The yin and yang of being a South Asian woman in Canada

As women of South Asian descent, we have to constantly juggle between the old traditional cultural values and more Western values. I just wanted to explain how patriarchy and cultural values from the old country can affect their lives in the new home.

Background

It is no secret that young South Asian women are pressured to uphold traditional cultural values. This includes mothers teaching their daughters to cook so they could feed their husbands in the future. This means that dating is frowned upon and parents would generally prefer to pick the groom for their daughters. This means that if a woman breaks the traditional gender norm, she can be ostracized. I don’t know if the general Canadian population understands the concept of izzat (honor). But, I would do my best to explain.

Why is honor so important in South Asian families?

In countries like India, where institutions do not work well and rule of law is weak, you tend to rely on the community. The community can mean your caste members, your ethnic community, your regional community or your neighbors and relatives. It is through these community networks that people can do business, arrange a marriage or get their kids admitted into a posh school. In order for the community to help you out, they need to be reassured that your family is honorable  Remember, India has a population of a billion people and everyone is fighting for limited resources. In order to increase your chance of survival, you need allies. The community is paramount in helping you succeed as it provides valuable networks. However, the community will only help you if they think you can be of some help to them. If you are an honorable and a productive member of society, the community is more willing to help you.

In India where most communities are very patriarchal, the concept of honor means upholding traditional cultural values. This duty falls on women’s head as they are seen as the gatekeepers to such values.  In such a patriarchal society, virginity is especially prized. Hence, the women are forced to uphold the izzat of the family and hence maintain her virginity until she is married. She must learn to cook, feed and take care of the household. That is seen as her primary responsibility. If she breaks through these norms, the family will lose honor and the community will ostracize you. If you understand this, then it comes as no surprise that single women (divorced, unmarried or widows) are seen as a threat.

Isn’t there patriarchy in Canada?

Yes, it is alive and well but we are talking about how much more rigid and severe it is in India. Canada is a much better place for women thanks to the sexual revolution in the 60’s. Of course, this doesn’t mean Canadian women should stop tackling issues like wage gap or rape culture. South Asian feminists continue to fight for their rights but India still has a long way to go.  It does seem that the middle class is slowly waking up and realizing the situation isn’t right.

But, you are in Canada now?

Here is the thing: Most South Asian immigrants assimilate quite well. Daughters go to school, and many parents let their daughters pick their own partners. They trust their children and let their children make decision as an adult. But, remember the concept of izzat. It still functions in Canada. Imagine you are a new immigrant and there are a lot of things you do not understand. You need help getting a job or renting a place. Who do you turn to? Well, South Asian community in Canada works kind of like the same way as community did in India. It is a way to network and build connections and succeed. Even within South Asian community, some families are more liberal, others more conservative. Even if you aren’t conservative, you have to put a facade that you are upholding traditional cultural values or else you will be ostracized. I will elaborate more on this on my next post.

 

Sorry for the long post. The second post will talk more about the struggle between complete assimilation to western culture and upholding some cultural values from South Asia.

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3 thoughts on “The yin and yang of being a South Asian woman in Canada

  1. Pingback: The push and pull between East and West among South Asian Canadians | centrist canuck

  2. I am enjoying your blog and really appreciate the effort you are putting into explaining South Asian culture in a way people unfamiliar with it can still understand! “izzat” is one of my favorite Hindi/Urdu words. I think of “dignity” as the best way to translate it to Western culture, for which the word “honor” might seem more outdated and unrelatable.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Yeah, I agree dignity might just be a better word for izzat. It is also one of my favorite word. I actually love the Hindustani language. I feel like some words just do not have a proper equivalent in English.

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