Farida Sultana reflects on a lifetime spent balancing cultural expectations with a passionate belief in women's rights.
FARIDA SULTANA looks serious and daunting on the cover of her new book, Purple Dandelion, so it's a relief when the pleasant woman herself enters the room – and this is not the only unexpected discovery.
She has a sense of humour – there's no trace of one in her autobiography – and her dry appreciation of absurdity might well pass you by if it were not for her sudden, short bursts of laughter that end as quickly as they begin. It makes for unusual dialogue, allowing for her also communicating in a second language.
Sultana is best known for her work with Shakti, the Muslim women's refuge and support movement in New Zealand that has recently been involved in controversy with some migrant groups. Sultana says the journalist who co-authored her book, Shila Nair, talked to a reporter about underage marriage in immigrant communities in the belief that she was off the record. Nair was then quoted in print, Sikh and Muslim communities hummed with annoyance over her claim that this happens here, and Sikhs have demanded a public apology.
It is not, then, the ideal background to release the book into, and the cover portrait of Sultana, with the subtitle, "A Muslim woman's struggle against violence and oppression", might well rub salt into fresh wounds, or underscore any prejudice against minority communities' customs. This is far from her intention. Sultana points out that it's not in Shakti's interests to alienate any group – the organisation deals with women from a great many backgrounds, communities and religions – and the last thing it wants is to put any of them offside.
The book details the life of an unusual and determined child who became an unusually determined woman. There is anger in her account of breaking away from a traditional Bangladesh upbringing, with its limited expectations for women, and exasperation. Hers is a familiar story anywhere of marriage when young, and eventually separating, but in the confines of the world she was born into, it marked her as an outsider.
There were immediate disadvantages: separation from a large extended family that had approved of her arranged marriage, in which there had only ever been one other divorce, and the dismay of her widowed mother. Both involved emotional cost, and must partly explain Sultana's terse account, which bristles with determination and a steely focus that possibly astounded everyone who knew her. The custom in Bangladesh would mean she'd return to her annoyed extended family after she divorced, but she chose to go it alone, far from home, with her young daughter. Somewhere along the way Sultana abandoned Bangladeshi dress and cropped her hair.
Hers is an account of attempting to reconcile two cultures – Western and Islamic – and the compromise that resulted. Sultana says she disliked the writing process of reviewing her life, revisiting forgotten feelings, and she had to take long gaps while working on it. She needed Nair to help her write it, incidentally, because of her severe dyslexia.
There's no fancy launch party for Purple Dandelion, and her account of her adult daughter's opinion of it involves quite a lot of that short, exclamatory laugh.
"She's writing a book, and she can't believe that anyone would publish mine (laugh). From a young age she's the one who writes – short stories, this, that – but we're middle-aged, so our writing is very different (laugh). I told her you just wait another 15 years and someone else will take over! (laugh)."
Sultana's daughter has few memories of Bangladesh and its culture; Sultana's mother followed her to New Zealand, and lives with her. The book gives the impression that the mother has very different values from her daughter: "She is not a pushover (laughs) but she is very traditional!"
As for Sultana, she formed the view when she was still at school that England was where she wanted to be, influenced by a popular female Bangladeshi writer who described a world in which "women went out to work and men stayed at home to mind the children!" (laugh). Following her husband to Iran, Scotland and England in the course of his work and study, she finally came to New Zealand in 1995, and independence.
In supporting her elderly mother she continues to uphold a core value from her background, the primary duty of caring for family. Her daughter does the same; she has nursed her father overseas for a year now, in the aftermath of a road accident in which he was seriously injured. And in spite of her strongly held views on female emancipation, Sultana remains a Muslim; she doesn't think they are mutually exclusive positions.
THE ANGER she once felt at the life expected of her within her own culture has dissipated with time. It's now 17 years since Sultana founded Shakti in Auckland, after being a client for a women's refuge, and an organisation with the same name, in Scotland. Her own marital breakup was not straightforward; she tried reconciling with her incompatible husband, even after a long period in a refuge, before finally giving up. That personal experience might have made her less black-and-white in her thinking.
