I'm an Immigrant's Daughter, and This Is What Womanhood Means to Me
This feature is dedicated to our #NoChangeNoFuture initiative. From the Women’s March, to Australia voting yes to same sex marriage, and the #MeToo movement, 2017 taught us to look beyond ourselves and come together as a collective of powerful women who are writing our own history. Join us as we cancel setting one-dimensional personal resolutions this January and commit to being the change we want to see. Because without change, there is no future.
When asked what it’s like to have a Sri Lankan mother, many things come to mind: 6pm curfews (true story), a fully-stocked fridge of gourmet meals at all times, and a household that was built on hard work, lots of love, and more hard work. Talking about the immigrant experience in Australia is tricky to sum up, but Insta-poet Rupi Kaur, the daughter of immigrants herself, has famously penned the words that so many can relate to: “They have no idea what it is like to lose home at the risk of never finding home again, have your entire life split between two lands, and become the bridge between two countries.” And I think this sentiment is exactly true for my mother. What does womanhood mean to me? Surviving when you must, so that you can thrive when you can.
Today is International Women’s Day, a time for us to ponder the state of womanhood globally in its past, present and future. Closer to home, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, our current position looks a little something like this: On average we are paid 18.2 percent less than men and 50 percent of mothers have reported experiencing workplace discrimination of some kind. Furthermore, according to the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre, one third of all Australian women have suffered physical abuse from someone known to them, and one quarter have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. So I think we all, like my mum, are fighting integral battles on the various frontlines of society.
But first some context: My mother fled from war-torn Sri Lanka at the age of 17. She was both of Tamil and Sinhalese heritage, a combination of the two conflicting sides at war, which made her automatically fall victim to great danger. With no money, no home and no education, she fled to Amman, Jordan and then to Sydney, Australia. Her hope: Freedom.
Keeping a roof over her head was a literal battle. It meant underpaid jobs in shirt factories and stocking shelves at midnight. My sister and I grew up in Sydney’s inner-west, a multicultural melting pot, where I was exposed to traditional Korean cuisine, Greek weddings, and Chinese New Year all by the age of six. And one thing I know for sure is that my mother’s story is not isolated, it was (and perhaps today still is) common. Because of the stories I’ve heard and seen for myself, what I see in every immigrant woman— whether it’s on a train, at a cash register, or in a board room—is a fighter. To immigrate to the unknown, with little resource, takes a strength I’ll never know.
When you grow up in an immigrant family, you are given a unique perspective on the hardship of finding home in a foreign country. And it’s a lesson you learn young. When I graduated from university, I cried tears of gratitude, because it was an opportunity my mum could only wish for. It is why every time I look at my Medicare card, I am thankful that as a woman I have free access to world-class healthcare—again, something many women in Sri Lanka could only wish for. It's also why I believe being an educated, independent woman with a job and a savings account is solely off the back of my mother’s ability to hustle hard.
Watching my mother at her stove humbly, I am struck with one thought: Womanhood means resilience, and it is a skill I will teach my own children. Data clearly shows that as a woman you will have many different battles that come to your door. Our true test is fighting those battles and surviving them with integrity and tenacity so that we, and the generations ahead, can thrive to our full potential.