Being a Woman
Nicole Cruickshank, Asia Scotland Institute – 7 March 2021
On International Women’s Day, we can reflect on an issue that I have only just begun to battle with in my early twenty’s – conflicting identities as a result of gender perceptions. Illustrating this issue are two Asian women with conflicting identities who have inspired me.
Saba Sahar 1975 – Present
A policewoman, an actress and Afghanistan’s first female film director and producer, Saba Sahar survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Sahar’s career in male-dominated industries and her campaigning for women’s rights in the country struck a nerve with the Taliban who did not consider her roles as suitable for a woman. On the 25th August 2020, she was driving to her work accompanied by her young daughter when she was shot four times in the stomach.
It is the attempt to carry multiple identities, her inherent one as a professional woman and also the one prescribed to her as a result of gender perceptions, her role as a mother and childminder, that seen Sahar take her daughter to work one day and, as a result, her daughter was exposed to the devastating brutality of seeing her mother in a pool of blood. Sahar’s encouragement of women to join security forces is in direct conflict with how the Taliban perceives women’s roles in society and her assassination attempt is a warning of the bleak future of women’s rights under an Afghanistan once again controlled by this hard-line Islamist group. Sahar’s story is the embodiment of a gendered perspective of the war on terror which sees women experiencing the atrocities of war worse than men. Her identity as a mother and a carer serves the Taliban’s mission and reinforces their idea of the kind of Afghanistan they want to rule; her identity as a policewoman and film director does not.
Part of the U.S. political narrative of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was related to saving Afghan women from the Taliban. However, Sahar’s identity as a senior police officer is the epitome of a woman who does not need a white saviour to free her. Despite an attempt on her life, Saba Sahar will not be silenced.
Anna May Wong – 1905 – 1961
Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American Hollywood film actress. A female icon, she gained international fame and starred in both silent and sound films and TV and stage roles. Despite this fame, a homogenous environment of white American actresses meant she was always excluded to the supporting roles and never the starring ones. Her career was a series of these relegations, however the biggest blow came when she was denied a lead role of an Asian woman in The Good Earth, a role that was instead given to a white actress who used “yellowface” to embody her role.
Anna May Wong fell victim to Eurocentric Hollywood during a time when power was still disproportionately favouring the west and some Asian women were still colonised by white, bourgeois men. Despite her talent, intersectionality played a vital role throughout her career, with her gender and mixed-race identity limiting her opportunities: young, beautiful and talented women were accepted into this industry as they served film producers’ task of raising the profile of Hollywood, however only if they were white.
Anna May Wong was beautiful, but her race deemed her not beautiful enough. She was talented, but her skin colour deemed her not talented enough. She was a woman, but her heritage deemed her not ‘woman’ enough.
Everyone experiences the gender role of being a woman differently, and whilst I do not prescribe to the individual experiences of these two women and recognise my privilege as a white woman and as a woman having not experienced the atrocities of war, I prescribe to the global sisterhood movement and the shared power of womankind. I relate to these women’s conflicting identities, as my love of makeup and high heels facilitates my imposter syndrome for the professional jobs I apply for.
Being a woman is unfair. It is often a disadvantage, a hindrance and an obstacle. Being a woman is the conflict on the morning of an interview over how much makeup to wear at the risk of seeming too vain or not ‘serious’ enough for the job. Being a woman is being told by society that your worth declines with each grey hair and cellulite mark. Being a woman is being objectified in the club. Being a woman is the guilt for going back to work after maternity leave or not taking maternity leave at all. Being a woman is being called difficult for having an opinion.
However, being a woman is also wonderful. It is a blessing, an advantage and an asset. Being a woman is wearing art on your face every day. Being a woman is being able to wear tracksuit bottoms on Saturday morning and a floral dress on Saturday afternoon. Being a woman is being compassionate and caring, advocates for peace whilst also being worthy of powerful seats at the top table. Being a woman is being both an assertive and a sympathetic colleague. Being a woman is being both a sensitive and a straight-talking friend. Being a woman is belonging to a global sisterhood and using your privilege to support those with less, those whose gender identity also conflicts with their race, sexuality, religion and class. Being a woman is whatever a woman wants it to be.
So, this week I celebrate being a woman. I celebrate Saba Sahar, Anna May Wong and every other empowering woman. I celebrate my conflicting identities and the multidimensionality and colourfulness they bring to my life. I celebrate the different kinds of ‘woman’ in me, the kind that comes out in the office, in the classroom, at home and at the bar. Because these identities are all worthy, not one of them less.
Being a woman is great.
Nicole Cruickshank is a postgraduate student at the University of Strathclyde studying International Relations. She graduated from Heriot-Watt University in 2019 with her undergraduate degree in International Business Management and Mandarin. Nicole spent a year studying at Tianjin University of Finance and Economics and after graduating returned to China to teach English in Suzhou. Now, whilst studying for her postgraduate, she is working at Asia Scotland Institute as Research and Content Lead.