NRI

Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

The New Rosa Parks

The New Rosa Parks

October 11, 2010

NRIs are barely tolerated as third-class citizens in the Middle East. Is anyone going to fight back?



In 1955, on a public bus in Alabama, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to stand up when asked to make room for white passengers. Her action was seized upon by a young clergyman named Martin Luther King who organised the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which catalysed the civil rights movement and brought it into nationwide focus; segregation on public transport became illegal the following year. Further laws continued to be passed to make all American citizens more equal, racial tolerance came forward in leaps and bounds and black Americans began to get voted into public office – culminating in the election of America's first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008.

In 2010, on a public bus in Dubai, an Indian family of four sitting in the front row of seats (marked 'LADIES & FAMILIES') was asked to move themselves – along with several large bags from Dubai Mall – to the back of the bus. They did so without hesitation, and none of the other passengers on the bus were moved to speak up, many of whom were also Indian. The event went unreported and the family got on with their lives.

This story was told to me by a colleague who visited Dubai earlier this year. It isn't the fact that this family was asked to move that is in itself shocking, though fifty years on from Rosa Parks, it is certainly saddening; it's the fact that this only happens to third-class citizens - the Filipinos, the Nepalis, and of course the millions of Indians. An American or British family wouldn't have been asked in the first place, and if they had been, they would likely have fought back in outrage. Not the Indians. It begs the question: where will the new Rosa Parks come from?

The Indians, however, reacted with an apathy that is unfortunately completely understandable. After all, the key difference between those Americans or British who wind up visiting or living in the Gulf states and the Indians who do the same is deep and all-influencing: the Indians, almost to a man, have to struggle from the outset. The typical story goes something like this:

Pay an agent somewhere between Rs. 50,000-100,000 just to get 'sponsored', set up with a job and get your visa, perhaps via dubious channels.

Actually get to Dubai/Abu Dhabi/Doha/Muscat/Riyadh and find yourself crammed into a tiny apartment with ten other guys, queue from 5am for the bathroom, slave away on a construction site all day, come back to your mattress and collapse.

Repeat until Friday when you can maybe talk to the folks back home for a minute until your Etisalat credit runs out.

Saturday (or Sunday if you're lucky), start over. The work may be hard, your roommates may be irritating, your boss may be a horrible person. Just have to deal with it.

Some can't. One guy I know hacked it for three months in Dubai before flying back ro Kerala, his pride wounded but with a vision of previously taken-for-granted greenery and family to guide him. Those that do make it, and stay for years, can work their way up into new positions, more money, different and more appealing careers, and a huge contribution to the family assets back home. Modern Kerala is almost entirely built on Gulf money, and some folks become very successful.

However, even those more successful guys – those who have the means to house themselves and their nuclear family in their own apartment – cannot change the colour of their skin, and so it goes that 'Antony RG', with his wife and kids, having just spent probably thousands of dirhams at Dubai Mall, gets asked to move to the back. After struggling for so long, often for so little, it isn't at all surprising that he doesn't want to cause a fuss. He would risk losing his job, his house, his career, and even his right to stay in the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, he would personally stand to gain nothing more than a maintained ego at the end of perhaps decades' worth of striving.

There is an obvious and important difference between Rosa Parks and 'Antony RG': Parks was in her own country, and standing up to her own discriminatory law. 'Antony', and all of his fellow Indians in the Gulf, are very much outsiders – perhaps even third-class citizens, after Emiratis and whites – and at bottom the UAE isn't his place, his land. His struggle is with dealing with that land, with its unfamiliar laws, desert heat and discriminatory attitudes, and not with fighting back against them. It is a struggle that seems to be self-perpetuating, a cycle of low standards, apathetic struggle and grim acceptance; struggling to live in the dire situation presented, using up all the energy that could be used to struggle against it.

Where will the new Rosa Parks come from? I have no idea. But wherever she does from, once she's found that desire and energy to struggle, I hope she brings her extended family to help her fight.


31 Comments

  • Ahmed
    By
    Ahmed
    22.10.12 01:09 AM
    The fact about us Indians is that we simply suck it up.
    We sucked up the ill treatment by the British Colonizers and we will continue to suck up being second class citizens.
    The reasons why they don't treat Americans this way is because Americans would be assertive. The day we start being assertive we will be treated better.
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    22.11.10 04:04 AM
    I really hope you stick with us. This site has an Indian theme but is really here for anyone that appreciates the content.

