I spent a lot of time crying on the train. Sometimes on the Underground, but mostly on the Virgin mainline train after a weekend spent with my parents. I spent my teens and early twenties feeling torn between my love for them and all that mattered to them, and wanting to break free of their control.
At that point in my life I faced the prospect of an arranged marriage. I was already dating my future husband by my mid- twenties. Just the thought of having to leave him and be with someone my parents chose for me filled me with utter dread.
But that was the expectation. I wasn’t free to choose. I didn’t of course have the arranged marriage. I broke free of all of that culture and tradition, and with it, severed my ties with most of my family- not completely, but to large extent. I was told that no one in our family had ever done that. That they all had to toe the line so I must too. How dare I think of doing something different?
I believe Asian women face a kind of triple jeopardy: we are discriminated against because we are women and because we are a people of colour; but we are also oppressed by our culture. Culture and family expectation dictate the choices we make.
Finally this year, I understood how that inequality plays out in my life- and how it shaped my difficult teen years and early twenties. I finally understand those tearful train journeys and the anxiety-filled years.
Why do parents, older siblings and extended family get so heavily involved when an Asian woman gets married? How are our love lives any of their business? Because we are women. We are the property of our families. Our honour and purity is their dignity- apparently. And it’s not just men that perpetuate these oppressive, dehumanising traditions. Sometimes it’s the women in our families too. Founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera said that it was her mum and older sisters who delivered the ultimatum that she must marry the man they chose for her, or be disowned by the family. Her mum called her a prostitute before asking her to leave their family home. Her crime? Going against her family’s wishes.
Sounds medieval doesn’t it? Well don’t be fooled- it’s very much twenty first century. The control of women happens all over the world in many different forms. What I’ve outlined is simply the particular shade of inequality I’ve dealt with all my life. Power structures exist in our families and for women, this is detrimental.
The greater good
I used to buy into the whole collectivism versus individualism theory. This idea that Asian families are collectivist: they promote interdependence and the good of the family over the individual. Individualism on the other hand is the idea that your life is your own and you make choices that suit you alone- it does not ask for the approval of the group (or family in this case).
I used to think life in the West for Asian families often meant a clash of cultures. It meant tension between the older and younger generations due to tradition versus modernity.
Whilst some of those tensions might exist, I no longer believe that’s an excuse for anyone to dominate or control. We live in a world that is much smaller than it ever was. There’s no more ‘East versus West’ dichotomy. The flow of information and spread of ideas is unstoppable thanks to the internet, smart phones and social networks. Different cultural values mix and merge everywhere. Lots of aspects of Asian culture are becoming ‘Westernised’ and take elements from Western influences.
So to say a woman or a person has ‘become Westernised’ is no longer an excuse to control them in any way.
Today I have finally let go of a lot of the guilt and regret that came with breaking away from my family. It’s taken me over ten years to get to that point of freedom. When they try to judge me, I choose to say “you don’t control me anymore.” I love them still- in the same way that you love your family. But I’ve finally realised that their control does not make for a healthy relationship, and some distance from them is actually good for us all. No one has the right to own you.