Of Silk Saris and Mini-Skirts South Asian Girls Walk the Tightrope of Culture by Amita Handa (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003. 211 pages.)

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Zabeda Nazim



Using articles from Canadian mainstream media, discussions with
Canada’s South Asian community, and interviews with young second-generation
South Asian women about their relationships with school and family
during the early to mid-1990s, Handa sets out to contest the dominant
culture clash model that has been used to explain how South Asian adolescents
are “torn” or “caught” between the values of “traditional” (South
Asian) and “modern” (Canadian) culture. Handa argues,
... that women and youth have become symbols of the sets of values that
are seen to be in need of protection from the process of modern social
progress … certain notions of women and youth are mobilized in order to
maintain and assert specific notions of identity and belonging. (p. 19)
Also, she points out that “South Asian cultural identities rely on particular
definitions of womanhood in order to assert a distinct Eastern identity visà-
vis the West” (p. 19).
The book is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter situates the
central issues and questions she raises in her book amidst recollections of
her past experiences in Canada and her reflections on present-day changes
in Canada’s South Asian community. The bulk of this chapter focuses on
critiquing the dominant “culture clash” model in an effort to underscore its
inadequacies. This critique hinges primarily on theoretical discussions of
culture and identity, which become the theoretical framework for her work.
In the following five chapters, the author shares her findings, analyses,
and arguments. Each chapter focuses on developing one particular aspect
of her central argument, although many common subtexts and themes
thread their way through them. Some of the main themes and subtexts are
the invisibility of whiteness in relation to the ethnicity of browness; the centrality
of a white Canadian identity and the maintenance of white power and
privilege; and the positioning of young South Asian women by discourses
of East/West, modern/traditional, and brown/white, as well as their continuous
negotiation of identities. In the last chapter, Handa plants the seeds of
possibility for a collective political voice of opposition to racism built on
black and South Asian diasporic voices ...

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