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.




This is my last post for 2014 and I’m not usually a fan of the whole “New Year, New Me” rigmarole unless there’s a degree of seriousness attached to it. What I do take seriously are the gifts of hindsight, expressing gratitude and methods that individuals (and groups) have taken steps to try and better themselves and their communities.

This year was particularly trying; I started 2014 in not a great way and for the first half of the year it felt like being in between a rock and a hard place. I was very on edge almost all of the time, burnt out, uninspired and fed up of life when I’ve not even started living! It wasn’t until I went out to East Africa for three weeks and left my phone, laptop, social media etc in London.  I remember the night before I left, feeling like a complete failure because I wasn’t on a high salary, wearing designer clobber, out travelling the world or living in a Chelsea flat and “living it up” like many people I knew. I remember my dad telling me not to worry, but how could I not worry? Life is so fast and I felt like I wasn’t in control of it in comparison to my fellow peers.

Those three weeks were the best of my life so far; it was a much needed break and out there I saw a different way of life and members of my family who gave me some great life advice. I met people who were successful in their own right simply by being persistent, working hard and staying focused. I also severely embarrassed myself on several occasions – which I won’t reveal here but on Twitter (@c_syal). I came back to London feeling rested, energised, full of ideas and fabulous.

I still felt like rubbish but started to see things in a very different light. I stopped following what others did and feeling inadequate which is hard because we’re bombarded by it 24/7.  I stopped blaming myself for not being rich or owning a flat in Zone 2; we’re all at different paces in life and should be focusing on the next step instead of the next 200 steps. Since then, I’ve been a lot more relaxed and at peace with myself which has made a big difference with regards to my general outlook. There’s nothing wrong with any of us or our lives.

There have been many highlights, experiences and opportunities that overshadowed negative experiences and I honestly wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the good unless I’d experienced the bad stuff. Even with unscrupulous individuals – we all learn something from each other and it is so important to not take things personally nor depend on anyone too much. I’ve been very blessed to have collaborated with and work with some incredible people who have each taught me something new about myself, themselves, the world and the work we are involved in. And I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for supporting Avid Scribbler and what it stands for.

I am also truly touched and so thankful for everyone’s support; especially after last week’s post which you can read here.



Tick Tock: Time to Change

(c) Virgin Unite & Ashoka UK

(c) Virgin Unite & Ashoka UK

There’s been a lot of changes both for myself and Avid Scribbler as a blog. It all began a month ago when I received a rejection from a company I really really wanted to work for. It was quite hard to stomach because I’d set my heart on it. Usually I would have just told myself: “It’s ok Chayya, you did your best” but for some reason I decided that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. After a few emails stating my case, I now find myself in the position of blogging for one of the UK’s biggest companies and en route to a new venture.

From a young age, I’ve refused to give up and have always done whatever I can to be the best, this ranged from the trivial such as being the first to finish breakfast to getting As at school. When I was younger I used to refer to this streak as my Inner Lion – and it used to really drive me (believe me: there are MANY entertaining tales from my childhood to be told).

For the past two years, it felt like my inner lion had curled up into a little ball and  lost its luscious mane. However, things got really bad following the death of my great-uncle earlier this year and a steady flow of job rejections didn’t help. I unusually went in myself, became very quiet, thoughtful and disinterested in life. Gradually I came to terms with things, began to build myself up, eased myself into the swing of things and eventually got my fire and confidence back.

When you change, the world around you changes.

Last week (October 16) I attended an event called “Makers of More” in Bethnal Green. It’s easily been one of the highlights of my life so far. You can read my article on the event here. All of the speakers were incredible, but one particularly stood out for me.

Her name is Pamela Chng and she’s the founder of Bettr Barista in Singapore. She spoke about fear and how it had driven her as a social entrepreneur. Chng’s speech itself had a physical influence; when she spoke the audience was shrouded in darkness. The feelings of fear that she spoke about were ones that I had (and have) felt for many years and it was very emotional for me to hear a successful business woman say them aloud. What Chng said has stayed with me and inspired me, so much so, that I’ve shared the quote of the night:

We often have to imagine how to get beyond your fears to make the impossible happen. I’ve realised that imagination actually starts in your heart. Your heart needs to soar into the clouds to imagine a world that’s different. And the only way for your heart to be unbridled in its existence is it to fear less.