For Girls in India, the Pressure to Conform Comes From Family


August 30, 2013, 11:14 am 10 Comments


I recently watched the remarkable Malala Yousafzai speak at the United Nations to commemorate a day that is named after her. The 16-year-old who was shot by the Taliban, and has since become a celebrated activist for education and women’s rights, said that Malala Day was for “every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.” She bravely reinterpreted Islam and accused the extremists of being afraid of books, pens and education. “The power of the voice of women frightens them,” she said.

Malala is the same age as my older daughter. While she uses her voice to assert her rights, her use of the word made me think of the many other voices that my daughters and girls all over the world hear, telling them what to wear and how to behave. I have a ringside view of how this plays out with my two daughters, who were born in the United States but now live among our family in India, where the pressure on young girls to conform comes not just from society, but from family. It would be ridiculous to compare it to the limits on Malala and the young women of the Swat Valley, but its root lie in similar expectations.

Seven years ago, my husband and I uprooted our two daughters, Ranju and Malu, from their comfortable lives in Manhattan and moved to India to be closer to our aging parents, and to allow our American-born children to know their Indian heritage.

Today, Ranju is 16 and Malu, 11. They are entrenched in India and surrounded by family. For my daughters, dealing with their grandparents, aunts and uncles regularly is both comforting and demanding. Their grandparents’ notion of what is right is very different from theirs.

It is harder for my teenager, Ranju, who goes to a school that is no different from an American private school. Ranju wears Western clothes that she buys online or during trips abroad: typical teenage wear from Target or Gap. Occasionally, my sari-clad mother will tell her not to wear such “tight and skimpy clothes.” My dad will admonish her for going out to parties “at night.”

“Why can’t you go out with friends during the day?” he will ask. “Why don’t you go to lunch instead of to nightclubs?”

My mother-in-law will offer to massage their hair with coconut oil so that it grows long and lustrous. She will encourage them to speak Tamil, our mother tongue. This is all very nice once in a while, but when the advice, admonitions and loving instructions are constant, it gets wearying. I sympathize with my daughters when both grandmothers and assorted aunts hover around with food, oil, clothes, dos and don’ts, but I also expect them not to be rude to elders.

I would like to say that this dance of voices is an Eastern thing, but I am not sure that it is true. Girls in developing countries face enormous pressure to conform to the norms set by elders in their villages and towns. But I also imagine that a 16-year-old girl in Memphis who lives amid a close-knit extended web of family and friends has a nodding acquaintance with emotional expectations.

My girls are slowly learning to push back without being rude. When my mother-in-law brings in coconut oil the day before a party or event, Ranju will laugh, give her a hug and say, “Tomorrow.” She may joke about its strong smell. Jokes work to defuse and distract, she has found. The affection she gets from grandparents is wonderful and boundless, but it also clouds boundaries of self and personal space.

Occasionally, Ranju comes to me in a bad mood. “Can’t you tell them to lay off?” she asks. That’s when I give her a hug. “Think of it as practice for life,” I say. “If you can say ‘no’ to persistent Indian grandparents, you can say ‘no’ to anyone.”

So Ranju learns to look for the tricky balance between being assertive and courteous. She will tell her 81-year-old grandfather that although he thinks it is weird that she goes out every Saturday night, her school friends actually party four times a week. By asking for one weekend night out, she is actually compromising for the family and not straying off the path. She eats almonds; she oils her hair because they nag her to.

Young Malu wants to be a pastry chef. Ranju wants to be an entrepreneur. Both their ambitions usually get shot down at family weddings.

“Become a doctor,” an uncle will say. “It is more respectable than a pastry chef.”

“Don’t start your own business,” an aunt will tell Ranju. “It’s too risky.”

All these voices mean well, but they mean their version of well. Ranju and Malu are learning to accept the affection while asserting their independence.

It isn’t always easy or graceful. When my girls whine about “being forced” to wear Indian saris for family weddings, I get irritated. I call them drama queens. I have (and I say this sheepishly) used Malala and her cohorts as a tool as well. I talk about girls whose basic rights and choices are dictated by others, and here are my girls making a fuss about wearing a sari. But I do understand that they feel constrained.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. But for girls, particularly in the East, it is also a matter of silencing voices and swimming against the village tide.

Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir “Return to India.”

Subscribe to my newsletter