By: Ammaarah Zayna
The Good Wife
The good Asian wife is born to be subservient. A mother by nature, she lives her life vicariously through her children, who are academically gifted and charismatic of course. She is pretty – either naturally or by force. Calm and collected; she does not talk back because she knows her place. She maintains the family name at all costs because there is nothing worse in life than gossip. There is always food on the table. The house is always clean. She has one husband whom she loves wholeheartedly. She is happy even when she is unhappy. The word divorce is not known to her. In fact, it is not known to anyone. It is dirty word you hear in the whispers circulating about the neighbour who left her husband a few years ago. Rumour has it she has since lost herself and been living her days out as a ruined woman.
When unpicking the theme of expectations within Asian culture, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the heavy burden of the patriarchy within our societies, as it truly is something that we all fall victim of. The patriarchy manifests itself in many ways – yes – but one strikingly obvious illustration of this hierarchy is in our preconceived notions of relationships and marriage.
The introduction of gender equality legislation within the last century has seen a major development in our perception of women, with more recent socio-economic shifts meaning that women stay in education for longer, have more choice in their career, and generally more freedom in their lives. One could argue that staying at home is becoming a choice rather than a sole option. Even if the glass ceiling has not yet been shattered, we are chipping away at it slowly but surely and planting the seeds of change. As a result, the expectations on what makes a good wife has changed in recent decades, but one thing that remains unchanged is the stigma and the shame surrounding divorce in the Asian community.
Divorce is a dirty word for us. A word tinged with humiliation and isolation that often leads to complete ostracization from our friends and family. For many, it is used as a threat, and for others it is simply a taboo too sensitive to ever discuss openly. Marriage is a goal we are taught to aspire to and failing at that just doesn’t make sense within our strict constraints. In Asian culture, the choice to leave a marriage is often coupled with leaving behind the support of entire communities, as divorce is an event that divides loyalties and brings copious amounts of shame on the families involved. We see divorced women as ‘second-class citizens,’ and whilst this label manages to embed itself into the very DNA of the woman it is forced upon, it never seems to attach itself to men in quite the same way.
In a global context, divorce is a fairly common practice. The most recent British ONS statistics stated that 42% of marriages ended in divorce, listing ‘unreasonable behaviour’ as the most cited cause. That is not to say it is not a difficult and challenging experience for all adults and children involved, rather that different family compositions are more accepted now than ever before. Our definition of the nuclear family is still very much the same – we just seem to have carved out some space for those who do not fit the stereotypical norm. Although divorce still leaves a bitter taste in many people’s mouths, it is not as unheard of and frowned upon in the same way it used to be. As a society we are learning to accept that not all relationships are successful, and that toxic relationships need to be abandoned and taken seriously. Our understanding is not perfect, but it is progress. Conversations on domestic abuse in particular are becoming more present within our media and our legislation, and although not enough is being done to stop it, at least something is.
It does, however, feel like this progress has skipped over Asian and Asian diaspora communities, with the need for BAME specific domestic charities being greater now than ever before. Our perception of relationships is still so archaic that we cannot see how deeply entrenched in gender stereotypes it still is. The roles of the Asian man and woman are predefined and concrete concepts; disrespecting them would simply be too disrespectful. Divorce is viewed as a modern, western concept – the absolute anthesis of a culture so richly embedded in tradition.
Talking to Asian women who have been divorced is an eye-opening experience as it dispels the myth of what the ‘divorced woman’ should look and act like. These women – who have been expelled from their respective communities in various ways – speak of the strength and the resilience required to simply keep going and fight against the stereotypes so heavily imposed them. The gossip is unbearable at times, especially when it leaches its way onto the reputation of their children. Their support networks are often very minimal and for many women their losses are doubled, as they lose not only a romantic relationship, but the stability and security of a community they always assumed they would belong to.
Divorce does not simply knock you down a few notches in the pecking order, it plunges you straight down to the bottom. Your desirability is no longer existent. Your beauty just a thing of the past. Respect is something you will struggle to encounter, and reputation is a concept you learn to accept as meaningless. Asian culture is so quick to define our women by their marital status that we forget to congratulate them on their successes, or even on the fact that they have prioritised their wellbeing over a legal binding contract. The questions we ask our women are ones of shame and blame, never of genuine sympathy or concern.
“What did you do wrong?” “How have you caused this?” “Why couldn’t you make him stay?”
The blame lies entirely on the woman in the cultural divorce court, even in the most extreme of cases. Asian, female-identifying survivors of domestic abuse often describe the ways in which their own families pressure them into staying in abusive relationships, with the family name taking priority over one’s individual safety. There is no evidence to suggest that any racial group is more likely to experience domestic abuse, but Asian survivors are significantly less likely to access the support they so desperately need. The stigma surrounding divorce has not shifted over the generations and one cannot help but wonder if it ever will. In a world so plagued with barriers to seeking help, our own culture should not be one of them.
Asian women are brought up believing that marriage is something that must be preserved at all costs, and that the answer to all relationship problems is to stay. We are expected to make it work even when there is nothing left to repair anymore. And if the relationship falls flat, then it must be the fault of the woman. What is missing in our dialogue on relationships is the concept of equality and a partnership within a monogamous relationship.
Marriage can be a beautiful, joyous thing, but only if it takes place within a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. Divorce happens and it is okay, just as it is equally as okay to talk about it. Taboos only break when we confront them and talk about the things that make us uncomfortable. We must remember that subservience is not our superpower. Silence is not our strength. Shattering the stigma can be exhausting at times, but it has to be done.
Ammaarah Zayna is a freelance writer and creative who focuses on intersectional feminism and race relations. Drawing on her experiences as a Muslim woman of colour, her work champions marginalised voices and raises crucial questions on where race, religion, sexuality and gender stand in public rhetoric.