    We have a habit of occasionally publishing material that creates passionate debate and controversy. Many people have been offended by one thing or another. These people have included resident Indians, NRIs, whites and non-Indians of other ethnicities. You are in good company:)

    Off to bed now. It is night time where I live...
  • Keri
    By
    Keri
    22.11.10 03:52 AM
    Thank you! I really appreciate the speed with which you corrected your error.

    I am enjoying this site, as I am a non-Indian who really enjoys the Indian culture. However, there have been a few times when I've wondered, "Why am I even bothering?", when I've faced some moments of prejudice, as bought out in my other post. I will read the other story now. I just wish I had known about this site a few months ago, when I could have actively participated in the discussions at the time, rather than coming in with an afterthought.

    Thank you again.
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    22.11.10 03:44 AM
    Keri, please accept my sincere apologies, as the editor, for this oversight which has now been corrected. I am thoroughly embarrassed and hope this error did not detract too much from your enjoyment of the rest of the site. Thank you for bringing this to my attention and I hope to see further comments from you in the future.

    BTW I say your recent comment on the Multicultural Mayhem piece regarding discrimination by Indians against black people. We previously covered this issue and I attach a link to that story for your convenience.

    http://www.the-nri.com/index.php/2010/08/adventures-of-black-man-in-india/
  • Keri
    By
    Keri
    22.11.10 03:12 AM
    Hi, interesting article, but I was just wondering one thing: this article speaks of Rosa Parks. So who's the woman in the picture? That certainly is NOT Rosa Parks, and as a Black American, I'm a bit offended that you couldn't get the picture of such an international icon correct.
  • RR
    By
    RR
    15.11.10 01:51 PM
    It is sad that Joseph after living for long in the middle east region is not aware of the situation. Maybe he is one of those who believe in, close the eye make money & exist. I wonder from which part of India he belongs to.

    There are incident where Local children push & touch Asian's Ladies in the mall & if a voiced the answer is "This is my country". This is known other than the city mentioned in the article.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    27.10.10 05:31 PM
    Sandy, thank you very much for the inside knowledge. You work in Dubai, then?

    experience, my goodness, I hope I didn't sound like the typical complanatory foreigner above! Don't get me wrong, I have learned a lot about the nature of racism and what it feels like to look and behave very differently to 99% of the population. I see those more negative experiences not as things I have to suffer through, but simply a result of my being so different and something that I alone cannot change.

    When it comes to whether or not avoiding racial beatings or name-calling in the street is lucky, I prefer to look at such events from the opposite perspective - I am disgusted that things like this happen anywhere. As a Westerner who experiences something vaguely similar (albeit much, much tamer), my experiences don't make me feel fortunate about where I'm from; in fact, being 'on the other side' has made me more embarrassed and angered by reports of racial abuse in Western countries.

    As for respecting the norms of the country you live in, I completely agree. The same should and does apply to India. Did something I wrote seem disrespectful?
  • experiences
    By
    experiences
    27.10.10 05:29 PM
    Perhaps you and others might also understand why Indians get upset when people like Paul Henry are about. Imagine if an Indian newscaster had gone on national TV and racially ridiculed your name and country? Assume that you were born and had grown up in India and were in a position of political power in India and the same person questioned your Indianness because of your name and colour on national television? And then the channel says "well it's ok, he just said what everyone is thinking"?

    How would you feel? Not great I would imagine.
  • experience
    By
    experience
    27.10.10 04:21 PM
    Also, if you live and work in another country then you should respect the norms of that country. This is what the west has always told immigrants, why should the same not apply in India?
  • experience
    By
    experience
    27.10.10 04:19 PM
    Barnaby,

    Although it is unfortunate that you have to go through that In India (ie people judging and mocking your ways), it is perhaps instructive for westerners to see what it is like for first gen immigrants in another country.

    First gen immigrants to the UK and other places faced not only open mocking, but racist violence and institutional racism. There are still remnants of these things in the UK and other countries today.

    Hopefully, more westerners like yourself will have these experiences and understand how it feels to be a first gen immigrant. This may change their views, stance and attitude towards immigrants. This can only be a good thing for the world.

