Being a migrant woman at KSPW

Sri Lankans are known for their very long names. To the surprise of many, an average Sri Lankan’s name consists of a clan name, a first name, one or two middle names and a surname. While the majority of parents around the world go for a unique, but simple name for their new-born child, Sri Lankan parents make it a point to give their child a name that is culturally-unique, but most importantly, a name which is indicative of their lineage, thus giving a child a long name where a part of its last name can come before the first name as well.

So, it goes without saying that I, being born and raised in Sri Lanka, naturally have a six-parts-long name. Apart from the occasional running out of space to write down my name in a form, I have been nothing but proud and happy about the name I hold since the day I could pronounce and understand it properly. In fact, my name did not cause me any trouble as any other name in the world is expected to, because long names are the norm in Sri Lanka, not the exception.  However, upon migrating to New Zealand, the situation was not as smooth and easy. I had to spend hours explaining my name to university administrators to make them understand why a part of my surname comes at the front of my name too, but, eventually, ended up being called and referred to by my clan name and surname, with my first name nowhere to be seen. I had to make two trips to the transport agency and spend hours over the phone to convert my Sri Lankan driver’s license because the officers could not quite fathom out what to put as my name in the New Zealand driver’s license. And to my disbelief, an immigration advisor’s ‘golden’ advice to me was to change my name and give myself a ‘white European name’, if I want recruitment managers to take my job application seriously.

At this point, one may wonder why bother so much about a name. It is true that troubles with my long name do wane in comparison with other grave challenges that immigrants face in a foreign country, ranging from dealing with immigration work to settling down in a new society. However, my situation speaks more broadly to identity issues that migrants often come across in multicultural and plural societies.

Identity is an indispensable element in human life and it is something that is inherently connected to the essence of the self. It defines a person and shapes how an individual is representing themselves, and at the same time, it relates an individual to others in a society. Identity formation is a process where we determine who we are and who others are and where relationships of similarity and difference create identifications with in-groups and out-groups; identifications with ‘us’ and ‘them’. An individual’s identity however is not definitive and actually, is ever-evolving as humans tend to ascribe varying meanings to what constitutes their identity in different contexts. In other words, identity is perpetually being formed, de-constructed, re-constructed, transformed and negotiated. This whole process could not be more evident than during the migration process.

Researchers often describe migration as a “total” event because it causes a total reconstruction or transformation of one’s identity. Upon leaving their home country, migrants leave their family, friends, wealth, social status and arrive in a foreign environment with limited or no networks and reference points that are descriptive of their images back home. They experience absence of an in-group that share their values and meanings and would often be deduced as just another member of the social group of immigrants. Immigrants feel disillusioned when new realities of the receiving country contradict their idealized expectations and when they deal with alienating cultural prejudices and stereotypes. They begin to look at their country of origin with a new-found wistful affection, however, are constantly reminded of the realities that prompted their decision to migrate. So, a migrant wages a constant battle between realities and expectations and live in an ‘in between’ place where they belong fully neither in their home country nor in the receiving country. In the journey of integrating into the new society, the identity of migrants become highly fluid and plural. They sometimes identify themselves closely with their country of origin, native culture, mother tongue and religion and sometimes they call the receiving country their home. Their identity gets gradually and constantly re-constructed and the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ gets blurred. And the end result is an individual whose identity is transformed or negotiated and an individual who is also culturally hybrid.

Back to my story! Did I feel alienated upon arriving in New Zealand? Yes! Did I experience this ‘identity limbo’ where I felt no longer belonging in Sri Lanka, but, not belonging in New Zealand either? Yes, naturally! Do I feel my identity is constantly being re-constructed? Absolutely! Identity transformation is an extremely overwhelming experience to go through when changes in your lifestyle, surroundings and interactions are happening at a fast pace. It becomes even more challenging when you are a woman or a non-heterosexual person facing systemic discrimination and tone-blindness that can take place both deliberately and unwittingly in a society. At the juncture of gender and cultural hierarchies, a migrant woman has to make extra effort to create a self-representation that goes beyond her inherited gender identity and stereotypes. A migrant woman has to engage in a continuous process of identification and interpretation, to negotiate and re-negotiate her social position and to test and challenge gender constructs set by traditionalist thinking. This is where organizations like Kate Sheppard Place Women (KSPW) play a massive role in helping women find a true self-representation of both their personal and social identities.

There is one major way being part of KSPW helped smooth sailing of my identity reconstruction in a foreign country. Membership and belonging are at the very core of identity and studies show that a sense of belonging, a feeling of empowerment is an important step towards identity negotiation of migrant women. When I joined KSPW as an intern, I was part of the all-women team where more than 50% of the team members were migrant women, and in fact, the team is led by a migrant woman. Speakers who spoke at KSPW 2018, our first annual event, represented both migrant and refugee communities in New Zealand. The event was a forum for an honest and sincere conversation on representation of women and on building a sustainable dialogue on diversity and inclusion at large. Being part of KSPW team instilled in me a sense of being included in a space which otherwise would not have been easy to navigate for a migrant woman. Another equally significant way that KSPW contributed to the discourse on migrant identity is providing a platform for migrants and former refugees to voice their opinions and tell their stories because, as Adorate Mizero, one of our speakers, correctly reiterated at KSPW 2018, “we deny representation, we bury lived experiences”.

Having recently completed her Master of International Relations, Sachi Herath joined the KSPW team as the Communications and Marketing Intern. A keen researcher of identity politics, conflicts and countering new terrorism on the one hand and an ardent fan of Sydney Shelden fiction on the other, she finds relish in a perfect blend of reality and imagination. Sachi takes every day as a whole new learning experience and at KSPW, she does her part doing something that is closer to her heart, striving to build a discourse on a woman's rightful place in the world today.

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