“Good Girls marry doctors, it’s true, especially in the Desi community.
What, then, do Bad Girls do?” – Piyali Bhattacharya
Women of color experience an array of challenges at varying levels in America, in diverse sectors, and in different elements of our social interactions. Women of color have been the center of the more recent debates and conversations on race in America. But our challenges have always been present, and they continue to govern our lives on a daily basis.
As South Asian (American) women, there are layers of our complexity rooted from the generations preceding us. These origins can explain our intriguing intersections, beyond the perceived “exoticism.” For many, growing up and spending the majority of our daily social and professional lives in “non-Brown spaces,” in the surroundings of “whiteness” dominating every element of our being (sports, fashion, food, movies, travels, education, professional opportunities, etc. …), our “Brownness,” in various ways, has been perceived as exciting, “exotic,” alluring, intriguing, threatening, menacing, and more.
Additionally, we are subjected to antagonizing stereotypes, from something as subtle and minor as being perceived as “soft-spoken,” “shy,” lacking confidence due to our perceived “shyness,” to even more derogatory accusations of being “incompetent,” “submissive,” or even “flirtatious.” As ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), the confusion from our own perception of how we relate to our surroundings can also create confusion and discomfort among others. The enormous unappreciated tolerance we have developed for the walls that society builds around our existence, encompasses the depth of our day to day struggles for worth, respect, and acceptance, sometimes at the expense of our self-worth and self-respect, and self-acceptance.
As South Asian American women, many of us have to confront our “layered otherings” in the community at-large, in our South Asian (American) community clusters we emerge from, and within the confines of our own family structures.
This piece aims to achieve three objectives (in no particular order):
In part, I offer a review of the courageous, breathtaking, astounding, and sensational anthology entitled, “Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion” (GGMD), edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. Second, I provide a personal reflection of just a scratch of how I relate to the book…
… GGMD introduced me to a community that I never knew existed for the majority of my life, and in a sense, after knowing this exists, that there is a collective of women out there that actually “feel me,” it’s like a huge boulder has been lifted off my back…and it just makes you want to keep “jumping.” (Bhattacharya, vii)…
Finally, this piece intends to honor my South Asian American and South Asian sisters, women of color who can relate to these types of challenges, and ultimately women as a whole in an era where our diversity and our sincere and intentional unity is more pertinent to embrace. The complexity of our diverse intersections can make our struggles vastly different from one another. But these challenges unify us more than we know.
“Good Girls Marry Doctors” (GGMD) is composed of 26 essays written by extraordinary, courageous, powerful South Asian American Women writers, artists, feminists, advocates, activists, professionals, “non-conformists,” and ultimately “Boundary Breakers.”
This incredible groundbreaking book has received five awards (learn more on their website here: http://goodgirlsmarrydoctors.net/), and it does an impeccable job in “tearing down those barriers.”
I encountered this book on a friend’s Facebook page nearly two years ago when it first came out and I ordered it immediately, hoping that perhaps I could find my story or some kind of “connection” in there, somewhere. Unfortunately, the book had to sit on my shelf until last year, before I could get to it due to various priorities with my doctorate studies. Though it has been quite challenging balancing my obligation towards my doctorate, and other projects, I’m glad I was finally able to take it off the shelf last year, as many of the stories resonate closely to my struggle and my humanity.
A book like this gives my daily challenges some meaning and worth in this world. A book like this would have done wonders for “little Elsa” growing up. We need that “space,” no matter our preoccupations in our current circumstances. And once we have found that space, it reveals a freedom we never knew we could explore.
GGMD continues to remain by my bedside since I finished reading it last year. I have essentially been writing this piece for more than a year. It was actually, after reading some of the preliminary essays, especially Piyali Bhattacharya’s essay (the editor), “The Politics of Being Political,” which helped me get some courage to share this earlier blog post about my experiences with my faith and hijab, which I wrote in August 2017, and even a few weeks later, some reflections on Haroon Mogul’s memoir, another story that resonated with mine. Just something about GGMD made me hold onto it for this long before I could share my heartfelt reflections.
Clearly, there were pieces of each essay that assembled the pieces of my own puzzle of ‘identity intersections,’ and connected-the-dots in ways which hasn’t happened for me. I am not ashamed to admit my trepidations or the commonly articulated “crisis of identity,” as an “American Born Confused Desi (ABCD).” Not only did each essay speak to me at a personal level, I also appreciated the biographies on each of these amazing strong courageous young brown women authors at the end of the book, so we can know a little background beyond their revelations in the essays.
In the final bio and the last page of the book, for Mathangi Subramanian, it reads: “Her husband is not a doctor, but she thinks he’s pretty great anyway” (196). I thought that beautifully summed up one fundamental theme of GGMD.
Admittedly, I have delayed this post for some time. I guess my personal attachment to the book, intense reflection on the words from each of the women represented here, and my serious personal issues with perfectionism (largely from my OCD condition), prevented me to share my thoughts and reflections on this book until now. And even though it is awkward timing for me, I feel I have been holding onto this for so long and it’s time to share. These challenging topics are timely, yet timeless, and I know people in my life that would find value in these stories, and I would want them to read a book like this, to understand “my kind of struggle,” if it is worth anything. So if you haven’t picked it up, do it for me or someone you love, or do it to indulge in brilliant enlightening empowering written words from amazing inspiring women.
