The push and pull between East and West among South Asian Canadians

This my followup post to the Yin and Yang of being a South Asian Canadian women. In my previous post, I explained the concept of honor in South Asian culture. Now, I will elaborate on how Young South Asian Canadian teens have to always struggle between the more dominant western culture and the traditional culture of their parents. It can be quite a confusing time. First of all, many South Asian parents are conservative and many things considered normal in the West are taboo in places like India and Pakistan. Some of the taboos are premarital sex, drinking alcohol, women living independently etc. Now there are people in India who partake in all these activities and more. Nevertheless, there is a stigma attached to all this for large swathes of Indian population.

So, a South Asian teen curious about sex doesn’t really have anywhere to turn to. Luckily Canadian schools provide sex education but this isn’t discussed at homes. Teens curious about alcohol or dating hide it from their parents. They do all this precisely because they will be judged harshly by the South Asian community and might bring dishonor to the family. This frankly is a big problem as it puts many teens in precarious situations with no parental supervision. It is something South Asian community needs to work on.

On the other hand are South Asian teens who might embrace some ideals from western culture such as democracy, rule of law, equality for all regardless of race, gender, age or sexuality. However, they also adopt some cultural or religious values from South Asia. This means teens who might believe in abstinence before marriage, filial piety or even arranged marriage. These teens can also get judged for being too conservative, too fobby and not being Canadian enough.

In both of my examples, teens who emulate western culture get judged for being too decadent, full of vices. Teens who adopt some traditional values get judged for being prudish, religious zealots. I personally feel like we need to let people make their choices as long as it is not infringing upon others. Someone who believes in abstinence isn’t prudish. A woman who has premarital sex isn’t a whore. It is all about making choices that are right for you. This battle between east and west continues to happen. In the meantime, South Asian community needs to address taboo issues and get rid of the honor concept. The mainstream Canadian society needs to stop judging people based on clothing and appearance. A woman wearing a hijab or a man wearing turban can still believe in democracy and equality but they shouldn’t fell pressured to give up religious or cultural values.



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.


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.