In this narrative piece, my personal and social identity will be explored, by introducing key events which have shaped my gender, ethnicity, nationality and religious identity. To begin this essay, Kheirabadi (2009) clarification of how ‘The mother is considered a role model for daughters’, relates to my experience of being raised single handily by a Bengali woman (Kheirabad, 2009). Determined to be both a mother and father to her children, she exhibited the possibilities of being successful without the support of a male figure.
As Stets and Burke (1994) signified ‘personal identity’ refers to the unique traits an individual has, to differentiate themselves in society (Stets and Turner, 2007). My mother’s experience of being a single parent, fashioned my personal identity to become the self-driven woman I am today. Motivating myself to persevere and commit to my studies, as the outcomes of my accomplishments would prevent me from relying on the opposite sex, to financially and socially support me in achieving my goals. Having a strong support system, a role model who reassured me that I had similar life chances as my brother, shaped my thoughts to influence my social identity.
However, my mother’s beliefs of being homogeneous to a male were neglected by the Bengali community in Birmingham, who idealised ‘heteronormativity’. A concept dividing men and women into two categories, with both sexes being issued with masculine or feminine natural roles (Lutgen-Sandvik and Davenport Sypher, 2010). Group discussions were held to explain the significance of gender roles and how it aids men and women in the way they dress, behave and feel in society (Nevid, 2016). The elderly family members designated men as breadwinners, in charge of supervising the family finances (Erickson et al., 2010). Whilst women were encouraged to marry young, kickstarting their career in nurturing the family (Erickson et al., 2010). Through these lived experience, the Bengali social group persuaded young females like myself to participate in the external influences and beliefs of the ethnic community.
Regardless, these prescribed roles ignored my desires in determining my gender identity. The Bengali social group devised my gender and ethnic persona for me, by merely recognising me as a Bengali woman. Overlooking other contradicting elements of my social identity, including my British nationality which required more exposure. As a British woman, I was inspired by the feminist movement rejecting, ‘gender differentiation as a means of nurturing the moral and emotional growth of persons’ (Lange, 2010). I discovered the importance of female empowerment, by not allowing Bengali group to restrict me in revealing aspects of my social identity, opposing heteronormative group norms. I believed gender roles were an outdated belief associated with the elderly Bengali members, who failed to integrate into a multi-cultural society and appreciate various genders.
Gender roles led to the progression of an unequal power dynamic in my family. As my mother would need time to rejuvenate, the weekends consisted of visiting my grandparents who strategically organise activities, to segregate me from my brother. My brother engaged in the physical activity of aiding my grandfather in refurbishing the house. Whilst I was positioned in the kitchen, helping my grandmother prepare a new recipe. During these cooking ventures, I protested my yearning of being outdoors with the men, but my grandmother was resistant towards my retaliation. Confirming the true motives of isolating me in the kitchen, was due to my grandfather’s patriarchal belief that I should focus on catering a homemade meal for him and my brother, rather than indulge in masculine activities. As the kitchen was the rightful place for the women in the South, Asian culture.
My grandfather’s outburst consisted of sexism, the prejudice against women due to their sex or gender (Weiten, Dunn and Hammer, 2014). He exercised the patriarchal outlook of positioning women as ‘mothers and helpers of the household’, convincing me to compare my sexism encounter with the Marxism thesis of ‘mode of production’ (Yee, 2009). Marxist feminists emphasised how the male figure in the patriarchal household acts as a capitalist employee, thriving off the free domestic labour of women (Fulcher and Scott, 2011). My duties of preparing meals enabled the male employee, my grandfather to work longer hours to receive paid employment (Fulcher and Scott, 2011). Whilst I became dehumanised by not receiving a wage for my labour. The feminist Christine Delphy (1977) argued, that this is an act of oppression, women from the Bengali community are exploited by the men of the family, treated simply as a commodity in exchange for their labour. (Fulcher and Scott, 2011).
After witnessing glimpses of gender inequality, I noticed how the Bengali members rarely protested the ill-treatment of women. Including the victims of gender discrimination, the Bengali women, whose southern Asian culture limits them in addressing their injustice. Our culture forbids women from speaking their mind, raising their tone to their parents, husband and male superiors. This leads to Bengali women shying away from their gendered prejudice. Their hostility in publicising their mistreatment is an indicator of ‘Pluralistic Ignorance’. A theory coined by Floyd H. Allport and Daniel Katz (1930), signifying the private, distinctive views of an individual which contradicts the group norms (Alicke and Sedikides, 2011). Pluralistic ignorance justifies how Bengalis who despise gender inequality refuse to express their opinions, due to the fear of being ostracised by their social group. Instead, individuals adjust their behaviours in accordance with the gender norms, to avoid jeopardising their reputation.