Ultimately, GGMD is a must read for all women of South Asian descent, and women especially from the younger generation; though it might be difficult, especially for those generations before us, to grasp some of the more delicate contemporary issues revealed. Nevertheless, it may help for men and women who do not understand the American South Asian women experience, to keep an open mind, with my reflection here, as well as the book when you read it.
Piyali, introduces GGMD with reference to how the women in this volume represent a feminism that is “intersectional.” (ix). Intersectionality is a crucial concept that contributes to an understanding of these experiences.
A few years ago, I came across this particular slam poet that captured “Intersectional Feminism” best for me. Intersectional feminism speaks the language that had been missing for me, and addresses many of my concerns and issues about feminism since my first exposure to it.
It was only within the past four years that I have been indulging in the literature on “intersectionality.” As I noted in a previous post reflecting on Arjun Sethi’s “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out,” intersectionality is a method or concept that was developed in gender and race studies for understanding how inter-related factors (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and class) interact and influence public policies, or how it can explain certain social phenomena. I instantaneously connected to this concept, as it spoke to every element of my existence and my identity struggles, my passions, my concerns, and also the kinds of contributions I want to make, based on what I have endured, what I have valued and observed through the stories of people I have grown to admire. It connected the dots for me, and I felt something I hadn’t felt ever in my life: “A sense of belonging” to a concept at least, that could provide an explanation for why I am, who I am. And that every part of me matters. And every intersection is pertinent to my purpose, well-being, struggle, and what I can potentially contribute in this world. This notion of “intersectionality,” hence, has given me an intellectual home, outside of my immersion with disciplines in my doctoral studies.
GGMD highlights the American experience of being a woman of South Asian origins. It is a book that glorifies parents of South Asian American children, but also recognizes a variety of diverse identity struggles for South Asian (American) women, hidden beneath what we see on the surface, and many times sub-consciously connected to that desperate yearning or conditioning towards becoming the “perfect daughter.”
The challenges women of color face are “invisible,” just as we are in the spaces we occupy at times. There may be some elements unique to the internal struggle and the struggle that is seen on the surface for women of South Asian descent. For many of us, our “beauty” is “exocitized,” our voices are silenced, devalued, or of less value compared to others. On top of that, we are subjected to extremely high standards and expectations through our cultural traditions taken from previous generations, and imposed upon us.
From both the internal and external pressures of “fitting in the mold” of society, the expectations our cultures place on women is prominent.
Thus, GGMD illuminates the beauty of “intersectionality,” in the stories of these courageous women, giving many of us the personal, communal, and intellectual home we have been craving for a long time; and ultimately enabling us to comprehend the depths of our struggles and experiences.
The “Layered Otherings”
Amid the interactions of the various elements of our socially-constructed identities, the “othering” of South Asian American women happens in layers, some of which remain invisible on the surface.
We eventually find more creative ways to answer that common question “Where are you from?” For any random American, the immediate assumption may be “India.” But even for some South Asian immigrants, it’s a nice conversation starter to build a connection, “You from India?”
“No. I am from Wisconsin.” I answer most commonly. “But my parents are from Pakistan and India. That is because my dad was born one year before the partition, and we were part of the Muhajirs that migrated from India (Northern Uther Pradesh, Luknow or GaziPur) to Pakistan at Partition in 1947.” Yes, I really do go into that history almost every time!
Additionally, growing up “brown” in the American education system, you struggle with a lot of social as well as academic challenges in the classroom that impact your identity formation in key years of your youth that continue into later years of higher education. At times, for many of my classmates and professors from college to this day in graduate school, I was and am an “international student,” even though I grew up in the Midwest, have a very obvious Midwestern American accent, and the smiles and polite-ness of a Wisconsin “Cheesehead.” Some people can’t see it until I say the word “Wisconsin.”
Wearing Kurtis and Salwar Kamiz (and sometimes the head scarf or dupatta) at school, at work, at the library, dining out, to festivities, etc., obviously didn’t help. 😊 lol. But for me these outfits were and are “American” because I am American. It’s amazing how different I am sometimes treated, when I wear these clothes, especially the assumption that others have of me, that I am not actually “American.” I often do social experiments in different settings. And when I do wear something with patterns resembling clothes from the Indo-subcontinent, something I find at a common and popular American department store, I receive compliments, but I can’t tell you how many times it has been labeled as an “ethnic” outfit because apparently I, an “exotic,” “ethnic” woman is wearing it.
Admittedly, I grew up wanting to have the body shape or features of my white girlfriends, and their nice shiny hair, that wasn’t frizzy and dark like mine, resenting my own features. I was an athlete, (from my father’s side), but nevertheless, somehow, as a kid, I felt I needed to work towards a body, stomach, and an ass like my white girlfriends. I was teased in middle school for all the dark facial hair above my lip, eyebrows, and of course my apparent sideburns. At that time, I felt something must have been wrong with me if I had such dark visible hair on my face, especially when my white friends had nothing as visible compared to mine. I don’t think people understand how much maintenance has to go into us desi girls trying to appear “cleaned-up.” It takes a lot of work, people. Lol. And it’s unfortunate that many of us feel we have to do it.
