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.



The Power of Quiet People

Quiet by Susan Cain Photo (c) AvidScribbler

Quiet by Susan Cain
Photo (c) AvidScribbler

Yesterday I attended a programme where part of the process included an assessment day for budding entrepreneurs. It ended up becoming one of those days where I questioned myself as an entrepreneur and began to doubt my ability to succeed in a business world that is becoming increasingly louder, crowded and noisier than ever before.

Following several remarks made by the CEO of the programme, which largely focused on my quiet-working nature, I was left feeling very mixed and ended up doing a lot of soul searching afterwards in a cafe. I genuinely felt like something was wrong with me and I began wondering if it was possible for quiet people to succeed in the business world and as entrepreneurs.

I want to discuss the nature of introverts and whether or not they have the capability to become successful change makers and create long term sustainable solutions to many global problems. In a nutshell: “Can quiet people be powerful entrepreneurs?”

There are thousands upon thousands of advice articles which discuss how becoming an entrepreneur is an amazing thing to do and why more of us should do it. Despite this plethora of literature, there are not that many articles which succinctly talk about introverted entrepreneurs in a detailed and analytical manner.

Firstly, I am genuinely shocked that many still view quiet people as individuals who lack power, presence, passion and ambition. This is a mini story that my grandmother regularly told me throughout my childhood:

“There were once two dogs who wanted to capture a mystical creature in the woods. One was a guard dog; he would bark and yelp at anything and everything that moved. The second was a beagle; he was quiet, observant, calculating and could catch any animal. Together they searched high and low for many years to try and find the animal. But they never found it.”

At the end of the story, she would always pause and ask: “Why do you think that the dogs never found the magical creature?” This is something that I leave for you to consider.

If I were to say the word “business person” the first image that comes to mind is someone extremely confident, loud, shark-like and is openly equipped with sky high levels of ambition to reach the top. In TV shows such as, The Apprentice and most reality shows, almost all of the characters are gregarious, boisterous, aggressive and super loud. And why not? After all, such characters are a great source of entertainment and end up making lucrative careers out of having outrageous opinions.

At a glance, many say that “it’s only TV” but what happens is that we subconsciously start to associate loudness with ambition, success and power. We automatically look down – and ignore – quiet people because we begin to confuse quietness for being passive and weak.

Loudness does not necessarily equate to being knowledgeable and having reason

Unfortunately, this image of an aggressively loud business-man is one that has began to subconsciously stick in our minds; regardless of our level of education, background and industry experience. This image also puts a lot of people off from deciding to set up their own businesses or join a start-up.

When I began my start-up, I vividly remember being told – by a ‘friend’ – that I was too “weak” and “quiet” to do that. I remember feeling like a failure (before I had even started) and that I, as a quiet person, couldn’t ever take bold steps or make big decisions that only loud people could make. What made me actually create my start-up, ignore the comments and sustain it was a deep passion that simply would not go away. I knew that in my heart, I had to give it a go and try see if it would work. If it did: Excellent. If not: failure is normal and at least I gave it a go.

We simply do not associate quieter people with positions of power, despite the fact that some of the world’s most influential minds are naturally quiet people. I’m talking about people like Bill Gates, Emma Watson and JK Rowling – quiet people who wield tremendous power, are influential and have created a change for the better in our world. These individuals are shining examples – and beacons of hope for introverts everywhere – that quiet people can be confident and powerful in a world that is constantly talking over each other.

So while many people say that introverts cannot hope to become successful entrepreneurs or change makers in the ever changing modern world of work consider this: “In a gentle way you can shake the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.









(c) photo taken by Anila Dhami

(c) photo taken by Anila Dhami

Last night I had the immense privilege of appearing on Zee Companion, with my mentor Mandy Sanghera and presenter Anila Dhami, to talk about International Women’s Day, Feminism and general girl power.

The topics discussed ranged from domestic violence, forced marriages, empowerment and Feminism to the women who inspired us on a daily basis. It led me to think about empowerment; what does it mean and how can we go empowering ourselves?

~ (a) To give authority or power to (b) to give strength and confidence to

Empowerment has become a bit of a buzzword which many of us talk about and use on a daily basis. We use this word whenever we speak about the problems that women face, yet it all becomes incredibly vague when it comes to creating solutions for these problems.

I usually hate those Instagram pictures with a philosophical quote, but I came across one which said: “Happiness is an inside job” and made me think. Empowerment, in a nutshell, is directly linked to self confidence and self-worth which increases self esteem. So on an individual basis, empowerment is rooted in the way that we view ourselves. The issue with this is that many of us are quite cruel and hard on ourselves (including me). It ranges from obvious things like: comparing yourself to others and fat talk to having chronic low levels of confidence. It could also be linked to your family and the atmosphere that you were raised in. After all, we are products of our environment and the effect that this has upon us is profound.

There’s many reasons why the vast majority of women find it hard to be kind to themselves and feel better about themselves which makes it difficult for us to feel empowered. It took me a long time to feel good about myself and comfortable with who I am; it started with changing the way that I viewed myself. It began with baby steps: writing a list of five things I liked about myself (physical and non-physical), saying something nice about myself and I’m aware that this all sounds very cheesy, but you know what? It worked and has been a good platform to continue to empower myself.

Another way that we can begin to feel empowered is to be mindful of ourselves and others. Practising mindfulness often results in us becoming very self aware of our words and actions to ourselves and those around us. It makes us more intuitive, kinder and compassionate as well. These are tools that we can apply to ourselves in helping us to become more empowered. Mindfulness is basically taking a few minutes to really appreciate and savour the present moment for what it really is. For example: enjoying the feeling of the sun on your face or how good a morning cup of tea tastes. It’s a rare opportunity to unplug from a fast world and connect with ourselves.

Finally, having a good support system and network is also a great way to begin feeling empowered. Think about how good you feel when you’re around a good friend or your favourite cousins. Amplify that feeling by 100 and that’s the closest I get to describing what empowerment feels like.

“But how do I find these networks?” Social media and technology has made this part slightly easier. It’s easier to connect with people in cyberspace and build up friendships than to meet new people in real life. The best bit of advice I could give to anyone feeling apprehensive about networking is this. When meeting a new person (or someone whose work inspires you) say this to yourself: “They have two eyes, a stomach and a bum” and then go speak to them. There’s a variety of professional networks that you can join – online and offline – as well as various websites like Meetup where you decide what kinds of events you want to attend.

One of the best mantras I tell myself is this: “Just show up and meet five new people” which has been a building block into creating a network. After all, if you don’t show up you ultimately miss out and the world does not see you for the wonderful person that you are.