Meera Syal describes her life as schizophrenic, acknowledging that much of the creative impetus for her writing and performing comes from the clash of two cultures she has grown up with… ‘a lot of women of my generation see the qualities in both cultures and find them perplexing but amusing not desperate…’ (The Guardian, 14 May 1991)
ASIAN women of all ages face this clash of cultures on a daily basis – a French ban on the wearing of the hijab at school being just one recent controversial example. Many second- and third-generation Asian girls, especially those whose parents emigrated from rural areas of the Indian subcontinent, are finding it difficult to reconcile the values and traditions of their home with the differing (and in many areas contrasting) ones of the wider Western societies.
Meera Syal describes her life as schizophrenic, acknowledging
that much of the creative impetus for her writing and performing comes
from the clash of two cultures she has grown up with… ‘a lot of women
of my generation see the qualities in both cultures and find them
perplexing but amusing not desperate…’ (The Guardian, 14 May 1991)
ASIAN women of all ages face this clash of cultures on a daily basis –
a French ban on the wearing of the hijab at school being just one
recent controversial example. Many second- and third-generation Asian
girls, especially those whose parents emigrated from rural areas of the
Indian subcontinent, are finding it difficult to reconcile the values
and traditions of their home with the differing (and in many areas
contrasting) ones of the wider Western societies.
A quote from an interview with Sikh girls in Australia that I carried out in 1998 highlights some of these conflicts:
We want to able to have more freedom; we want to able to go out
together, to do things. We want to be trusted more…we want our
lifestyles, but we don’t want bad reputation and we don’t want to shame
our mothers and fathers…it’s just too much pressure; it’s hard because
you can’t be you… Also at school teachers should be aware of different
languages and cultures and what we do at home and how do we feel about
things. (Ghuman, 2003, p.168)
It seems to me that the root cause of the conflict between home and
school values is the fact that the Asian family encourages
‘interdependence and collectivity’, whereas school in the West
emphasises individualism and personal autonomy (see Triandis, 1991).
Zhou and Bankston (1998), who carried out research with Vietnamese
young people in the US, make this point emphatically. In a similar
vein, Parekh argues (1986, p.2): ‘Indian society is not a
bourgeoisie-liberal society, for not the individual but the family is
its basic unit.’ An in-depth study of the second-generation in Geneva
(Sapru, 1999) reported:
Care for the grandparents and the extended family in addition to
learning the importance of money were the values that were stressed at
home by the Singh’s. Ms. Singh also felt the need to reinforce other
Indian values every now and then, particularly concerning relations
between boys and girls (pre-marital sex was not a permissible family
norm), and protect Anjali from the over permissive values of the West.
Similar findings emerge in Vancouver, Canada, (reported by Ghosh, 1986;
Tirone & Pedlar, 2000), and Birmingham, England (Stopes-Roe &
This chasm in values affects girls more deeply than boys, because of
the traditional views held by many Asian parents on the ‘different’
gender-role expectations (Anwar, 1998). Many Asian parents feel
strongly that their daughters carry the izzat (honour) and traditions
of the family and that they need protection and ‘extra care’ in their
schooling and socialisation.
Perhaps inevitably then, young Asian girls raise issues of autonomy
(Bhopal, 1997; Shaw, 2000), dating, dress codes, and favouritism of
boys over girls (Ghuman, 2003; Ostberg, 2003; Sapru, 1999), along with
racial prejudice and negative stereotyping by teachers (Anwar, 1998;
Bhatti, 1999). How do these concerns arise, and what impact do they
Racial prejudice and discrimination
It is well documented in the UK by Modood and his colleagues (1997), and
in the US by Portes and Rumbaut (2001) and Suarez-Orozco (2001), that
Asian and black people face racial discrimination in employment,
housing, health services and other walks of life. Despite some 30 years
of public education and awareness, there are some teachers who are
eurocentric in their world views and consider the cultural values of
others as inferior or at best exotic. Tehmina Basit (1997) vividly
describes the predicament of a group of Muslim girls in a London
school. She found that many teachers are unintentionally prejudiced and
show inadvertent racism in that many of the Muslim values of home are
misinterpreted. For instance: ‘Respectfulness is seen as shyness or
submissiveness, protectiveness is viewed as oppression and modesty is
construed as traditionalism.’ Likewise, in Oslo schools Ostberg (2003)
notes the disapproving attitudes of teachers towards their Muslim
students’ religious practices and beliefs.
Misunderstanding between parents and teachers
There are many areas of misunderstanding on the function and role of
education between Asian parents and their children’s teachers. Tehmina
Basit’s notion of education is that ‘the teachers’ job is to impart
knowledge, not to anglicize the girls’. My own experience of
interviewing Asian parents in Australia, Canada, California and England
confirms this to be the objective of schooling held by many parents
(Ghuman, 2003). School teachers in the West, on the other hand, view
such an aim of education as too narrow and instrumental. Deriving their
inspiration and knowledge from such philosophers as Rousseau and Dewy,
teachers aim to educate the ‘whole’ child. Furthermore, many Muslim and
some Sikh parents tend to worry that their daughters are being taught
in mixed classes, especially in swimming, dancing and gymnasium lessons
and having to take ‘communal’ showers. There is a vast corpus of
literature highlighting the concerns of Asian parents (e.g. Tomlinson,
1984; Verma & Ashworth, 1986).
Psychological and mental health problems of Asian girls
The discontinuity (and even mismatch) of values, customs and
practices between home and school in many social and cultural domains
places psychological strains on Asian children and young people,
especially girls, over and above those experienced by their white
counterparts. This can lead to worry, tension and anxiety. Research
evidence to support this contention from literature in the UK is
equivocal (see Bhugra, 2004; Biswas, 1990; Merrill & Owens, 1986;
Soni-Raleigh, 1996). However, Portes
and Hao (2002) report higher levels of depression amongst girls
compared with boys, in a large sample of second-generation immigrants
in Florida and California.
