I am very emotionally and intellectually affected by the idea of ‘otherness’. I find myself unable to champion either a purely South Asian standpoint or a generalized ‘Western’ stance on social issues, especially feminism and it’s relationship with culture. This means that I am perceived as the ‘other’ to people from both worlds – and truthfully, I don’t know if this admittance helps or hurts any arguments I make.
In short, I am an Indian expatriate, inexperienced with my maternal and paternal languages. Despite this, I grew up eating ‘rice and dal’ everyday for lunch (a South Indian staple) and I’m comfortable eating with my hands. I speak an “accentless” English but when I am angry or speaking to my family, I inevitably find myself being sharper on my consonants, with a trace Indian lilt. I’m somewhat forgiven for my lack of “Indian-ness” by relatives and other expatriate friends but beyond these superficial things, certain combinations of conservatism, unequal gender roles and cultural identity have made an impression on me.
As pointed out by my sister in a casual conversation, there are many faces of Indian feminism, just as in the West – the conversation has been had and re-had with marginal real-life improvements and there is little that is new to say about it. Therein lies a glimpse of the true problem-gap between cultural identity and feminism in India, and I daresay to an extent in the West. We’ve come up with different variations of feminism for various cultural contexts but there is limited discussion about the ways in which to move beyond the intellectual bubble. This bubble has been formed around the intellectual nature of feminism but has not been adequately conveyed in context of the nuances and challenges of everyday life in Indian society for both men and women. The purpose of how feminism or equality of the genders has widely been acknowledged in terms of economic benefits but not in terms of social ones because such progress is hard to gauge when it comes to India’s religious diversity and hierarchal society.
In this sense, a valid defense is that someone who is representative of the ‘one’ or the ‘other’ cannot speak for the many different contexts at hand. In this way, my cultural “otherness” is shared with the large feminist-oriented culture in India and seen as not really belonging. Identity has always been a transient concept, but somewhere along the way South Asian cultures decided that it shouldn’t be and this became reflected in social issues too.
I recently came across this TED talk by Malala Yousafzi’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzi, which surprised me in a good way. He was speaking about patriarchal societies in a way that acknowledged the possibilities for a different kind of approach to the ‘girl-child’. He is evidently a well-educated individual but he is also very clearly not from an urbanized context. Western influence was literally the most improbable factor in the way he chose to raise his daughter. This serves to say that just like how Ziauddin Yousafzi chose to bring up his daughter in a home that allowed her to develop her own sense of independence, free of cultural hangups, so has my life as an Indian been more-or-less free of such restraints without completely altering my cultural roots (I can’t say the same for my identity). I can only speak for myself and other women who can relate to my experiences but I feel that in order to push out of the intellectual bubble-wrap that shields feminism from the difficult question of social progress, it must start as a personally generated phenomenon. Phenomenon implies that we don’t need to rely on a correct or singular version of feminism. It is contextual to each person, resulting in a generation of men and women that are willing to widen their cultural values without compromising them.
Once again, we come back to what authority I have to say this – especially since I have been more or less spared from the often-suffocating expectations of Indian conservatism and one could say my cultural boundaries are hardly existent. The truth is, I speak from first-hand experience. My father was brought up in rural Gunadala in Andhra Pradesh and my mother, in colonial Bangalore, Karnataka. To say they had different childhood values growing up and a subsequently different viewpoint on child rearing is an understatement. They grew up in India with many social restrictions but there was decisive shifts in choosing to let most of these values go by adopting a more liberalized approach to raising us. (Mind you, moving away from India played a huge role in being able to do this.) As a result, I was not constrained to the belief system of my parents. Freedom to study in my field of choice, freedom to marry the person of my choice, freedom to disagree (even if it was met with a sometimes confusing and strict moral code): this was all a result of a personal choice made by my parents for which I am grateful.
Therefore, I know for a fact that growing out of the cultural mould into which you’re born is alienating. There is nothing worse than being rejected by your birth culture and labeled as ‘other’ (which is often a synonym for a generic wannabe for the West). The fact is that there is nothing pegging feminist values to Western culture: on this point, I will not back down. South Asia has a history and far more advanced track record of female leadership. In the Indian home, the mother is the backbone, if not a breadwinner as well. The issue at hand is that despite all this – the cultural mould for women remains narrow. It’s perpetuated in wedding rituals, marriage, child-rearing versus career building, the same as in the West. So often, the platitudes that mothers pass onto daughters about the nature of men and their “irrationality” and patriarchy are nurtured and not actually deconstructed. This is why raising your daughter in the way that Malala and myself were raised is so important in allowing a person to really understand themselves and where they’ve come from but also in terms of seeing these cultural expectations for what they are: changeable.
To not speak loudly, to not back-talk, to be neat- all these things are seen as positive and encouraged in the Indian home. When people say that Indian women are “taught” to be a certain way – this isn’t some broad reflection on the education system or Indians as generally bigoted people. It comes from this fixed gender role that’s part of culture. My Indian parents were/are no different in this respect, except, that they have grown to accept my “non-traditional characteristics” because they consciously encouraged it in my formative years. Even in my context, I had to exercise my freedom of thought and independence – it was not assumed of me. The bottom line is, I am an Indian but I am also a feminist. I am a person without a home country but I have a root culture. Feminism cannot fit squarely into the current expectations of South Asian women. This culture should not be reduced to narrow social norms, resistant to “otherness”, when it’s been shown that there is so much room for a brighter future when those boundaries are widened.