Othered subjects: marginalised voices of Black and South Asian mothers

Author: Gurbax Matoo
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This article explores the importance of intersectionality and critical thinking for social work students and how this paradigm can develop a more nuanced understanding of Black and South Asain mothers. By using intersectionality as a framework, we can begin to understand and problematise unequal power relations and structures that lead to marginalisation and social injustice.

Abstract

This article explores the importance of intersectionality and critical thinking for social work students and how this paradigm can develop a more nuanced understanding of Black and South Asain mothers. By using intersectionality as a framework, we can begin to understand and problematise unequal power relations and structures that lead to marginalisation and social injustice.

Introduction

The article aims to engage social work students in developing their critical thinking skills in order to understand Black and South Asian women’s lived experiences of motherhood.1 The rationale for critically reflecting and focusing on Black and South Asian women comes from my experiences of working with mothers as a statutory social worker within a UK context. Fundamentally, my observations and interventions included the ways in which mothers negotiated their identity, their daily experiences of motherhood and, most significantly, the lack of understanding of their individual narratives within social work interventions, together with the expectations placed upon them.

With this in mind, the article aims to explore the concept of intersectionality in relation to social work interventions with Black and South Asian mothers. With a specific focus on motherhood, the article will utilise intersectionality to develop a more nuanced understanding of Black and South Asian mothers’ positionalities. By reflecting on personal experience and examples from my teaching and social work practice, this article considers the potential anxiety that such work creates in relation to practice placements. However, I also consider how the knowledge base I outline has the potential to be explored in the context of practice education in order to promote sensitive and constructive interventions with Black and South Asian mothers. Whilst the overall framework in the article concerns Black and South Asian mothers, I shall also consider the specific example of South Asian mothers within this framework.

Intersectionality, black feminist theory and social work

The discussion of the knowledge base that follows is rooted in the standpoint of intersectionality. Intersectionality has been instrumental in understanding individual narratives and identity construction against a backdrop of power, privilege and oppression (Mattson, 2014). By using an intersectional approach in social work, which focuses on the interplay between different categories of oppression, we can begin to understand and problematise unequal power relations and structures that lead to marginalisation and social injustice.

Dominelli (2002) highlights that we need to avoid additive approaches that rank oppression in a hierarchy that prioritises one form over another. Social workers need to explore how gender, ‘race’, sexuality and class are intertwined and produce a unique and multidimensional individual experience, rather than focus on ‘discrimination which emphasizes only one element in the web of social relations’ (Dominelli, 2002: 5). This commitment to promote the significance of diversity is captured in the Professional Capabilities Framework (BASW, 2018) as one its key domains (Equality and Diversity), which seeks to value difference and view this as an asset to be appreciated rather than problematised. However, in order to do this, we must understand how oppression permeates people’s lives. By adopting an intersectional approach, we can begin to engage with social divisions and structural inequalities, and avoid endorsing any hierarchy of oppression.

Although intersectionality remains influential, its roots as a product of Black feminist theorisation can be easily overlooked and misappropriated. As Alexander-Floyd (2010: 8) argues: ‘Scholars across the academy now invoke intersectionality only to divorce it from its connection to generations of prior theorising and research by and about Black women, abstracting its meaning so that it applies to any and all forms of difference or identity.’ Furthermore, she questions how some feminist work on intersectionality has relegated ‘race’ to the periphery or, in some instances, omitted it altogether in order to focus on issues relating to class.

Originally a term coined by Crenshaw (1989), intersectionality has been an important concept in shaping Black feminist theory and has been used to provide an analysis of the marginalisation and oppression experienced by Black women (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991; hooks, 2001). By challenging a reductive feminist analysis, Black feminists argued that intersectionality provides a framework to analyse how identity categories such as ‘race’, gender, sexuality and class intersect and lead to surveillance, domination, oppression and discrimination in their various forms (Crenshaw, 1989).

Similarly, Collins (2000) puts forward a ‘matrix of domination’, which lends itself to the concept of intersectionality. Collins (2000: 18) argues that there needs to be an ‘interconnected relationship with terms such as intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) and matrix of domination’. For Collins (2000: 18):

Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppression are actually organized.

If we were to think in this way, then we could see that ‘power cannot be reduced to only one oppressive structure or one dominant group’ (Wesp et al, 2019; 288). By allowing a more holistic understanding of how discrimination and marginalisation affect the subjectivities of Black women (Mirza, 2009), intersectionality has allowed an interrogation of the critical space that is occupied by patriarchal hegemonic discourses (Crenshaw, 1989). Although many approaches and varying definitions of intersectionality exist, in relation to the article, I draw on an intersectional approach that focuses on the embodied experiences of Black and South Asian women, their role as mothers, and how they are perceived within social work education and practice. The article explores the ways in which the embodied experiences of race, gender, sexuality and class intersect in the lives of Black and South Asian mothers, and how such markers illuminate the racial and gendered dimensions of experiences within social work practice and education.

