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How the Issues of Class and Ethnicity Qualify the Presentations of Gendered Power in: East is East

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Gender implies the physical attributes reflected in an individual, whether it is male or female. Gender, however, is a complex issue. The biological explanation to it is just touching the surface of understanding what really constitutes “gender”. Surely it is the biological term “sex” that labels us “male” or “female”. Whereas the term “gender” clearly implies the way in which male and female roles are socially conditioned by society. Below the surface, as one comes to explore the issues surrounding gender, it is most obvious that there are profound differences between gender and sex. However, it is the choice of the society, living in a certain period of time, which decides on whether to perceive this difference.

East is East, written by Ayub Khan-Din, presents a family of eight, where readers soon come to acknowledge the difference of appearance between the “Man of the House” George, and the “Housewife” Ella. It is evident it is a mixed marriage. George is a proud Pakistani Muslim, whereas Ella is English, born and raised.

Set in 1970 in Salford, United Kingdom, it is clear that the Khans are from a working-class background, “The set is made up of a fish and chip shop, a parlour, living room…” The reader also realises the fact that George is a man of tradition, which is reflected in the “set dressing, wallpaper, oil cloth, Islaamic prayer stickers…” Every society’s norms and values differ. However, the stereotypical assumption of who holds the gender power is almost always apparent in every individual’s contemplations. It is as though these individuals have been socially conditioned to accept the fact that it is the male who is the leader in this world, while the women submissively follow behind. Furthermore, in families with different ethnic backgrounds to the society they live in, there tends to be a strong morale of tradition, which is either imposed on the children, or they are given the choice on whether they would rather wish to follow the society’s modern norms.

This can be said about the Khan family. Although the mother is English and clearly not following her husband’s culture and religion, she has tried to raise the children into her husband’s culture and religion. The question lies in whether she is raising them into her husband’s culture because George imposes his traditional values on her, or simply because she wants what is best for the children. Perhaps she is doing both.

The first cultural issue is raised when George discovered that his younger son, Sanjit, has “got bloody... tickle tackle." In other words, he has not been circumcised. George expresses his anger towards the mother, clearly blaming her for the incident, “You see, it’s your bloody fault”. Regardless, it is clear to the readers that George is more concerned about the Pakistani-Muslim community’s judgment, “Very embarrassing you see…I have important arrangement to make, and now I can’t…because of this” rather than being concerned about his son’s health, as tradition implies that males must have circumcision for health reasons. Instead he is more preoccupied with, “All men think I bad my son having this thing.” Due to the family’s status quo, the frustration buried deep within George is expressed by disrespecting his wife, and his children’s own values and beliefs. The frustration of his financial failure has caused him to subconsciously choose religion and tradition as a source of control, which he can use over his wife and children. This is evidently shown as George is hypocritically forcing his children to follow his traditions strictly while he did not follow these traditions. Saleem, angry at his father’s hypocriticalness, bursts out, “If Pakistani women are so great, why did you marry me mam?”

Although George’s actions are seen to be hypocritical, perhaps there are justifications. Certainly George feels that he has failed in financial terms. Perhaps George feels that because he did not follow his traditions when he was younger, leaving his first wife in Pakistan and coming to live in England, he may feel that God is punishing him. Therefore, he may be trying to bring his children up into the culture that he had rejected so long ago. Perhaps if they are good Muslims, their God will bless them and the discipline he tries to impose on them will teach them to work hard and become successful and financially stable. An illustration of this can be seen when George arranges a marriage for his two older sons, Abdul and Tariq. Readers learn that the family George wants his sons to marry into are financially stable with, “Four butcher shops, two cars and a semidetached house in Trafford Park…with double extension.” The Shah family have held strongly onto their culture and religion, and perhaps George’s motive was to save his sons from what he had gone through. Alternatively, perhaps George wants to gain prestige in his community by marrying his sons into a middle class family. Surely he has a chance to succeed after all.