I can relate to the Bengali members, as I have also been inflicted by pluralistic ignorance, by refraining myself from addressing the subjected prejudice against women. It has never been my prerogative to perpetrate distress on a social group which has provided me nothing but emotional and social significance (Hogg and Reid, 2006). Especially, when living in a Caucasian-dominated suburb, the community became my haven, offering validation and comparison among others to formulate my ethnic identity (Brewer, 1991). Thus, it is understandable for Bengalis to be reluctant when demonstrating their views on gender discrimination. As Stets and Burke (2002), signified how a social identity is shared amongst the group, offering a feeling of acceptance (Stets and Turner, 2007).
Nevertheless, pluralistic ignorance can be resolved, if an individual from the social group verbalises against gender inequality, instead of agreeing with the group norms (Zanna, 1996). As I can no longer overlook this bias ideology, contradicting my characteristics of being an independent woman, I will challenge these gender boundaries. In ‘Gender Trouble’ (1990), the feminist Judith Butler specifies how the notion of gender is socially constructed by the dominant cultures in society (Bolich, 2007). Therefore, gender roles associated with an individual’s sex is an illusion designed by the Bengali community, to endorse patriarchal division between men and women. It is this ethnic group which presents individuals with gendered ‘scripts’, to maintain this patriarchal division. These scripts inform individuals on how they should act and behave in society (Fulcher and Scott, 2011). The individual’s alliance to these scripts leads to ‘gender performativity’, categorising the traits of both male and female, through their repetitive performance of the scripts (Fulcher and Scott, 2011).
On the contrary, Butler informs us that gender is not a fixed entity, it is a fluid that can change over time. This provides the opportunity to overthrow these gender roles by writing your own script (Bolich, 2007). In this script, I aim to abandon the patriarchal duties assigned to me by my ethnic group. As a Bengali, British woman the only way to move forward and be equal to a man, is if I stop recreating these gendered ideals through my actions and speech. The gendered ideals of being feminine have not empowered me as a woman but reduced me to becoming the bare minimum. As aspects of essentialism are incorporated into these gender roles, to differentiate men and women for having natural abilities which qualify them as separate genders (Chan and Ho, 2017).
Essentialism privileges men in being superior to women, as feminists have labelled this thesis as ‘lingering maleness’ (Tirosh Samuelson, 2004). By being a supervisor in a retail store, I am required to have the masculine traits of being strong and brave to lead a team. If I was to accept the Bengali essentialist view of defining women as sensitive and unstable, then not only will I be reduced to my biological factors but will also be taken advantage of by the male employees. This is not something which I would condemn, as I have worked too hard in battling the sexist views of my ethnic community, to allow their essentialist views to affect my public field.
Furthermore, as a proud Muslim, I seek refuge in my religion, which teaches Muslims to follow the footsteps of our beloved Prophet, by “helping out with the household chores and treating women equally” (Lockard, 2010). Islam opposes the gender ideals articulated by the Bengali community, by stating the violation of women’s rights reflects culture, not Islam (Brown, 2006). It is Islam which encourages women to desert their gender roles, by giving women the right to engage in business and education to better themselves (Lockard, 2010). Thus, it is through Islam I gained the confidence to express my gender identity without being scrutinised by Bengalis.
As my religion is the forefront of my identity, it relates to Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Theory (1994), where religion fits into the microsystem model, consisting of the relationships between an individual and those close to them (Osanloo, Reed and Schwartz, 2016). Through this framework, my family taught me about the significance of wearing a “Hijab” to establish solidarity with the greater Muslim world. This Islamic head covering, not only distinguishes me as a Muslim in society but also symbolises my intimate relationship with God.
As a Muslim fashion blogger, I am inspired by the creations of outlandish pieces bursting with character. I try to incorporate the Islamic principles of keeping my clothing loose, whilst still being trendy. As my style does not only reflect my religious identity but also supports me in expressing my outgoing personality. Henceforth, the social media site ‘Instagram’, offered me the platform to showcase my refreshing take on modest fashion. It became an escape route to display the traits of my personal and social identity, without the interference of the Bengali community refraining women from expressing their individuality in the public sphere.
On the other hand, being a public figure on social media has its flaws, as it can easily be misused to propagate hatred. It was on Instagram, where I first encountered cyberbullying. Being bombarded by negative comments violating my dress sense by non-Muslims is something I can endure, as they may not understand the Islamic importance of modest dress. But receiving intimidating messages from Muslim’s such as “She dresses like a kafir”, a term defining Non-believers of Islam, affected my self-esteem (Mowla, 2008). This experience alienated me from the online Muslim community who socially categorised me as a subordinate other, differentiating from my religious group.