Our layered otherings emerge among society in general, our daily social interactions, among other women, and among other South Asian women, in many ways. The “othering” within the family, and within the “immigrant community,” is a “second othering” as one of the authors in the book highlights (Munaweera, 124), something unique to the “American” experience, and perhaps of universal relevance in other contexts.
The South Asian American Parent-Daughter Relationship
The crux of the South Asian American woman’s struggle from GGMD, as the title of the book illuminates, is embedded within the complexities of our relationship with our parents. In some ways, it goes beyond the parents themselves, part of a larger systemic dynamic inherited from generations before us.
Similar to the experiences of the women of GGMD, my parents have evolved with me, in my own evolution of personhood. My dad has traveled the world and seen so much, and he has always tried to be progressive-minded, actively with me especially. Because of them, I have had the chance to travel to their home country, Pakistan, several times as a child, and was able to develop a sense of appreciation for the culture, ultimately keeping the culture and religion in-tact. We only speak Urdu with our mother. She never wanted to speak to us in English so that we could learn Urdu. Because of my mother, me and my siblings have been able to speak and understand Urdu fluently, and value many of the beautiful cultural customs.
For two months at the end of December and January, 2017-18, I had the blessing to spend time and live with my parents again, but in Pakistan. I traveled up in the northern areas (Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, etc.) with my father for ten days, which became a “tour of a lifetime,” and for the rest of the time resided with my parents in Karachi, while I completed my exploratory fieldwork for my doctoral studies. We made a few travels together within interior Sindh, and together we drank karhak pyala chai underneath the stars in Nooriabad. Will never forget how happy I was being their and enjoying chai with the two most important people in my life.
I don’t think I would have cherished every moment I had with them as much as I tried to during these travels. I don’t see them often, possibly once or twice a year, so when I see them I try my best to cherish our time together. And these travels reminded me of my childhood of travels to the country with them. Everything was so nostalgic: from the camel rides, to the rakshaws, the dirt on the soles of my feet, the taste of the dust on my lips, the beautiful sunsets on the Karachi Seaview, even the trash on the streets, that distinct odor everywhere, the Beethoven music from late night peanut or popcorn vendors, etc… every little thing reminded me of those precious memories in Pakistan during the younger years, and with my Parents and my five siblings. Even the inevitable moments where the differences in our perspectives and ways were quite clear and evident, brought me closer to them, and taught me an important form of diplomacy. Because in the end, “good girls” always have to become diplomats in every way. Sometimes it may have felt I was trying so hard to not let the precious moments with them slip, too hard that it actually felt like it was slipping.
It is probably because of my parents, and their introduction of Pakistan to me as a child, that I naturally came to pursue Pakistan as one of my primary case studies in my Masters Capstone paper, as well as my doctorate studies. And even with my recent dissertation fieldwork in Pakistan, to have traveled many places around Pakistan that I never would have thought to have traveled, and with my Father, was pretty incredible, precious, and priceless. To have seen my Father do a lecture at his own University, where he studied for nine core years of his youth in Pakistan, the Sindh Agricultural University in Tando Jam, and to have had the honor to speak for a few minutes after him about my research, was wonderful, incomparable, and undeniably priceless and memorable, something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
I love my parents unconditionally. I guess that is what makes some of us “stuck” in our lives. The love is so pure and immense, we would give an arm and a leg to make them proud and happy, but at the cost of our freedom and our own happiness, perhaps. And this is what creates the struggle. Some of us give it up. Some of us rebel and don’t. Some of us remain stuck in this amorphous cognitive dissonance.
To give an example, there were times during my teens or twenties, I would cringe at the idea of “serving” and the idea of being “in the kitchen,” especially in front of men, or for the purpose of serving men. But one afternoon, an uncle came to visit our family home. We provided some of our desi snacks/appetizers on the coffee table and I was in the kitchen making chai. As the tea kettle whistled, my father asked me to serve them. I responded with my eyes, suggesting “it is right in front of you, you can serve yourself.” He immediately understood, but I could sense he was not disappointed in me, there was this dismay in his demeanor in that moment, as if he did something wrong, as if he felt guilty. Because of that dismay and the perception that I disappointed him, I was disappointed in myself. I also felt guilty for not following through with what was expected of me, and perhaps for not showing the necessary hospitality to our good family friend.
But later that evening, my father came into my room and brought me a snack. I scolded him saying he didn’t have to, I could have gotten it myself. But my Abu then responded in a beautiful gentle tone that I will never forget, “well, I just wanted to serve you.”
When you have a father like that, how can you not want to do everything in your power to make him proud and prioritize his happiness and his “plans” for you?
Though at times, we revert back to the “clash of civilizations” with our parents, as I grew older, I learned that they will always be there, and I don’t always have to “fight” them on everything. (At least not anymore.)
