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Spill the Chai: My Body, My Choice

By Manahil Hassan, September 7 2021—

While most students that attend university have only their degree and financial situations to worry about, South Asian women bear the burden of fitting into misogynistic expectations of South Asian diaspora societies. Societies where there exists a large gap in terms of the freedoms men and women get to experience. 

South Asian men, for example, are allowed to wear whatever they want without anyone batting an eye or gossiping about them. They can enjoy going out late at night, partying with their friends because they are believed to be able to protect themselves while women cannot. In a conservative society such as mine, men can do no wrong because “boys will be boys.” 

On the other hand, however, South Asian women such as myself, must play the role of the meek and innocent daughter regardless of whether we wish to do so or not. We are expected to make ourselves look beautiful, obtain a respectable degree and fulfill our responsibility of marrying into a reputable family. This patriarchal system has stubbornly persisted despite transcending political boundaries when previous generations moved to Canada. It does not matter whether we live in a modern society or whether we wish to stray from the path our parents paved for us — we must comply because that is simply the way life is. Failing to adhere to these “fair” societal norms means we risk feeling isolated from our communities and families. 

Eight months ago, I faced something similar when I began separating myself from the Pakistani culture I grew up in. I told myself that I would move out and stay out later at night because that was what I wanted. And as trivial as my wishes may sound, getting to experience these milestones was important to me because I had never been allowed to experience them before. I wanted the university experience. 

When I entertained the idea of obtaining more freedom such as extending my curfew or not asking for permission to go out, I was immediately shut down and shamed for even asking such a thing. After all, I had more freedom than most South Asian girls did, so how dare I ask for more.

It was after that incident that I gave up. I gave up on sharing my feelings and whims regarding what I truly wanted in life because what I wanted was not on par with the way my parents and grandparents had lived. Even writing this article and talking about my reality is painful, as I always painted South Asian society in a positive light. Not doing so meant that I was supposedly betraying my people. Betraying my community and my parents. But I have come to the realization that complying with a rigid system that perceives women in a negative light only means that I am part of the problem. 

For instance, in Pakistani culture, women’s bodies are seen as sex symbols. We are prizes to be won at carnival games and represent submissiveness and innocence compared to our male counterparts who are inherently aggressive. It is due to this outdated thinking that the gender gap is reinforced.

This ideology enforces the notion that women should stay at home and dress a certain way to avoid getting assaulted, thus placing the onus on women to protect themselves from men, and are blamed should they fall victim to unwanted attention from men. Many of us not only miss out on authentic university experiences and opportunities to advance our careers but we are expected to sacrifice exciting career opportunities for the ‘greater good.’ For the sake of our families, their reputation and the rest of society.

Furthermore, it becomes burdensome for survivors to come forward after facing abuse. This is mainly due to the lack of support that exists within our community as women are constantly victim-blamed when they do come forward. Still, being victim-blamed is only a snippet of what can happen as a consequence of coming forward as a survivor. 

Nevertheless, the fear of being victim-blamed, shamed and being stripped of our dignity is precisely what prevents survivors from coming forward after they are abused. It is these situations that force us to comply with the notion of how a good Pakistani is supposed to act, dress and talk. 

The irony is that we all live in Canada and see the freedom we can all have, but are instead chained and controlled by an ideology that should have been left behind and dismantled years ago. 

Therefore, conforming to these notions of what a man and woman are supposed to act like are only the tip of the iceberg. Doing so creates a domino effect that has grave consequences on the rest of society. The stagnation of a woman’s success is halting the success of a society that can develop and change for the better. And unless we change our attitudes towards women, this patriarchal system will continue to persist along with all the inequalities it brings. 

Mothers and fathers need to teach their sons to respect women. They need to be taught that women are equal to men and that boys will not be boys. A woman should be able to dress in the way she wants, do whatever she pleases and not be victim-blamed when she is violated. A woman should not be held back from doing things like moving out to pursue her career, or staying out late for work events to stay in line with the morals of South Asian society. Especially since they don’t apply to men. 

As difficult as change is, the first step in getting the older generations to realize how toxic our culture can get, is to refuse to comply with it in the first place. It is becoming obvious that, as the years go by, South Asian society is progressively becoming more liberal. But we still have a long journey ahead of us. 

We must support each other as women in our endeavours to succeed. We should never undermine another woman’s success because the success of one woman accounts for the success of all women. 

We cannot be expected to excel as a society if we put other women down and expect them to sacrifice career opportunities for the sake of society.

Spill the Chai is a column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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