The short answer: No.
The long answer: Hell no.
This idea that Indian-American women are totally free and empowered is annoyingly common. It is an aggravating misconception that has been perpetuated among us. In fact, women’s emancipation is often cited as one of the main reasons (beyond educational aspirations and increased choice) that Indian-American people are getting married later in life. Think about it. How many of us are told that we have so many more opportunities than our mothers, grandmothers or other female ancestors who lived in the Indian society? And yes, compared to them, we do have more freedoms. We don’t have to commit Sati and burn ourselves alive if our husbands pass away. We don’t have to separate ourselves from even the simplest interactions within society. Even in relation to the plight of women living in modern India right now, we may have more freedoms, although this too is questionable. After all, we are not walking around with cow masks on our faces like some women in India are, because Indian cows are being afforded more legal protections than Indian women are. We aren’t cowering from engaging in society out of fear of acid attacks or random gang rapes.
But, Indian-American women aren’t living in India, and as such, we’re not a physical part of the Indian culture. We are a part of the American society. Many of us don’t even have any real significant ties to India because we were either born here, or because we moved here so long ago that we lost all tangible connections to our “motherland”. We are American women who also identify with our Indian cultural roots and heritage. So, independent of relative freedoms, where does this leave us? Are we really being afforded all of the privileges of a free society, or are we being severely limited by restrictions placed on us by not one, but two cultures? To answer this question, we need a more nuanced analysis of the context of Indian-American women’s lives. And to do that, we need to look at the issue of women’s rights and freedoms within the Indian and American cultures, and then see how those larger factors have impacted Indian-American women’s freedoms.
Indian-American women are Superwomen
Indian-American women are bred and raised to be superwomen in every aspect of our lives. Let’s just get that out of the way first. Within our families and communities, we are expected to excel in all avenues of our lives. We are thought to be fiercely independent, highly educated and assertive compared to our mothers, grandmothers or fellow women living in India. We are also adaptive and resilient because of our multicultural lives. Our families migrated to the United States precisely to give us the option to grow ourselves into these “free superwomen”. Because of our families’ brave move to a foreign land, we are able to call ourselves successful women who also juggle and somehow balance household duties, family dynamics, childcare, community involvement, careers, and whatever else that life may throw at us. We do it all with smiles on our faces, and even find time to reach out to those who might need our help.
Problems plaguing Indian-American women
Yet, we find ourselves in this unfortunate situation where neither of the cultures that we identify with actually allows us to have full control over our lives, or to even have a voice. Indian- American women have some of the highest suicide rates among ethnic populations, and they also have the lowest rate for seeking help for mental health issues. Indian-American women are also highly likely to experience assault or abuse from their spouses. We see evidence of this disturbing trend in the news lately, as more and more wives of high-powered CEOs are coming out to speak about the abuse they survived. But this issue has been a problem for many decades. It is only recently that we have been able to aggregate enough data to study it systematically. For example, in one report from the greater Boston area, almost two-thirds of all the women surveyed, reported instances of assault or abuse from their intimate partners, and just over a fifth of them reported having to seek immediate medical help from injuries sustained from the abuse. In other words, one in every three of us is getting assaulted, and one in every five of us is ending up in the hospital due to injuries sustained from abuse. Does this sound like emancipation?
Indian-American women are still expected to be all Indian.
We may be American in our independent thought, but we are also fully expected to be the poster children for “Indianness”. We don’t even need to look any further than a stereotypical Indian gathering to find glaring proof of this. If you are an Indian-American woman, what do you wear to a social or religious gathering? Most likely, you would wear Indian clothes that aren’t too form-fitting or body conscious, right? Indian-American girls still grow up being told that they have to hide and be ashamed of their bodies to be “proper Indian women” and to stop men from getting tempted. If I had a dollar for every time an Indian aunty called an Indian-American girl “loose” because of a sleeveless or strapless top, or because of shorts, I could probably have my whole family retire right now! Does this sound like the emancipation of the Indian-American woman?
We are supposed to exemplify the best of the Indian culture, and teach it to our children. This pressure is mostly only put on women. Men aren’t subjected to it as much. Think about how many Indian-American women you know who had to learn some form of either Indian classical dance or classical music (or both) while growing up? How many men do you know who had to learn these same arts? Now, this is partly because women are the bearers and transmitters of culture, no matter what culture we look at. Whatever cultural values have been transmitted to us came from the women who raised us and taught us, and whatever cultural values we are going to transmit to the future generations are going to be primarily pushed through women. These double standards in our socialization and cultural educational practices are important enough to address that they deserve their own blog post. But, in a nutshell, the way we have socialized our children – both boys and girls – and the manner in which we treat our women – especially the way in which women treat other women – have some deeply subtle yet pervasive consequences in every aspect of Indian-American women’s lives.