It was wonderful, from my last trip to Pakistan, which was 10 years after my previous trip, to have seen how the norms were changing gradually in Pakistan and elsewhere. So many of us and the previous generations have had to endure the struggles and many continue.
But like I jokingly say to my parents for several years now, “Zamana Badalgaya hai.”😊
It is a blessing I have parents that embrace that. I try my best not to take that for granted.
But even as norms change, some elements of the conditioning will remain within us. This relationship with my parents has allowed me to develop a patience, diplomacy, empathy, and understanding of different cultures, generations, and though those tensions will be there, the love from the parent to the daughter, and the daughter to the parent is ever-binding.
In some circumstances, it can be possible for us to be cognizant of the idea that these are cultural differences, and see them simply as cultural differences. That may be one strategy that can allow us to continue to co-exist with our parents as children of immigrants, if we recognize and internalize the presence of differences based on culture and generations of imposed cultural traditions that don’t sync with our values.
Thus, there are ways to work around those cultural barriers, and still fully love your parents and embrace their wisdom and advice. My parents have grown so much as I have grown with them.
People say that we have to stop “seeking approval” from our parents after a certain point or age, stop pleasing them in everything we do, because it is nearly impossible to meet their expectations. But that’s difficult to do when we love them unconditionally and want nothing but their love, happiness, and comfort.
This pressure is nail-biting and perhaps a suicide mission for those of us with perspectives and values that differ from our parents. I know my quest for perfectionism at times has been rooted in these cultural challenges. It is a suicide mission of trying to be a “perfect daughter” as a child of South Asian immigrants. And amid this quest, we are surrounded by everyone and everything that tells you, that YOU, and everything you embody, “aren’t enough” (185, Subramanian). We may never be enough for our parents. We may never meet their expectations, ever.
There remains a great deal within the family structure alongside the external structure of a socially constructed identities we must tolerate. That includes our freedom of Choice.
“…Our worlds are not without struggle. No matter how much access we were given, or what our socio-economic backgrounds were, what we were often not given was the benefit of choice. We were raised to aspire to dream, whether it fit our personal life-plan or not.” (Piyali Bhattacharya, vii)
So many of us had to fight tooth and nail for the choices we made. In the end, we are confronted with the sentiment of whether it was worth it. If we were lucky, our parents would understand. I admit, I was blessed to have such amazing parents to evolve with the choices I have made, and the current path I have chosen.
But this “box,” of our socially constructed identity gets smaller and smaller the more we learn about ourselves, and the only path we find is the path that will require us to tear down our walls so we can finally be heard.
And sometimes it feels we are “on repeat” for every layer or dimension in the social structures that tries to box us. For every wall we tear down, another one remains, or is created.
GGMD legitimizes our unique challenges as Brown women. For me, my challenges are evident not only as a South Asian American woman trying to fit into a mold and contribute in a world unable to welcome people as different as me, but I don’t quite fit the narrative and norms of a “South Asian woman” in “my community” itself.
These are the stories of GGMD. The stories in this book helped place my own story in a common yet still hidden narrative that invites further digging. Each essay spoke to a unique aspect of my identity and humanity, as it does for so many.
One particular essay by Piyali Bhattacharya, The Politics of Being Political, addressed the matter of “voice.” One line in her essay appealed to me with respect to my own challenges, in the context of expressing her political views on Facebook:
“But “vocal” is not a word one associates with a Good Girl.” (Bhattacharya, 38).
In several previous pieces I have written about how writing on my mental health episodes on Facebook has been a delicate, sensitive matter and isn’t always received well in both my personal and professional networks. But what people still haven’t been able to grasp yet, is that expressing one’s pain openly, especially when it involves a mental condition of any sort, can be a part of one’s healing process. Additionally, sharing your story and hearing other’s stories can help us understand, that despite the illness, it isn’t something I am “making up in my head.”
I have started my blogs to hone my voice, the “scholarly voice” and the “creative voice.” I began this blog more than two years ago to support that goal, perhaps in a way that can help me escape from my world and at the same time step outside of myself and study what is happening within me in order to determine how best I can cope with it (if not cure it).
Piyali poses this critical question, are we being “Bad Girls” for speaking our truths?
Does spilling my authentic truth about my mental illness make me a “Bad Girl” in my culture, my honor as a woman, my honor as a “Khwaja,” representing 900 years of “Khwaja history” as my father says, my honor as a Public Policy Doctorate candidate, my honor as a Pakistani-Indian American Muslim?
Is it annoying to hear me speak my truth because I choose to be vocal about my condition? Enough to be unfollowed by my social networks online? Enough to be marginalized among my various diverse networks? Enough to be put on the bottom of the pile for professional opportunities that I may be far more qualified than others?
Further, as kids in a desi household, we were taught to stay quiet especially among our elders, and most especially with our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. No matter if we held a different view, arguing was seen as disrespectful, and a form of “rebellion.”