The creation of a singular identity has, of course, been refuted by many, whereby Butler (1990), Brubaker and Cooper (2000) argue that there is no single identity, but rather ‘multiple, fragmented, and fluid’ identities (Liamputtong, 2006: 28). Similarly, McMahon (1995) also argues, ‘a woman is never only a woman, multiple other social relationships of race, class, ethnicity, or sexuality shape the lived meaning of being female’ (cited in Liamputtong, 2006: 28) Thus, women’s identity is multifaceted and shaped by other interpersonal identities that impact and affect individual experiences of their mothering roles. As McMahon (1995) states: ‘motherhood is constructed as the expression of women’s natural, social and moral identity – or rather, the identity attributable to moral women, that is married, white women’ (cited in Liamputtong, 2006: 27). Arguably, the experiences of those who lie outside this image, for example, Black and South Asian women, have been largely excluded.

The dominant discourse of motherhood in western society

Patriarchy has long located women’s power in their sexuality and has developed methods to suppress female sexual independence via the creation of ‘inspirational’ archetypes, myths and metaphors (Das DasGupta, 2002: 116). As Das DasGupta (2002: 64) states: ‘the most pervasive images of women across cultures are those of the ‘goddess’ and the ‘whore’: the ‘goddess’ is the chaste, life-giving mother who gently supports rather than questions the prevalent order of society; while ‘the whore is the immoral temptress who lures men to their destruction with her abundant sexuality’ (Das DasGupta, 2002: 64).

The dominant discourse of motherhood in Western society projects dimensions of chaste, life-giving motherhood in a number of ways. These include the ‘good mother’ (Chodorow, 1978; Wearing, 1984; Marshall, 1991; Thurer, 1994; McMahon, 1995; Hays, 1996, cited in Liamputtong, 2006), the ‘perfect mother’ (Forna, 1999), ‘maternal instinct’ and ‘naturalness’ (Gieve, 1989; Ribbens, 1994; Forna, 1999). In relation to motherhood, there is nothing more powerful than the dominant discourse’s vision of motherhood, which is continually drip-fed through popular culture, books, television, films, magazines and newspapers (Forna, 1999).

Ideologies and practice surrounding the patriarchal institution of motherhood have generally supported the idea that raising children is the responsibility of women (Greene, 2015). Hence, expectations and assumptions of what constitutes femininity and ‘good mothering’ (Green, 2015) are then internalised by women and further reinforced by social and cultural practices and standards by which motherhood is evaluated (Matoo, 2021). Such is the discursive construction of motherhood that, concomitantly, it produces conceptions entrenched in deviancy, which marginalise, discriminate and pathologise those who are unable to conform to such standards. For example, Hays (1996, cited in Green, 2015) states that such ideological thinking produces deviant discourses, where certain groups are targeted and marginalised, such as the ‘other’ mother or racialised mothers. Furthermore, she explores how mothers who are single, immigrants, racialised, disabled, lesbian, queer, trans or living on social assistance or welfare become the subjects of discourses that attribute deviancy to mothers (Green, 2015).

The rhetoric surrounding motherhood continues to embed assumptions and beliefs that have their roots located primarily in patriarchal and heavily classed values of the family, the naturalness of maternal instinct, and the ways in which motherhood has been created over time (Gieve, 1989; Ribbens, 1994; Forna, 1999). Women who become mothers are thus subject to certain expectations of motherhood, where maternal instinct is viewed as natural and enforced through values and beliefs regarding women’s biological destiny, institutions of religion and the family, political, professional and social agendas, and popular culture.

Non-Western discourses of motherhood in Western society

Non-Western notions of motherhood are also problematic, regulating, hierarchical and patriarchal, and continue to be constructed along the lines of a Western archetype. Here, women are idealised through a narrow lens that continues to permeate our understandings of what a mother should look and act like (Bhopal, 1998). As Bhopal (1998: 485) argues, studies of motherhood have been ethnocentric and falsely universalistic, and have ‘often been examined from a white, western perspective, neglecting divisions of “race” and ethnicity’. While Bhopal (1998) argues that mothers are not a homogeneous group and models of mothering need to consider ethnicity and ‘race’, she also highlights the need to recognise the variety of routes and circumstances that women encounter to have children. This point is explored by Phoenix and Wollett (1991, cited in Bhopal, 1998), who argue that the effects of ‘race’ and class on individual experiences of mothering need to be considered, and research needs to acknowledge the complexities involved in being a mother.

