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Feminism Turned Upside Down: Role Reversals, Contradictions and Double Standards in the Indian Diaspora

Feminism Turned Upside Down: Role Reversals, Contradictions and Double Standards in the Indian Diaspora

  • The unanticipated repercussions of their fight for social, economic, and political equality have taken them by surprise on three fronts — the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law power struggle, the LGBTQIA identity, and the choice of the spouse from a different race and religion.

Last month, we celebrated Women’s History Month with the spectacular accomplishments of women all around the world. Still, many Indian women in the diaspora are in a dilemma — they are recognized as equals with their male counterparts but are also confronted with other facets of Western liberalism. Amidst the din of breaking the glass ceilings and the liberating cries of “Me Too,” the change that women waited for has come, but it has also brought challenges of an unexpected kind.

These very women who led the advocacy of women’s rights based on equality of the sexes find themselves on the receiving end of a different kind of advocacy. Many Indian women who defied their patriarchal socio-cultural and religious traditions are bewildered when their children accuse them of bigotry or suffocating interference in their life choice. The unanticipated repercussions of their fight for social, economic, and political equality have taken them by surprise on three fronts — the quintessential mother-in-law and daughter-in-law power struggle, the LGBTQIA identity, and the choice of the spouse from different race and religion.

Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law Power Struggle

Since time immemorial, the patriarchal system has not let women have equal access to amenities, rights, and opportunities, unlike their male counterparts. Lack of help and kindness from the mother-in-law to ease the newly married woman into her new home had led to the rise of the dreaded mother-in-law archetype in the Indian households. In a patrilocal system, the daughter-in-law had to tolerate unfair dispensation of duties and even disconnect from her family to keep her marriage and home together.

Paradoxically, now the liberated daughter-in-law is playing the dominant role in the power struggle and the mother-in-law feels helpless, being disconnected from her son. 

Highly educated professional women have come a long way in the Indian diaspora. With their own success, they have worked hard to fight for their daughters’ rights to be educated and enter the workforce and stand up against their ill-treatment in society. Now that they have achieved their goal of raising educated and economically independent daughters. Indian parents and especially mothers should be happy at last, right? Well, not exactly. So, what went wrong?

In their attempt to correct the scales of justice to reflect gender equality, these successful women taught their daughters to be aware of their rights and fight for them. In addition, they rightly taught their sons to be more respectful of women in general and go out of their way to ensure equality of the genders.

However, what they didn’t teach their children was to ensure equality irrespective of gender. Both the daughters and sons grew up hearing about women’s rights and equality rather than the rights and equality of both sexes. As the mothers were focused on reversing gender inequality, they went to great lengths to teach their sons to become aware of and fulfill their duties towards their wife and her family. But there were no such dining table discussions on the duties of a girl towards her husband and his family.

The result has been a lopsided notion of family responsibilities between sons and daughters. This form of familial training not only makes the son feel the pressure to be the perfect man by living up to traditional societal expectations of the dating and proposal protocol and being the primary breadwinner, but also pressurizes him to help his wife with kitchen duties, childcare, and looking after her family members’ needs. In contrast, the modern daughter is expected to be well-educated, but does not feel pressured to perform in the area of dating, proposing, housekeeping, or even taking on responsibilities of her husband’s family. If the couple does well financially, oftentimes, the wife may choose to give up her job. However, the son is still frowned upon if he decides to pursue his passion which may not happen to bring in the mega-money.

The sons in the Indian diaspora have to learn the western rules of courtship where the women expect to be asked out to proms in a movie-like fashion. This continues to the next phase of the proposal for marriage in an elaborate fashion involving considerable planning, time, and money from the groom. The same women who fight for gender equality take delight in chauvinistic traditions as long as it suits them. There is a stark discrepancy between how the Indian women expect their male counterparts to behave before and after marriage. While all archaic traditions are welcome and encouraged before marriage, the rules change after marriage, where the men are expected to become gender-equal and pull their weight.

An unfortunate and unaddressed outcome of such pressure on the son is that it takes a toll on his relationship with his parents after his marriage. With ever-increasing pressure to emulate Mark Zuckerberg for job success, propose like Nick Jonas, and be Prince Harry as a husband, something has to give way. Since it is not possible for most sons to live up to all these expectations, he picks the responsibilities for a happy married life at the cost of his relationship with his parents, who have to sacrifice their emotional support and need for companionship from their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

The tendency to focus on the rights and overlook the duties to keep the family together is creating disappointment. The compromise solution wherein husband and wife take responsibility for their own parents is not working out as intended either. While the wives remain connected to their family, the husband is unable to maintain an emotional connection to his parents.

LGBTQIA Identity and the Dilemma of Feminist Mothers

When Indian women fought for equal political, social and economic rights, it did not occur to them that the very arguments they were making in their favor might one day come back to haunt them. When asked why they are so upset when their children identify as LGBTQIA, they cannot come up with any rational defense. 

Take the story of Sradha who had fought tooth and nail to go to an ivy league university, always put work before family, and insisted that her husband equally share all the work at home. She questioned and defied traditional Brahmanical patriarchal conventions by refusing to conduct the thread ceremony for her son. Now she is devastated when her son declares himself to be “they.” So what happened to equal rights for all genders? She feels shame and guilt and does not feel comfortable sharing her son’s choice even with her parents. Sradha feels like a victim and is not ready to accept her son’s sexual identity.