Indian-American women are still just future brides.
We may have exponentially more opportunities than women living in India, and we are told that we are free to explore these numerous options, but, when we try to do just that, we get judged negatively. We are expected to adhere to the traditional Indian family structures: traditional Indian gender roles and expectations, familial obligations, and value systems that give preferential treatment to boys and men. Even the most liberal Indian-American families in the United States still joke about starting a “marriage savings account” with new parents of baby girls. We are still born to be brides. Almost every single facet of our growth and development still happens as a means to an end to our future status as someone’s wife and someone’s daughter-in-law. Our culture also tells us that we always have to prioritize family and marriage over career options. How many of us women have been told that we should focus on our careers, but only until marriage? Because once we get married, we should start focusing on family. How many of us have had to hear thoughts along the lines of, “career will always be there. You need to find a man and settle down soon.” How many of our parents have expressed concerns of, “who will take care of you when we are gone? We don’t want you to die alone”, to their perfectly capable daughters? Within the Indian cultural context, we as women have never been seen as independent entities.
The Reality of Indian-American women’s lives
Yet, as Americans we are supposed to be able to be whomever we want to be, but, we have to do this as ethnic women who still experience the entire spectrum of sexism and racism within American society. We are supposed to pursue our dreams within this sexist world, and make something magnificent of our lives, but, within a separate set of constraints placed on us by the patriarchy in the American society. Even though independence is given a great deal of theoretical thought, in reality our society is telling American women that we cannot be forces to reckon with. We have to choose whether we want a family or whether we want a career, because somehow, wanting both is apparently unfair to the American workforce and creates a great burden on society. We experience multiple levels of glass ceilings no matter what field of work we go into. We aren’t given too many leadership positions because we are not expected to be able to lead. But, we are expected to work better and more just to be considered good enough.
In the last four decades, the heart of the women’s rights movements center around our health and reproductive rights, which we are losing one by one within this current administration. We are expected to be financially stable enough to have children, yet the very act of having children takes away our financial stability. Because we are “the softer sex” we have to either have to forsake our careers to raise our children with no compensation, or we have to outsource the care of our children to ridiculously overpriced nurseries, or economically feasible but under-resourced childcare facilities and go back to work where we get grossly underpaid, only to then turn over most of our paychecks to these said facilities. We are still no more than second-class citizens, even in this “land of the free”.
So, we are currently stuck in a cultural identity quagmire where our Indian identities and our American lives have intertwined with each other and hit us with a double-whammy sucker punch. All of these things happening to Indian-American women create an enormous amount of psychological and existential stress. They create a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance and conflict about our own self-worth. These contradicting values make us feel like we may never be good enough to belong anywhere. They trick us into thinking that there is no way out of this, which affects who we are as people. The disparate nature of all the influences on us force us to operate in sheer survival mode, where all we are worried about is just getting through life with our sanity somewhat intact. All of these varied pressures on Indian-American women also highly influence how we see the world around us. In very subtle ways, they determine how we interact with other men and women around us. Because of all the cultural influences on us across so many levels, we internalize these conflicting values even though they may be detrimental to us. It is the only way for our minds to cope with the psychological conflict. Ultimately, we eventually even stop thinking about the idea of freedom as anything more than a mere fleeting thought. We become used to these unequal attitudes, we expect this treatment, and some of us even go so far as to perpetuate these behaviors against other women with our own actions, because we become numb.
Of course, this is not to say that our lives are abhorrently bad, or that our culture is some woman-hating, misogynistic virus that is going to destroy an entire group of people. Most of us are still part of amazingly loving families who support us and allow us to become some versions of ourselves. I also don’t mean to imply in any way that we need to abandon our cultural heritage and roots. That would only make us feel even more incomplete, which would add to our physical and mental stress. The point I want to make is that this is the reality of our lives. No one intentionally manipulated things for our lives to be this way. We are simply the consequences of rapidly changing times clashing with slow-to-change value systems. We could make better versions of ourselves if we took control of our own lives and acted upon them in ways that would fulfill us and allow us to grow even stronger, using the richness of our heritage. We are superwomen, after all, and we do eventually succeed in all aspects of our lives. So we will succeed in making positive changes in ourselves and in our communities. But for that, all of us – men and women alike – first have to acknowledge the truth that Indian-American women aren’t emancipated yet. Only then can we, as a culture, move forward. We are capable of achieving freedom and equality, at least for the sake of our future generations, if not for ourselves . Indian-Americans as a group can grow to a place of power that allows us speak up for ourselves and for others who might be in worse situations than us. We know what we are doing wrong, we know who is perpetuating this, and we know that we can learn and adapt. So really, its just a matter of how we make this evolution a reality. But, that’s a completely different topic and a different blog post!