Entering a new world: stories of resilience from first generation immigrant women

Exploring the stories and challenges of first generation immigrant women

Entering a new world: stories of resilience from first generation immigrant women

In present-day England, immigrants endure daily discrimination, perpetuated by outdated stereotypes.

According to the Human Rights Equality commission it is to be believed that over 60% of children in schools have negative beliefs about immigrants and carry an active belief “it was true that asylum seekers and immigrants are stealing our jobs”. These sort of discriminatory beliefs lead to many immigrants feeling unsafe, even those that have lived here their whole life. This Women’s History Month, the topic of inclusivity would be incomplete without talking about the role of immigrant women and how their experiences and challenges have shaped their individual identities. We need to raise awareness about the cultural and societal challenges immigrant women face daily, and as a community, strive to address these issues more effectively.

Isn't it hard enough that many of those who migrate to the United Kingdom leave behind their friends and families with no distinct security or even the ability to speak the language? As a daughter of first generation immigrant parents from Pakistan, I have seen first-hand the challenges that my parents and other members of my family routinely face as brown immigrants. 

Historical Context

To better understand and tackle false narratives it is important to understand the history of immigration in Britain. I will be focusing on Pakistani immigration, but similar instances can also be applied to other groups of ethnic minorities. Pakistani immigration began with following the partition of British Raj that ended with India and Pakistan claiming independence in 1947. Many came to England hoping to secure employment opportunities to better contribute financially back home due to the political and social unrest in Pakistan in the 1980s that led to financial instability. 

It was between the 1960s and 1970s that the British Government were forced to recruit workers from Commonwealth countries to combat labour shortages. Additionally, family reunification policies allowed for the sponsorship of family members to join those already settled in the UK, further increasing immigrant population.The Immigration Act of 1971 introduced a system of immigration control, which required Commonwealth citizens to have a work permit or prove a familial connection to a British citizen or settled person to enter and remain in the UK. The lingering historical narrative often leads many to wrongly believe that immigrants are here to 'steal their jobs.'

It's crucial to challenge these beliefs by recognizing the contributions of immigrant communities like the Pakistani population, enriching England with diverse cultural heritage, traditions, and cuisine, making London one of the world's most multicultural cities. Our daily experiences shape us profoundly, as interactions and encounters influence our growth and maturity. Immigrant women, however, often face judgmental stares, cultural mockery, and indifference, which can leave them feeling alienated in a place that should be their home. 

Experience of an immigrant woman

The unforgettable moment was my mum's first experience in England after tying the knot. Leaving her home of 24 years behind, she grappled with the realisation of being alone, while loved ones continued their lives elsewhere. Despite the daunting prospect of navigating a new country without speaking the language, she approached this unfamiliar journey with faith that life would find its way. However, her arrival was met with an unexpected security check, a stark reminder of the biases faced by people of colour. She liked the quiet, it calmed her, growing up in a rambunctious household, moments of solicitude were far and few in between, so any moments without noise was something she usually welcomed. 

However, this silence felt anything but, a scary man in a uniform watching her, talking to anyone but her. Not that she could understand what he was saying anyway. Her thoughts jumbled, she couldn’t understand why this was happening or what she had done wrong. The way he stared her down she felt as though she was being sentenced for a heinous crime. Finally, an agent sat down opposite her, but again she couldn’t understand, she tried to explain in what little words she knew but that didn’t seem to appease them much. Finally, they got a translator on the phone, she timidly asked what she had done wrong, fears of being deported growing stronger in her mind, all that money spent to get her there all wasted. Fears of disappointing her family as well as her awaiting husband plagued her mind. After what felt like a lifetime, he had explained that she was travelling on a fiancé visa even though she was married. 

Her fear quickly depleted and turned into confusion, why had they stopped her for such a minuscule thing, it’s not like she issued her own visa, the people at the Pakistani embassy must have made an error. Humans make mistakes. She still could not understand their looks of anger and almost disgust. She had done nothing wrong. She tried to explain that to the agent, hoping he would be more understanding, but to no avail. He kept pestering her, repeating the question, pushing for a different answer. Her saying she didn’t know wasn’t quite enough for him. Even after answering all their questions, they wouldn’t let her go talking amongst one another, she had asked if her husband could be informed that they were keeping her for interrogation as he would be waiting outside with no news of her. They rudely refused and still would not let her go. She had finally had enough and told them unless there was a purpose to her staying, she would no longer comply and asked to be let go. 

It was the first time she had taken a stand for herself, with an otherwise quiet and shy personality. I guess that finally did the trick, as they let her leave where she was finally united with her husband, who was anxiously waiting for her arrival. This moment played a part in understanding that this place was no longer home where she was recognised by her own. This new world was filled with a lot of judgement and for the first time in her life she was a complete outsider. 

Struggles of immigrant children

In discussing the experiences of immigrant women, it's vital to consider the adaptation journey of daughters raised in a culture vastly different from that of their parents.I am the daughter of a first generation immigrant household and the saying, "Too white for the brown kids, too brown for the white kids," could not be truer. As a child it was always difficult to find a balance that seemed to please everyone. My parents always thought I wasn’t cultural enough for them and at school it was hard to fit enough as my Primary school had a white majority population within the pupils and so, they did not always understand my dietary choices or even my clothes.I had a best friend who, despite sharing a similar background as me, felt miles apart in our upbringing.She would routinely mock my love for Bollywood and make fun of the way I pronounced certain words. At the time I couldn’t understand what the big deal was, I knew she could understand what I was saying. I also have friends with similar experiences, with one of them coming to school in hair oil, a common tradition in India but was subjected to a lot of questions and condescending remarks. 