Admittedly, I became a “pro” at “argument for the sake of argument” with my parents, and they never deserved my line of questioning their motives and orders perhaps, but it was certainly my form of rebellion. I was the only one out of my five brothers and sisters who would “talk back.” I was the black sheep in many ways. And I feel guilty about that now. But should I? In some ways and in some contexts, I should and I do. But silence is seen more favorable in a desi household; silence is more “respectful,” than speaking the mind.
Being argumentative and “talking back” to parents means I am being a “bad girl,” but is every argument or discussion where I chose to speak up, mean I am “Bad”? All I know is that there is a feeling of guilt there and perhaps a type of common conditioning that had thus created the confusion of what my place is and when I should be speaking up and when I should be silent. Does that make sense?
This mentality can condition oneself to ultimately believe or think that if we are speaking up, whether it be on politics, or on mental health concerns, we no longer fall into that category of “Good Girls.”
I was never proud of my argumentative nature. But if I think about it now, I believe it is what made my relationship stronger than ever with my parents later in life, as they evolved with me and my progressive values, and as I evolved with them and understood their culture and developed a great amount of respect for their customs.
Piyali’s essay thus discusses the parent’s concerns about her voice on political issues within online forums. In my case, my parents are not concerned about my voice on international and domestic political issues and social injustices. The concern has always been about talking openly about my mental health and well-being, and letting the world know that I am struggling with depression and anxiety. Of course, every parent would be concerned, but there is also the concern of how it may be implicated to one’s childhood, and to their parents. How the world will perceive the parents of the child who is suicidal or struggling with depression. I have never associated my depression with my parents and never will. Despite our differences, they have always been supportive the best way they can be, and I will always be grateful. But we just have to be careful of that conditioning in our desi culture that prevents us from exploring how our identity challenges and upbringing may have influenced our current state of mental health, without disrespecting or suggesting we are not grateful for what our parents have done for us. This remains the mental health paradox in our communities.
Granted traditionally, like any other health concern, most people do feel it should remain private. What makes mental health different is the stigma and social taboo that surrounds it to a much greater degree than other illnesses.
It is also much worse for South Asian American women, facing so many disadvantages from American society at-large, to have a mental illness added to their “layered otherings” and burdens of taboo in their social and professional lives. Alongside that, they endure the social and cultural taboos in their families, and immigrant communities, sometimes ill-equipped to find the value to take the necessary time to learn about these issues.
The “M” Word
One of the grandest “accomplishments” that often shapes the level of the parental-daughter relationship is Marriage. A desi girl is under the auspices and control of her parents until Rukhsati, the symbolic act at the end of the marriage celebration that emblematizes her leaving that control and being passed into the auspices and control of her husband and his family. That’s the underlying ancient principal of marriage in the South Asian context.
Okay, the way I write it, it is a bit of an exaggeration from how it’s actually practiced among many households, especially nowadays, and in America. But the underlying principle remains for millions in the diaspora as well as the Indo-Subcontinent.
It is an understatement to state how obsessed our desi cultures, Pakistan and India in particular, are with Marriage. You see it in the dramas, in the movies, in Bollywood and Lollywood. Shaadi should be the biggest dream, for any daughter, and truly a grand dream for a parent to get their daughter married.
No matter where you grow up in the world, many women develop a constant cognitive dissonance to pursue “individualism” over the “collective mindset.” I wrote about this in an earlier blog post: with a cute little metaphor comparing what Chai and Coffee distinctly symbolize in my life.
In my review of Haroon Mogul’s book, I also mentioned being an unmarried desi girl in her 30’s, who’s marriage, among a 6-sibling dynamic, all five of whom are married and some with kids, is determined as the “Grand Finale.” Whew! That’s quite a lot of pressure, much of which I have concocted and reinforced in my head of course, but regardless of where it came from, I try my best to refrain from this topic in every way possible.
This pursuit of marriage vs. career life, is a universal internal jihad or conflict for women, but it has increasingly been an issue for many South Asian American women past their 30’s, unable to find a future companion. Many of us have tried and have successfully torn down these barriers, norms, standards, taboos, and continue to do so. Focusing on our careers and putting off family and marriage and kids, or just putting it to the side, or perhaps taking it out of the picture completely.
But nevertheless, scarred and embedded deep within our minds and souls is this notion of what we are “supposed to be” in our families, what values we are “supposed to represent.”
This includes: being married, settled, stable, and with lots and lots of children…
As part of a conditioning of some sort, sometimes I give into that sentiment that I am supposed to feel I am a bit of an embarrassment, while all my young cousins and younger brothers and youngest sister have gotten married, and me, well…I remain the black sheep in yet another way.
I chose an “unconventional” path, as truthfully, in proportion to the majority, few women of South Asian decent do. Whether it is “Good” or “Bad,” depends on who you are talking to. We have been seeing more and more South Asian (American) women now following this supposed “unconventional path”, but still limited in numbers.
Admittedly, for a long time, I did not know there were other women who struggled with the same issues. This is quite sad. But this ignorance manifests the reality of how much the norm breaking South Asian women become alienated, “outcasted,” and scrutinized within their own communities. Many of us are pushed into the margins. People don’t realize it. We don’t realize it.
