective relief. Their exposure ventilates the prejudices we still face long after our parents arrived here in the Seventies. There's just one problem: we're still struggling to find a voice that'll speak out for us - and it isn't Shilpa Shetty?

British Indian women have very little in common with the 31-year-old film star other than an Indian heritage - and now an equally nasty taste of racial harassment. We're a mostly invisible group. Acceptance of a dual culture has left ussomewhere between those who congratulate us for being so "well integrated" into British society and those who want us to stay true to our identities because "we're abandoning our cultures".

It's precisely why Shilpa's story has been such a hit: the Bollywood heroine who braved injustice. There was no ambiguity: a good woman had been bullied. By the time she voiced her victimisation as racist, the public had already branded her aggressors as such. She can be seen entirely as a victim.

But there's a flipside to the current climate surrounding the issue of race in Britain. Do you remember when Shilpa asked if she was being attacked because of her colour, only to be swiftly shut up by a clearly ruffled Cleo? Well, that's how it is for most of us. We live in fear of being labelled a troublemaker for daring to throw accusations of bigotry. Instead, we shrug off everyday insults - or in the case of a friend, eggs being thrown at your non-English speaking mother - and get on with it. That shushed silence means our issues simply fall off the radar.

Shilpa's also the poster-girl example of the virtuous woman: a credit to her race but also to her middle-class upbringing. While my type of British Indian girl has become a post-Sex and the City generation, she looked as if she was about to slap herself for letting the word "sex" pass her lips.

Virtue is a huge theme in the Bible and Indian mythology alike. Its icons are patient, enduring, chaste, respectful, wholesome and coy. So her brand of femininity is applauded by a middle-class and middle-aged Asian man in authority who championed her cause in a way I've never seen happen for British Indian women. I wonder if MP Keith Vaz would have still pressed on with an Early Day Motion had the story been that of a street-savvy female who enjoyed alcohol and sexual liberty. Would she have enjoyed public support had she been like Jade, Danielle and Jo, only, of course, not as vile - someone who launched back at Jackiey's refusal to call her by her name by giving as good as she got before storming out of the house and calling a press conference on how she'd been subjected to racism?

Now the racism issue has resurfaced we need to look at it not simply from the point of view of the pious Indian role model, but of the regular British Asian woman who may no longer conform to the boundaries once imposed on her. Only when we move our race dialogue forward can we take control of racism at a more penetrable level and get rid of the hypocritical virtue of stereotypes.

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