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Ethnic minority women: race and gender in "Asia's world city"

Unkind looks on the MTR, judged for not looking like or having the same skin colour as the majority and even getting turned away from jobs solely because of ethnicity. Ethnic minorities face discrimination on almost every corner of Hong Kong's streets.

More than 80% of ethnic minorities said they face discrimination on a day to day basis, such as in shops, markets or restaurants in a study done by the City University of Hong Kong.

It can be even tougher for ethnic minority women, who may face both racial and gender discrimination. On top of that, the city has seen a big change over the past year from its usual buzzing atmosphere amid an ongoing pandemic and over a year of social unrest that fills the air with unwavering tension.

Ethnic minority women account for more than 100,000 of the 7.4 million population, with the majority being South Asian. This excludes foreign domestic helpers, who make up a large chunk of the female population according to the 2016 Population By-Census

Marium Fatima Awan, 22, a Hong Konger by nationality says she's been turned away from jobs because of her Pakistani ethnicity. 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, with the ability to read, write and speak Cantonese fluently, Ms Awan says that’s done anything but work to her advantage. In fact, it’s proven a double standard. Employers expect her to speak more than two languages because of her ethnic background. 

But not all ethnic minorities can pick up the local language that easily. Ms Awan says more needs to be done to include and inform them about what goes on in the city. 

The younger generations were reported to have a better understanding of Cantonese, according to data from The Census and Statistics Department. In 2016, almost 65% of ethnic minorities aged between five and 14 were able to read the language. 

“Usually it takes [the government] days to even get to English press releases,” she said. “It is clearly written Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong,”

Ms Awan says she strongly believes in the city despite the many challenges it has faced and the uncertainty that continues to grow.

“Even with everything happening, I'm still somehow hopeful of a future in Hong Kong,” she said. “I don't see myself anywhere else, I grew up here, I was born here,”

Henrietta Emeka, 31, came to Hong Kong over two years ago from Nigeria and is a lecturer at HKU Space. With a basic understanding of the language, culture and norms, she still feels like an outcast in the city because of the colour of her skin. 

But apart from the odd looks and encounters when getting groceries at the supermarket or riding taxis, Ms Emeka says she has faced discrimination in the classroom too. 

When completing her masters in Hong Kong, she found it hard mingling with the other students and getting into groups for projects. When she brought it up with her professor, hopeful for a solution, she was met with neglect and a cold shoulder. 

“It hasn't been the best,” Ms Emeka said.

Representation is important to Ms Emeka, she likes to see women like herself represented in high ranking positions. She met an African woman who is the head of FinTech at a prominent international bank branch in Hong Kong.

“A black lady from Nigeria who has such a position in Hong Kong,” she said. “It's great to see,”

Ms Emeka said she was hopeful for a long-term future in Hong Kong when she first arrived more than two years ago, however, her plans quickly changed.

“I used to have a plan to stay for maybe 10 years, now maybe just one to two years,” she said.

Her decision has been impacted by the political tension in the city, as well as the coronavirus pandemic which has impacted the job market and limited her opportunities more significantly than ever before.

Hong Kong has both a gender and race discrimination ordinance. The former effective since 1995 and the latter since 2009, to ensure equal treatment and protection of all races and genders. 

Niru Vishwanath, an equal opportunities officer who works in the ethnic minorities unit at the Equal Opportunities Commission, says the problem lies in speaking up. When ethnic minorities are turned away from opportunities, or face any kind of inequality or discrimination, they remain quiet not knowing where to go or if anyone will listen to them.

The ethnic minorities unit, which was created in 2014, aims at race-related issues by handling outreach and policy work for promoting racial equality and harmony in Hong Kong.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people coming forward with complaints even though we know that there are issues,” she said. “Not all of them get translated into complaints to the EOC, and unless we have a complaint, we cannot act,” 

For ethnic minority women, dress codes have been a pressing issue in the workplace. Namely towards Pakistani women, who rarely work but when they do, are scrutinized for their attire, said Ms Vishwanath. 

Pakistani women have the lowest workforce participation rate amongst South Asian women, this was due to cultural considerations according to a report done by the Equal Opportunities Commission.

She said Pakistani women are often denied jobs or given ultimatums from employers regarding their headscarves, a religious practice in Muslim culture. 

Ms Vishwanath also said employers are altogether quick to be dismissive of potential ethnic minority employees because they are afraid of the effects a culture and language barrier may have in the workplace.

“There is a lack of awareness and information and not enough of cultural understanding from the other side,” she said.

But change needs to begin from the inside first, said Ms Vishwanath. She stressed a need for internal support within South Asian communities for women, in order for them to have the same employment opportunities as others. 

South Asia is known to have the highest rates of child marriages and lowest rates of working women in high ranking jobs, according to Unicef. These norms of women marrying early and not working often apply to South Asians everywhere.

“They have to fight within the community to get an equal status as men,” she said. “These are cultural gender stereotypes which need to be challenged through role models and community women themselves who take up these stereotypes and encourage each other,”

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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