    You should feel lucky that you do not face violent attacks and name calling on the street because of your colour, because that is what many immigrants had to and still have to endure.
  • Sandy
    By
    Sandy
    27.10.10 12:30 PM
    The case is a bit different with the educated breed of Indians who work here in the Gulf - like the Engineers and Doctors etc.
    The do not face an open discrimination as the people who work as labourers do. However, in the Work environment they are not part of the Organization processes when it comes to Promotions, training for skill upgrade, and monetary compensations. Therefore they do face a different type of discrimination. Most of such Indians work here in a resigned manner, accepting their fate, and are just happy with the extra money they make. Although it sucks when you find a novice, who is a local, can become your Manager just on the basis of his/her nationality and origin.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    19.10.10 04:19 PM
    Thanks, Ashish. It's a tough issue to think through, and I don't have any good answers. You're absolutely right that the culture of the UAE today is completely different to that of the US in the 1950s.

    Sundeep, I just had a thought about this meek acceptance many commenters are talking about. While I'm sure it is often true of NRIs, I can't tell you how many times my different ways of doing things - at work, in the neighbourhood, simply walking down the street - have been ignored or refused by locals, and I've often been judged or mocked as a result. For white women, this is doubly true in my experience. I'm not saying this happens every time, but it's pretty often. That makes for an interesting distinction between Indians' behaviour within India and their behaviour outside of it.
  • Ashish Seth
    By
    Ashish Seth
    19.10.10 05:51 AM
    If a Rosa Parks was to come about in the UAE and attack these so-called conditions placed on Indians - that they're third class citizens - she'd be facing not the American culture the original Rosa Parks face - one traditional yet instilled with the values of freedom of speech and liberty. Instead, the new Rosa Parks would be facing a strict Muslim ruled on traditional values. It would be much tougher because they're government would likely value tradition over western conceptions of freedom of speech, liberty, and equality.

    Barnaby, this is an awesome piece. I didn't know much about this before I read it. Thanks.
  • Sundeep
    By
    Sundeep
    17.10.10 09:39 PM
    Very true...Gori-girl you are right. As Indians, we have been taught to accept everything meekly. Culturally the Indians do not fight back and are therefore docile workers. Docile enough to be trampled upon at will.

    I do not find this trait with others...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    17.10.10 04:42 PM
    'Some are evolved, urban and sophisticated, many clueless rural retards, some are corrupt, many corruptible, most honest, some fully conscious of what the whites / aliens may like or dislike, many may not (in the former case many such bitter episodes are completely avoided at the first place).'

    I'm ...not quite sure what you're trying to say here. I would question what a 'qualified opinion' is, too. Personally, I have opinions that were formed after personal experience or much research, but I have equally many that just feel right on a very basic level - I can't qualify them any more than a criminally insane murderer might qualify their right to take a life.

    Still, I hope that positive change does come about in relation to situations like 'Antony RG' and his family on the bus, through positive thinking and positive intention.
  • Loknath
    By
    Loknath
    17.10.10 08:39 AM
    Barnaby,

    This is a complicated topic that doesnt lend itself to a particular line of analysis and conclusion. There are clearly many Indias within India (if you may like to comment on why India should be many countries..linkedin post on we love india group). Some are evolved, urban and sophisticated, many clueless rural retards, some are corrupt, many corruptible, most honest, some fully conscious of what the whites / aliens may like or dislike, many may not (in the former case many such bitter episodes are completely avoided at the first place). When you look at any ordinary Indian family, the underlying forces of family bonding is based on security and dependability...something that our rulers never gave us. Family elders teach us not to trust any "outsider" and such an outsider could be anyone..incl. people of lower castes, people from income groups lower than theirs, people from professions "meaner" than theirs, people from other religions and color of skin. Somewhere deep within this is built into the genetic code. Everything else is so unimportant. e.g. fighting for rights and self-respect is the last thing that is taught to Indians..be at home or school. I guess with 1000's of years of alien rule (that is still continuing), Indians have lost all self-respect and hence are apathetic. Call them whatever, do them whatever..even in their own land most are likely to just mute listeners and worse still many will be mute spectators. When they see a white man in an unexpected place, most marginal folks tend to assume that their wallets are fatter and its ok to fleece him for a while. Some do it consciously..some do it with a dishonest expectation.

