When I think of the profile of the “ideal” South Asian woman, the following image comes to mind: She is married, has two children, a well-established career, all while being an active part of her children’s lives. She’s a loving mother, a supportive wife, cooks well, and runs the household. She has a well-maintained social standing, is respected, and expresses her opinions cautiously, as to avoid being overbearing or rude. She’s self-sufficient, successful and holds enough status and power without emasculating her husband through her achievements. Is there anything wrong with this scenario? Outright, I would say, no. However, it is wrong to pigeonhole every woman within this framework and write their stories with the same beginning, middle, and end. The South Asian community continues to glorify women who check all these boxes and, intentionally or unintentionally, shun those who don’t.
Naturally the question arises: what about the stories that don’t follow the same trajectory? What happens to women who question the norm and tread uncharted territory? When I discussed this with friends, the analogy of “being the black sheep of the family” was mentioned. Indian society has often scorned women who are the black sheep, especially when they fail to adhere to normative ideas of womanhood. For example, when a woman chooses to marry later in life or not marry at all, her community might struggle to accept her choice. Additionally, Indian society frowns upon women who decide to dedicate their lives to their careers. Society is also dismayed by women who choose to adopt children or not to have children. Those who make such choices and deviate from the idealized notions of womanhood are met with ridicule and judgment from the South Asian community.
Why has society created this mold, this box of a perfect desi woman? On what authority do members of our community judge someone who decides not to follow this trajectory? Most critically, why are these unhealthy, paradoxical standards glorified and promoted? Kate Manne, in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny provides a plausible explanation to these fundamental questions. For instance, the traits “power-hungry, uncaring, domineering,” are more likely to be associated with men whereas women are inherently expected to be “giving, caring, loving, and attentive.” Manne describes this as a deprivation mindset, thereby putting women on a moral pedestal. Thus, those who do not adhere to the normative standards of womanhood become an embodiment of moral violation which, naturally, is condemned.
This leads us to a well-known buzzword: misogyny. Manne describes it as follows: “Misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women — instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.” This definition explains why the cycle of oppression is so difficult to break. Misogyny encourages society to punish the “misfits” because their very actions jeopardize the power imbalance that has historically benefitted men. This power dynamic also manifests within the family household; misogynistic gender norms “enable [a man] to…make claims with the default presumption that he is good, right, or correct. And the women morally bound to him may not beg to differ.” Our family and friends in the community might express this sentiment in layman's terms: “Well, that’s just the way things are,” or “This just isn’t how things are done in our culture.” The South Asian community must reflect on whether misogynist practices are elements of South Asian culture or whether traditions are being used to justify the systemic oppression of women.
Systemic oppression flourishes through both personal and societal reinforcement. The societal contributors have become easier to identify: patriarchal traditions, and archaic ways of thinking. Yet, recently, I realized how internally, I, too, had become a contributor. Every time I unquestioningly accepted my mother’s cooking, fixing everything around the house, and cleaning my messy room as “part of her role,” I perpetuated the aforementioned cycle. Subconsciously, I have often chosen to become a silent bystander and furthered these traditional gender roles, yet here I am questioning why South Asian women aren’t able to speak out against these injustices. So what can be done? How could I be capable of overcoming centuries-old challenges?
I am not. I alone cannot unroot misogyny or eradicate the unspoken rules about what it means to be a South Asian woman. But it’s important to realize that together, we can. To fight for equality, we, as South Asian women, must have the courage to initiate change in our own homes and social circles. Our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts’ sacrifices have brought us to where we are today; we must redefine womanhood for them and the women of our future.
This article by Maahika Mehta was brought to you by the Blog Team at Project Stree. Project Stree is a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products.