South Asian Women Need a Community to Thrive (& Research Says So!)

South Asian Women Need a Community to Thrive (& Research Says So!)

Jun 27, 2016

I’ve struck gold! (Okay, not literally.) But I did find some research highlighting the pressures that second generation South Asian women face when they try to bridge eastern and western cultures. Really, identity formation within two cultures is NOT an easy process. Sound familiar? Hell yeah! Ask any of my South Asian girlfriends and they’ll agree 100x over.

I’ll use myself as an example. Growing up, I was totally confused. Am I Canadian, or Indian? Am I a Canadian with an Indian background, or vice versa? I never knew how to answer that question, so I always gave a different response depending on the day. It doesn’t help when your parents are immigrants who are adamant about holding onto Indian values as tightly as possible—compounding my confusion, of course.

Based on research, the biggest challenge for girls growing up in Canada with Indian values is the difference between them and their peers. That leaves you two choices: conform, or don’t. I was definitely a conformist. Actually, allow me to rephrase-I conformed, but I broke the rules secretly. Looking back at my teens, a time where I was confused all the time and there were so many restrictions, my life experiences leading up to today make so much sense in the context of this research.

The research shows that South Asian women, from a really young age, are groomed to seek high-level education, professions that are linked to status (like doctors, lawyers, professors, etc.), and still have time to be a central and integral part of the family unit—including in-laws. Right from the get-go, there’s two conflicting messages.

1.    Be educated, independent, competitive, assertive, and financially stable.

2.    Represent your family well, by being respectable and the “good Indian girl” your parents raised you to be. Be passive, docile, compliant, and domestic within the family unit.

In research conducted by Anju Sohal, University of British Columbia (UBC) (2009), it was revealed that:

“South Asian women raised in the western world must negotiate between highly polarized expectations –forging an independent identity to compete in society, while simultaneously pressured to retain an eastern world cultural heritage that prescribes fixed gender roles and collectivist familial expectations.  The conflict resulting from these competing identity expectations can result in emotional stress and confusion as these women struggle to belong to both communities but find themselves fitting in neither world.  Current literature surrounding this area of research focuses on how South Asian women negotiate their multiple identity expectations prior to being married…A focus group was conducted that consisted of three South Asian women and found that these women had all experienced identity issues around socialization, communication, depression and anxiety, as well as coping”.

Ultimately, when conflicts arose within the family unit and in-laws, these women maintained silence just so they wouldn’t be labeled as troublemakers. They couldn’t share their voices—especially when it mattered most—because it would “rock the boat”. They wanted to keep the peace.

In contrast, these women noted that their Caucasian female counterparts seemed to have more fun, more freedom, less demands on their roles as wives, and less pressure from the family unity. GULP. It’s no wonder anxiety, depression, stress, frustration, and a loss of identity creep into the lives of South Asian women. It’s a major health issue.

I can’t emphasize enough how much pressure there is to be that perfect, well-rounded South Asian woman. There are so many roles involved; dutiful wife, devoted daughter-in-law, doting mother, high achieving professional, and an efficient homemaker. Tall order, don’t you think? If you fail to meet these absurdly high expectations, you can expect feelings of alienation and isolation, not to mention shame. (The shame is baaaaaad.) And why is this blame game even needed?

These days, we’re blessed with resources like nannies, husbands who believe in equal partnerships, and in-laws who don’t expect you to sacrifice your life to them—but old traditions die hard. Despite some progress, there are still those unspoken expectations of the community that you need to meet in order to be accepted. And God forbid you “disgrace” the family name with any of your actions. (By the way, divorce is included as one of those actions.) It might not get discussed a lot, but the undertones are still very present.

So, how can South Asian women explore their identities while living under the thumb of such perfectionistic expectations? Through connection and supportive discussions. (It might seem simple, but so few of us utilize this healing tool.) Can you relate? Like I’ve said before, shame is what stops women from seeking the help they need, and sadly, shame among South Asian women is really prevalent.

Trust me, I get it. What are people going to think? was a phrase that played on repeat in my head. The research highlighted it, stating:

“A common phrase that all of the women had heard numerous times when they were growing up; a phrase that reminded the women to monitor their behavior according to the proper eastern cultural dictates of the South Asian community.  As such keeping silent about the situation was the easiest course of action in dealing with all of the emotions that these women faced on a daily basis  These emotions impacted the women internally and contributed to what all three of the women described as emotional distress”.

Ultimately, I had to say F$@# IT! My mental well being trumps everything else under the sun, and I’ll be damned if I let society dictate my life and how I live it. And guess what? If I’d been a “good Indian girl,” I never would’ve been happy. I would’ve been living someone else’s life and giving up my own. Once I was able to get past that hump, there was no going back.

Throughout my journey, the best thing I’ve ever done was take my own advice and surround myself with supportive people. It wasn’t just professionals (like therapists, coaches, and mentors), but other women who really got me. They understood my truth and soothed my soul in a way I hadn’t realized was possible.

By now, you’ve probably heard of my Bindi Parlour, a sacred space for women to connect, heal, laugh, and grow together. And I’m tickled pink that the social worker who authored the research, Sohal, emphasizes the importance of support groups with like-minded people. She says, “By allowing South Asian women to discuss issues that are important to them, critical consciousness raising can take place.” Critical consciousness.

Consider this my rally cry. My warm embrace. My hug that lasts a little too long. And an invitation to live like you’ve always dreamed. (After all, you deserve to live on purpose, not just to keep the peace.) If you’ve had enough of not feeling good enough, or simply want a safe space to sort things out, I’ll be here. Arms wide. Heart open. Eyes alight.

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