January 28, 2015
When I was a little girl, I was a full-on tomboy. I climbed trees, watched football, and took a punch with the best of them. My mother would sew me pretty little dresses and lament that I wasn’t wearing them. I was wearing jeans all the time because I was running around with my brothers playing tackle football or engaging in some other activity that would cause me to come back all muddy. In my early teens, my sister gave me the nickname “little brother” because I spent my Sundays watching football or whatever sport my brothers were watching on a particular day. Of course, I grew up and became more feminine by paying attention to my hair, clothes, and make-up.
However, that was the extent of my feminization or what people deem that to be, particularly other South Asians. For me, the message I got was that I should be aspiring to be that coy, bratty, sari-clad Bollywood babe. I was told, “Sameena tera wich nakre ni hai. Nakre sikle.”(Sameena, you have no coyness in you. Learn to be coy). Do I gather from these two statements that straightforwardness is just a male quality? Or being a woman is intertwined with being manipulative?
Why? Why do I always have to be demure and soft-spoken even when I feel passionate about what I am saying? When I feel strongly about something, my voice just naturally goes up an active without me realizing it. It naturally projects. I’ve been a high school teacher for over 15 years. I need my voice to be loud once in a while.
In the past when I have been around these demure, soft-spoken, graceful ladies, I have felt like they don’t know what to do with me or that I am horrifying them in some way with my blunt-instrument like honesty. Some men don’t seem to know what to do with me either. My delivery isn’t so quiet that I am almost whispering. When I am saying something important, I make sure I am heard.
Also when something is important to me, I let it be known. If action needs to be taken I do what I need to do to make what I want happen. I don’t feel the need to sacrifice everything, every time, for everyone. That doesn’t make me more of a woman, if I do. I am no good to anyone, if I am not fulfilled and happy.
However, much of our South Asian tradition has us believe that sacrifice and martyrdom is the path to fulfillment. One of the paragons of Indian culture is Sita. Let’s break down Sita’s story. She is married to Rama and kidnapped by Ravan. She is imprisoned by him for over 10 years and maintains loyalty to her husband. When Rama finally finds her and brings her back, he gives in to pressure from the people and makes her walk through fire to prove her purity. She does it, and that should have proven her innocence. It wasn’t good enough for some people, and she is then exiled by her husband. While in exile, she gives birth to god-like twin boys. Eventually, she is reunited with Rama, but she is asked to go through fire again. She refuses and says a prayer to Mother Earth to swallow her up to show her purity. Mother Earth takes her into her lap, thereby proving Sita’s innocence. For her sacrifice and purity, she is a symbol of ideal womanhood.
I admire her patience and humility, but why is she persecuted over and over again? She is put through trial for something that is done to her not for something she’s done. I love that she humbly goes back to Mother Earth. However essentially, her suffering ends by being buried in the earth. To me that message is the woman who is continuously subordinate to the point of oppression is most honored and blessed in the end.
To take the sacrificial lamb motif further, one of the classics of Hindi cinema, “Mother India” depicts a perennially suffering heroine who is rewarded after her years of hardship. Arguably, one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen in my life. The main character is a village belle who gets married and everything is wonderful until her husband loses his arms in a farming accident. Seeing himself as a burden, he then disappears. She loses one of her sons, also. All of this loss earns her the title of “mother of the village.”
This has been a pervasive archetype in South Asian literature, as well. According to this model of womanhood, a female has to suffer silently with a smile in order to deserve and achieve happiness. I’ve read books I couldn’t finish where this was pervasive. Why does self-denial have to be the pathway to acceptance and happiness as a woman?
Even with this centuries old ideal, I find we are headed in a different direction. More South Asian women work outside the home and still maintain that balance of family and career. Our literature is featuring more diverse women who seek fulfillment beyond their traditional roles. I see more and more powerful female characters in Hindi cinema who actually have more fleshed out lives beyond wives and mothers.
In my life, I find people are intrigued by my straight, no chaser brand of honesty. My lack of nakre. While I have always strived to be demure and charming in my delivery, I will never be soft-spoken. For me, that’s fine. I don’t feel the need to be anything other than what I am.
More and more, I see a stronger, more assertive, South Asian woman. She’s not afraid to ask for what she wants and be who she wants to be. She hasn’t forgotten her duties as wife, daughter, and mother. She just remembers her duty to herself as well.
Until next time… look behind and beyond the veil…