Here, we are reminded that it is necessary to respect the multiplicity of mothering experiences across social and cultural contexts, as the experiences of minority women are afforded little attention (Arendell, 2000, cited in Green, 2015). While Black feminist literature continues to forge its rearticulation of motherhood and challenge its patriarchal roots (Green, 2015), feminist literature on mothering also needs to allow a more inclusive approach to understanding the heterogeneous experiences of Black and South Asian mothers, whose voices are either silenced or submerged.

Feminist discourses on motherhood

Feminist discourses on motherhood have been pitted against the dominant patriarchal discourse. At the heart of such discourses has been the understanding that women are culturally positioned as the ‘other’, silenced and rendered powerless in the knowledge constructed by men (Daly, 1978; Ussher, 1991; de Beauvoir, 1997 [1949]). Thus, feminist discourses on motherhood have aimed to deconstruct and challenge some of the political, social and professional agendas underpinning the ideal maternal figure. The myth of motherhood is not only seen in the divisions of labour within the home, but also within employment law, policies and legal rulings (Forna, 1999). While some feminist discourse can be criticised for focusing less on such issues and instead concentrating on women achieving greater economic independence and career choices, one must not underestimate the challenges that it has posed to mythical notions of the naturalness of maternal instinct, whereby the myth of motherhood continues to be projected as an instrument that controls and manipulates women’s actions and choices surreptitiously.

Whilst there has been significant interest in the examination of motherhood (Gieve, 1989; Ribbens, 1994), the notions of a ‘maternal instinct’ (Gieve, 1989) and the ‘feminist mother’ (Gordon, 1990) have also been central to feminist debates and discussions. An influential strand of feminist discourse has seen motherhood as an experience grounded in the female body (DiQuinzio, 1993), locating arguments in maternal subjectivity, either as being natural in terms of the maternal body or as being a response to the needs of infants and children (Rich, 1976; Ruddick, 1988, cited in DiQuinzio, 1993). However, these can be criticised for making universal claims and being exclusionary and essentialist, as they presuppose the family as typical of Western societies and suggest that being a mother means possessing and exercising those attributes of personality or character clearly associated with femininity as traditionally defined in Western and non-Western patriarchal cultures.

While feminisms that are not representative or inclusive of Black and South Asian women have attempted to deconstruct myths surrounding motherhood, they have focused attention primarily on Western discourses on motherhood (Chodorow, 1978; Thurer, 1994; Dinnerstein, 1999), which tends to exclude the cultural experiences of mothers governed by different discourses. Arguably, such Western discourse perpetuates a normative cultural and social construction of motherhood that only considers a one-dimensional approach. The exclusion of other cultural experiences has overlooked the fact that there are many ways to mother and care for children, and the need for a more intersectional approach is required to enable us to look beyond the boundaries of normative ideologies of motherhood. To enable recognition of the real experiences of women, then, we need to consider the diverse contexts and environments in which motherhood takes place.

Even though feminist literature continues to acknowledge the concept of difference, it appears that a far more unified and inclusive approach is required in its responses. Such fragmentation and division in feminist discourse are picked up by Lorde (1984: 67), who claims that ‘It is not our difference that divides us. It is our inability to recognise, accept or celebrate those differences.’ While the concept of ‘difference’ within feminist thought has been used to analyse particular experiences of what it means to be a woman, its application as a meaningful tool for analysis has proved to be problematic. This is taken up by Davies (1997), who argues that feminist discourse that uses the body as a site for explaining socially constructed differences also, paradoxically, treats the body as generic, thereby ignoring specific features of women’s embodiment.

Although feminist literature offers a range of analysis relating to motherhood, this has tended to examine gendered power relations and has focused on the unfavourable position of mothers. Undoubtedly, such a body of work has not only challenged perceptions and notions of motherhood, but also contributed to the critique of normative judgements about traditional female roles (Bernard, 2001).

Black feminist discourses on motherhood

The othering process discussed earlier has also been applied by Black and postcolonial feminists, who argue that in the context of race and gender, Black women are also positioned and located as the ‘other’ (Amos and Parmar, 1984). As Brah (1996) asserts, the existence of power relations enables those in power to define others and impose identities. Similarly, Bhavnani (2001) and Mirza (2009) both highlight how the Black/othered woman is produced in a racialised, gendered and sexualised global discourse, and appropriated according to normative ideologies of femininity and gender. Therefore, it is important to deconstruct understandings of Black and South Asian women and the ways in which they have been subjects of the ‘curious gaze’ (Mulvey, 1989) within hegemonic discourses that have (re)produced essentialised and fixed identities.

The social contexts of mothering can also be seen in feminist social-constructivist theory, where ‘race’, class and sexual orientation in women’s experiences of motherhood (Bhopal, 1998) have been instrumental in the theorisation of mothering and motherhood. As such, Black feminist theorists (Collins, 1991; Carby, 2007) have undertaken particularly important work on the representation and analysis of mothering that interrogates the historical and cultural conditions that shape individual subjectivities and experiences.