The white supremist ideologies of something as simple as our accents and our traditions have so deeply been engraved into societal outlook and expectations, that it is hard to see someone act outside of the carefully drawn lines and still treat them with the same respect. I know I’m not the only one that has some point in her life been mocked for my cultural differences. 

Recently British Indian TikTok Sara from iconicakes made the decision to reclaim her Indian heritage and a part of this journey for her included talking in her Indian accent. This was something she commonly used with close friends and families rather than the British accent that she would use on camera and outside her bubble to uphold British values. For many immigrant children this is known as ‘Code Switching’ where many children from different cultures will speak into different accents, one they use at home and the other they use in societal situations. 

The comments under this post were very split, many supported her and even shared their own experiences, with one comment stating: “When I went to an international school people would make fun of my kiwi accent, so I’d speak in an American accent at school and my kiwi accent at home.” 

Whilst there were many comments supporting her, like any controversial decision made on the internet it didn’t go unnoticed by haters. A lot also deemed this as fake and performative behaviour, an Indian TikTok influencer from the US even made a video mocking her for her accent calling it fake. 

Previously Sara and her sister Avni whom she shares this account with would routinely get called out for being too whitewashed by their audiences. Specifically, Sara, for consistently dying her hair colours that made her ‘look white’ and dating a white male. These judgments are also more prevalent in criticising women than men, with men having more freedom without the judgement of being too cultural or too much of a ‘coconut’ , an offensive term used to describe people of colour that are essentially whitewashed. Experiences like this are hard but also necessary in understanding that you will never be enough for either societies therefore instead of the focus being on appeasing the people around you, you find a balance that makes you happy and proud of who you are. 

Community

For immigrants, community building becomes a vital life support for both finding a safe space within an unknown world and the ability to keep cultural traditions alive. However, it also serves as a tool to help others learn about traditional and cultural values in order to create a more diverse space that is accepting of different cultures. 

Many immigrant communities bring forth a lot of socio-cultural factors such as increasing food diversity within a location. In England, chicken tikka masala as well as other curries from Indian Takeaways is a very popular food option that is well loved by many people living in the UK. These smaller businesses that are able to utilise their cultural heritage and practises by promoting cultural exchange and understanding within their communities. This cross culture dialogue helps for people to understand immigrants better as a way to humanise them instead of treating them like outsiders. It also gives immigrants the ability to use their skills to bring income in order to support their families and contribute to the wider economy.  

The importance of creating a community that acts as a safe for immigrant women is essential to their growth and to combat loneliness. A lot of religious institutions offer programmes and voluntary systems that help create a tight knit community to help fight discriminatory beliefs together. In local Gurdwaras a Sikh practice is to feed the needy people and therefore encourage people to volunteer their time to both cook and clean as well as serve food to people that choose to eat there. These places are not limited to only Sikhs but welcome everyone irrespective of religion and race. This is a huge way many immigrant women contribute to the community as it both maintains close relations with fellow immigrants but also expands to host other communities in a cross cultural dialogue to promote diversity and inclusion as to making their presence and contributions known with the community.

Organisations within the UK, such as Praxis created by an immigrant community based on the lack of support being given to people that entered the UK with hopes of a better life. They have been fighting for migrants’ rights for over forty years and have a mission statement to treat all people equally and fight discrimination and racism to provide a safe living space for all people. They have volunteer programmes aimed to bring the community together to support and enrich the lives of immigrants by actively fighting for their needs. Through their active participation in community initiatives and organisations, immigrant women contribute to the fabric of their local communities, promote cultural exchange, and foster a sense of belonging for themselves and future generations.

As we conclude, it's crucial to reflect on the immigrant stories shared in this article, which highlight both the challenges faced by immigrant communities and their resilience in turning discrimination into stories of success and unity. These experiences have fostered communal support and helped individuals discover their true selves in unfamiliar territories. Immigration and integration drive progress, shaping a more inclusive and diverse world through our unique abilities. Immigrant women play a significant role in this journey, overcoming language barriers and human rights violations, all while combating harmful stereotypes. It's imperative for society to recognize the vital contributions of diverse cultures to our country's growth. This Women’s History Month, let's honour the sacrifices and hardships of women who courageously embark on new journeys, embodying values of kindness, patience, and resilience, despite facing challenges in acceptance.

Header Image Credit: Photo by Robin Thakur

This is a user generated post from our wider Voice community and was not edited by the Voice team. We would love to hear your views too! Sign up for an account and make your Voice heard!

Author

Fatimah Amer

Fatimah Amer

Hi there! I'm Fatimah Amer, a passionate English Lit and Film student at Queen Mary University of London. With experience as an Editorial Intern at The Social Talks, I've honed my storytelling skills and gained insights into digital media. As an intern journalist at Voice Magazine, I'm excited to bring fresh perspectives and creativity to my work.

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