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West Side Success Stories: Experiences of Immigrant Women

Rasheeda came to Toronto, Canada, from Afghanistan in 2002 along with her husband on a refugee status. A victim of domestic violence, she suffered in silence for six long years until one night she gathered the courage to call the police. Clearly, this was not a step that was expected from a conservative Muslim woman. Her husband was arrested and deported thereafter. Rasheeda has been on her own ever since; she sustains herself and her three daughters on welfare funds and has been actively learning English at her local immigration centre so that she can find a job soon. “I started taking English classes only after I turned 32 because that was when I was finally free to pursue my goals. I had a difficult time with my husband but I feel liberated now,” she says with a smile. After a pause, she adds, “I will never go back to Afghanistan; I want my daughters to study here, to be on their own. I made a choice to be happy.”

Like Rasheeda, Sara Khurshid, too, has managed to rebuild her life after she divorced her husband. Sara was married at 21 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Abused by her husband, she chose to break her marriage, get her act together and study to become a lawyer. “Most women back home suffer from the battered women’s syndrome and a persistent fear of losing their family. Our men continue to believe that controlling ‘her’ is part of machismo,” says Sara, who has built a successful law practice in Canada, something she would never have been able to do in Pakistan.

Although the experiences of female immigrants in Canada have been varied, according to a 2012 survey of Trustlaw/Thomson Reuters Foundation, it is the best G20 nation for women, while Saudi Arabia and India are the second-worst and worst country, respectively, in the G20 for women. Here’s why Canada is on top of the list. Divorcees or single women find their own place in a society that doesn’t look down on them. Moreover, the workplace laws are strong, especially those related to workplace violence and harassment. For instance, neither does a job aspirant’s resume have to include personal information, nor is it proper to ask or even answer any personal questions during an interview. Marital status, sexual orientation, age, religion or region – these factors are of no concern to other employees. This, of course, is in complete contrast to the scenario in conservative South Asian countries like Afghanistan, India or Pakistan.

In November 2013, a Hamilton Street Railway inspector was awarded $25,000 in compensation by a labour arbitrator because the city had not seriously investigated her complaints about sexual harassment on the job. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Over time, the definition of sexual harassment has continued to evolve to reflect a better understanding of the way sexual power operates in society. For example, it is well-established that harassment and discrimination based on sex may not always be of a sexual nature. Behaviour that is not explicitly sexual may still amount to harassment because of sex.”

Observes Meena Bagchi, who hails from West Bengal, a state in eastern India, “The concept of ‘liberation’ in the West involves not only the rights of the victimised but also extends to living in a mature society.” Meena has been living in with her Canadian boyfriend of German origin. While her parents were initially taken aback with her decision, they finally gave in to her wishes. “My mother warned me against coming to India; she told me it’ll be difficult to face society and relatives. My brother-in-law couldn’t understand why I was taking so long to get married,” Meena shares, “I told them I really couldn’t predict when I would get married, but it would solely be my decision.”

Women, especially those who have grown up in traditional patriarchal societies, enjoy a rare sense of freedom once they immigrate to the West. Even popular Hindi cinema has dealt with the issue of women’s liberation and the breaking of stereotypes through films like ‘English Vinglish’ and ‘Queen’. The common factor in both these movies is that the female protagonist embarks upon a journey of self discovery in a foreign land. At first they are unable to cope with the change, but later they are seen to be stepping out independently, making new friends and realising their potential as individuals and also women.

When Najmus Khan, a Pakistani, first came to Canada seven years back she admits she was hit by the huge culture shock. She elaborates, “I would rebuke my son for addressing his teacher by her name. But I soon realised that it is a norm here. People believe in equality and also dignity of labour.” Khan, who has been working as a manager with a leading bank, realises that she can no longer be comfortable working or staying in her home country. “The strong multicultural fold allows us to be friends with Indians; I can’t imagine that there,” she confesses.

According to Ravinder Kaur, who owns a high-end salon in Brampton, Ontario, the burden of age-old traditions and cultural stereotypes weigh heavy on the aspirations of many in India as well. Ravinder comes from a wealthy family in Punjab but she was stuck in a suffocating relationship with her in-laws and a joint family. “It was not only a stifling household but my husband, too, wouldn’t allow me to express myself freely,” she says. It was a big step for her to apply for a business visa for Canada and start over without her husband. Ravinder came to Ontario with her teenage daughters and owns a house and a flourishing business today.

Liberation may not be such an elusive concept for women from the upper echelons of society in countries like India or Pakistan but that is not the case for those who hail from poor families. When these women migrate, either as spouses, refugees or small-time workers, they have a better chance to live with dignity. Yet, Melvina Walter, Executive Director of The Women’s Centre in Oakville, Ontario, feels that it’s the breaking of the cycle of violence that can truly help them to transform themselves. She says, “The bigger picture of equality and justice can be achieved only by eradicating violence from their lives. This can only happen if men get on board.” To motivate them to step up, The Women’s Centre has feted 20 men this year for making a difference in the lives of women and children by going above and beyond the call of duty and proving to be role models of kindness, leadership and compassion. like Rasheeda, Sara, Ravinder are finally happy. They may miss their homeland but they certainly do not wish to go back to their old lives.

Fonte: The Indian Republic - 06.05.2014


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