Accordingly, Black feminist literature places the self and the body at the centre of its theorising, as writers seek to make sense of the Black and South Asian female/‘othered’ woman’s symbolic and narrative experiences (Mirza, 2009). The representations of Black women have, without doubt, focused on imagery that has been produced and created to sustain patriarchal colonial and post-colonial discourse (Kanneh, 1995). If traced through history, the Black/‘othered’ woman is constructed and inscribed with meaning by those who gaze upon her and ‘name’ her (Mirza, 2009). Here, we can see how racialised and gendered modalities continue to represent Black women through stereotypical imagery – an image also firmly embedded within ideologies and discourses surrounding mothering. For example, Black women are represented as ‘Mammies’, ‘Sapphires’ and ‘Jezebels’ (Collins, 1991; 2001), and South Asian women continue to be understood within a paradigm of passivity, docility, honour and shame. Here, the image of a South Asian woman tends to stereotype and depict her either as a dutiful, passive recipient of patriarchal order, or as a deviant if she chooses not to conform to acceptable forms of femininity. Such stereotypes are ‘normalised’ and pervasive within media representations, as they (re)produce and perpetuate certain ways in which Black and South Asian women are expected to act and behave. While the legacy of cultural oppression has no doubt played a significant role in the analysis of the Black female body and how it has been represented and appropriated, acknowledging differences in embodiment based on ‘race’ and gender is particularly important in this article. As Davies (1997: 14) argues: ‘Understanding what embodiment means to individuals depends upon being able to sort out how sexual, “racial” and other differences intersect and give meaning to their interactions with their bodies and through their bodies with the world around them.’

Black feminists have argued that intersections of ‘race’ and gender become implicit in discussions relating to Black women. As Collins (1998, cited in Bernard, 2001: 11) so cogently argues: ‘Specifically, gender and “race” are inextricably linked for black women and are important dimensions influencing the ways individual meaning is constructed.’ Such a statement offers a critical starting point to illuminate how discourses surrounding motherhood have tended to negate the interplay of ‘race’, gender, sexuality and class in the lives of Black and South Asian mothers. For example, in her study of Black mothers, Bernard (2001) takes this point further by pointing out how ‘race’ not only influences attitudes towards Black mothers, but also how such gendered experiences impact on the choices and support they seek when their children are sexually abused. Black feminists argue that such analysis has a propensity to exclude the ways in which ‘race’ intersects the lives of Black and South Asian mothers and the particular problems they experience (Bernard, 2001). As Bernard (2001: 11) argues: ‘Black mothers’ exclusion and marginalisation from debates means that particular problems that they face have not been fully explored in feminist accounts of mothers.’ Of course, one may argue that there may be some similarity in the ways in which women experience motherhood; however, we also need to understand that such experiences will vary according to how women are situated and positioned. This ‘situatedness’ (Collins, 1998) undoubtedly shapes the contours of Black women’s experiences of motherhood. Therefore, we need to recognise how shared experiences of colonialism and racism construct motherhood and mothering for Black and South Asian women.

The mothering experiences of South Asian women (Bhopal, 1998; Bar and Harman, 2014), have also illuminated and played an important role in helping us to understand the constructions of motherhood and how these differ for South Asian women and communities. However, such literature tends to focus on social support, marriage, cultural beliefs, izzat (‘honour’) and sharam (‘shame’) practices within South Asian households. For South Asian women, ideas about passivity and complacency continue to be used to (re)produce an identity where they are depicted and accepted as ‘ideal’ wives or mothers. Therefore, izzat and sharam function as powerful tools of social control in the lives of South Asian women and girls, whereby they are already stigmatised and vilified through a process of insular shaming by their families (Toor, 2009). The concept of izzat has its origins in the cultures and communities of the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent (Wilson, 2006). Izzat is generally translated as ‘honour’ and its relationship with sharam (‘shame’) is linked to the conferring of status on individuals and their families, leading to the notion of standing within the community (Werbner, 1990; Ballard, 1994; Shaw, 2000). South Asian identity for women is frequently compounded by requirements emerging from izzat (‘honour’) and sharam (‘shame/embarrassment’) (Gilligan and Akhtar, 2006), as females are regarded as being the ‘carriers of family honour’ (Gilbert et al, 2007: 128). However, it is important to state that while South Asian women are not a homogenous group, functioning within communities is bound by moral codes, where izzat and sharam remain a prerequisite for acquiring a sense of belonging and acceptance (Matoo, 2015: 48–9). For example, in my practice with South Asian women who experienced domestic violence, the concepts of izzat and sharam were clear barriers for not seeking support. In some cases, perpetrators and family members used shame and honour to exploit a woman’s fear of losing her children, thus using this as currency for her to remain in the relationship. Although my practice allowed women to interpret their personal experiences of violence, another key issue to navigate was their belief that the violence experienced was a result of their personal karma. This was further exacerbated by their parents, who instilled religious beliefs associated with the afterlife and how they would suffer if they did not stay in the relationship. Therefore, practitioners need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the influence of izzat and sharam on the lives of South Asian mothers and how this can be assimilated within assessment processes.

