Growing up, Arfeen Bibi faced an uphill struggle as an ethnic Pakistani woman living in Hong Kong.

“I grew up in a society that lacked ethnic minority female role models and representation in education and the workplace,” 34-year-old Bibi, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, told HKFP. “It was rare to even envision a life with a career, or [continue with] further education beyond mandatory secondary school.”

Arfeen Bibi. Photo: supplied.

Bibi said that at the time she was no exception to what she called a “vicious cycle” that traps many women and girls from ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong.

“The norm at the time was to complete secondary education, and then get married in accordance with cultural practices and pressures within our community,” said Bibi. “We had to struggle and overcome a lot of societal and cultural hurdles and other barriers in order to live our dreams.”

Today, Bibi is the Head of English at a school in Hong Kong, an occupation that stems from a deep-rooted desire to invest in the education of minority girls in the city. She leads a team of teachers in designing and developing the English-language curriculum for non-Chinese speaking students, and is constantly looking at ways to support them in school. This month, she was recognised on the Diversity List 2020: a list of 24 ethnic minority women who are qualified to serve on government statutory and advisory bodies.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, ethnic minorities make up 8 per cent of the Hong Kong population, including migrant workers. However, their voices are mostly absent in policy discussions that affect the lives of their communities and the city as a whole. The Diversity List aims to change that.

Photo: GovHK.

The list is an initiative by the Hong Kong-based think tank and non-government organisation, The Zubin Foundation (TZF). It encourages the government to appoint ethnic minority individuals to its advisory committees. Since its inception in 2016, TZF has put forward a total of 98 candidates for consideration, of whom 23 have been appointed to various committees by the government.

But entrenched barriers for minority groups, including discrimination, language obstacles and integration into wider Hong Kong society, remain. And according to the work of TZF, women and girls in the community face additional challenges.

“Many of these are cultural and include excluding girls from education opportunities, prioritising the wants of boys over girls and forcing marriage on girls,” Shalini Mahtani, founder of TZF, told HKFP. “They also face discrimination and exclusion based on the way women dress, for example, the wearing of the hijab, as well as skin colour.”  

In 2015 the Hong Kong government set a new target for the number of women appointed to advisory and statutory bodies. It now aims to appoint 35 per cent women — a five per cent increase from 2011 —  across their approximately 500 government bodies. 

“It’s rare to see women from minority backgrounds represented at the highest level of society,” Mahtani said. “And also, we have a fabulous list of women in Hong Kong who have achieved remarkable things. We wanted to show the government this.” 

Structural barriers

According to Bibi, there has been an increase in the number of ethnic minority females completing higher education in recent years.  But for many of them, it does not necessarily guarantee good jobs.

“Despite having a competitive CV, they still face challenges when looking for jobs as they are mostly judged at face value,” said Bibi. “There seems to be a stereotypical view of ethnic minority women in which they are reduced to just housewives. We should be given the chance to demonstrate our capabilities regardless of our outlook or hijab. There should be more calls for inclusiveness when it comes to hiring ethnic minority women at the workplace.”

According to the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report on Ethnic Minorities, one in every five ethnic minority households were living below the poverty line in 2016, and an overwhelming majority of South Asians worked in low-paid elementary positions. Many believe that the local education system enables this cycle to continue, rather than deliver empowerment.

Diversity List recipient, Bidhya Shrestha, hopes to tackle this by breaking down the systemic barriers in the local education system.

Bidhya Shrestha. Photo: supplied.

“Oftentimes, we overlook the fact that racism is a deliberate systemic issue that stems from existing institutions,” the 23-year-old of Nepalese descent told HKFP. “In order for minority groups to feel accepted, Hong Kong has to eradicate structural problems in the education system, like the lack of Cantonese support for non-speakers.”

Shrestha would often be called “lazy” for not speaking Cantonese, and missed out on job opportunities because she did not know the local language. Last year she founded Amma Ko Koseli, an NGO that invests in empowering women of colour through various workshops and initiatives.

“It’s a constant battle of being misunderstood,” said Shrestha. “People do not understand that there is a problem in the education system that makes it difficult for us to learn the local language.”

A 2019 study by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute found that ethnic minority students only understand 70 per cent of what is being taught in class, raising concerns about a lack of support for them in the education system.

File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

NGOs working with ethnic minorities in the city, including Unison and TZF, have long complained that schools are not equipped to teach Chinese as a second language, with teachers still basing lessons and exam papers on the mainstream curriculum.

The advocacy group Unison warned of the “de facto segregation” of ethnic minority students from mainstream schools. It said that 60 per cent of ethnic minority students were clustered in 30 primary or secondary schools, out of 870 local schools.

“While I recognise my privilege as an educated, able-bodied and cisgender woman, I hope to see a more accurate representation of ethnic minority women like myself in the media beyond the stereotypical image of a ‘helpless minority’,” said Shrestha. “I envision a future in which there are structural changes in Hong Kong to make society more inclusive for the diverse experiences of ethnic minority women.”

Lack of representation

Bhakti Mathur, also a recipient of this year’s Diversity List, told HKFP that a big issue for minority women is the lack of representation in mainstream media.

“Seeing people from your community on billboards, in advertisements, television, radio programming and as role models in society makes you feel a part of the community,” said the 47-year-old writer from India, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. “There is a feeling of ‘where are my people?’ among a lot of us.”

Accurate media representation has been a contentious issue among most ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. According to members of the community, many media outlets have reported a false narrative that suggests many of them are “fake refugees” who are abusing the asylum system, or depict them as “helpless”.

Bhakti Mathur. Photo: supplied.

After an unarmed Nepalese man was shot dead by a police officer in Ho Man Tin in 2009, some local media outlets reinforced stereotypes that caused outrage among members of the community.

“Police Kill ‘Savage’” read the headline of the March 18 publication of Sing Pao Daily that year. An Apple Daily report from the same day said that the Nepalese man was “not troubled by pepper spray because he was used to eating curry.”

In 2016 Hong Kong actor Derek Wong filmed himself in a sari, a traditional Indian dress, with his face painted brown, in a parody of the viral Pen Pineapple Apple Pen video. In the video, he mimics an Indian accent, while making references to mangoes and chicken curry.

“I believe it is important to break down stereotypes or preconceived notions of ethnic minority women in Hong Kong,” said Bibi. “Employers tend to jump to the wrong conclusions about ethnic minority women based on the cultural stereotypes or gender roles presented to them through popular culture. I think it becomes crucial to introduce them to real women, like the 24 individuals from this year’s Diversity List, who can answer questions and share experiences.”

“I hope ethnic minority women feel that this is their city and that Hong Kong is home,” said Mathur. “I hope they receive opportunities for a world-class education and develop the skills that make them contributing members of society in whatever field they choose.”

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Rhea Mogul

Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.