Rowena Arshad discusses choosing your own identity



Rowena Arshad talks about her sense of confidence in being able to ‘pick and choose’ her identity from the various family, social and cultural constructs she has been part of during her life as a British woman of mixed Malaysian heritage who has settled in Edinburgh.

Do you have more than one culture in your heritage? Do you feel able to pick and choose bits from different cultures to make up your identity?

How much is your identity shaped by where you live and your friends, as opposed to your family, your cultural heritage, your ethics, your work or your passions?



In some ways I think I could say I’m a rolling stone that gathers no moss, because I’ve moved continents, countries, morphed into different cultural settings. So, that would be one way to describe it. Another is that, I have been able to pick and choose bits of culture and identity that I want to have, and bits that I don’t want to have. So for example, back home family is important, and even though it was just me and my mother, we still had meals together, and so, meal times, families having meals together, are important features, signifiers, for me. And therefore that’s how I’ve brought my family up. Birthdays, Christmases, events of that kind, family are very important, and so people sit and eat together. So those cultural bits I like, I keep them. And then the bits that I don’t like such as the prejudice against homosexuals and all that kind of stuff, I’ve ditched. So I think I’ve been able to construct my identity in some ways by picking and choosing aspects from the different journeys I’ve had in different places. I think that’s self-identity. Of course there’s imposed identity, which is what other people see of you. And that’s changed over the decades. When I was a lot younger, greener, less seeped in the hierarchy of life, I think I was much more conscious and worried about what other people thought of me and trying to prove myself, so my identity was heavily shaped by what I thought other people were expecting me to be. I think as I’ve got older and more confident I’ve begun to decide for myself who I am, so more natural in terms of that. One of the things that’s interested me is my grappling between the ‘isms’, you know, because of, growing up in a situation where class was clearly an issue, because of money, economic issues, the stigma of being the child of a single parent, living like that, and so gender was a kind of tangential issue. Then coming to Britain, and I think the class and the race bit have moved in and out of each other over a period of time, and so it’s fluid in that sense. I’ve never ever been hung up on identity politics, or identity in a huge way. I’ve never been hung up about ethnicity. And people who say ‘this is my ethnic group,’ and ‘this is my cultural group,’ I’ve often thought that was quite hilarious, because so many people move in and out of different things now, and there are parts of your ethnicity you can actually ditch, and there’s parts you have to keep, your colour for example, you keep, it’s not something you can ditch. But your cultural practices, of what defines that ethnic group, actually quite a lot of people often leave those aspects behind and choose different things.

Rowena Arshad discusses choosing your own identity
15 - 16 June 2011
Sound recording
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
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