Arguably, women’s identity is multifaceted and shaped by other interpersonal identities that impact and affect individual experiences of their mothering roles. How those personal identities intersect is also of great importance.

The ‘perfect’ mother through a social work lens

The construction of female identity, domesticity and motherhood has been the subject of much debate (Gieve, 1989; Ribbens, 1994; Forna, 1999). Motherhood has also remained central to discussions in feminism (Amos and Parmar, 1984), where the most pervasive images of women celebrated across cultures are those of the virtuous, nurturing ideal – the ‘good’ mother who possesses a natural and caring instinct (Gieve, 1989). Arguably, such representations of good motherhood also work to discipline and police mothers, women and femininity (Smart, 1976), where the institutionalised image of the perfect mother continues to be depicted as selfless, giving, never angry and emotionally available (Forna, 1999). On a more individual level, such constructions are also measured against standards that often cannot be attained. Here, we see how guilt is manufactured and woven into our understandings of perfect motherhood, and how it drives women to ‘get it right’. Arguably, what is deemed ‘right’ is determined not only by wider political, economic and social drivers, but also by a woman’s ability to devote herself completely to the needs of her child, regardless of her own emotions. In order to fully immerse herself into motherhood, she is expected to prioritise the needs of her child and become totally child-centred, where her indispensability is driven by guilt and fear of getting it wrong. In such circumstances, if her child’s physical and emotional needs are not met, she is then heavily criticised and regarded as a ‘bad’ mother (Matoo, 2021). Motherhood also needs to be understood in the ways it is performed within a cultural context, as each society will have its own beliefs, expectations, norms and symbols in how it defines motherhood, especially in its creation of the ‘good mother’ (Thurer, 1994). In relation to social work, it appears that interventions and practices are embedded within this cultural context; hence, the need to have a more nuanced focus on women and their individual experiences of motherhood requires careful consideration (Matoo, 2021).

A vision of the ‘perfect mother’ informs us of how new mothers should behave, what they should do and how they should act towards their children. These constructions not only perpetuate stereotypes of femininity and womanhood, but are also based on notions of maternal instinct and naturalness, which, according to powerful scientific discourses, are qualities inherent in all women (Forna, 1999). The perfectionist myth of motherhood is potent, as those women who are prevented/silenced are then regarded and vilified as ‘bad’ mothers who are unable to fulfil their roles and duties as women. It can be argued that such discourses uphold the institution of the family by thinking of women as biologically programmed and possessing innate qualities of maternal instinct. The powerful vision of motherhood, then, creates an identity that is supportive of traditional gender roles that do not disrupt the social order. Motherhood thus remains an influential category, as it not only defines a particular identity, but is also the result of mythical creations of the ‘perfect mother’ (Forna, 1999). The image of the ‘perfect mother’ not only embodies certain qualities associated traditionally with femininity, such as nurturing, caring and warmth, but also highlights how such imagery depicts and projects a one-dimensional figure, where only one particular style of mothering is acceptable.

Whilst ‘mother blaming’ has been used to understand maternal ambivalence (Parker, 1996) (where feelings of love and hate exist side by side), cultural representations of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers are wrapped up in notions of maternal ambivalence that can cause guilt and anxiety too. Although such experiences are rooted in fear, desire and passion for motherhood, ‘maternal ambivalence is determined by complex interactions of external and internal reality and has to be socially and culturally located’ (Parker, 1996: 19). Hence, how a woman responds to maternal ambivalence will be dependent upon her personal, cultural and ethnic history, her economic status, and the psychological and physical state of her child (Parker, 1996).

Implications for social work practice

By considering how ‘race’ and gender intersect with economic and social structures, and the ways in which these shape mothers’ experiences of caring for children, social work practitioners can challenge dominant discursive notions of ‘mother blaming’. For example, when a woman’s desire to be a ‘good mother’ is mobilised by dominant constructions of motherhood, these will embed fear if certain standards are unattained. For Black and South Asian mothers, this is magnified even more, as constructions of motherhood have tended to assume a one-dimensional outlook in how to care for children. Social work interventions need to acknowledge that practices surrounding the responsibility for the care and development of children and how they are raised are forged differently, both socially and culturally, and constructed according to where we live and how motherhood is understood.

