Continuing our discussion on migration from last week.
This was part of a response paper, in my migration class last semester, to "'We Don't Sleep Around Like White Girls Do': Family, Culture, and Gender in Filipina American Lives" (Chapter 13) by Yen Le Espiritu in Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends (ed. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo).
Espiritu surveys Filipino parents and children about gender and sexuality issues in their construction of the self against the Western white other through conversations with the discussants about identity, migration, gender and sexuality, and gendered expectations from family.
What “American” Means to Filipina (and Pakistani) Immigrants
Ideas of what it means to be American are resoundingly similar among Filipinos and Pakistani and other Muslim immigrants I interact with regularly. In the Pakistani immigrant community, Black Americans have a reputation for being uncivilized, White Americans for giving their female family members "too much" freedom, and to be American is to be white—and only white. In the same way that the author's discussants see "American" as being "white," many Pashtuns, other South Asians, and other Muslims that I know often distinguish themselves from "Americans" by insisting that they are not Americans—because they are not white. But not only are they not white, they are also not sexually immoral like Americans. To be an American is to be "free," "selfish," and deliberately inconsiderate of religious and cultural boundaries imposed on women but not much on men.
[Side note: a non-white (and sometimes a non-black) American can never pass for an American or be recognized as an American in Jordan or Morocco, both countries were the issue of my identity as well as that of my other American friends was a constant topic of discussion. When in Jordan, a group of friends were asked by a taxi driver where we were from. We all—a white American, an American who “looked” Southeast Asian, and I, a Pakistani-American—said American, which the taxi driver had a hard time accepting. He asked my friend who “looked” Southeast Asian where exactly she was from because she “looked Chinese” (she was not Chinese, but the assumption is that anyone whose eyes are slanted or narrow can only be Chinese). She insisted she was not Chinese or anything but American while he insisted that was not possible. We tried explaining to him that she is American, but he would not accept it. As for me, when I told him I was American, well aware of what his response would be, he said, “You’re either Indian or Pakistani. Which one is it? I’m assuming Pakistani since you’re Muslim.” Because, obviously, there are no Muslims in India.]
In the author's study, however, the Filipinos she talks to separate themselves from Americans as an identity because, she writes, they are cognizant of the radicalized history and relations between the United States and the Philippines as a former U.S. colony. This suggests that there is more to the question of identity and equating "American" with "white" than distancing the self from the other on the basis of gendered religious and social values. This is something I’m currently unfamiliar with in the non-American Muslim discourse on American identity. I wonder, for instance, how politically informed are many Muslims’ choice to not identify themselves as American simply because they are not white.
Gendered Double Standards among (Filipina) Immigrants
In terms of gendered expectations and the double standards practiced among the immigrant youth in the Filipino-American community, it is interesting that so many of the author's male discussants admit to their male privilege—but while the women sometimes express frustrations over what is expected of them compared to their brothers and male Filipinos, the males do not speak against it and do not seem interested in how the women feel about this. As for the Filipinos, it is fully acceptable, if not expected, of Muslim and, in my case, specifically Pakistani male immigrants to indulge in sexual acts denied to females, in the Pashtun immigrant community as well. Some of the Pakistani males I know in the city where my family lives, for example, have a reputation in the immigrant community for having slept around before marriage and even after marriage—but it is often excused as, "He doesn't like his wife, but he can't divorce her, either” or “Well, boys will be boys; what can we do?” A woman's choice to engage in extra- or pre-marital activities, however, would never go justified or excused. […]
The comments that Espiritu shares from her male respondents also sound stunningly familiar (269). Muslim immigrant men, particularly the South Asian ones that my family and I interact with regularly in addition to those who are active members of the online Muslim-American community, have the same idea of how to go about seeking a wife: do not marry a woman who was raised in the United States, even if she is from the same culture and religion as they are, because women raised here are "too spoiled," are too selfish to care about family and husbands and will leave their husbands and families on a whim, and sleep around and are therefore generally untrustworthy and unfit for
marriage to decent men.
marriage to decent men.
Just in Case a Woman Forgets She’s a Woman …
The author writes, "Because gender has been a marked category for women, the mothers and daughters I interviewed rarely told their life stories without reference to the dynamics of gender" (266). I can relate to this on a deep level as a Muslim, a female, an immigrant, and a Pakistani Pashtun. In my personal life, not a day goes by without someone’s reminder to me that I'm female and that by simply being a female, I have the duty to maintain my family's reputation. When I cover my hair, when I show my hair, when I wear sleeveless shirts, when I wear tight jeans, when I laugh or otherwise interact with males—all of these are a constant reminder to myself that I'm a female transgressing against my culture’s and often my religion’s wishes, the beliefs my parents hoped to pass down to me, and the expectations they have of me.
Critique (of the Study)
However, despite the rich information that Espiritu provides through her ethnographic study of Filipino Americans in San Diego, the study's shortcomings need to be acknowledged. The author notes, "Filipinas—both in the Philippines and in the United States—have been marked as desirable but dangerous "prostitutes" and/or submissive "mail-order brides" (271). And yet, while the female respondents address this by recounting how they are perceived by American men as sex-workers, the men do not address it as an ironic reality against their expectation of the ideal Filipina. It would have been worthwhile, I believe, for the author to ask the male respondents about the fact that prostitution, no matter its historical colonial roots, does exist among Filipinos. While the same thing happens in all cultures, including the Pashtun and Pakistani cultures, Pashtuns adamantly insist, "Oh, those women aren't Pashtun. Because Pashtun women don't engage in sex work. They cover themselves properly and save themselves for their husbands only." How do Filipino men speak to the reality of sex working among Filipinas, and how does it affect their understand of female sexuality and identity in the Filipino culture?
Another critique I have about the chapter is that the author constantly refers to the Filipinos as immigrants, discussing issues of gender, sexuality, and identity with them, without contextualizing them as immigrant experiences. That is to say, for example, that, yes, the second-generation male children have more freedom and space outside the home than their sisters do, but how different is this, if at all, from the freedom afforded to the same youth in the Philippines? For most Pakistanis in general and the Pakistanis I know more specifically, the freedom afforded to women in the U.S. is somewhat more than it is in Pakistan, but there is more focus on religion and cultural identity here because the parents and other elders fear that their youth, especially the daughters, might abandon
their religious and cultural values if the parents do not restrict their mobility and emphasize their cultural and religious obligations as Muslims in their daily lives. But do the Filipinos have similar ideas about religion and the desire to latch on tightly to religious identity and cultural values with migration? It would therefore have been useful for the author to emphasize the role of immigration among Filipinos' framing sexuality and gender while living in America.
Lastly, while the men admit to going back home to find brides because Filipinas raised in the Philippines are more decent compared to those in the U.S., but whom do they expect their sisters and daughters to marry, as they advise their sons to marry back home as well?