Updated: Oct 22, 2022
On the surface, the late Princess Diana is nothing like my mother— a seemingly obtuse and obvious statement to anyone that knows me or my family. My mother did not grow up in a lavish estate, nor did she descend from royalty. She does not have staff serving her, nor does she own thousands of designer dresses.
Despite their differences, I recognize much of my mother in Princess Diana. Both have been ardently loving and supportive mothers that wished to prepare their children to face the realities of this world. Moreover, my mother, like Diana, married into my father’s family as an outsider. Just as Diana grew up in the same circles as Charles, my mother came from the same Gujarati background and caste as my father. However, my father’s family is part of the Indian diaspora in Kenya. My mother faced a startling culture shock when she moved to Kenya and experienced extraordinary anxiety during the first year of her marriage; similarly, Diana was thrust into a world of unfamiliar values and traditions when she was engaged to Charles. Desi readers’ aunties and mothers that came of age during the princess’ heyday, like my own mother, may find much of their story resonates with that of the late Princess, despite how distant she may have seemed with her glamor, wealth, and title.
As the world commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Princess’ passing, Diana’s legacy as the people’s princess reminds the world that her celebrity belonged to everyone, including, and perhaps especially, the South Asian women who came of age during the ‘80s. I spoke to three South Asian women who witnessed Diana’s rise about their admiration for the late princess. They affirm that she was a symbol of power for women that felt trapped by their marriages, suffocated by backwards traditions, and were breaking cycles of generational trauma.
Over 750 million people tuned in to watch Diana and Charles walk down the aisle on July 29, 1981. Rita Patel, a geneticist living in Fairfax, VA, recalls waking up at 5 AM to catch a glimpse of the soon-to-be Princess of Wales entering St. Paul’s Cathedral on television. Then 15 years old, Rita fondly recalls the moment Diana Spencer emerged from her carriage in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral with a 25 foot train in her wake. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Rita was a child of the Indian diaspora. Her family moved to London during the formative years of her childhood and settled in the United States when she was a teen. “We’d just come from London a year or two ago, so [watching the wedding] was just like being back there again.” Like many other young women, Rita was taken with Diana as soon as she and Prince Charles began courting; the idea that a woman who worked at a nursery could be the future Queen of England felt like something out of a fairytale. Sudha Ashra, a school caretaker and mother living in London, agrees. Sudha watched the Princess’ rise as she grew up in India and remembers seeing her photos in the local newspaper, the Gujarati Samachar-- “There is a specific picture I loved-- one where she worked in the nursery and she looked so helpful and lovely.”
Royal weddings usually captivate wide audiences, with their glamor and extravagance. But Rita and Sudha must have been enraptured by the prospect of Diana’s marriage because they saw themselves within her. She was a seemingly “normal”, working, young woman who was about to marry into one of the richest families in the world. Moreover, Rita and Sudha’s generation were constantly told that their lives would truly begin after they married. After marriage they could achieve their true potential, which often meant motherhood. But it also meant the freedom to travel and pursue new experiences, albeit with the supervision of one’s husband. This “freedom” romanticizes the idea of marriage and a wedding. Diana’s biographers have similarly speculated that she fell in love with the idea of the Prince of Wales rather than the man himself.
Despite being embraced by the public, Diana struggled to find belonging within the royal family during her marriage. Though she successfully executed charity events and boosted the royal family’s image measurably, She rarely received appreciation for her efforts. As a child of South Asian immigrants, I have long observed how the men in my family fail to appreciate their wives’ efforts to cater to them and prioritize their needs. Rarely do the women in my family receive compliments or praise. This lack of appreciation is compounded by in-laws who verbalize comparisons between them and other women in the family. Recalling the first few years of her marriage, my mother described this scrutiny succinctly: “No matter how hard I tried, it seemed like I could never do anything right.” For example, her in-laws might point out how another wife within the family could complete household chores and prepare meals while also working outside the home. Why was she so slow? Her experiences during the beginning of her marriage resemble the ways the press and the royal family pitted the Duchess of York, Sarah Fergusson, and the Princess of Wales against one another. After her marriage to Prince Andrew, Sarah, or “Fergie”, charmed the senior members of the royal family. Unlike Diana, she enjoyed Prince Philip’s favorite sports; she also impressed the queen by earning a pilot’s license. Prince Charles even remarked to Diana that he wished she “would be like Fergie—all jolly.” Diana was berated for not being what the royal institution expected her to be. South Asian women of my mother’s generation are similarly bullied for failing to meet impossible standards as homemakers and mothers.
After three years of separation, Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced on August 28, 1996. The royal family has infamously made divorce exceedingly challenging for its members; the Church of England only began allowing marriage after divorce in 2002. Similarly, the South Asian community continues to frown upon divorce. But to my surprise, each of the women I spoke to were glad that Diana divorced Charles. Rita emphasized her relief that the Princess had the courage to leave the relationship. She too had experienced a toxic marriage and was grateful to have divorced her partner quickly. “It was difficult, my mother would not accept it for the longest time,” she adds. Sudha recalls watching the Princess’ interview on the BBC Panorama documentary series, shortly before her divorce, where she revealed her struggles within the marriage and with bulimia. “I really felt for her,” she said. My mother also empathized with the Princess, and was pleased that she would be free to live her own life, untethered to the monarchy.
Rita, Sudha, and my mother, despite growing up with conservative views on divorce, saw Diana ending her marriage as an act of bravery; she had the tenacity to want more for herself than a toxic marriage. Generations of women before Diana could never consider divorce as an escape from an unhappy marriage. Like the Indian women of my mother’s generation, they tolerated the abuse, infidelity, and cruel in-laws as a matter of course. Rita emphasized how taboo divorce was within the South Asian community and added that perhaps Diana, “...had given some people the courage to [file for divorce].” Asking for more in a culture where one is expected to tolerate mistreatment is a revolutionary act that can break cycles of generational trauma.
On August 31, 1997, Princess Diana and her partner, Dodi Al-Fayed died in a car accident in Paris. Rita described her shock when she heard the news: “I heard it on the radio or TV, and I couldn't believe it. I said, ‘No way, this can't be happening,’ and then I just sat there and watched everything I could watch. I thought, ‘This can't be true how come nobody got help [immediately after the crash].’” Sudha was distraught. “I cried. I asked God why he took someone who was so good, and did so much. And I thought about her children and how tragically young they were.”
When thousands mourned the Princess’ passing, media commentators criticized the obsessive idolatry that surrounded the Princess’ celebrity. Perhaps they did not understand what Diana meant to the world as a symbol. She was a storybook princess while being champion of outcasts and pinnacle of empathy and compassion. Her own resistance against the monarchy’s practices made her a rebel and beacon of hope to women struggling to escape unhealthy family dynamics. And though none of the South Asian women I interviewed immediately saw parallels between Diana's life and their own, her experiences as a new wife and a married woman reflected theirs. To them, her decision to divorce the Prince of Wales was an inspiring act of self love that disrupted generational trauma. Perhaps that is why she remains loved by South Asian women of their generation 25 years after her passing.