    Will the change happen in a manner that is consistent to what the first world is used to ? I believe yes. With rising incomes and opportunities for the people who were completely closed to the world outside for 1000's of years, its only now that people have some qualified opinions of their own. They still may not protest physically but yes they will voice it out in the most apt manner.
  • Mathew Mathew
    By
    Mathew Mathew
    16.10.10 06:00 AM
    Barnaby, Even babies prefer fair skinned people! Really.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    15.10.10 12:12 PM
    Alfred, glad you thought I was talking sense! What you say about acceptance being conditioned into the culture - I'm inclined to agree, at least on the surface. I see it all the time here: locals humbling and discrediting themselves in the face of foreign desires, often to ridiculous extremes. It's mostly superficial here because this is Kerala and it is their land, but I imagine that once you're away in a pretty hostile environment, that servile and just-get-through-it part of yourself becomes a good deal stronger.

    Daisy, I actually think colour of skin has everything to do with it, just like it did last night when a rickshaw driver expected me to pay twice the usual rate and foot the bill for a young student he picked up - because I am a saip. I try to see people simply as people, but I'm becoming increasingly aware that racial divides are very real and often very difficult to work around. The circumstances are key, yes, but dishearteningly often, a huge factor in those circumstances is the colour of your skin.
  • Daisy
    By
    Daisy
    14.10.10 09:27 PM
    I think both Gori and Jones are making broad generalisations above when they think non-White people are conditioned to accept a given situation. It really depends upon the situation they are in. you can't argue that 1 billion people of India behave in the same manner because of economic or non-economic interests.

    I think it's ridiculous to think that a White-skinned businessman won't safeguard his business interests in complicated situations. In fact it's quite the opposite and very justifiably so.

    And I don't see what the colour of the skin has to do with it. I think we are completely missing the context here if we don't ask the question in what situation a particular person is in order to understand his/her behaviour.

    But as I said before, Barnaby has made a good point about he exploitative tendencies of the Gulf employers and the helplessness of the Indians in that situation.
  • Alfred Jones
    By
    Alfred Jones
    14.10.10 07:48 PM
    Barnaby hits on most of the factors that produced Antony RG's response, or lack of it, to what happened on that bus:

    -Mr Antony has a lot more on the line than a white Briton/American has in a similar situation. So he stands to lose a lot if he protested and got tossed out. (The poor and dispossessed are very unlikely to rise up in revolt because their primary and daily concern is meeting the very basic needs of survival.)

    -He is an alien in a different country. That "otherness" tends to have a damping effect on one's impulse to stand out and protest something in public.

    And Gori Girl makes a great point, Indians generally, and folks from lots of other non-white countries, grow up culturally conditioned to be more accepting of discrimination at home and abroad than their white counterparts. She is also right about this conditioning predating British colonization.

    Whatever this conditioning is, what it ends up doing is instill a sense of priorities where we're willing to endure a lot more discrimination so long as doing so ensures continued economic betterment. Don't get me wrong, economic betterment is a fairly universal impulse in all of us, white and non. But I think there is a big difference between those two groups in the *degree* to which it dominates other priorities, like being spoken to civilly and treated fairly by others.

    There are always exceptions of course but in general, the importance one gives to fair and respectful treatment of oneself and others depends on how much you care about it in the larger scheme of things. And that larger scheme looks very different for the average itinerant westerner than it does for an Indian emigre' in the Middle East.

    What I do see each time I visit India is, younger, urban, Indians are a far more confident and self assured lot than we were twenty years ago. In other words, they aren't willing to take as much sh*t from anyone as their predecessors were, ahem. And that is a good thing.
  • Daisy
    By
    Daisy
    13.10.10 02:14 PM
    Barnaby, Yes your point was clear in this post. You are right that Indians have a tough time dealing with the system there.

    It's also true that the ones who go to the Gulf are the ones who have not been able to make it to the West. Which means they don't have a choice but to live with it, especially when they come into a bondage under their employer because their passport is taken away and the legal system works against them.