Lakshmi takes great pride in the fact that both she and her brothers got equal opportunities to pursue higher education. However, when her son opens up about being gay, all hell breaks loose. She is in denial about his coming out. 

Paradoxically, the women who pushed strongly against patriarchy and sexism now feel ashamed to accept their children who have decided to walk the unconventional path.

In a Health Forum organized by the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI) on March 25, the non-binary speakers agreed that coming out has been rocky for each one of them. Their gender choice and sexuality are incomprehensible to the older members of the family and community. Ben Haseem, a transgender activist, said: “I had to come out twice. A lot of trusts are broken.”

These women have taken pride as feminists but do not realize the pain, hurt and loss they bring to their own children.

Race and Religion in Indian Marriage

Bollywood style big, fat Indian weddings are the spectacle these days. More second-generation Indian children are marrying outside the community, and the pomp and extravagance of an Indian wedding has caught the eye of the western media. 

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One may think that Indians have finally put their cultural and religious superiority behind them. However, one has only to scratch the surface to see that the age-old prejudice against race and religion is as intact as decades ago. There is a clear hierarchy in the choice of the spouse from outside the Hindu system and the Indian community. Indian feminists are right up there with their sexist counterparts.

While Jews and Christians are tolerated in that order, Muslims are at the bottom of the totem pole. Most Indian immigrants are accused of being racist when it comes to marriage, and here again, the Indian feminists have disappointed the second-generation. While there is a general acceptance of Whites into the family through marriage, there is still strong resistance to Asians and African Americans. 

Once again, while these feminists challenged their parent’s authority in choosing their life partners, it is discouraging that they should now be dragging their feet when it comes to giving their blessings to their children’s choice of life partners.

All the above scenarios suggest that the feminist movement in the Indian diaspora is in danger of turning upside down. Their fight to respect their individual choices and demand equality for themselves seem to have gone out the window when it comes to accepting their children’s choices that do not fit into their value system. 

This may have been an unintended consequence of fighting for women’s rights exclusively instead of focusing on equality irrespective of gender. In most spectrums of inequality, whether feminism, race, caste, religion, we tend to correct the problem by reversing the power equation to establish balance. Unfortunately, this approach tends to overcorrect the problem and only creates a different kind of inequality. It’s like taking an hourglass and turning it upside down, hoping that the sand will remain equally in both sections. Over time all the sand from the top section tends to drain into the bottom section creating an inequality in the opposite direction. The solution lies in establishing parameters that can look beyond gender or any other division, and protect every individual’s rights, and extend respect to their different choices.

Disclaimer: It is critical to note that this narrative is not intended to draw a broad stereotype of feminists in the Indian diaspora, much less all Indian women. Rather, it is intended to connect the dots and highlight emerging patterns from the experiences of a limited cross-section of Indian women in the hope that it raises awareness of the need to adjust expectations and correct cultural blind spots before it is too late.

Nivedita Panda Ganapathi is a personal coach, spiritual seeker and teacher. She has law degrees from Harvard and Santa Clara University. However, she gave up a lucrative law practice to follow her calling to become a motivational speaker and personal coach. Nivedita draws upon her experience in a wide range of healing modalities, sacred mysteries, spiritual truths to empower people by expanding their awareness. She is passionate about learning the symbolism behind ancient Hindu mythology and Vedic rituals and teaching its relevance in the modern context. As a self-awareness coach, Nivedita has transformed many lives by educating and inspiring people on how to jumpstart their personal transformation and live a purposeful life. She is committed to helping people deepen their sense of self-esteem and personal growth using powerful transformational tools. Nivedita has presented many mindfulness practices at major universities including Stanford, University of California Santa Cruz, and conscious leadership programs at corporates like Oracles, LinkedIn, etc.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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  • I think the article is wrongly focused on feminism , and diluting the rights that Indian women have fought all these years against the patriarchy.
    Agree with all the problems that you had mentioned with raising boys and girls and the confusion between old and new schools of courtship, dating rituals etc. This is a “parenting” problem and nothing to do with feminism. Where is the father’s role in all of this?

    Your logic is circular reasoning. Started with feminism, which breaks the gender roles of women having the sole responsibility of raising kids, and then blaming mothers solely for all the way in which youngsters have shaped up.

  • Very good analysis and so true. Some topics can be uncomfortable but need to be discussed. Then only we can hope to evolve to a more evolved society.

  • Very interesting perspectives!! Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over fear. So sometimes we have to look at uncomfortable situations and be the light of love and compassion to navigate through the challenges

  • Congratulations! What an effort! I am truly impressed. You took on a very complicated, complex and challenging topic and did full justice to it. I typically liked the way the article deals with Identity and independence paradoxes. The confusion in the mind or say about women has been captured really well. Finally the examples really further the narrative of the article. Kudos to the team. God bless you all. I am so happy for you and proud as usual.

  • Calls out the double standards of Indian diaspora very well! NRIs need to practice what they preach more and look deeper within their souls on what it means to respect the “other” – no matter what the difference.

    Let’s keep this conversation going.

  • Congrats to the authors for kicking off a thoughtful discussion on some controversial insights. Unconscious biases based on race, sexual orientation and gender identify have been prevalent for a while now . Today’s women can do more by first at least self reflecting and understanding their role in perpetuating the biases. Awareness is indeed the first step to a more respectful tomorrow.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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