I’d never really thought about what it actually meant to be an Indian girl until my maternal grandmother and her children (all except my mother) formed a united front to continuously nag me about washing my underpants. “Ladies MUST wash their own underwear,” they all said as if the safety of my country depended on it. My older male cousins, on the other hand, were unsurprisingly exempt from the humble underwear-washing routine. The whole situation reeked of unfairness and made me wonder, what other forms of unfairness would I find scattered around my Indian girl heritage?
Every Indian girl experiences her “Indianness” a little differently. I guess it all boils down to personality traits, upbringing, family values, and life experience. And while each Indian family has its own set of rules to enforce “acceptable” behaviour, there are a handful of (outdated) rules that seem to remain unchanged in many families.
“Handbook to Exemplary Indianness (Woman Edition)”:
1. Learn to cook, clean, and wash your underpants if you want to be respected as a woman.
2. Don’t bring shame to the family by living with a partner before marriage, having a child before marriage, or committing a crime that lands you in jail.
3. Ensure that you are “successful” in life no matter the cost.
4. Avoid speaking about mental health issues in order to prevent uncomfortable conversations and gossip.
Of course, all these rules are predominantly based on the phrase, “What would ‘people’ think?” (where ‘people’ mostly refer to family members and the general Indian public). Although the phrase is used to induce guilt and compliance in both males and females, it has a wider application on the fairer sex. For example, “You can’t wear anything other than traditional Indian attire to the temple because what would people think.” “You must be able to brew countless cups of magnificent tea on demand for visitors because what would people think.”
Naturally, much less regard is given to Indian guys’ choice of clothing and tea-making skills because Indianness is not immune to things like double standards and gender inequality as I learned from my early underwear-washing days. And it would seem that tea-making expertise is essential in ensuring that Indian functions go off without a glitch. This I learned from watching my aunties and female relatives make endless cups of tea for all the guests while the men drank Jack Daniel’s, belched, farted, chatted amicably using Indian slang, and played cards (in no particular order). Nobody questioned the inherent unfairness in that because it has been that way since time immemorial: men enjoying themselves while the women cooked, cleaned, and well, made tea.
I’ve never bothered too much about cooking, cleaning, and tea-making mostly because I’ve been actively trying to rebel against my family’s primal need to domesticate me: “Ladies MUST know how to cook.” “How are you going to get married if you can’t cook?” “Why don’t you help make the tea?” While I do see the importance of being able to cook my own food, clean my own home, and make my own tea, I hate that those very same skills are often used by people to define womanhood and even measure marriage potential.
Because marriage, you see, is considered extremely important to Indian families. It grants Indian women the necessary “permission” to cohabitate with a partner and have children. Should a woman decide to do either or both of those things without being “protected” by marriage, she becomes a hot topic of gossip and flypaper for persecution.
For a long time, I merely accepted this weird, yet widely accepted viewpoint on marriage without asking why. Why does the Indian community expect women to be married before they can live with a partner or have children? Why does the Indian community judge women so harshly for ultimately making choices that are theirs to make?
I figured it had a lot to do with social norms and the tendency of the Indian community to treat norms as if they were prescribed by the Almighty himself. Any deviation from a social norm makes Indian people grossly unsettled because it challenges a belief system, a way of life. And Indian people dislike that as much as they dislike having conversations relating to issues of a sensitive nature, like mental health for example.
My own experiences and observations have shown that mental health issues are either swept under the carpet or noticed, but given very little attention. Mental health awareness may be growing but mental illness still carries a stigma that makes initiating much-needed conversations about it difficult. Not only in the Indian community, but also in other communities for that matter.
It’s just that within the Indian community, a great deal of emphasis is placed on being “successful” to the extent that people forget just how much it costs, with price tags ranging from “overall physical health” to “mental health” to “general sense of well-being”. Indian people also forget that success means different things to different people and that there is no reason to draw comparisons.
For as long as I can remember, I’d only known about one type of success – the type where you meet everyone’s expectations of you. My attempts to achieve that kind of success cost me both my mental and physical health. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone about it because I felt ashamed. But now I know that struggle isn’t a badge of honour – It’s a sign to open a conversation with family or friends, no matter how difficult it may be.
When I sat down to write this, I had just one goal in mind: I wanted to open conversations amongst Indian families about things I saw as being unfair and in urgent need of abolition or change. Things that have had and continue to have a huge impact on my experience of being an Indian girl. From the double standards and stereotypes, to the lopsided view on marriage, to society’s stance on mental illness. I felt compelled to speak about these issues because if we continue to hide things that need to be seen, avoid conversations that need to be had, how can we expect society to change for the better?
Read about how to deal with a toxic family member here.
Tell us: Have you felt pressure to be a certain way because of the culture you grew up in?