Perhaps some of us push ourselves there, and hence, over time, find a home there. In the outskirts. And we create our own little worlds, spaces where we can dream, bigger than what we are “supposed to be dreaming” in the confines of our “socially constructed identities.”
At times, at this age, when I am visiting Pakistani families on my own, I feel I am not as respected or treated with as much hospitality, as if I would be when I come with a family member, because it is just me, Elsa. Single woman. No man. No kids. No Parents around. No family.
Too often, I have felt that I mean less because I don’t have a man attached to me, my life and who I am is less significant because I don’t have a man in my life. This is another universal concept, but it is compounded for South Asian American women, especially those that are past a certain age, with respect to the cultural norm of “marriageable age.”
I know if I didn’t have a career, my doctorate pursuit, something going for me, I would be further looked down upon by members in the “community.” My golly, an unmarried woman at 34, what is she doing with her life?
I get that a lot even as I have been pursuing my education. “You need to get married!” people say! Marriage will solve all your problems. Even conversations with taxi drivers, (which are perhaps the most riveting conversations I have had), has invited that dialogue.
One Somali Muslim taxi driver, while dropping me back home from the airport in Northern, Virginia, actually became so angry he started lecturing me and reciting duas in Arabic, and considering the number of “Astaghfirullah”s (God forgive me/us) in his duas/prayers, I could tell he was not pleased after he learned that I was unmarried and single. Another taxi driver, a desi man, one time offered his son as a rishta! Giving me his number. He appeared to feel sorry for me.
Marriage will not solve all our problems. Marriage will not solve our “mental health issues.”
In a recent event in the Muslim community on Mental Health, in Northern Virginia, an anonymous question on pursuing marriage to a man with mental health problems was proof to me that we have a long way to go to address the stigma in our communities. The question stated that she had been talking to a man for some time, and just recently learned he has a mental illness, and she was asking whether she should continue speaking to him. Sigh. It was perhaps the silliest and most ignorant question I ever heard in an event like this. I won’t go into the many layers of how problematic and concerning that question was.
Admittedly, I have used my PhD higher education pursuit as an excuse to escape from this idea that marriage is a mandate. That I must marry, and all my worries, anxieties, doubts, fears, will magically be resolved. And I will finally be free from this “prison.”
Sadly, I am running out of time for this excuse. Lol. 8 years into my program, I have considered this PhD my marriage and it certainly does feel like it.
And the real “prison” is the “world” that fosters this mentality. And this psyche is what needs to change.
In Islam, marriage is seen as half our deen, (half our religion). But it isn’t for everyone. Not everyone wants or even can be happy following that path, and no matter how much they want that. It is not written for everyone, even South Asian women, and it is possible it wasn’t written for me, no matter if at times I wonder what that path would have been or would be like if I took it.
My father used to tell me, “don’t miss the last bus.” It is well-meaning, of course. And it is rather cute and adorable, because he is so adorable. I am not sure if I missed it or if I am actually still waiting or if I decided to take a different form of transportation. 😊
What I do know, contrary to all the voices around me, is that I am fully determined to not allow the lack of a man in my life make me feel like I am not enough, whole, complete, that something is missing, as we women are naturally or socially designed to think.
The “Log Kya Khengai” (The LKK)
Defeating the “what would people say” (Munaweera, 129) mindset, something deeply ingrained in the mind of most Desi communities and families, may be very difficult. It has always troubled me, but in a silent way, thinking that it must be just me, the way I think.
What would people think of me and our family “honor”….if/because…
….I didn’t marry earlier, will not be marrying anytime soon while my biological clock is still ticking, and potentially not marry anyone in my lifetime…
….I speak so openly about my mental and emotional health and illness on my online and offline social networks…
….I didn’t complete my PhD….
… I didn’t finish writing my novel or publish anything…
…I chose not to have children….
… I traveled around the world, alone, (even when my late grandmother told me I needed to get a companion before I do so.)
…I continued to be an “open book.”
“Log Kya Khengai. What will people think?”
Everyone will tell you that this kind of thinking is petty and just don’t do it or just don’t worry about it. Everyone says that they don’t care about what people think of them, but it’s all bull shit. We all do. People do even more now with the existence of social media. Everyone cares, okay. And it is obvious. It’s natural, it’s human, and its conditioned. We care about what we tweet, what we say, what we put out there in the world. Even if we try really hard not to. It’s a difficult skill to master, especially the skill to not have to seek the approval of your loved ones.
And for many of us, especially inherent among ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), it’s about some additional expectations.
Defeating LKK isn’t just about sucking it up and not caring what people think of you, and the quest of not aiming to get the approval of others. LKK goes back to the sense of family honor, and honor of a woman…the implications that your actions and choices have on the people you love and/or are most connected with. It weighs so much more on women. Especially women of color. Especially in our desi culture. LKK is a huge impediment to our relationship with our parents.
No matter how progressive you are, the notion of “what will people think,” still affects us, as desi women, because that “stench,” or “stain” of “honor”, written all over our bodies, as desi women, doesn’t wear off like the mendhi (henna) on our hands.
Because no matter what we see, endure, and where we travel in the world, every time we return “home” it comes back. And it stings hard.
