“I want you to be successful, but not too successful. Get to a high enough platform and try to stay there – that way you can still live a good life and not have to sacrifice your family.”
This is a phrase that, unfortunately, many young girls and women still hear. Or at least something along those lines. I wish that so many of us didn’t have to hear it from the lips of our loved ones or the people that we live side by side with. Today I was told this by someone who is quite close to me and it’s surprisingly hurt me. I don’t know whether that hurt stems from naivety or having an idealistic outlook inside of my head, but I never thought that I would be directly blogging about this, as it’s something that I have alluded to but not expanded upon in previous posts.
Firstly, writing this is so personal (and painful) and secondly because I didn’t expect to be told what was said in the quote at start of this post. It made me think and wonder why, in this day and age, so many South Asian girls and women are still told this. I’ve got a couple of aunts who have done spectacularly well in their careers for Asian women; as a child I would look up to them and secretly wish that one day I could become as independent and successful as they were. I remember innocently saying this to a family member, who then curtly told me that good girls didn’t go off and make lives like that for themselves. Naturally I didn’t tell anyone in my family after that because they were both regularly used as examples of “less than ideal Indian women” – they had sacrificed not having a family in favour of furthering themselves. Instead of praising their success and encouraging other girls in my family to emulate similar successes, they were used as examples of the type of woman that we should not become.
You don’t have to look very far to see the demonisation of successful women
It was as if we were being told that all of my aunts’ personal problems were because they chose to develop their careers over getting married/having children. There is this – greatly misplaced – idea that if a couple have a child or if someone gets married, that all of their problems will magically disappear. We obviously know that sometimes this isn’t the best solution, but why do so many of us still uphold this idea even though we know that it clearly didn’t work for older generations?
Every other day, we see and read articles which discuss the possibilities of women having it all and maintaining a work-life balance and articles which then counter the latter by talking about women demanding better flexibility, doing jobs that they actually enjoy and debunking the myth of ‘having it all.’ There are thousands of articles and books like this floating around on the Internet and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or confused with the conflicting messages that they send out. The one thing that they have in common is not mentioning cultural expectations of ethnic women which often hinders them from attaining successes in their working lives.
You don’t have to look very far to see the demonisation of successful women – the depiction of Miranda Priestley as a ruthless and vindictive woman of power from The Devil Wears Prada is self explanatory. It is an assumption that any woman with power, outside of a domestic sphere, is one that is unnatural and a threat to other men and women. When we see such depictions, it comes as no surprise that so many girls are put off about becoming CEOs or holding senior positions in companies or start-ups. There is an undercurrent, and anxiety, of thought that it is more important to be well liked and receive praise for adhering to certain traditions than focus on ourselves and attain success in one’s work life.
So what we do actually want? Having it all? Better flexibility? Or changing cultural expectations of women?
Growing up I often found myself torn between ideas of smashing the infamous glass ceiling, that so many Feminists talk about, yet knowing full well that there was an expectation of me to uphold ideals of womanhood in South Asian culture to appease an older generation’s traditional outlook on women’s lives. We were told to work hard, get good grades at school and get into a good university, then get a good job, work there for a few years and then look to get married, have children and settle into a nice family. Of course, none of this was explicitly said, it was silently assumed as the norm. It’s certainly easier said than done, to tell South Asian women in the Diaspora and the motherland, that it’s their life and they they should fearlessly live it on their own terms.
The vast majority of us are brought up with ideals of familial closeness and the importance of our responsibility to uphold it has been embedded into our psyche. For many, it becomes a core part of their identity, as most South Asian cultures idealise womanhood and the duties that we are expected to perform without a second thought by putting them on a pedestal. This is where and why so many families tend to place their izzat (honour) into young girls and women. If we do anything that would threaten the peace and welfare of our families it comes back onto us in the form of guilt and shame which may often result in honour-based violence. I’m not saying this is the sole cause of honour-based violence, but it is a factor worth considering.
I’m sure that there are scores of South Asian women who have maintained this balance without compromising their career or family traditions, such as Indra Nooyi and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, but why does it feel like such a big compromise that we are automatically expected to do? Instead of feeling like we have a glass ceiling to smash through, to many, it often feels like that ceiling is now made out of Pyrex.