"I used to feel very angry when abuse occurred with the way men controlled the situation. Now I think it's intergenerational; they learn to grow up the way they do. It's not just your daughter you have to think about bringing up, but also your son. If he doesn't feel his sister is his equal, his wife will never be equal.
"The structure of society back home is patriarchal," she shrugs. "Men do what they have to do to survive. I'm no longer angry at my ex-husband."
A key position Farida takes in her book – and her work – is that immigrant women in difficulties need other women from their own background to understand and help them; that European women don't understand the difference in their world views, and the language barrier also acts to their detriment. Shakti has translators for a great many Asian and African languages, and runs classes teaching English and other skills, like driving and positive parenting, which help a woman's family.
An avowed feminist – "feminist is a word that doesn't go very well into the Bangladeshi community (laughs)" – she says women's organisations mustn't be afraid to challenge the framework of society, where prejudice against women begins: "I don't think violence against women is a personal issue. Men are not shamed by it; they're shamed because we're talking about it (laughs)!
"I started from zero. What I have now is mine. That's a political decision. I wanted to prove to my husband that I could do it all, because his psychological tool was that I couldn't manage without him."
About those underage marriages: Sultana is in damage control mode, and explains that discussing the subject is more complicated than it seems. Young women may approach Shakti who are over the age of consent, and it may only come up in discussion that they were married off at 13 or 14. They will only be recorded as domestic violence victims for statistical purposes, and they may not have married in New Zealand in the first place. There is no way Shakti can find out how many women are in this position, which is why the organisation doesn't discuss statistics, and focuses instead on lobbying for a law change to make cultural and religious marriages officially registered in the same way as other marriages.
"We're in New Zealand where you can't drive without a driver's licence – so why can we get married without one?" Sikh and Islamic spokesmen have denied underage marriage happens here.
Sultana is currently an advocate for migrant and refugee issues, and is a consultant to overseas organisations working on women's rights. She is also a passionate New Zealander: "I have done a lot of travelling, but this is home now, I'm not going anywhere else, and I'm glad my daughter also thinks of this as her home. I live in West Auckland – it's beautiful! We should be lucky that we have such a wonderful country to live in. Travelling is good, but you know, you have a home, and society is much better here than anywhere else – streets, beaches, trees, everything.
"Overseas people say that reported violence is very high in New Zealand – that's because nobody is reporting in other countries, so you don't know about it. Women's Refuge can count the numbers of abused women in New Zealand. There are not many countries where you can."
Today, Shakti Community Council, a voluntary agency funded by government grants and some private trusts, has bases in central, west and South Auckland, Rotorua, Waikato, Christchurch and Wellington, offering culturally targeted services to immigrant women and their families. It lists Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Korean, Indian, Fiji Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Iranian, Iraqi and African women among its clients, and its 0800 number covers the country. Its voluntary workers speak 16 languages.
With her Queen's Service Medal for community service, and a foreword for her book by former prime minister Helen Clark, it's a triumphant outcome for a woman without fluent English, whose first decisive step was to leave a marriage.
Purple Dandelion by Farida Sultana and Shila Nair, is released on Thursday by Exisle Publishing, $36.99.
Sultana will talk about her book during the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, May 13, Aotea Centre. www.writersfestival.co.nz
Born: 1965 in Bangladesh
Educated: In Bangladesh; also has an MBA from Auckland Institute of Studies.
Family: An arranged marriage at 19 took her from Bangladesh to war-torn Iraq. Has an adult daughter.
Achievements: Started Shakti, New Zealand's first ethnic women's refuge, in 1995, having been associated with Shakti Aid UK as a survivor of violence and then as a volunteer.
Awards: Queen's Service Medal for Community Service in 2003. Hobbies: Walking, watching Shortland Street.
Mea culpa: In last week's story about Elizabeth Taylor, I wrote that she appeared with Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby but meant Secret Ceremony. Apologies to her many fans.
- Sunday Star Times
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