The constant need to please the parents, and the cognitive dissonance created because of that, is a massive burden and responsibility for any person, compounded in our desi culture, and it never leaves us, even when parents are not in our presence, and even when we age.
I think highlighting these types of struggles for women (and with some circumstances, men) in the South Asian American communities can resonate with other cultures and other communities, and bring some normalcy to the experience, even if it is stronger in one community over another, there are some synergistic elements.
As I noted earlier, despite our possible generational and cultural differences, I call my parents almost every day because in the end, it has nothing to do with freedom and independence, and being an independent minded woman. It is a short life, and I want to cherish every moment I have with my parents, every moment I have to speak with them.
Most importantly because I have come to understand that any tensions we may have, are attributed to cultural and generational differences; they will always be my elders and my parents who raised me in traditional Pakistani and ‘moderate’ Muslim customs and practices.
And as Piyali wrote, despite our obvious and expected differences, we love our parents immensely.
Many of the ladies in this anthology emphasize that, that even with the challenges and differences and desires to break norms, we remain indebted to our parents, and we love them unconditionally.
The “Sisterhood” among Brownies
The relationship women have with other women isn’t something that is extensively covered in the stories within this book. It is certainly implied, especially when Piyali attributed her co-authors as a community, and the established bond that resulted from the women writing in this anthology. There has been a lot of emphasis on women supporting one another in today’s social and political climate in America, but very little about the opposite, where women are not actually there for one another.
As brown women, there are times I have felt we may not coexist as we should because certain external pressures or assumptions make us think we need to compete against each other in order to be favored by our “superiors,” when we really need to be supporting one another.
Naturally, and sadly, sometimes it’s women that serve as threats to one another. In the case of brown desi American women, and desi women in general sometimes, the epidemic of jealously exists and expands within these clusters. Some of us want to paint our own path. Because we don’t fit in. Because we are “not welcome” in that “pack.” But then we find a few little brownies popping up within our own paths.
When I moved to DC from the Midwest, nearly 9 years ago, come this Tuesday (whew!), for example, the few Brown women in the scene I saw and acquainted myself with, was for me a sign that we are really breaking down some serious barriers as brown women in an arguably conservative, and predominantly white world, especially coming from being raised in a homogenous white population in the Midwest. It is important to be mindful of perspective, and that was the lens I came with, which is admittedly different from desi women that have been raised in bigger cities with larger Pakistani-Indian (desi) communities.
But at times, it was clear, that for some reason some of these women (not all), had seen me as just another competition. Through my eyes, I saw these women as potential collaborators, mentors, colleagues, sisters of whom I can “connect” with in a broader sense. Why did they see me as a threat? I will not share specifics of certain circumstances, but there were some experiences that led me to keep a distance, which is an unfortunate reality, especially for those of us who are just trying to “fit in the mold,” trying to form a community or a support network of some sort among those who understand our struggles.
Ultimately, it was clear they did not feel the same way and my intentions to be seen as an “ally,” as a potential collaborator was not always welcomed.
I firmly believed that climbing that ladder in DC policy community as a Pakistani Indian American Muslim Woman (with a notable disability) is full of barriers that we only want to make easier for the brownies to follow us. Breaking down that particular layer of “othering” is an additional layer of service within our grand ambitions.
As much as I have always diversified my social circles because I did not believe in cliques, or homogenous enclaves and clusters of communities that seemed to be our surroundings as children of immigrants in the US, there is something special about interacting with people who also share the same sort of “unconventional” path as you.
There is also something special about having that sort of space with people of your origins. And I have only begun to realize it now, later in life. It’s just a magical feeling when I enter a Halal food market, and it’s not just about all the goodies in there that remind me of my culture and moments with my family during my childhood.
Perhaps that pain of not being “welcomed” in several different communities over the past decade or so since college, led me to develop a social anxiety to engage with other similar communities. But I can’t explain that overwhelming sensation when I walk into that “space.”
Women especially find other women, that are”vocal” and “present,” threatening. It is partly why I sometimes question whether there is such thing as a “sisterhood.” I have often said in some conversations that there is “warfare in sisterhood.” Then I meet certain sisters and women that support one another and are there for one another, and find each other’s accomplishments and achievements, not as threats, but a plus for them as well, and see opportunities for collaboration rather than competition, and those internalized feelings of sisterhood and war, magically disappear.
But unfortunately, that feeling has been rare.
We, as women, need not compete, we need not feel threatened.
Our experience invites us and trains us to be the Ambassadors. To be the Diplomats.
We cannot disengage. Especially as women of color. The moment we all disengage, for whatever reasons our ego rationalizes, we lose.
We have so many other obstacles. Choosing to disengage with each other, as Brown women, is counterproductive to our goal to rise as leaders and productive contributors in our communities.
As this anthology clearly demonstrates, especially among brown women, and speaking to all women of color, despite the nuances of the challenges, our struggles are similar and in an environment that devalues our existence, finds very little worth in our voice, and makes it so much harder to climb up the ladder to have our voice be heard, we need to be there for each other. We have no choice but to serve others, and to serve our sisters when we need them, if we want to see real progress.
