The New Woman: Desi Edition

Indian female scientists celebrating their successful mission to Mars. Photo sourced from

In the 1920s, a New Woman emerged into Western society and had such a profound influence that it affects every single woman in the Western world to this very day.

While South Asian women have historically never been considered to be a part of this social shift, in the Western world, we have had our very own trailblazers (Rani ki Jhansi, Malalai of Maiwand, Mai Bhago, Rani Padmini, Abbakka Rani, Chand Bibi to name just a few!) who are relatively forgotten in the minds of contemporary South Asians.

More and more affluent, Feminist, well-educated and independent South Asian women are on the rise. It’s safe to say that a new type of Desi woman has well and truly risen to meet our modern world, its demands and what it has to offer us. We might not all be sword wielding Jhansi Ki Ranis, but as South Asian women rise, we are slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with as we are exposed to more and more opportunities to better ourselves.

I remember once having a conversation with my grandmother about Feminism and why I call myself a Feminist. She crinkled up her nose and said: “Women aren’t oppressed; you don’t need something which is going to take you away from your culture.”

I love my grandmother very much, but this contention really struck a chord with me, especially because she openly tells me to be financially independent, as educated as possible and to be the strongest that I can be, so that my life is better than hers. The irony here is that these are all traits associated with Feminism, but clash with the cultural ideas that my grandmother was brought up in and still believes in – it’s not even her fault because, along with thousands of other older South Asian women, it’s all that she knows.

Let’s put ethnicity and religious backgrounds to one side: women who display traits which go against their own social norms (aka ‘masculine’ traits) generally get stick for it. Before I even continue, I’d love to know who actually defines what masculinity and femininity actually are, because our current definitions of both are inflicting a serious amount of damage to everyone.

So what do we define ‘masculine’ traits as? Having apathy? Being single minded? Assertive? Ambitious? Focused? Strong minded? Having conviction and full faith in decisions made?

From a South Asian female perspective, we face this issue on both fronts, in the mainstream and our own communities. For a woman of South Asian descent to display ‘masculine’ traits is far from ideal, because it is still a relatively new concept to see independent (and/or unmarried) South Asian women living life on their own terms. Here we hear the cries of exasperated mothers, grandmother, aunties, busybodies and general gossip folk: “Oh no one will marry you!” and “How will you be a good <insert ethnic background> wife?”

As a result of this concept’s newness, we end up rejecting and slating such women by saying that they are too ‘aggressive,’ ‘selfish’ and ‘unladylike’ because they are alien to what we, and previous generations, are ‘used to.’

What, personally, hurts me more is when I see and experience other South Asian women openly putting each other down because they do not know how to accept/welcome those who are different.

It’s bad enough that there are still scores of South Asian men who point blank refuse to support South Asian women, or pretend to, or openly state they are proud of strong South Asian women until they meet one and begin to chip away at her spirit.

This is not me being pedantic or underhand; it’s a very real observation that I have seen in my family, my friends’ families and to women of different ethnic groups in the South Asian Diaspora. Therefore it is disheartening, exhausting and ridiculous to see us putting each other down – despite us individually knowing how taxing our journeys are.

It feels as though there’s a generation of South Asian women who are being brought up in cultures and various communities where South Asian men haven’t gotten the memo about this relatively new collective shift in how South Asian women decide to identify themselves, their cultures and their lives.

As a result, it’s not a surprise (but still a massive disappointment) that South Asian women still don’t receive the support that we need from our communities, men and peers. Of course, there are South Asian men who back us and want us to do well and succeed, but they are few and far between.

However, a solid support system and unity, will ultimately drive an overall change in ensuring that any backward and outdated traditions which pit South Asians (regardless of gender, ethnic group etc) against one another.

We can’t ever hope to achieve this with only 50% (or less) of our team on board. The usual solutions to this issue would be to educate ourselves and raise our children to be respectful, supportive and more open-minded of each others’ ambitions.

But I ask this: how viable is such a solution? Whenever I see people spout such answers, I can’t help but think that it’s a cop out answer. It’s all very well and good to say that we need to ‘raise the next generation right’ but how can we achieve this if we (their foundation) is cracked? Anyone, and their mum, can say this as a solution because it’s passive, it’s long term and subconsciously shifts our responsibility onto a generation which hasn’t even been conceived.

It’s time to stop passing the buck onto a group of unborn South Asian children (who don’t have a say in this matter because they don’t exist). We need to do some serious soul searching and start to re-evaluate the way that we treat South Asian women who do not conform to cultural standards, our own personal ideas of how a South Asian woman should be/behave/look like before we bring in another generation of South Asian girls who will go through the same things that we have experienced.



7 thoughts on “The New Woman: Desi Edition

  1. I think the change will come from our generation. It starts with us as we begin to realise that not all is what it may seem in terms of cultural norms, and it will be us to redefines what it means to be an independent woman. It will be us teaching our sons that there are many types of women, all of which should be respected – whether she’s somewhat sheltered or whether she’s a brazen, ambitious individual. A lot of soul searching is needed – only then will people differentiate between raising the next generation their way and the way their family/community expects them to.


    • Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I completely agree; this change definitely comes from us, but the change in South Asian men needs to begin soon. There’s not much point in having the next generation of South Asian boys and girls grow up thinking a certain way which contradicts what their parents say/think – we have enough generational and cultural conflicts as it is.
      A major part is making ambitious, progressive, well educated and successful South Asian more visible in the Diaspora’s eye; the more we get used to the less likely people are going to freak out about ‘those girls.’

      I truly hope that we can move towards it; indeed we need to do a lot of soul searching (collectively and individually) before the next generation comes in and holds backward views which will hinder them from progressing in our modern world.


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