It appears that the ways in which Black and South Asian mothers are appropriated and represented in social work practice continue to reproduce fixed identities, where the heterogeneous experiences of Black and South Asian mothers are silenced or submerged in dominant discourses surrounding motherhood. Bernard’s (2001: 3) research of Black mothers and child sexual abuse highlights the levels of mother blaming ‘and causal reliance on explanations that rested on assumptions of culture-centred suppositions to explain child sexual abuse in black and minority ethnic families’. Potent media imagery of the Black family is also challenged by Reynolds (1997), who posits the stark differentials in lone motherhood among Black, middle-class and working-class women, and how these are characterised. Reynolds (1997, cited in Mirza, 1997) argues while lone motherhood among Black, middle-class women is seen as a response to the lack of suitable male partners of equal status, among Black, working-class, low-income women, it is seen as based on promiscuity and desperation.

More recently, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA, 2020) reported key research findings relating to child sexual abuse in minority ethnic communities. In relation to South Asian communities, specific literature noted the importance of family and community for victims of sexual abuse (Rehal and Maguire, 2014, cited in IICSA, 2020). Moreover, the interplay between shame and cultural values was highlighted as being central to South Asian culture, where concepts of ‘honour’, ‘modesty’ and ‘shame’ were seen as ‘crucial determinants of behaviour in response to child sexual abuse’, particularly for women (Gilligan and Aktar, 2006: 13, cited in IICSA, 2020: 24). Consequently, if South Asian women disclose sexual abuse outside of the family, this translates into family dishonour, shame and embarrassment (IICSA, 2020). From my practice experiences with South Asian women and children who experience sexual abuse and violence, concepts of shame and cultural values are deeply rooted in patriarchal norms and values. While some South Asian mothers either denied or blamed their daughter(s) for disclosing sexual abuse, the undercurrents of shame and family honour continued to be thematic in my practice. This was further compounded by hesitance and reluctance to discuss sexual abuse openly, as the majority of South Asian mothers linked this to their daughters dishonouring the family name. Therefore, from a practitioner and student lens, there needs to be a paradigmatic shift in understanding how the concepts of shame and honour are understood in interventions and practice. It is only by conceptualising the experiences of Black and South Asian mothers that we can begin to excavate silenced voices and embed this within social work interventions.

Dominant discursive images continue to be harnessed within social work interventions when understandings not only focus on natural instinct, but also neglect to take into account Black and South Asian women’s individual subjectivities and experiences. All too often in my roles as practitioner, practice educator and academic, normative ideologies of motherhood have been observed to understand South Asian women without any exploration of how intersections of ‘race’ and gender shape the mothering experience. For example, my practice with a South Asian mother focused on providing appropriate care and support for her child. Alongside this, my interventions also had to consider how she negotiated being labelled as a ‘bad’ mother by her husband and his family for giving birth to a son with severe disabilities. Therefore, issues of mythology that surround good motherhood and how motherhood is culturally derived (Thurer, 1994) needed to be considered within my practice. As Liamputtong (2006: 28) highlights: ‘the good mother is defined according to its own mythology complete with rituals, beliefs, expectations, norms and symbols’. In this example, the mother was prevented from entering the expected rituals and expectations by her family, which, in turn, impacted on her identity and how she was perceived by the wider community. Inevitably, this started to impact on her mental health and her ability to provide appropriate care for her son. As such, practitioners and students need to understand the mythology and cultural expectations surrounding motherhood, and how they shape the mothering experiences for South Asian women.

According to Fook (2012: 194), cultural competence ‘Normally refers to the ability to practice effectively on the basis of awareness of different ethnic or religious cultures but can be taken more broadly to refer to any social differences or sets of cultures.’ Therefore, to develop cultural competence in practice, practitioners and students need to actively engage in critical self-reflection to develop their awareness of their personal, cultural and religious values and beliefs. This should be coupled with a willingness to understand the potential dissonance between social work and personal values, and how this may lead to oppressive and discriminatory interventions. With this in mind, practitioners and students need to be aware that individuals, groups and communities are experts in their own lives; therefore, practitioners and students need to address the power imbalance within the worker–client relationship (Azzopardi and McNeill, 2016).

By employing an intersectional analysis within social work, it is possible to explore how Black and South Asian women’s identities are shaped by social structures and structural inequalities. Here, McCall’s (2005) typology is a useful tool to describe the different approaches of intersectionality used within social work and how the three approaches (anti-categorical, based on a methodology that deconstructs and rejects categories; inter-categorical, using categories strategically to document relationships of inequality; and intra-categorical, a focus on groups of people where they are constituted by multiple statuses and the heterogeneity within groups) can be combined to allow and enable an exploration of how identity categories and power relations impact on the lives and experiences of Black and South Asian mothers (Mattson, 2014).