I was once very skeptical about the notion of “sisterhood,” and trust is a very difficult thing when it has been broken too many times. But I am ready to trust and embrace the real and sincere sisterhood that has the potential to emerge, and that may be emerging.
For Brown desi American women, because we know our struggle in America, we know the layered burdens of the “othering” on a daily basis, we must be there for each other and see value in our interactions with one another.
We may have to move mountains to tackle these challenges and taboos. It will require all of us to be on the same page.
But we can and must do it.
I know that this book has touched a lot of people. A 9000-word blog post or essay still remains incomplete, still remains unjust, to explain how GGMD has touched me, and the types of boundaries it is breaking for all of us. But I wanted to take a moment, for what it may be worth, to thank the authors of this anthology. As I mentioned, every essay spoke to me, every essay invoked a deep visceral response. As a collective, these women have strengthened the voices of the struggle of the South Asian American women, voices that are silenced based on the societal and cultural norms and pressures, which leads them to simply accept their “socially constructed identity,” and for a long time, not dare question their place in the world.
…Not to question the need to “break barriers” in that world.
Most women struggle in silence because of this unfortunate reality, not knowing so many women in this world, especially in the western world, are struggling with these challenging East-West dynamics and traditional notions of “honor” translated into our lives, from the generations before us, and too often they struggle within this silence.
This book calls for unity among intersectional feminists, and for embracing the diversity among women of color, and among women in general. GGMD screams brown (desi) girl unity, and brown (desi) girl power, a camaraderie that is lacking in some spaces or that we just don’t see enough.
And I want to raise a glass to that.
As the authors contend, a book like this, for little Brown Elsa from small town Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would have gone a long way, but I am glad we have it now for the newer generations. I have so much more to explore after reflecting on each essay for the past year.
There is no doubt, a community that exists for us, if we want it. Those of ‘us’ who don’t have a “pack” so to speak. It EXISTS.
But it is hidden sometimes in places we don’t see. Perhaps at this time in history it is more difficult to find. But we will find it and we will be found some day. We will be VISIBLE some day.
We have to continue to keep our hearts, minds, and souls open even when others have shut there’s, and also open to a “sisterhood” free of an “imagined war,” and full of genuine warmth, understanding, and empathy.
…Open our arms to a rebellion that will gradually lead to our unique “Azaadis.” Freedoms.
Piyali et al: Thank you for reminding me that there is actually a place for “us” in this world. You are indeed “building a safe place” for us to explore what we can contribute in our lifetime as South Asian American women. Thank you for the critical reminder that our voice is significant and that our stories, no matter the level of “defiance,” DO matter. Thank you for inspiring the critical premise that there is a “community” that elevates our voice.
This book reminds someone of my identity, that there is absolutely no reason to fear in what we plan to share with the world, which comes from every fiber of our existence.
There are more words to describe the value of this book, but I have said more than enough in this 9000+ word blog post. 😊 To the few who may have made it to the end, I apologize for the length, and will try to make future posts shorter.
I hope to continue to build and expand on some of the themes touched here in posts to follow.
In the meantime, I can’t recommend this book enough. If there is any book that I would want my friends and family to read to truly understand an aspect of my struggle, as Elsa Talat Khwaja, it would be “Good Girls Marry Doctors.”
I hope to see a second volume of this anthology perhaps and I look forward to reading and learning more from each of these gifted women.
And I would like to call upon my South Asian American sisters, if you haven’t already immersed in these conversations, to be more engaged in this important dialogue, where we can throw away any temptations or sentiments that had divided us, and come together, collaborate and continue to rebel against the layered “otherings” as a collective, which has conventionally and to this day, prevented us to be able to break down those trepid barriers toward our independence and freedom of CHOICE… to choose what paths are right for us.
And, now I have the sudden urge to walk away from an exploding, burning vehicle or building, in slow motion, poised tall and elegant (as my long jet black hair whirls around in the smoke….and the ashes sprinkle upon my beautiful brown sun-glazed skin)..… like in the movies. 😉
Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,
“You may lose family, culture, and a sense of belonging. It will be lonely, you will be adrift, the ones you love may not understand what you are becoming. You will lose the village of your father’s birth, but you will gain your own pleasure and your own story.” – Nayomi Munaweera
“….when we as readers receive these stories and steep ourselves in the struggles of communities like this one, it changes the way we carry ourselves in the world.” – Piyali Bhattacharya
“…everything you’re feeling, we’ve felt it, too. You’re not alone. We hear you, and we are here.” – Piyali Bhattacharya
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Khalil Gibran
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi
Thank you for taking the time to read. I hope you saw some sincerity in this piece. If this post resonates with you, please feel free to share among your networks.
To the least, be sure to pick up this precious gem of a book, Good Girls Marry Doctors, Edited by Piyali Bhattacharya. 😊If I haven’t convinced you on the value of reading this book, I have done a grave injustice. Ultimately, I would love to know if you had some similar or different feelings and reflections after reading it. Warm wishes and salaams, your Elsa
Bhattacharya, Piyali, ed. Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2016.