Socially categorised as a non-believer of Islam prompted me to speculate my religious identity. Curious to see whether the comments were accurate in constructing my style for being too deviant, I used the social comparison theory, coined by Leon Festinger (1954), to outline the backgrounds, abilities, and circumstance of the Muslim bloggers, to devise an accurate self-evaluation (Coon and Mitterer, 2008). This theory played an essential role in drawing contrasts and similarities with Muslim bloggers. The findings from the self-evaluation confirmed that I was not the only blogger victimised for her dress sense. Majority of the bloggers witnessed similar backlash for their outfits being “too westernised for Islam”.
The concept “westernised” refers to the external influences of European women’s fashion on modern dress sense (Finnane, 2008). The online Muslim followers reviewed my appearance for being “westernised” due to my Instagram promoting high heels and trousers (Finnane, 2008). This conclusion drawn from my style is a statement I agreed with, as I was consciously infusing my nationality with my dress sense. As the cultures and etiquettes of being British related more to my appearance than the Islamic dress, the ‘abaya’.
However, by endorsing a westernised style, I was accused of creating ‘fitnah’, the oversexualising of the hijab by the Muslim Instagram followers, who stereotyped me as a marginalised group member, deviating from the Islamic attire restrictions (Ruby, 2006). The Muslim follower failed to distinguish me as a unique individual, not born to blend in but to stand out. Seclusion from my religious group did not prevent me from embracing my social identity. I am grateful to have found my voice and the ability to fight for my identity through social media.
Even though I was bullied into feeling like an outsider by the Muslims, I will never submit to their group norms or even attempt to gain their approval. As both the ethic and religious group members share a common similarity of reducing females in becoming the bare minimum, challenging my views of being a strong, independent woman. Gaining solidarity from Islam encouraged me to ignore the criticism regarding my appearance. No individual can label me as a non-believer, as they are not involved in my personal relationship with God.
Furthermore, being isolated by the ethnic and religious social group was challenging, but receiving abuse from the media, was a continuous cycle of subjugation. The media exhibits a moral panic by publicising the inhuman acts executed by Islamic extremists, to achieve a religious intolerance towards Muslims, depicted as Islamophobia. (Ross, 2014). The media sensualises the term ‘terrorist’ with Islam, to establish a division between Muslims and society. This binary convinces individuals who do not hold the Islamic faith to socially categorise themselves as the in-group. Members of the in-group share similar religious and political principles which contradict the beliefs held by the Muslim’s outer-group (Hartel and Fujimoto, 2014) The In-group members are brainwashed by the media to stereotype Muslims for being different, not worthy of belonging in their in-group hemisphere.
This social categorisation instigated by the media persuades society to be apprehensive towards Muslims, particularly to those representing Islam through their appearance. Wearing the hijab is a clear symbol of me holding the Islamic faith. This made me vulnerable to the interrogation of an elderly woman, who indicated “Your headscarf does nothing for your looks, don’t let your Muslims force you to wear it”. This statement demonstrates how the female was captivated by the conservative ideology signifying the head covering to be a sign of oppression. (Ruby, 2006). The ‘Sunday Times’ reporter Julie Burchill stated her ‘disgust at Islam describing it as backward, inherently oppressive towards women’, socially categorising Islam to be a harsh religious movement, ordering women to conceal their bodies (Puwar and Raghuram, 2003). This is an unfair portrayal of the hijab, as it was never forced by the Islamic community. My family educated me about the Hijab, but I was blessed with the freedom to decide how I wanted my religious identity to be portrayed in society. It was my decision to wear the hijab to liberate me as a woman.
Moreover, after the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017, Muslims were once again socially categorised as the subordinate group, due to the media emphasising the religion of the terrorist bomber. The broadcasting of this incident led to an increase in hate crime depicted towards Muslim women, including a rise in acid attacks which the 21-year-old Reshma Khan was unfortunate to experience (Lusher, 2017). Khan suffered from facial scarring, due to the right-wing attacker’s pursuit in avenging the deaths of the previous terrorist attacks (Lusher, 2017). This incident perpetrated the fear of wearing the hijab. Terrified for my safety I began to carry pepper spray to prevent the hate attacks from affecting my personal identity. These attacks have left Muslims like myself secluded from society and the target for abuse.
To bring this narrative autobiography to close, I believe that all aspects of my social identity have been sparked by various influences in my life. These attributions offered an insight into how my gender, ethnic, nationality and religious identity make me the person I am today. I have learnt through my gender and religious prejudice that I cannot control the way others perceive my social identity. But I can control the way I handle these opinions. As British, Bengali, Muslim woman, I accept society’s views of my social identity, but I do not need to let their opinions define who am or change myself to fit into these social groups.