I’ve stewed over how to start this post for many days, no stranger to sexism, the plight of South Asian women is one close to my heart.
It would not be accurate to say that all South Asian women are downtrodden victims of the patriarchy; there are some like the winner of the Olympic bronze for wrestling Sakshi Malik, who have fought hard against what it means to be a woman in India, and there are others who have not only accepted the corner that society has pushed them into, but actively work to keep other women in the dank confines of obscurity.
While the saying “Women must be seen, not heard” may have originated in Victorian England, it echoes in South Asian households around the world.
“Don’t run outside, you’ll get darker.”
It starts when a girl is five, perhaps with a sharp word of reproach from her mother. The mother, however good her intentions is placing the numerous skills a child gains from playing outdoors, secondary to her appearance. With the prospect of playing outdoors taken away, she now has to amuse herself indoors.
To keep her entertained, parents supply her with well-meaning gifts of dolls and plastic kitchen sets. And so she plays with her replica pots and pans, perhaps even cooking up imaginary meals for her family, neither she nor her parents realise that she’s being conditioned for the future.
Our little girl is in high school now, she stays indoors during PE lessons and talks about movies with other girls who are afraid of getting tanned. They dream of Bollywood, the glittering dresses, and the glorification of love and marriage. As most teenagers are, she’s a bit of rebel, she raises her voice to disagree with her father, and her parents suffocate the first tender attempts at rebellion with such brutality that it never emerges again, not realising that this is how children learn to stand up for themselves.
She is told again, and again and again, that is not her place to interfere, that as a daughter, as a woman, she must be submissive, she must know her place. Her role is to mind the affairs of the kitchen and be obedient. She’s older now, a good cook too and she can fold laundry with an efficiency you’ve never seen before.
“She’s done with college, maybe it’s time we got her married?“
And so the hunt begins, parents put out ads, inquire amongst friends and relatives for a fitting match for their “well-domesticated light-skinned daughter.” Interested parties approach her parents, enticed by the white-washed photographs that were circulated. Some accuse her parents of deceit, she’s not white skinned, she’s ‘wheatish’.
Wheatish. Why would anyone choose wheat, the common man’s food, over the glittering white of the moon
She is rejected, and so the search continues. Eventually, a family is found. The boy has a job and a degree, a dowry is decided upon and the girl is paraded for all to see before disappearing into the house of her in-laws.
While this is not everyone’s story, it is by no means an uncommon one. What happens next depends entirely upon our little girl’s luck. The family she has married into may treat her with kindness and welcome her into their family.
Or she may face physical and emotional abuse, trauma and be barred from her parent’s home. She cannot leave because she has been taught to be obedient, to not speak up, she has told that divorce meant dishonour to her and her parents, and so she will suffer in silence.
And it is our fault. And that of her parents.
As a society we allow the appearance of a women to supplant all her other characteristics. A woman’s place in South Asian society is so rigidly defined in relation to honour that she is given to no room to breathe let alone grow. We tell her that it’s not okay to stand up for herself, we tell that she shouldn’t walk away from an abusive marriage, we tell her that she has no purpose other than to pop out babies at her husband’s demand.
While the men in society act as the physical enforcers of this role, it is often the other women who shoulder most of the blame. It is the well-meaning mothers, aunts and teachers who themselves have fallen prey to this line of thought that ensure the permeation of this false consciousness through another generation of girls being told to be submissive, not to fight back, to stay out of the sun.
The only way, and I mean the only way, to end this cycle of misogyny is start seeing girls and women alike as individuals, not as daughters, sisters and wives, but as people. They need to be allowed to grow, and ask questions, and argue and fight, and perhaps, most importantly, they need to be allowed, even encourage, to kick a ball out in the sun.