The Burdens of Being a South Asian Woman – Finding Your Voice

Being South Asian is such a privilege to me. There is an amazing sense of community and family, and a great sense of pride in our culture. Along with this though, often also comes a great burden – especially if you are a woman. The burden of being the bearer of your family’s honor, the burden of being responsible for your younger siblings in a parental manner, the burden of having to excel in everything you do to make yourself better marriage material, the burden of trying to make things easier for your younger siblings so they can have more freedom to make decisions, the burden of keeping your mouth shut in all instances so you don’t cause havoc in the family. The list is endless, but perhaps the most disheartening and crushing of all these burdens is the one that tells us that our voice doesn’t matter. 


As daughters we are supposed to be obedient, not rock the boat, nor even acknowledge the boat we are in. At worst there is always someone else steering the boat and direction of our life, and at best we can plead and beg and hopefully convince our families to turn occasionally so we can get close to a destination of our choosing. If we go against our family’s plan for us, all hell can break loose. We are disrespected, made to feel guilty, often disowned, and in some extreme cases even killed. 


An acquaintance of mine told me about a tragedy which occurred recently to a friend of theirs. A woman in her late twenties, decided to take control of her life and tell her parents she would be the one to decide who she married – not them. After a few grueling months of convincing, her parents eventually gave in so that she could marry someone of the same religion, but outside of her caste. Her parents agreed to let their future son-in-law take on their financial responsibilities, and even let him buy them a new car. Fast forward a few months, and the woman’s parents called their future son-in-law and said they were going to India and so would not be able to be reached for a few days. Not thinking anything of it, the son-in-law completed his work for the day and headed back to his apartment. As was his routine, he called his fiancé and there was no answer. Due to her being a nursing student, he assumed she was studying and hung up. After a couple days of unanswered calls, the future son-in-law asked a friend to go looking for his fiancé, beginning at her apartment. When he got there and opened the door, he found her apartment in disarray and his fiancé dead due to multiple stab wounds all over her body.  The police determined the woman’s parents were the prime suspects for her murder and had fled to India after committing the crime. 


This woman paid the ultimate price for using her voice to try to dictate how she wanted to live her life, and with who. Yes, I acknowledge this example is an extreme case, and rarer to occur in the United States. But killings like this are not as rare in India itself. Women are beaten, tortured, and even murdered in different parts of India for having the audacity to wear jeans, talk back to elders, or having a boyfriend. 


Why? Why, is it so hard for some South Asian families to let their daughters decide their own fate? Why is it that a family’s honor lies solely on a daughter’s shoulders? Why, is it that a woman speaking up for what she wants is so dangerous? Our culture is so beautiful and full of vibrancy, but why does it dictate who gets to live vibrantly and who doesn’t? After some deep thought, one answer that comes to mind is that patriarchy is fully intertwined in various South Asian cultures. Women need to be repressed due to the danger this presents to maintaining the status quo. 


It is not enough that South Asian women are intelligent and hard-working, or excelling in the world as leaders, teachers, astronauts, businesswomen, doctors, engineers etc. We need to collectively use our voice to stand up against the repression we face in the name of culture. We can still love our brown-ness, cultural traditions and holidays, and the sense of community we all feel around each other, and still fight to keep our voice. 


It’s time you take steps necessary to find your voice and use it to steer your own life. It’s time to work on you because YOU ARE THE CATALYST FOR CHANGE. I hope to help other South Asian women, and women of any other culture, find their voice and gain control of their lives. It’s not an easy task, but together we can help you sort out how to find your voice, and not lose the cultural traditions that you dearly value in the process. Together, we can lighten the cultural burdens placed on you and help you gain the strength to fight for what is a human right – the right to decide. 

Navneet smiles at the camera. She is a sacramento therapist. Contact an online therapist in california for support with online therapy and other services!

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