NEW DATA SUGGESTS SOME SURPRISING TRENDS IN DEMOGRAPHICS, RAISING TROUBLING QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT ASIAN WOMEN REALLY FEEL ABOUT LIVING IN THEIR COMMUNITIES
THE FUTURE OF ASIAN WOMEN – WILL THE LAST ONE TO LEAVE PLEASE PUT OUT THE LIGHT?
DR RAJ PERSAUD CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST
Attempted suicide is perhaps one of the most serious and dramatic outcomes for those suffering psychological problems. A strange paradox has been found in the research on Asians and attempted suicide. For Asians who are living elsewhere in the world, compared to India, and even more specifically in the UK, rates of formal psychiatric disorder are often found in various studies to be lower, in general. Yet in this community, suicide attempts appear, in particular sections, more common.
One possible explanation is the higher levels of stigma in these communities may mean Asians in the UK could be less likely to step forward seeking formal psychiatric help, or they may admit to researchers fewer emotional problems than actually exist. Another theory is that it could be that high suicide attempts in this particular community reflect more interpersonal conflict, such as intra-familial stress or marital disharmony, more than it would do across the whole population.
In a study published by the Institute of Psychiatry in the UK, young Asian females (aged 18–24) had rates of attempted
suicide, nearly three times higher, compared to those of white females of the same age. Over the age of 24 the study, entitled ‘Suicidal Behavior in South Asians in the UK’, found this startling difference, starts to disappear. Indeed, by the time you get to the age group 45-54, its white women who have rates of attempted suicide which are now four times that of Asian women.
Black women have rates of attempted suicide which parallel very closely those of white women across all age groups. This means that in the 18-24 age group their attempted suicide rate is around roughly a third less than that of Asian women. The author of the study speculates that it’s stress over arranged marriage, and traditional female roles, compared to the indigenous culture, which renders young Asian women in conflict with their communities and families. The close similarity in suicide rates between black and white women in the UK, might be interpreted as a lack of similar cultural conflict in black women.
Asian men aged 18-24 had an attempted suicide rate almost nine times less than Asian women and around a third less than white men of the same age. Black men in this age group had the lowest attempted suicide rates across any group and were half that of white men. A sociological theory here might be that a more ‘macho’ male identity across different ethnic groups, might preclude such a ‘feminine’ act as attempted suicide. Such a male identity is perhaps unlikely to be associated with happier marriages however in the future.
The study argues the particularly high attempted suicide rate in UK Asian young women is most likely to be related to their holding less traditional views in their cultural identity. The study contends that young Asian women are more “modern” or perhaps ‘western’, perhaps particularly in the realm of gender roles. For example, in accepting interracial relationships, sex before marriage and tending to be against traditional models of arranged marriage. This more “modern” or at least less ‘traditional’ perspective is likely to clash with families and communities who are likely to have more traditional views.
This and other research now uncovering high rates of depression amongst Asian women in the UK, leads researchers to argue that it could be rigidly defined roles for women in Asian society which is to blame for the distress which attempted suicide rates unmask. These gender expectations include submission and deference, particularly to men. Stress could also arise out of arranged marriages, and financial pressures imposed by dowries. All of these could combine to produce particularly severe mental and family conflicts for younger Asian women.
What then for the future – hopefully the increased interest in these alarming figures for young Asian women will mean more psychiatric resources being devoted to the issue. It’s also vital and perhaps even more important that the Asian community in the UK begin to pay more attention to the problem as well, and confronts the all too frequently suppressed question of the status of women in this community, which is otherwise adapting vigorously to life in the West.
I want to suggest a vision of the future however which may seem somewhat surprising, but could be a direct consequence of the issue as fleshed out here. There is a kind of cultural assumption that as you go West across the globe you are flying ever more into the future. It used to be felt that whatever new is happening in America, would arrive at the shores of Europe in the not too distant future. It is perhaps no accident that even in the US, it’s over to its own West that the cultural future seems to be mapped out, in the form for example of Microsoft and Google, and their geographic bases.
Julie AhnAllen and Karen Suyemoto, psychologists at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, have just published a fascinating study in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, examining interracial dating in the USA. They quote data that in they year 2000, there were 655,000 Asian–White interracial marriages; yet in comparison 363,000 Black–White interracial marriages. They also have found the statistics across several studies consistently find that Asian American women tend to date or marry White European American men, at a substantially higher rate than Asian American men date or marry White European American women.
If the Asian community doesn’t get its act together on its attitude to women, then perhaps this trend of Asian women ‘voting with their feet’ and choosing to ‘marry out’, can only surely increase. Inter-racial dating or marriage is not in itself a problem. Indeed liberalization in attitudes to racial identity has rendered it ever more common or ‘modern’. Yet if the voices of Asian women are not heard, does this data tell us what they are thinking? If it’s a startling demographic time bomb that is ticking under the noses of the Asian community, we need to be aware that almost like an attempted suicide rate, it could be yet another sign of something that needs to fundamentally change in Asian culture, in order to address the concerns of women and better support them.
Suicidal Behavior in South Asians in the UK Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, Volume 23, Issue 3, September 2002, Pages 108-113 Dinesh Bhugra
Influence of Interracial Dating on Racial and/or Ethnic Identities of Asian American Women and White European American Men Asian American Journal of Psychology, Volume 2, Issue 1, March 2011, Pages 61-75
Julie M. AhnAllen, Karen L. Suyemoto