We’ve come so far as Desi women, but not far enough

  • Ruby Dhal

Article written for The Tempest - feminism, culture, women and dreams

It was the first cold evening of April.
The air was crisp and my favorite playlist was on repeat while I was casually scrolling through a set of emails I received from my readers that week. As an Instagram poet with two published poetry books, I’ve gained enough momentum on social media to engage thousands of people who follow and – I assume – love my work. But with the addition of an email address that I haven’t shied away from sharing, it means waking up every morning to a healthy inbox stuffed with emails from my beloved readers.
I wasn’t expecting much that day. Just a trail of discussions about relationship problems, broken friendships, family drama or the usual “I want to follow my dream of becoming a writer, but I don’t know where to start” messages that I read daily. I liked reading them all. I liked knowing that in replying to my readers I was being useful. I was making a small impact in the way people dealt with difficult situations and how those changes, in turn, fueled the way the world worked.
For someone who was told constantly by her followers that her poetry was changing the way they felt about their personal situation, imagine how effective my advice would be, especially when it was tailored to a specific person.
I was nimbly tapping away on my laptop email after email until suddenly I stopped mid-tap when I came across something in my inbox that took me by complete surprise. In front of me on the small white screen was a young South Asian girl emptying the contents of her heavy heart which she has buried within the realm of familial boundaries that have characterized her upbringing. She described herself as “a young woman in the 21st century, bound by issues created by a family with an old, borderline oppressive mentality” reflecting the ‘same old story.’
The same old story being one where she had to go against her family in order get an education, a job and even driving lessons.
What do you do when you think you’ve got answers to most people’s problems but then you receive a cry of help from someone whom you feel completely incapable of helping? Potentially that one person’s problem is more desperate than anything else you’ve come across, but that is the very point at which you feel powerless. Insufficient. Inadequate.
It hurts to know that despite being a South Asian female brought up in the West and belonging to a very limiting Afghan-Sikh culture, I still managed to take the necessary steps to get closer to my dreams, but there are thousands of girls whose dreams die a heart-breaking death every day.
I was so caught up in my own dream bubble that I started to think opportunities and the ability to dream is a given for every woman, regardless of race, religion or culture.  And this most definitely is not the case.
By the time I reached the end of the email my heart was worryingly guilt-ridden for this girl, as well as thousands of other South Asian women who live a bounded life because of the exhausting expectations of their family and partners or the communal prejudices which they are unable to break free from.
Despite coming such a long way, young South Asian women are still discouraged and prevented from reaching their true potential. And I can’t help but ask when will this stop?
We’ve come such a long way from where we were and so many things have changed. Young South Asian women have gained a legitimate title in every aspect, be it literature, fashion, music, TV or entertainment. Yet thousands of South Asian women living in the west continue to have their dreams throttled and hopes unjustly thrown into the ocean as though it doesn’t mean anything.
As though, their being born a woman is a metaphorical handcuff over their freedom, one they cannot break free from.
When will we stop living under the impression that talented South Asian women who have broken through the mold and exceeded in different fields are somehow representative of the rest?
It kills me to think that as young and educated South Asian women we must still fight for our rights. We shouldn’t have to fight to do the things that were given as a prerequisite to our brothers and our fathers because they were born men.
I am tired of our opportunities being thwarted. And I am tired of our dreams being broken. And I am tired of our wings being clipped. And I am tired of being this tired because things never truly change for us, but we need to make that change.
So, after being this tired I finally lifted my hands which by then were heavily burdened with anguish and responsibility, and I tapped away an answer until I felt lighter and a lot more hopeful for this young girl.
And I told her this:
Here’s what you need to do.
Number 1: To make a change in your life you must accept that something is wrong, to begin with. You’ve already done this part by emailing me and acknowledging that your parents’ treatment of you is unfair, so kudos to you! So now we can move to the second step.
Number 2: You need to find your voice. You can only find your voice when you realize your true worth.  Being brought up as a South Asian girl can be quite daunting because you don’t receive the same ‘spotlight treatment’ that your brothers do and this can reduce your self-worth. You need to know that, despite their treatment of you, you are an incredibly strong and confident woman who can make her own decisions. You need to accept your potential before you fight for it.
And then, after you’ve realized your worth and accepted your potential, you need to stand up for yourself.
Remember, you’re not only fighting this battle for yourself but for the rest of us who carry the weight of the same rearward ideologies of cultures we have long left behind.
Despite our cultures playing a huge part in the fabrication of our identity, they play a bigger part in thwarting our opportunities and we can only change this one battle at a time. The cultures we come from are vital, rich mechanisms that form our very core. But they are also the invisible chains around our ankles preventing us from moving forward swiftly.
We must learn to enhance the positives of the cultures we come from and prevent the negatives from taking over our lives no matter where in the world we live.