Interestingly, there is a great difference between George’s spoken English language opposed to Mr Shah’s, although they come from the same ethnic background. Surely their class difference is a factor determining the extreme variations of their characters. George is a working class man who is impolite, rude and uses obscene language, especially in front of the children. In addition, he uses physical force on his own wife and is not educated in evidence of his spoken English language. Therefore, his mentality has raised him to become a narrowminded patriarchal character. Moreover, his environment is also a factor, which may suggest that he came from a low social background.

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she argues that, “The enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, feeling that great numbers of people…are by nature inferior to himself”. George’s clear actions imply that he is superior to his wife and children. Alternatively, Mr Shah is an upper middle-class man who is polite, well educated in light of his well spoken English, and has disciplined his daughters. Furthermore, his wife is also educated and a “Strict Headmistress”. Clearly, his wife and Mr. Shah share the gender power, and Mr Shah shows respect towards his wife, from a minor issue that it was his “wife’s idea [who chose to have] attached bathrooms with the same carpet”.

It is apparent that their social class and the way in which each George and Mr Shah were socially conditioned determined their mentality. Both men strongly believe in their traditions. However George has failed to socialise the children into his religion and culture, except for Maneer who is a practising Muslim, “He was only trying to show us our culture”. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean he agrees with his father’s culture, which is different to religion. Alternatively, Mr Shah has achieved to socialise his valued daughters into his culture and religion. This could mean that Mr Shah did not impose his beliefs on his daughters the way George has done with his children, leaving Ella to pick up the pieces. Instead Mr Shah and his wife may have taken their time to educate their daughters between right and wrong. However, it could be argued that these daughters are obviously women, who have been taught to submissively obey the male figure, leaving them with no choice but to adhere to their father’s culture.

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it is interesting to perceive that men who may have not been educated “choose the weakest or the most ignorant”. Surely, George had chosen Ella because she was ignorant to his culture, therefore he could impose his beliefs without the fear that Ella would intervene. Whereas an educated man may have another perspective, “Women are extreme: they are better or worse than men”. Mr Shah may indeed believe in this philosophy, which had given him the ability to choose a wife who is better than him in many ways, and has helped him bring up their daughters respectively and modestly.

Indeed the female’s weakness is her beauty. If she is beautiful, the family can marry her into the family with the same social class as theirs, or a higher one. If she is not beautiful, then the family will try to marry her into a lower social class, perhaps as a last resort. Surely this ideological assumption implies to Mr Shah’s daughters. The readers gather that the daughters are not attractive from Tariq and Meenah’s reaction, “The one in red looked like she had a hair-line that started from her eyebrows”. It is evident that their culture wishes for girls to marry when they are young, so that they would not be left on the shelf.

Consequently, the play illustrates the clash of two cultures, and the gender roles readers perceive in the families presented. Readers feel sympathy for Ella, who is forced to make a choice between her love for George, and her children’s right to live the way they choose, with the beliefs they wish to live by. Although George has imposed his morals and values on his wife and children it may be argued that he has the gender power. However, the children are rebelling from their father’s demands, and in the end demand a change. Therefore it can be argued that Ella has the gender power, it hardly seems visible to the readers, however her children respect her. The children believe that it is their “Dad that’s gonna have to change… he’s got no right to tell us what our culture should be, he lost it when he settled here and married me mam”. The readers are expecting a change in the patriarchal family the Khans live in, and hopefully, in time the gender roles will become equal, “things are gonna be different around here”.

1. East is East, written by Ayub Khan-Din
2. Virginia Woolf, Room of One’s Own

Marwah Elazhary -
Marwah El-Azhary [Marwah Alazhary] is founder, editor-in-chief and site administrator of daralislamlive.com, a translation and creative arts website, publishing in English the works of influential preachers such as Amr Khaled ['Amr ’Khaaled].Read More >>

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