My gender, race and culture are each equally important to me

Blog by Sana Butt, Workplace Events Coordinator, on how her gender, race and culture are equally important, and equally a huge part of who she is.

As part of our Same But Different photographic project that that celebrates and shines a light on the diversity of women in the workplace, we asked Sana Butt, Workplace Events Coordinator, to share her unique experiences with us. Here is Sana's honest and open perspective.

It’s a tradition in my culture that when a baby is born, Indian sweets are handed out to close family and friends: Pedas for the girls and Ladoos for the boys. When I was born, my mother followed tradition and sent my father’s parents Pedas. They refused to accept them, because I was a girl. They wanted a grandson. I was disregarded by family because of my gender from the moment I was born. 

In my case there is an overlap in gender, race and culture, each equally important to me and equally a huge part of who I am.

- Sana Butt,
Workplace Events Coordinator

I am a British Pakistani woman and that comes with its challenges. Gender has not been the only influential factor for me - culture has played a huge part too. I’m proud of my culture, from our national dress to the values which are ingrained in our upbringing, but I don’t think that should stop me from being who I want to be.

I was the first grandchild from my father’s side to go on to attend university. Whilst further education was never discouraged, my father was not too impressed with my decision to move far away from home – and yes, an hour from home was deemed too far for me to study. So many conversations started with “What is the need for you to go to London to study? Can you not find a university closer to home? Our girls don’t leave home like this.” It’s that last bit that infuriates me every time. It made me feel like I was rebelling, doing something that was taboo. To make it sound even more authoritative, it was said in Punjabi. I wonder how many other British Pakistani women have heard this or something similar whilst growing up?

I tried to keep calm and patiently explain to my father that my course required me to attend a London-based university. He continued to challenge me with: “Why are you going to live there? Can you not commute from home?” to which I replied that the commute would be exhausting. These conversations continued for months; nevertheless despite everything, my father still drove me to London – though sulked the entire way!

To this day, I do not understand why I was made to feel like I was deliberately hurting my father. Couldn’t he understand that my decision to gain some independence was not that unusual? Isn’t that a part of growing up? I guess that’s the point: I’ve grown up in British culture too. Of course there was an element of parental concern, but this was a cultural and gender specific issue too. He grew up around his sisters who did not leave home unless they were getting married. He wasn’t familiar with any other journey for a young woman; that was his norm. Even his wife had to fight to go to college and was never offered the opportunity to go to university. She was married off and expecting me by the age of 25 – another fun fact I am often reminded of.

Pressures like this continued after university. The day after my graduation, my aunt made me sit at the dining table and mentioned the “M” word: “Now that you have your degree, maybe you should think about marriage?” Yup – the day after my graduation – because of course studying for three years was not for myself and my career, but to make me a more eligible wife. I have never rolled my eyes as hard as I did that day. I mean I’m pretty sure I sprained an eye muscle. 

I remember how angry that comment made me. I was 21! I still struggle to understand how one woman said this to another. I immediately nipped the idea in the bud and firmly responded with: “No thank you. I’m fine and do not need anyone looking for a husband for me. I have my own plans and goals that don’t involve marriage.” Since then, she has never mentioned marriage to me and I have refused to attend any weddings or other such community events in fear of being put in an awkward “Sana, have you met x or y’s son?” situation. Don’t laugh… it could happen.

The truth is, cultural obstacles can be put in our way so subtly that we may not even realise they're there. And if we do, we may choose to overlook them because we don't want to hurt people we care about, forgetting how the repercussions could later affect us. Culture should never be an obstacle but one of your biggest strengths. No woman should ever have to feel like she cannot do something because of her gender or because people think she is betraying her culture. 

We need to raise more awareness about other factors that may pressure women from BAME backgrounds. I am personally very excited about Business in the Community’s new photography project, Same But Different. It celebrates and shines a light on the diversity of women in the workplace, exploring their experiences of work which are influenced not just by their sex or gender but by other aspects of their identity too. I strongly recommend women from diverse backgrounds to share their story and take part.

Organisations are doing such a brilliant job in educating their workplaces about the importance of diversity, many looking to strengthen their gender and/or race initiatives with the help of Business in the Community. Whilst this is extremely positive, I feel employers need to understand that it’s not always gender or race alone that incurs exclusion or discrimination; there is a huge overlap between multiple identities – gender and race, gender and religion, race and religion, gender and culture etc. In my case there is an overlap in gender, race and culture, each equally important to me and equally a huge part of who I am. Employers should play a pivotal role in recognising this and integrating the idea of intersectionality more boldly in their diversity initiatives.