Intersectionality and student learning

Integrating Black feminist theory into teaching and learning can serve as a foundation for students to recognise and challenge the processes of stereotyping Black and South Asian mothers within social work interventions. As Hall (1997: 258) argues: ‘Stereotyping reduces, essentialises, naturalises and fixes “difference”.’ Using intersectionality in teaching can be an effective analytical tool, though, at times, its application can be underscored by complexities. While an intersectional framework can effectively raise students’ recognition and awareness of complex forms of discrimination, the initial process of critical self-evaluation and reflection relating to difference and power can prove challenging.

Students can be encouraged to deconstruct their personal social location and positionality, and the associated privileges and advantages (if any) that these bring. Then, students can be asked whether Black and South Asian women are more open to a critical gaze that is racialised and gendered. If so, how do discourses inform such stereotypes and does the interplay of gender and ‘race’ contribute to the formation of stereotypical understandings about Black and South Asian women? This can cause students to feel uneasy and uncomfortable, as questions regarding intersections of gender, ‘race’, sexuality and class unveil values and beliefs that can problematise and pathologise Black and South Asian mothers, rather than extend their thinking and understanding of ‘race’ as a substantive category in the construction of motherhood. Interestingly, for some students, an unconscious defence mechanism and resistance can become apparent. For example, the ways in which identity is understood for and by Black and South Asian women can be entrenched within dominant discourses where racialised identities are viewed and categorised according to essentialised understandings (Britton, 1998). In my experience as a practitioner, the process of deconstructing conscious or unconscious racialised and gendered views for students and social workers can become painful experiences, resulting in high levels of resistance and retreat. Indeed, my teaching experiences indicate that students can avoid addressing uncomfortable assumptions by concealing their views through superficial engagement and limited participation.

Although an intersectional framework can illuminate interlocking systems of power, privilege and oppression, students can be reluctant to consider or conceptualise this in terms of their own positionalities and identities. For example, students do not always identify the importance of navigating their personal backgrounds and positioning the self as central to their understanding of others and, importantly, how others view them. As such, this can create barriers to meaningful relationships in social work practice, where students are unable to address the ways in which privilege and oppression affect individuals and groups seeking social work support. Despite the challenges, the consideration of the self becomes central when discussing complex patterns of oppression and discrimination. Students can be encouraged to use this framework to help them understand the diverse narratives and ways in which gendered and racialised identity formation can lead to potentially discriminatory and oppressive practices.

Although working with these ideas is necessary in classroom teaching and learning, it needs to be integrated within social work contexts too. In my experience as a practitioner and practice educator, the use of supervision has enabled students and social workers to consider some of the barriers they experience while working with Black and South Asian women and mothers. Dismantling the myths and stereotypes surrounding Black and South Asian mothers results in some difficult but necessary conversations for students in order to develop their awareness. For example, a critical gaze on a mother’s parenting and a mother-blaming standpoint are some of the approaches that perpetuate notions that mothers are solely responsible for the behaviour of perpetrators of abuse and require high levels of scrutiny (Scourfield, 2006; Bolen and Krane, 2016 [2013]). To develop this further, I have used cinematic films, both inductively and deductively (Lee and Lo, 2014). In the inductive context, I have utilised films on particular scenarios to explore potential generalisations made in social work practice and intervention. Additionally, I have used films deductively to explore particular social work theories. The use of serious care reviews is also a highly popular teaching method that combines academic and field learning simultaneously, and draws on recommendations for good practice.

The need for sensitive intervention strategies cannot be overemphasised, as students, practice educators and practitioners need to be mindful and aware of the complex and challenging issues that arise for Black and South Asian mothers, though in my experience as social worker, this has not been without its challenges. Interventions by social workers and students need to problematise the racialisation and subjugation of mothering practices (Sangha and Gonslaves, 2013), which dispels myths and stereotypes of Black and South Asian women. Furthermore, understanding gendered power dynamics in the context of racialised discourses (Bernard and Harris, 2016) is critical when working to support Black mothers, as well as enabling them to keep their children safe (Bernard, 2001). While classroom teaching and learning encourages students to address uncomfortable assumptions and views about Black and South Asian mothers, it also needs to be located within professional practice so that assessments and interventions are not punitive, blaming (Bernard, 2013) or located within essentialised discourse.

