Why South Asian gender roles are dangerous for the modern Indian-American woman

Indian women have been forced to give up their careers for their families. It’s time to kiss these gender roles goodbye.

As little girls, we are taught that pink is the prettiest color, that playing with Barbies and playing “house” are the norm. That we are delicate and beautiful. And as Indian women, it’s much worse. Let me disclaim first: my parents are loving individuals who always pushed me to take initiative, to be a business leader, to make the most of each opportunity. But that being said, when observing my Indian-American friends and some of my relatives, I realized that Indian (or South Asian, in general) gender roles are very well and alive here in the United States. And that they can be dangerous for the Indian-American woman aspiring for success.

Growing up, I always saw Indian women in a certain light. They take care of the kids, cook the food, and make sure their husbands and in-laws are content. They are constantly catering to others, figuratively and literally. In fact, many Indian women who’ve immigrated to the United States had careers and dreams and aspirations once upon a time, but they’ve often had to give them up for the sake of raising their children and keeping their families happy. As an Indian-American woman living in New York, I’ve assumed I had to do the same thing. Until recently.

An Indian wedding. Photo courtesy of upload.wikimedia.org.

After two years in college, I realized that I want to have a flourishing career- one that is not set back by having a husband and a family. Yes, I do want those things. I want the whole package, 2.5 kids and all. But not at the expense of everything I’ve worked for, not at the expense of what I’m going to college for. Not at the expense of what I’m trying to build. I want to be recognized as a leader in the world, and I want to grow my brand and my business. Call me selfish, that’s fine. I have no intentions of “settling down” and conforming to Indian gender expectations any time soon.

That’s not to say we can’t look up to Indian women who have conformed to Indian gender roles. There’s nothing wrong with being a full-time mom or wife. Those women are among some of the most hard-working and loving people I’ve ever met. I appreciate them and love them dearly. But I don’t want to be like them. It’s just not for me.

There are, however, several women I look up to. First and foremost, my mother. Her strength and resilience is astounding. Not only has she maintained a career, but she is raising two successful children (and now a dog). My aunt is second. She is passionate about Indian dance, and she runs her own dance school in California. She’s been teaching kids for longer than I have been alive. In the business world, I look up to Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo. Indra is a working mother who has raised two daughters and maintained a successful marriage. All three of these women have artfully balanced gender expectations and careers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Indian-American women have to first realize what they want, and then learn to reject gender roles if needed. But it’s okay to want to raise a family, to be a loving wife/partner. It’s also okay to say “no” to those things without feeling pressure from your family or community.

The modern Indian-American woman is in a unique position in an amazing time. Granted, we will definitely face setbacks (like racism and the gender gap), but we have the world at our fingertips. Let’s take advantage of that.

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