    The Gulf countries do it because they know there is no international pressure on them to reform their human rights situation.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    13.10.10 09:58 AM
    The point of the article wasn't to make generalisations about the accepting or apathetic nature of Indians - I wanted to give a sense of how difficult it must be, after years of struggle for each individual just to survive in the Middle East, to have any reserves left for fighting a discriminatory system. That system does, however, breed a certain kind of apathy and acceptance. I think Indians are intrinsically as apathetic or accepting as most other races I've had contact with.
  • Daisy
    By
    Daisy
    13.10.10 08:44 AM
    What Barnaby wrote is very true. No, self-esteem is very much in Indian culture as well. Anyone who thinks Indians accept everything doesn't know Indians well. By arguing along these lines, one is only justifying the racist, ignorant and atrocious behaviour of the Arabs towards people from the Third World - even if the Third World people are getting a high salary in their Gulf job.

    Unfortunately, many Indians don't know about all this till they have reached there having spent a fortune in getting there - and are asked to surrender their passports. Once their passport is illegally seized, they are helpless.

    The West doesn't talk against the Arabs - even supports them - because of the economic and strategic benefits it gets from here. So, Indians can keep on getting exploited and the Westerners can keep on placing the blame on Indians for "being taught to be accepting," rather than focusing on the Arabs who are really the ones responsible.

    In fact, asking the Indians to move to the back of the bus is one of the lesser crimes committed against the Indians. There are far greater atrocities committed against them in the Gulf.

    I think it's high time the Gulf countries are brought to account for their human rights violations in the international arena.
  • Gori Girl
    By
    Gori Girl
    12.10.10 07:18 PM
    Isn't self-esteem a Western concept? One person's apathy is another person's acceptance. It all depends on the lens you choose to look at the behavior through.
  • Ravi Menon
    By
    Ravi Menon
    12.10.10 03:11 PM
    Barnaby, the points you make are very valid... Indians lack self-esteem, low confidence levels in public, which are qualities one is not taught in school or college... our education is still focussed on teaching a person how to pass exams and get a job in the quickest possible time -- so that one is primed for the marriage market...
    Culturally, even inside India, Indians are taught to believe that certain people are superior to certain others on the basis of very vapid criteria like skin colour, family lineage, caste etc... the difference is rarely made vocal, but reinforced at every step of social intercourse...
    Would also add that within the Indian diaspora, the degree of discrimination practised in the Middle East (or in many Western nations) varies according to the colour of the subject's skin and confidence levels projected... a black skinned Indian rarely commands the respect a white skinned one would...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    12.10.10 10:31 AM
    You all make good points, I feel. This is an article I very definitely wrote from a (gasp) Westernist perspective...
  • Gori Girl
    By
    Gori Girl
    12.10.10 06:55 AM
    What I am talking about goes back thousands of years before the British ever heard of India. The caste system, while supposedly no longer in practice, still left deep marks on Indian culture that are felt today. Keeping to one's place has been ingrained in Indian culture for a very long time.

    That's not a phenomenon confined to India. Most of the Asian cultures put emphasis on getting along and knowing one's place in the cultural whole over individuality and standing up for one's rights.
  • Mathew Mathew
    By
    Mathew Mathew
    12.10.10 12:51 AM
    Gori Girl,

    Indians tolerated the British for over two hundred years not because of apathy or fear but because of sheer helplessness. If it were not for Gandhi and his peaceful disobedience movement, India along with many countries would have been still under British rule.

    The situation in the UAE is similar for most Indians but with a difference. The Indians are outsiders; they have surrendered their passports and enjoy no rights of citizenship. Even peaceful protest or disobedience would result in immediate deportation or jail.
  • Gori Girl
    By
    Gori Girl
    11.10.10 09:41 PM
    Is it really apathy? Or is it more that Indians as a culture are taught acceptance. Westerners are not, especially Americans. We are taught to "stand up for ourselves" and to stand on our rights.

    Both approaches have their strengths and their flaws.
  • Joseph
    By
    Joseph
    11.10.10 02:56 PM
    Absolutely true...
    I grew up in dubai sharjah, and riyadh...Now i'm settled in india..
    But i'd say, not all indians are treated that way...
    my family or friend circle has never faced this problem...
    This exists in the lower jobs(Labourers, etc)...
    however, the proportion of well to do indians is lesser than the others...
    indians in western countries are more educated and hence more respected....
    In the middle east, if you don't have a good job, or drive a fine car, or live in a decent place, life could be hell...be it indian or bangladeshi or pinoy...
    And there will never rise a rosa parks because most indians there just want to "Make some quick bucks and get out"...

Leave a comment