One aspect of working with students in relation to South Asian women is that it is important to deconstruct the complexity surrounding izzat and sharam, and how these mechanisms are understood and performed within a cultural context, as each community will have its own beliefs, expectations, norms and symbols in how they are defined. Negative stereotyping of South Asian women remains firmly entrenched in traditional expectations of womanhood, whereby tradition and culture remain synonymous with izzat and sharam. Thus, students are enabled to deconstruct their personal assumptions and values through a series of exercises based on identity construction and the ways in which these are ascribed. As a starting point, students are asked to think about identity and connect this to my positionality as a South Asian woman and academic. By locating myself as central to discussions, a platform is provided to refute, challenge and resist an essentialist equation of ‘myself’ for students, where they are enabled to develop their understanding of South Asian women’s experiences and how they are organised through a range of identities, which are ascribed by hegemonic discourses and through which tradition and culture are understood. As Mohanty (2003: 40) states: ‘This is always from the vantage point where legal, economic, religious and familial structures are treated as phenomena to be judged by Western standards and structures.’

While I utilise my personal experiences to elucidate the ways in which izzat and sharam impact on my identity, I also use my professional experiences of working closely with Black and South Asian women involved in social work interventions. This is primarily to engage students to discuss ways in which izzat and sharam intersect with the overlapping and conflicting dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, nation and other inequalities (Lykke, 2011, cited in Cho et al, 2013). For example, students are enabled not only to focus on identity categories and ‘difference’, but also to develop their understanding of how such concepts interact with dynamics of power. Similarly, categories of race and gender are maintained in legal and social structures, and how these contribute to the life chances of Black and South Asian women. Here, the concept of ‘diaspora space’ (Brah, 1996) can also be used to illuminate notions of home, border, location and displacement, and how these are played out alongside diverse operations of power (Brah, 1996). Thus, ‘diaspora space’ is used to help students understand identity construction when people cross boundaries or occupy simultaneous, multiple, contradictory spaces (Bhopal and Preston, 2012), and how that experience is conceptualised and understood in terms of identity and location (Brah, 1996). This is a particularly important issue to integrate in teaching and students’ readiness for practice as they begin to grapple with identity construction and the diverse operations of power. Students are encouraged to unravel the impact that this can have on Black and South Asian women’s experiences of mothering and motherhood, and the ways in which they are constructed within social work interventions and practice. For example, group work is an effective platform to encourage students to reflect on their personal responses and values towards mothers, and to discuss widely held assumptions regarding womanhood and femininity. Similarly, utilising case-study material has also proved to be an effective tool for students to deconstruct personal values and attitudes. Students are encouraged and enabled to critically think about essentialising discourses and how such ideologies impact on casework with Black and South Asian mothers, and to question whether their voices are marginalised or silenced.

By applying an intersectional approach, interventions can start from a strengths perspective rather than be shrouded within a deficit model, where preconceived and stereotypical ideas and biases may influence and characterise understanding of Black and South Asian mothers. Intervention strategies in which meaningful awareness and reflexivity work hand in hand within an intersectional framework can form an important base for both students and social workers to engage with mothers in a more sensitive and agentic way, and can empower mothers to access support pathways and meet the needs of their children. Students and social workers need to recognise and understand the complexities attached to social location and positionality for Black and South Asian women, and how this shapes their individual subjectivities.

Note

1

It is important to explain the terms ‘Black’ and ‘South Asian’ and how these are understood. Whilst the term ‘Black’ is recognised as a historically, politically and socially constructed category (Hall, 1997), in this article, ‘Black’ is used to refer specifically to Black African and Black African Caribbean women. The term ‘South Asian’ is used in this article to describe women from the Indian subcontinent. Although both Black and South Asian women have commonalities in their experiences of racism and discrimination, the plurality of identity and social locations occupied by them as mothers distinguishes their experiences in diverse ways (Bernard, 2001). The article specifically uses both terms to highlight my experiences of working with Black and South Asian women within statutory social work, and discusses the ways in which essentialised ideologies continue to embed an institutionalised vision of motherhood, where the image of the ‘perfect mother’ (Forna, 1999) is supported and encouraged.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dominelli, L. (2002) Anti-oppressive Social Theory and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Fook, J. (2012) Social Work: A Critical Approach to Practice, 2nd edn, New York: Sage Publications.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilligan, P. and Akhtar, S. (2006) Cultural barriers to the disclosure of child sexual abuse in Asian communities: listening to what women say, British Journal of Social Work, 36(8): 136177. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bch309

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gordon, T. (1990) Feminist Mothers, Macmillan Education Ltd.

  • Green, F. (2015) Re-conceptualising motherhood: reaching back to move forward, Journal of Family Studies, 21(3): 196207. doi: 10.1080/13229400.2015.1086666

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hall, S. (1997) The spectacle of the other, in S. Hall (ed) Representations, Thousand Oaks, CA, and London: Sage.

  • Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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  • IICSA Research Team (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) (2020) ‘People don’t talk about it’: child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities, 2020: 24.

    • Search Google Scholar
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