Most Asian girls learn to cope reasonably successfully with the demands
of ‘two cultures’, but a few (some studies suggest higher proportions
than their white counterparts: see e.g. Biswas, 1990; Glover et al,
1989; Soni-Raleigh, 1996) suffer from psychosomatic illnesses, severe
anxiety, and depression. Bhardwaj (2001) concludes in a review of
research findings that Asian girls and women are ‘three times more
vulnerable to suicide and self-harm than their non-Asian counterparts’.
According to Bhardwaj, cultural beliefs (izzat – honour, sharm – shame)
act as double-edged swords in that they ‘persistently legitimise gender
violence and oppression and further silence women from being able to
discuss…as bringing further shame and dishonour to the family’. Her own
research in Newham, east London, revealed many disturbing cases of
Bhardwaj attributes this situation to the demands and pressures of the
community on Asian girls and women as well as the ‘encountered’ racism
of British society.
To ease the predicament of Asian girls, she suggests that social and
health education in England and Wales should include a combined
approach to gender issues, mental health and self-harm. She recommends:
‘Education services need to provide ongoing training for staff to raise
awareness on issues pertinent to young Asian women’s mental health,
abuse and self-harm.’ Bhardwaj is well aware of the danger of
stereotyping Asian girls and women as ‘victims’, but argues that it is
only ‘just’ to seek help and support where it is badly needed.
A recent comparative study by Bhugra and Bhui (2003) in east London,
with a sample of 266 13-year-olds, sheds further light on the eating
disorders of Asians. The research found:
Asians had the highest BITE (Bulimia Investigation Test, Edinburgh)
raw scores compared with the other three groups (white; black; other
non-Asians). This coupled with more likelihood of a delayed menstrual
period indicates that there is an element of pathology which veers
towards eating disorders.
Kingsbury (1994) undertook a comparative study of young people (aged 12
to 18 years) who attended the West Middlesex University Hospital due to
‘overdoses of prescribed drugs’. In the Asian subsample, the vast
majority who took overdoses were girls, the ratio of females to males
being 12:1, as opposed to 3:1 for whites. Kingsbury concludes:
‘Although Asians were not found in the high suicidal intent group, the
rates of depressive disorder, hopelessness, long predication time
(greater than three hours) were all higher
in Asian adolescents.’ Merrill and Owens (1986) conducted a comparative
study on self-poisoning by Asians and whites from a Birmingham
hospital. The authors suggest that the relative excess of marital
problems in Asian females – which were attributed to the unwanted
arranged marriages by the patients – may be a factor in explaining
their mental ill health.
It must be stressed, however, that there have been no large-scale
studies which demonstrate conclusively that Asian girls are more prone
to suffer from psychiatric and psychological ailments than their white
counterparts. A longitudinal study with
a viable sample is needed to establish the validity or otherwise of
these small-scale studies. Nevertheless, we should take note of the
trends and offer counselling and other forms of support to help Asian
girls deal with their anxieties and personal worries. Also, we should
take heed of the the Parekh Report (2000, p.151), which recommended
that ‘issues of race equality and cultural diversity be properly
covered in initial teacher training, and that they be mandatory in all
major programmes of management development for head teachers and deputy
heads’. Furthermore, Tomlinson argues in the Parekh Report that:
‘generally, schools and authorities need to attend more closely to the
perceptions, experiences and outlooks
of Asian and black communities’.
Not all bad news
Despite these difficulties, it is important to note that Asian girls
are achieving higher school grades (GCSE at 16) than Asian boys, and
that Indian girls are among the best achievers – just below that of
Chinese-origin girls (Youth Cohort Study 2003, see www.dfes.gov.uk;
Mirza & Gillborn, 2002). In Wales, a report on this subject was
published in August 2003 by EALAW (English as an Additional Language
Association of Wales). It confirms the emerging pattern found by the
researchers in England – that girls in general outperform boys and that
Indian girls achieve significantly better than both their white
counterparts and other Asians. Thus we can build on this success story.
There is a substantial corpus of research on Asian and other
ethnic-minority young people sufficient to formulate informed and
enlightened policies for schooling and education. A major project
(ICESY: see weblinks) based at Stockholm University covering the second
generation in Western European countries was launched in 1994. It has
contributed many scholarly papers on the subject that have relevance
for the socialisation and education of Asian and other ethnic minority
boys and girls in
Several areas of concern for both researchers and applied psychologists
emerge from this short review. Themes/concepts of culture conflict,
acculturation and dual socialisation, formation of personal and social
identities, self-image and coping strategies; all need further
exploration to work out their associations with psychosomatic
illnesses. Furthermore, it is important to mention
an unexplored area of research, namely the psychological concerns, and
perceptions of girls (and boys) of dual cultural heritage (of mixed
race), as they could be bridge-builders between the host society and
new citizens/immigrants. At an applied level we cannot overstate the
importance of the cultural awareness and understanding needed (without
stereotyping) when counselling young people of Asian ancestry, and
indeed other minority groups.
- Paul Singh Ghuman is Emeritus Professor at the University of Wales,
Aberystwyth, and Visiting Scholar at the University of California,
Berkeley. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Discuss and debate
Are eurocentric techniques used by psychologists and healthcare
professionals with young Asian girls likely to be counterproductive?
Is there a case for employing healthcare professionals solely on the basis of their ethnicity or gender?
In what ways can Asian communities bridge the gap of ‘values’ between home and school and the wider society?
Have your say on these or other issues this article raises. Write to
our Letters page on email@example.com or contribute to our online
forum via www.thepsychologist.org.uk.
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