South Asian culture is taking “reputation is everything” too literally and as a result, desi (South Asian) children do not have as much freedom to become their own people. My childhood involved being conditioned to play a role in a narrative that had little to do with my own happiness but rather maintaining a facade for my whole family. The ruthless gossipping would be the root of most of my depression, anxiety, and insecurities. Young desi girls especially are faced with harsh criticism since they have to seem desirable enough to get married off, but putting such a huge emphasis on marriage for young girls breeds a toxic environment that only hinders them.

“My father always wanted a son, so when I was born all of his friends felt sorry for him because a girl can bring a lot of shame to her father,” revealed my best friend who is a Bengali Muslim. I was upset knowing that her father, who has three daughters, could have such a lack of appreciation for women. But the reality is that daughters DO get chastised for doing things. Due to his outdated mindset, my friend missed out on enjoying ordinary teenager things, like going to the movies or getting a real job. Desi parents will go as far as preventing their daughters from doing internships or getting jobs out of the fear that she will get caught up in something others can gossip about. This sets girls behind in the workforce because parents are preventing their daughters from gaining experience and financial independence. How are our women supposed to succeed when we actively inhibit their growth?

As a desi woman, your life is constantly put under a microscope to be examined with each because it is not only your own, it is a reflection of your family. The pressure is, uh, how do you say …ruining our lives? The perception others have of us plays an unnecessarily significant role in our own sense of self. With every decision I would make, I could hear the voices of my parents, aunt, uncles, and cousins weighing in on it in my own head. Teenagers are in a particularly vulnerable time where they begin to explore their identities and express their individuality, especially through clothing. Desi girls have a hard time trying to navigate through adolescence trying to balance their American and Desi sides; I was constantly stuck between doing things I liked and the fear of being labeled as a bad girl. For instance, a combination of paranoia, anxiety, and shame would wash over me if I wore a knee length dress to school without leggings. On one hand I didn’t want to get in trouble with family and on the other hand, I didn’t want to risk looking weird among my peers with leggings underneath a cute outfit. I started to feel guilty for doing things that made me feel prettier because it felt “slutty.” Wearing dresses became so nerve-wracking I gave up on them, however, I also became critical of girls who were allowed to wear what they liked out of envy.

There is this expectation that Desi girls must be perfectly subservient: remain soft-spoken, learn to cook, do chores, strive to be a dutiful wife, be invisible until needed, and be obedient. It is exhausting to keep up an image that isn’t your authentic self for the sake of keeping up appearances especially when you still feel inadequate. I rejected a lot of the social norms I deemed to be unfair like when the women who spend all day in the kitchen has to call the men to eat first, serves them their plates, and then everyone else’s before she eats.

“What did the guys do to deserve eating before me?” I would ask, so you know everyone had a lot to say about me because I was just having none of it. Part of remaining a “good girl” was to keep all of your opinions to yourself and accepting mistreatment.

Oh, and don’t be caught dead with a boy or else you’ll be branded as a slut…forever.

The South Asian community sends a confusing message to young girls: your whole life is dedicated to being trained to be a good wife for a husband you must be subservient to but you can never talk to a boy until you are married. I don’t know about you but I grew up on several Bollywood films that taught me that if you run away with a strange boy you just met by rejecting your family you will have a happily ever after. It was a trap! We all fell for it, don’t lie. But when we are caught interacting with a boy we get scorned way more than the guy. It is unfair and wrong how many different things a Desi girl has to do to maintain a good image than Desi boys. We focus on holding women to such high standards that we don’t focus on what we should be teaching our boys which should be not to gaslight, abuse, degrade or rape women. Unfortunately, these things do happen frequently, but to preserve their dignity and reputation victims must silently suffer otherwise they are “tainted,” therefore bringing dishonor to their family. Women shouldn’t have to keep silently suffer to protect anyone’s image, they should be protected from abuse. 

Putting an immense amount of pressure on Desi girls to maintain a certain reputation robs them of their childhood. We must eradicate the notion that marriage is the pinnacle of every woman’s life because forcing them to comply with antiquated, misogynist values by policing everything they do is destructive to their well being. Instead, we should be supportive of women who choose to stray from traditional values the way we ignore men for doing the same.